Natural disasters versus man-made volcanoes

The volcano in Montserrat or the violence in Rwanda - which tells us more about human suffering? And for which does Christian Europe bear more responsibility?, asks John Kennedy.

Joan Meade is a Methodist minister in the small Caribbean island of Montserrat. Her country is disappearing fast, under waves of superheated pumice and clouds of volcanic ash. The people have lived with this monster for two years. Their worst enemy now is uncertainty - to flee or to stay? And, of course, can the British government be trusted?

Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga is another minister, a Muluba from Kalemie, in Katanga. He belongs to a church of half a million French-speaking Methodists. His country has been renamed; once Zaire, it has since June been the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The new president is Laurent Kabila. He came to power on a wave of Tutsi rebellion against the formerly insurgent Hutu, a conflict which raged horribly in Rwanda, and then flooded westwards. These peoples of Central Africa have been living on their own man-made volcano for more than 30 years.

Daniel and President Kabila are from the same town and tribe. The Congo was a great traditional kleptocracy, made that way under colonial rule, with Mobutu Sese Seko as its last, most grotesque beneficiary. Daniel has slightly greater purchase on events than Joan Meade in Montserrat. He is International Secretary of the All Africa Council of Churches, and he is engrossed in the process of reconciliation between the churches in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Congo.

The events in the region have been terrible, and the churches are not guiltless. Maybe things are changing now. Daniel hopes that the region's leaders can sustain some kind of order, based on something wider than Tutsi hegemony.

I met Joan and Daniel last week at an international gathering at Somerville College, the Tenth Oxford Institute for Wesley Studies. We basked on the lawns, ate too much, and listened to the likes of Jose Miguez Bonino and Jurgen Moltmann. Two hundred of us were telling the stories of 30 million Meth-odists. Some, like Joan's, reflect a world which can be struck any time by impersonal forces. But some, like Daniel's, are witness to terrifying inhumanity.

Few Christians still believe that natural catastrophe is a sign of God's displeasure. And humanity is often seen at its vigorous best in the face of such calamity, as in the Montserratians brave response to their dreadful plight.

Human cruelty is much more difficult to cope with. One response is to see such inhumanity as foreign to "us" - something "they" do. But it is not far from Somerville College to the Martyrs' Memorial in Oxford. In October 1555, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burnt there. In August 1997, Egon Krenz, the last custodian of the Berlin Wall, was jailed.

The centuries between created our unmanageable empires, whose last dependencies are now like Montserrat, and whose enmities are still being settled in Central Africa. If that region does discover peace, history will indicate that "we" only just beat "them" to it. The arrogance of those empires which pretended to a Christian, civilising mission which they were incapable of adopting for themselves!

The problem here is smaller than the question of human wickedness. It is the more mundane matter of how human energy is to be contained. The Christian instinct is to create benevolent structures into which the passive human clay can be poured. But this is to mistake the essentially turbulent, unruly nature of humanity.

The energies that have been loose in Central Africa are not about to subside. They will, if we are lucky, create new patterns of competition and inequality, winners and losers. It will not be a wonderfully just world, but it may be governed by some kind of consent, and its arbiters will be traders and farmers, not warlords and mobs of neighbours with pangas.

Such a turbulent world is, however, not pretty, and Christians find it hard to justify morally. It will be a generation before successful businesses are willing, or able, to cough up the taxes that can make such a society even remotely just. Nobody remotely expects foreign aid to fill the gap.

Yet it is necessary to protest that the British Government's parsimony and delay has harmed the people of Montserrat. It is part of our Christian vocation to complain when multinationals cut cynical deals with local tyrants. But societies starting from scratch have, it seems, to move to bourgeois peacability - as Europe did over a much longer period - through a morass of breathtaking exploitation for the poor. This is an oppression less terrible than a massacre, less sudden than a volcanic eruption, but even more troubling to the Christian conscience.

ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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