Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: Where Was God?

Where was God when disaster struck the poorest nation in our hemisphere? When a catastrophic earthquake shook a people already miserable due to poverty and social unrest?

Did the editors of the National Post have a point when they wrote “God may have abandoned Haiti”?

Ever since the tragedy, people have been asking how God can permit such awful suffering. It’s a question no preacher should duck this Sunday.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church certainly doesn’t duck the question. It states frankly that “The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.” (n. 164)

The Catechism calls the question pressing, unavoidable, painful and mysterious. (n. 309)

Small wonder that the suffering of the innocent—and the prosperity of the wicked—has raised questions long before Christianity.

Certainly the author of the Psalms isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions: why do the just suffer and the arrogant prosper? Does God know what’s going on? (see Ps 73:11) But he prays about it, and gets a few good answers. First of all, the wicked are in a precarious place, and they may fall any moment. We only see a snapshot of God’s justice. Today’s winners may be tomorrow losers.

Secondly, both Job and the Psalmist suggest that the experience of God’s personal love can actually outweigh suffering. The Psalmist says “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:26)

And of course there’s the answer God gives to the prophet Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.” (Is 55:9) I can translate this poetic verse into plainer language: I’m God and you’re not. So don’t always expect to understand me perfectly. As St. Augustine says ”if you understand him, he is not God.”

These three points—the risky position of the prosperous, the consolation that God gives to those who suffer, and the mystery of God himself—are important pieces of the puzzle. But they don’t fully answer the question of why an all-powerful God allows the innocent to suffer.

That’s partly because there is no easy answer. Not only is there no easy answer, there’s no one answer. The Catechism points this out clearly, and by doing so it gives us the Christian answer to the anguish and confusion that believers feel when they see God allowing evil to exist.

Here’s what the Church tells us: “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question.” Only the whole story: “the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God … , the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance.”

Now that explanation is quite a mouthful. But the Catechism boils it down to less than two dozen words that can really help us resolve the problem. It’s so important that the whole sentence is in italics: There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

That’s why the people who have already concluded that God has abandoned Haiti are probably not believers. Yes, it’s true that Christianity has no pat explanation for why God allows natural disaster; we don’t have a neat argument for a letter to an editor. What we have is an entire religion that explains the problem of pain and suffering—beginning with the pain and suffering of its Founder. Those who cannot understand why God allowed his only-begotten Son to suffer will not easily grasp how he can allow the same to happen to others.

There is also the related question of why God didn’t create a world so perfect that this sort of thing could not happen. A world where innocent and desperately poor people would not be afflicted by the devastation we have all seen on TV and in the papers.

You can’t deny that he could have done so—his power has no limits. But the Catechism—a treasure of wisdom, both human and divine—says that God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, chose “to create a world ‘in a state of journeying” toward its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan, this process involves both the constructive and the destructive forces of nature.” (n. 310)

Now do I pretend to understand that completely? I certainly don’t. But there’s one piece of the puzzle that I understand very well, because I have seen it over and over again. That’s the fact that God, in his providence, can bring a good from the consequences of an evil. God can even bring good from a moral evil: In the Old Testament we see it when Joseph uses his position at the Pharaoh’s court in Egypt to save his family from starvation. If the same brothers he rescues hadn’t sold him into slavery he wouldn’t have been anywhere near Egypt.

In the New Testament, of course, we see how the greatest of all evils—the murder of God’s own Son—brought the greatest of all goods, our salvation. (n. 312)

The working of God’s providence doesn’t turn evils—moral or physical—into good. But we have all seen how often good comes from a tragedy, how suffering can transform selfish people, or how illness leads someone back to faith. Families can be divided by misfortune, we know, but just as often united.

All of this demonstrates what St. Paul says in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Look at how Paul begins: “We know…”

This isn’t a teaching that comes from on high; Paul wants to connect with our experience. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” It’s what we’ve seen in our families, our parish, and our society. We’ve seen it in war time, when acts of enormous courage and selflessness occur in the midst of conflict and carnage. We know.

But because we know, we have a duty. One of the reasons that things work together for good is that God’s people do God’s work. God isn’t a one-man show; he uses us to accomplish his purposes.

Most of you know the popular story about the soldier in World War II who came across a statue of Our Lord where the hands had been blown off. He put a little sign in front that said “I have no hands but yours.” Perhaps he knew the poem that St. Teresa of Avila had written hundreds of years earlier:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
… Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

And there’s one last piece of the puzzle. To carry out his plan—his loving plan—God uses his creatures. He uses us. He is present in Haiti when we make him present. We know God has not abandoned Haiti... because we have not abandoned Haiti.

1 comment:

  1. Earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, floods, rain and sunshine - these are all part of the behaviour of beautiful power of nature. If I go outside on a sunny morning and it soon begins to rain and I get wet, I don't blame God for that.

    I don't think there anything particularly 'evil' about earthquakes - they are part of the nature of a creation we don't (and I dare say we never will) understand fully. Yes it is an awesome nature which demonstrates in a small way the even more awesome power of The Creator. The powers of nature work together in complex ways over a long period of time to create the mountains and valleys and the so many beautiful wonders of creation which have so inspired people to song and praise.

    The devastation and suffering in Haiti as a result of the earthquake and aftershocks is indeed tragic and a shock to the whole world. But it is worth recognising that while we don't understand nature fully, the theory of plate tectonics explains to some extent why earthquakes happen and why they happen in the same places. Nature deserves respect.

    But we have the great gift of "Free Will". There is nothing to stop me heading out to sea in a storm in a small boat (other than not having one...), but if I do that I should be prepared for the consequences. Likewise if we build large cities in places where earthquakes happen we can expect that sooner or later there will be tragedy.

    Is the Christian explanation not that human suffering flows from the consequence of original sin which was a choice of free will? You mention glorious redemption brought by the living, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ - we say at the Easter Vigil, "Oh happy fall of Adam".

    There will always be tragedies wrought by nature, and people will always wonder how it is that God could "let this happen". I think the answer is found in those basic things we know about our condition from what has been revealed.

    On the other hand there is also a great and ongoing suffering of people in Haiti and many other places which is often less explained by the nature of the earth and more explained by the nature of people. Most Hiatians live on $2 or less a day. This is an injustice less attributable to the works of nature than greedy hearts - but again arising from our fallen condition.

    And yes, it is here and now that God calls us to share in his redeeming plan. It is for us to make Him present to those with whom we share this creation.