n Tuesday, I shared a wonderful lunch conversation with Dr Pierre Plourde, listening as he outlined the plans for an upcoming medical mission trip to Haiti he was to have spearheaded. Along with his son Daniel and a team of medical professionals, Pierre was set to spend a week and a half living and working in a medical program sponsored through a local Baptist church. This is a ministry in which Pierre has been involved for many years, and as his relationships with the people in the community there have deepened, so has his commitment to this unique work. This year his team was to include not only medical professionals, but also a school principal whose role would be to act as a resource for the school run by that same Baptist church. And Daniel Plourde – a student quite passionate about the game of soccer – had gathered some serious momentum in his initiative to collect soccer gear for the local community; an initiative that caught the attention of the Winnipeg Free Press a few months back. In other words, it was a very hope-filled conversation.
It was probably less than six hours later that Haiti was struck by its devastating earthquake.
The news reports and photographs coming out of Port-au-Prince are staggering, overwhelming, horrifying, and with the collapse of much of Haiti’s already limited infrastructure (including the nation’s main hospital), things are going to get worse. In a country already counted as the most impoverished in the Western hemisphere, the immediate relief work is daunting, and the longer-term rebuilding is almost beyond imagining. And the numbers of lost lives? Who can make sense of numbers as high as 50,000, which is the estimated death toll reported in the news today? Each of those people is someone’s parent or partner or child, which means that family after family will be dealing with the kind of grief and loss that will echo in their lives for years. And you have to know that Pierre and Daniel Plourde are already sharing in some of that grief, as they await word from the community they have come to know and love; you can take a look at an article from today’s Winnipeg Free Press to get at least a sense of that part of the story.
Any time there is a natural disaster of this kind of magnitude, there is an immediate response on the part of the wider church to provide relief and aid, and that is a good and right thing. I’m sure we’ve all heard the calls for donations through faith-based organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee, and we should – we must – respond. The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund of the Anglican Church of Canada is a very effective organization for mobilizing funds, and donations can be made online through the Canada Helps website; I’d strongly encourage you to support this or some other reputable aid organization. In time, there will also be an opportunity to support the medical mission Dr Plourde spear-heads, as the longer term work will now be even more pressing.
The other thing that happens in church circles during these days is that people begin to try to make some theological or spiritual sense of how this kind of thing could happen, and I’m afraid that sometimes people – preachers, theologians, folks in the pews – end up saying things that are really troubling, if not downright heretical. It often begins with a question popularized by Harold Kushner (though by no means original to him) in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which runs as follows: God must be either good or omnipotent, but cannot be both, for a good God would not will something like the Haitian earthquake, while an omnipotent God would not allow it. God has either willed this evil, or is powerless to prevent it.
Or maybe, as Richard Dawkins and company would prefer, the very idea of God is a logical absurdity, and the best response to natural disaster is atheism.
And at this point the preachers and theologians and Christian radio hosts can start saying dreadful things, suggesting that this natural disaster somehow serves God’s higher will and purpose, is an act of judgment or punishment (and I’m afraid that Pat Robertson has already made some disturbing statements in this respect), or that somehow the suffering of those people is a sharing in the suffering of Christ. As summarized by David Bentley Hart in his very fine book The Doors of the Sea (Eerdmans, 2004), these views – and more besides – were actually articulated as published attempts to try to make sense of the 2004 tsunami. It would have been better for them to have said nothing at all.
Of course, it is always risky to try to speak or write at a time such as this, and so even this post comes with a measure of trepidation. In fact, rather than trying to say too much here, I will offer only a bit of a summary of the perspective of David Bentley Hart, along with an extended quotation from his work. To say much more than that at this point would be to risk saying something either terribly bland or terribly righteous. I want to say neither.
In the days following the 2004 tsunami, Hart wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “Tremors of Doubt” and subtitled “What kind of God would allow a deadly Tsunami?” This short piece turned out to be the kernel for his book, in which Hart seeks to reclaim a very ancient and orthodox view of the world; a view in which not just humanity but all of nature – all of the created world – is wounded and broken. “(A)ll of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty,” he writes, “still full of light, but riven by darkness.” (p. 102)
At such times (as in the aftermath of the tsunami), to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty. (p. 103)
The natural world is “languishing in bondage to corruption” and “groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed”? I’m afraid that for all that Paul says this very thing in the 8th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, this wasn’t a view that would have received much air time in my seminary education. Humanity may live in brokenness, but the natural world?
Yet that is what the ancient tradition says; not only Paul, but in a different way John, as well as many, many of the ancient Christian writers. And it isn’t simply because they lacked the scientific knowledge of the modern age that they held such a position; to suggest that is to suggest that prior ages always have less knowledge, less wisdom, less insight than our age. And that frankly is just not true.
Hart ends his book with the following:
(Ours) is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead. Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather, than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ (p. 104)
It is, for us, a starting point. In whatever ways we can – and some, like Pierre Plourde will probably be on the ground in Haiti, quite literally wiping tears from the eyes of children – we must live this vision now, even or especially in days when the groaning and grinding of tectonic plates have devastated a nation. What happened in Haiti on Tuesday – and the pain and anguish that will now continue over the weeks, months, maybe years that follow – is not as it should be; it is “riven by darkness.” And we are called to speak, give, act and live as children of light, as a people not given to a naive optimism but rather to a deeper hope. From so many, many miles away, may we find the will to do that for our Haitian sisters and brothers.