Faith & Reason: Where was God on Boxing Day? With the drowned - and the saved

The religious test of the tsunami disaster is, properly, what do we do? What have we been saved for?

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Editor's diary - Day one of natural disaster: carry breaking news. Day two: report first-hand accounts of victims and survivors. Day three: concentrate on relief efforts. Day four: commission op-ed commentary on "Where was God?"

Editor's diary - Day one of natural disaster: carry breaking news. Day two: report first-hand accounts of victims and survivors. Day three: concentrate on relief efforts. Day four: commission op-ed commentary on "Where was God?"

There is a danger of making too much of this (Day 13: carry godslot article criticising day-four commentary), especially since not every newspaper succumbed. Nevertheless, there was a widespread scramble for religious figures prepared to explain how a God of compassion might allow such tidal waves. In general, the answers weren't very enlightening. The early days of a disaster are a time to pull punches, especially when bereaved people might be reading. But most of the religious types I know are pretty matter-of-fact about this sort of thing. There never was a God of compassion, they say, if by that people mean a being who protects humanity from death. After all, the evidence before us suggests that, were there such a deity, he or she has been running a 100 per cent failure-rate for some time now.

Only the very mad and essentially short-lived manifestations of faith teach that their adherents will not die. All decent religions have to cope with the knowledge that we live a precarious existence on an unstable planet. The annual World Disasters Report calculates that, in the decade to 2003, an average of 67,000 people a year were killed by natural disasters. These are just the deaths that we tend to notice. The figure is dwarfed by the number killed on the world's roads, currently running at more than one million a year. Sticking to disasters, the difference between survival and victimhood has nothing to do with what religion you follow, or even how well you behaved. It comes down to just one thing: cash. The World Disasters Report reckoned that, of those average 67,000 fatalities a year, 33,000 of them occurred in poorly developed countries; 28,000 of them in middling countries; and just 6,000 in highly developed countries. Thank God if you wish, but concentrate on the fact that you happened to be born somewhere with a healthy economy.

The tsunamis were remarkably ecumenical in their choice of victims: Christians in Sri Lanka, Hindus in India, Muslims in Indonesia. Naturally, that's not how all religious types see things. I was struck by two stories I read during the week. One was a note from a Christian broadcasting organisation in Sri Lanka. It said:

It is nothing but the grace and protection of the Lord Jesus Christ in Puttalam and Chennai. Though in both these places a couple of miles away disaster had struck, it is wonderful to see the manner in which God has shielded our people and property. May the Name of the Lord be glorified and praised.

The other story was about the director of an orphanage, who escaped with the children across a lagoon:

Sanders feared the converging currents would swamp the small craft. At that point, he recalled a line from the Book of Isaiah: "When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard against it." He raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, "I command you in the name of Jesus - stop!" The water then seemed to "stall momentarily", he said.

A little later in the account, he mentioned some villagers in the water crying for help. There was no space on the boat to pick them up.

Now, when you've been rescued from an unpleasant death, the tendency is not to quibble about the process that selected you and not the person two miles up the coast or the ones without a motor boat. Yes, tell your breathless tale of a miraculous escape: it was genuine, and thank God by all means. I should do the same myself. Nevertheless, when the wave that missed you swept away a group of villagers along the beach, it demands a certain depth of thought and restraint of utterance. All the proper faiths teach that God cares for the whole of creation, not just sections of humanity who happen to believe as we do. Where was God on Boxing Day? God was with the drowned, and God was with the saved.

I have heard someone arguing that the earthquake was God's way of testing the faith of His people. Right idea, but wrong way round. The earthquake happened, for all the scientific reasons we know. That is just how the world works: things happen - good things like the right amount of water for our needs, and bad things like too much water or too little. Every day we live is a gift. Each day, we are saved, sometimes from the disasters we see, usually from those we have no notion of. The religious test is not how much we believe, or in whom, but what do we do? What have we been saved for? At present, the answer is to help others who came closer to disaster than we do. Come to think of it, that tends to be the answer every day.

Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'

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