Wednesday, January 20, 2010

God and Haiti

At an interfaith breakfast this morning the issue of God’s role in the horror of the Haitian earthquakes was front and center. No one present, including myself, felt that such horrors negated the existence of God, but some, myself included, suggested that it should challenge our smugness regarding the nature and workings of God.

There seemed to be three positions taken by the group. One said that it is impossible for humans to know God’s plan, so we should assume that there is some good in this tragedy and wait to discover what it is. The second group said that God was present in our response to the tragedy rather than in the tragedy itself. Our efforts to help prove that God is working in our lives, through our lives. A third group suggested that, like the plagues in Exodus, God was using nature to exalt himself above all gods and peoples.

Nobody tried to defend the Reverend Pat Robertson and his claim that this was payback for the Haitians overthrow of their white French slave masters, though it was explained to me that the Haitian revolution was triggered by a Voodoo priest, which is why Rev. Pat made the devil reference. I got the sense that this was supposed to make sense to me, but Voodoo is not devil worship, and is as valid a faith as any other in my mind, so I don’t know what to make of this additional bit of historical data.

I found the arguments of all three groups a bit weak and not a little self-serving.

One can always imagine a blessing following even the harshest curse, as some Jews imagine that the murder of six million Jews was the cost God demanded for the establishment of the State of Israel. And my reaction to such thinking is always the same: why does God always need the death of innocents to bring about a blessing? If God needs human sacrifice, why not opt to sacrifice evil people? And didn’t Jesus die for our sins? Wasn’t his death the only human sacrifice God required? So why sacrifice all these Haitians? At least in Genesis Abraham dares to argue with God about God’s moral obligations; at breakfast no one seemed so inclined.

As for human generosity proving the existence of God, I can’t help but be troubled by the idea that human goodness is the working of God rather than our own consciences, and that, by implication, without God, we would simply pile on and eat one another.

And as far as God murdering hundreds of thousands to show how great and powerful he is, any God with such low self esteem is far too human for my taste. This is not a God I want to believe in, but rather one I wish to protect myself from. And what shall I make of the followers of this God? Would they not be willing to inflict God’s wrath on others in service to their God’s ego, and as a way of bolstering their own?

No, what I heard this morning was a group of good-hearted and generous people (one fellow’s church had already raised $75,000 for Haitian relief), who needed desperately to protect God and their belief in God and God’s goodness even at the cost of having to excuse the death of some 200,000 Haitians.

My view is different. God is the universe, and the universe exists according to some unbreakable rules. On earth one of these rules has to do with plate tectonics: when plates shift earthquakes and tsunamis happen. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about this. It is not a punishment, a precursor to some greater blessing, or a sign of just how awesome God can be. It is simply the only way God can manifest as a planet such as ours.

My God, Reality itself, is wild and unpredictable, albeit bound by the greater laws of nature, which are themselves as aspect of God. My God is dying, and suffering, and reaching out to help through and as the victims of this horror and those who rush to be of help to them. My God is the God of Job, the whirlwind that needs no protecting, and whose revelation is always in the form of haunting questions rather than comforting answers.

To me there is no greater meaning or message or promise in the Haitian tragedy. There is only suffering and people seeking to take advantage of that suffering, and people seeking to alleviate that suffering.


eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Re the rescuing goodness of God:
Isaiah 45:6-7 suggests that this is an incomplete understanding of God's Nature. It reads:

"So that they will know from east and from west that there is Nothing but Me. I am Adonai, and there is not anything else. I form light and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil. I, Adonai, do all these things."



Karen said...

Thank you, Rabbi Rami. And thank you, Jordan. I feel exactly the same way. God is, I am, You are, everything and everyone is. When goodness happens, when tragedy strikes, when evil looms, when we simply breathe -- all this and more is God manifest.

I think that T-shirts with Isaiah 45:6-7 need to be printed and worn by the masses as a reminder of this!

Judy said...

While I agree with you about discounting the three rationalities as to God vis-a-vis the earthquakes, I think we need to be careful that the "God is aloof and uncaring" argument does not creep in. That has as little to do with anything as the other 3 "reasons."

Ray Foucher said...

Of the 3 positions you mention (taken by your group), I can go along the best with #2. God is calling us to respond and we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. There is another option you didn't mention. That is the one that God respects our free will and allows us to exercise them. We make our own choices but along with every choice comes a (built-in) consequence. God would protect us from the ravages of nature and the attacks of Satan, the destroyer. But when we turn from Him, He, being a gentleman, does not force His presence on us. He is the God "who goes away" when He is not welcome (eg Matthew 8:34-9:1). God's character must line up with what His Son showed during His years on earth (He said, "if you have seen me you have seen the Father"). This is all well explained in a book appropriately titled "Light on the Dark Side of God." Find about more about God's character and even get a (free) copy of the book at this site.

Raima said...

Excellent post. I, too, have been very bothered by the words spoken and written by leaders of various faiths to try and help us understand where God is in this disaster. I agree with you that God is Reality itself, wild and unpredictable - but it is also true that this earthquake became a catastrophe largely because of what humanity did (or did not do) not because of what God did.

Yes, the earth shook violently in Haiti, but the San Francisco earthquake in 1989 was of an identical magnitude and only 63 people died. The earthquake in Haiti was (is) a catastrophe because of one thing: poverty.

This is not just an opinion; disaster research has proven over and over again that disasters are not "natural," but, rather, due to social factors (see my blog post: ) It is clear that poor building standards are to blame for the tremendous loss of life in Haiti. We have nobody to blame but ourselves, and God watches our inaction and weeps along with those who continue to suffer needlessly.

eashtov said...

