Millions of people across Europe observed the three minute silence on Wednesday 5th January 2005 at Noon. I chose to join the silence in Castle Market, Sheffield. At 1200noon precisely a bell rang. Everyone stopped doing what they were doing. Shoppers stopped in their tracks. Stall holders stopped serving. The usual hubbub of the Market Place was hushed. The full three minute silence was kept. People of different ages, colours, cultures and creeds stood still and silent alongside each other. Language is no barrier in the eloquence of silence. This mark of respect for people of many backgrounds who died so far away in the Tsunami disaster, and survivors who continue to suffer, was deeply moving. We stood together like members of a global Family mourning the loss of loved ones. Tears were shed..
There is psychological trauma that follows tragedy. This is normal. It is expressed in shocked silence, denial, and anger which includes questions like why has this awful thing happened. There is also theological trauma. This is when religious belief sincerely held is shaken. It is well expressed in the words Jesus Christ spoke as he hung on a cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a real question. Most of us can identify with it. It is a real human experience.
This question is being raised and discussed widely at present.
The Tsunami Disaster began to unfold along the coasts of Asian and African countries as many people were celebrating the Christmas festival of giving and sharing, and focussing on the good news that God is with us. As the scale of the tragedy began to confront us there has been a phenomenal response of compassion and generosity. Photos and Video films taken by British and European tourists in Indonesia and Sri Lanka have made the Tsunami and its trail of death and destruction visible to us. Many questions have also been raised.
For example, how God could allow such destruction, death and suffering. Many ask how it can be possible to believe in the existence of God in the context of overwhelming tragedy. If God does exist has God abandoned us?
There is value in engaging with questions like these. Discussion is not about providing answers, but rather to provoke further exploration and clarification of the questions.
What kind of a God is it that “allows” suffering and tragedy, and who believes in such a God? Is God some remote, powerful Being, sitting on a “sapphire throne” and who by some obscure criteria chooses to intervene in earthly matters to prevent or promote particular events? Is God sometimes present with us and sometimes absent, if so how does God decide what to do? Where is God when not with us?
Human reaction to tragedy is often accompanied by the need to find reasons for it, and someone to blame. When there is no human culprit to point a finger at, it is not just a natural disaster – it must be an “act of God”. Insurance companies use this language. Does this practice not promote bad and irresponsible theology?
Biblical witness to God opens with a story of God creatively using the chaos that is there to make a new world. Here God does not cause the chaos or allow it but works in it and calls people to share in the task of caring and construction. In the New Testament, the sufferings of Christ, shows God who suffers with us. The chaos is there. The suffering is there. The insight is that God is there in it. Only a God who also suffers can help.
A horrible tragedy with a horrific loss of life and livelihood on a massive scale is before us. The response to it has been outstanding. It is an inspiration that people of all Faiths and those who profess no religious faith are coming together in acts of compassion working with those who need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, and those who mourn the loss of loved ones.
There is a need now to build on the human compassion that has shown us that we can all make a difference. As the general public has led Governments to respond more positively to this tragedy, we remember that in other contexts 8000 people die each day from HIV/AIDS. 24000 people die each day from hunger. Poverty remains the biggest killer in the world. If Governments go on to also forgive debts and to eradicate poverty that would be a good long term outcome of the Tsunami Appeal. In 2005 the British Government will hold the presidency of the European Union and the G8 Summit of powerful nations. We can help by pressing the Government for positive global development. Faith and humanity are not judged by their capacity to explain God or good and evil but by their contribution to positively changing the world in favour of the poorest and those who hurt most.
5th January 2005