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Tuesday, January 11 2005 19:00
An Indonesian man who survived the tsunami was pictured last week on the front page the morning newspaper, a look of horror on his face as he was told by an Australian doctor that it would be necessary to amputate his leg. The wound he suffered had become deeply infected, and only by this drastic action could his life be saved. Even then, it was by no means sure he would come through alive.

If he did manage to survive the surgery, he would find it extremely difficult to live in a society where no prostheses are available and not even crutches could be obtained for him.

He is but one of tens of thousands of the wounded who survived, at least for a time, shattered by catastrophe. As Secretary of State Colin Powell was reported to say of the devastation, human and material: “I have never seen anything like this.”

What are people who believe in God to make of such dire human suffering? Should we say with a character in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport?”

Or might we echo certain religious leaders who proclaim that havoc is God’s just punishment for the sins of His people?

Either approach strikes me as monstrous. The first, in various forms, is basically pagan. The second is a distortion of theology whereby God is made into one who hates humankind.

There is no doubt, however, that a catastrophe that kills more than 150 thousand people and inflicts almost unimaginable suffering on so many others does put faith in God to the test. It is hard enough for believers when our fellow human beings maliciously cause us harm. When it happens because the very earth and its waters rise up against us, such evil is even harder to understand.

The mystery of evil must be as old as the origins of the human family. And we have no more answered the question in modern times than the ancients were able to do. However, the faith traditions of the world do provide some approaches to the unsolvable questions about why we suffer, both at the hands of evil people and from the good earth that is our home.

My spiritual tradition suggests that, far from endorsing human suffering, God is distressed by it. In this view, God does not take any pleasure in our pain but rather feels compassion at what we must endure.

In Christian teaching, the focal point of suffering is the passion and death of Jesus. God the Father does not punish His Son but does accept the suffering of Jesus for the world’s redemption.

So God has tasted human grief personally, so to speak. If Jesus submits to the crucifixion, then horrible suffering has touched God Himself. In this faith, God is no mere onlooker but takes on the worst fate of humankind.

This approach, of course, leaves unexplained the nature of evil, its origins and its power in a world supposedly controlled by God. But it does present a God filled with compassion and love, for whom the evil that hurts human beings is thoroughly distressing.

So in looking at the ongoing effects of the oceans rising up against so many people, we do best to weep, mourn, and regret what has happened to so many of our brothers and sisters. It is only right to feel deeply distressed by their fate.

In making this response, we can emulate the compassion of God and turn it toward those who have lost their loved ones and have sustained bodily and psychic ruin. We can do so by our prayers and by contributions of money and other forms of material assistance.

If our faith in God’s goodness is shaken, that is a tribute to the gift of sensitivity that is ours. When even the stones weep, as the narrator in a new novel I have been reading says, it is not irreligious to be upset; rather it may be deeply religious.

Science can explain what causes the tectonic plates under the ocean to move so as to create earthquakes and tidal waves. Only spirituality can begin to fathom some of the meaning of why it all happens in such a way as to destroy the lives of so many precious children and adults.

Richard Griffin