2nd Sunday after Christmas
Texts: John 1:1-18;
Jer. 31:7-14; Eph 1:3-14
IS THERE A FAITH RESPONSE TO DEADLY TSUNAMIS?
I have been overwhelmed this week. I can’t imagine 125,000 people dead. Can you? I can’t imagine mass graves, unidentified bodies, missing persons by the tens of thousands … I can’t imagine … I don’t know how to think about such things.
3,000-5,000 people dead after 9/11 seemed unbelievable … this disaster doesn’t even have words…. It is unimaginable. I remember reading the back page of the New York Times after 9/11, when for weeks on end they had a paragraph or two about every person killed in the World Trade Center. One-by-one we could begin to imagine the tragedy of such loss, and that could be overwhelming. But over one hundred thousand people dead? I began to look at some of the pictures this week. Grief-stricken parents holding children in their arms. I couldn’t begin to imagine. I was overwhelmed. I had to stop.
The questions that arise in such a week are great. How can we not be so overwhelmed to the point of at least being moved enough to respond? But if we are moved or touched … then what do we do? The need is so great, again, so unimaginable. President Bush couldn’t imagine it when his first response was to pledge $35 million. He has since made that ten-fold, $350 million. I suspect even that won’t begin to touch it.
Then there’s the questions as people of faith. Questions that test one’s faith: What does this mean? What does this mean for my life? Where, O where, is God in the midst of such tragedy? Why can’t God stop tragedies of such magnitude? How could God let this happen?
I would like to try to at least start answering such questions, as we have texts before us this morning that give big answers. The first chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians puts God’s promises in Jesus Christ in the biggest possible context, from the beginning to the end of the world. In Jesus Christ, we read, that God “has made known to us the mystery of his will, … as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The same big time-frame is present in the Gospel Lesson from John. Jesus Christ, God’s Word of Love made flesh, has been present since before the world was began. Then, again, why do such tragedies take place? How can a loving God let such things happen?
There is an answer of faith to such questions. But first it might be helpful to understand what kind of answers are on the wrong track. For many people of faith their answer begins with God being “in control.” Like fate, God determines all that is, so there must be a reason for everything. The notion that all is planned gives comfort to many. It is a kind of fatalism. I can begin adjusting. I can’t change things, but I can let things be. Maybe I can begin to accept them.
But the ethical problems are huge with this sort of answer, aren’t they? At worst, it leads to moralizing in ways that can blame the victims: we can begin to think, under the pressure of this sort of answer, that God was punishing those on whom tragedy befalls. There are some who will think that this tsunami was God’s curse.
But even if we don’t make such moralizing leaps, it makes as little sense to claim that God sends tsunamis as it does to claim that God sends invading cancer. In fact, the magnitude of such a disaster throws a shadow of doubt on all our smaller, individual tragedies. Perhaps I could come to accept such fate for a loved one with cancer. Perhaps God could have a reason for that. But over 100,000 people dead in one earthquake and tsunami? How could God possibly have a reason for that? No, the God of love in Jesus Christ couldn’t possibly have a reason for sending such a deadly tsunami. Nor could that God send invading cancer to my loved one. So the first part of our answer this morning — a huge first step that the Christian faith makes possible — is to give up the idea of God controlling everything. That’s not the God of love we see in the cross of Jesus. God is not in control of everything. God lets many terrible things happen — much as God let the Son die of the cross.
But if God is not in control of everything, then is God in control of anything? Many modern people of today, as they feel the impact of tragedies of great magnitude — whether it is a natural disaster such as this tsunami, or the even greater mystery of genocides such as the Nazis, or in Rwanda, or today in Sudan — the magnitude of such unthinkable tragedies cause many to lose faith in God altogether. If God doesn’t control everything, then God has lost control of everything. Perhaps God never existed. And the universe is simply unraveling according to blind fate. Any sort of reason or rationality that we may think we see is just an illusion. Our lives have no meaning. Tragedies as big as this week’s tsunami seem to confirm that.
Novelist Virginia Woolf was ahead of her time, perhaps, in expressing such a view. She was intrigued by persons of faith, like her poet friend T. S. Eliot, but in the end the suffering in her life prevented her from believing. Her most troubling book even carries the tragedy of this week to the point of an overarching metaphor. The Waves is the title. The main character, Bernard, who many critics think is a stand-in for herself, finally sees his own life in that metaphor of waves crashing unto the shore and receding back into nothingness. Bernard tries desperately to distinguish his life from others, especially his friends. But he fails. Near the end of the book he finally admits this to himself, sitting at a table in a restaurant:
“Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known — it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am. . . , or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”
Bernard finally gets up from the table and wanders home, mentioning that he needs to catch a train. Hearing the waves on the nearby shore, it appears that his last act is to throw himself in front of the train. That the most dramatic act of his life would be to somehow meet Death itself head-on. Death itself seems to be that most dramatic rising of the wave to its peak. Hitler, for example, had become such a person fascinated only in the end by death — first millions of other people’s deaths, and then his own in suicide. Virginia Woolf was too good a person to resort to the kind of killing of a Hitler, but in the end she did resort to the same as her character Bernard, taking her own life. As Bernard faces death in the last scene of her book, she closes it simply with, “The waves broke on the shore.” In the end, not even death distinguishes us. Even a huge deadly wave like this week’s tsunami finally crashes on the shore and recedes into nothingness. No more peaks, simply a jumble of water.
Well, we must finally get to our answer of faith in Jesus Christ. Such meaninglessness is enough to drive many to that answer of having God in control of everything, even tragedies of death in great magnitude. But there is something in between the extremes of these two answers. The God of love in Jesus Christ isn’t in control of everything, but that’s also the answer: How could a God of love let such things happen? The answer: precisely because God is Love. For Love never forces its desires upon the beloved. To do so would no longer be love. Love offers freedom to the other by letting the other choose love.
No, forcing our wills upon others is our human way. Since the first man and woman we have tried to be our own little gods, thinking we have the knowledge to be in control. We are the ones who so often strive to be in control — or to let someone be in control of us. Hitler attempted the most hideous effort in history of being in control. Even Bernard, in Virginia Woolf’s gloomy novel, desperately seems to think that he can at least be in control of his own death. No, control is our way. It has never been God’s way. From the very beginning of time, the way of love that we see in Jesus Christ has been God’s way. And love never forces itself. Rather, love gives of itself for the sake of the other. Love exhausts itself on behalf of the other.
Perhaps Bernard was at least half right: when we are trying to distinguish our lives from others, we fail. But the paradox of love is that when we give up those attempts to distinguish ourselves, when we in fact risk losing ourselves on behalf of those we love, that is when in Jesus Christ we find ourselves. We find ourselves in God’s love.
I have begun a journey over the holiday that is already affecting me. I have begun reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final project before he was put in prison by the Nazis and finally hanged. It was his book on Ethics that he never finished. But in the face of the most desperate and deadly attempt for human control in history, Bonhoeffer threw himself on the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. He based his entire ethics around that paradox of love that centers one’s life on behalf others. He called Jesus Christ simply, “The Man for others.”
In a few moments, we will once again be visited by this Man for others. His very presence among us once again testifies to the fact that this power of God’s love has, since the beginning of the world, been the very power of life itself. He will once again remind us of his being for others: ‘my body broken for you, my blood poured out for you.’ And so he calls us to faith in this power of love which is the power of life. He calls us, even in the face of such a terrible tragedy as this week’s tsunami, to follow him in a life lived in love for others. May we go out renewed in our faith so as to not be overwhelmed but instead to reach out to such victims in his love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Muskego, WI, January 2, 2005