Shalom Raima,

Before this earthquake, The US had sent nearly
$3 billion of aid to Haiti since 1992, so it's not like we (the most generous nation on the planet) haven't tried. Sadly, because of government corruption in Haiti, there is no accounting for what happened to all we as a nation sent.

The US, both as a government as well as it's private citizens through donations, will once again send the more aid as well as peoplepower than any other nation to Haiti this time around as well.

We in the US are not to blame for Haiti's plight. That is unless we blindly send aid without knowing that it will actually reach the folks who need it.


Raima said...

Hi, Jordan - I don't necessarily mean "the US" when I say "we" are to blame for the social ills in Haiti. By "we" I meant to point the finger at humanity, rather than pointing it at God, as some have done, or even asking why God didn't "save us" from this. My point is that the problem is caused by humans and must be solved by humans. You are right in the sense that the US certainly controls a lot of the wealth in the world, though.

BTW, I loved the version of Isaiah 45:6-7 you posted. Beautiful.

eashtov said...
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eashtov said...
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eashtov said...

Shalom Raima,

You wrote: "You are right in the sense that the US certainly controls a lot of the wealth in the world, though."

Yes we do and as I said there is no country on the planet as generous as we with our blood and treasure.

You wrote: "I loved the version of Isaiah 45:6-7 you posted. Beautiful."

Thanks and its just my translation from the original


Changeless Chariot said...

I agree with Raima. Another perspective may be that God purposely -- or the Universe eventually -- places magnifying glasses over the places where humanity has gone awfully wrong. As the comparison to the Bay Area quake highlights, it is not God or the Universe that has devastated Haiti -- but poverty. The question being begged is how do we - especially in the US -- continue our battle to amass massive wealth at the expense of the rest of the world??

I am reminded of the graphic of the world as a village of 100 people.

If we could reduce the world’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would include:

80 would live in substandard housing

67 would be unable to read

50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation

33 would be without access to a safe water supply

39 would lack access to improved sanitation

24 would not have any electricity (And of the 76 that do
have electricity, most would only use it for light at night.)

1 would have a college education

5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be US citizens

33 would be receiving --and attempting to live on-- only 3% of the income of “the village

And then I am unfortunately reminded of the words of Tolstoy:

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means - except by getting off his back.

Yes, the US government and the American people are great at writing checks. But, as Jordan points out -- this does not work. It takes something more. Getting our hands dirty. Getting on the ground. Developing relationships. Confronting the realities and complexities of the problems of impoverished and failing nations.

Rather than writing a check to a charity before heading off to the mall for another $50 shirt and a $100 Saturday night dinner out, it takes looking starving people in the eye, it takes hearing their stories, it takes having our hearts stirred. It takes our courage to be open to learning and growing from the encounter.

Don't get me wrong, many people around the world need money (or they have been convinced they do because subsistence agriculture is seen as a sign of poverty...). But they need more. They need our love and compassion. And as much as we hate to admit it, we need their love, as well.

Maybe it is simply time to heed the wake-up call.


eashtov said...

Shalom Ivan,

You wrote: "Yes, the US government and the American people are great at writing checks. But, as Jordan points out -- this does not work. It takes something more. Getting our hands dirty. Getting on the ground. Developing relationships. Confronting the realities and complexities of the problems of impoverished and failing nations."

And once again my response is that the generosity of the US is unmatched in the world. And that generosity includes peoplepower on the ground as well as dollars donated.


Changeless Chariot said...

Shalom Jordan--

There is no doubt that the US is very generous. But what I was referring to is not so much being on the ground as a nation (through government agencies, NGOs, etc.) -- but as an individual. That when we enter into the lives of the people we seek to "help" -- we find a great deal more complexity than we may have expected, find that the core concerns of life and happiness are pretty universal, and we are forced to confront the ways that we live our own lives that actually detract from the help we hope to provide. I have been doing a great deal of international travel and volunteer work lately and have found this kind of engagement to be extremely transformative on the personal level. I recommend it as a way to deepen our understanding of the tragedy of Haiti -- and with hope to prevent future such tragedies.


Claire said...

I don't like the "the US is the most generous" statement all. It is not entirely accurate. Aid to Haiti is a good example.

Take a look at this set of graphics: In gross terms, if you look at the graphic on the left, yes, the US had contributed the most: $167 million.

The US, though, is a large and populous country. The middle graphic shows the contribution per person. Canada, contributing $3.90 per person is in the lead, followed by Scandinavian countries. The US's contribution is similar to that of Estonia: 70 cents.

And the US is very rich, so perhaps the fairest comparison is the contribution in terms of per capita GDP. Now, Ghana rises to the top as the most generous nation to the Haitian people. While Ghana has only given $2 million, considering the relative poverty of that nation, they have done more than anyone else.

Raima said...

Claire makes a good point that a fair comparison of generosities would look at per capita giving, or at least allow for some relative measure of national wealth.

Although I, like many Americans, have gladly given money to support the rescue and recovery efforts in Haiti, I don't think it makes any sense to pat myself (or my country) on the back for doing that. Of course we will help this way, but I don't personally need to be thanked for it in order to do it.

But I wonder why we are talking only about giving money when we discuss how generous we can be. We have many things to offer, including money (which can easily be wasted if it goes into the wrong hands) and our own helping hands, as Ivan has said.

But we also have our knowledge and insight -- or, at any rate, some people have insights, gleaned from years of scientific study. We can also be generous by learning what is known about the causes of disasters and then working to ensure that these insights are applied and we learn from the past.

Other earthquakes WILL happen, and very good predictions can and have been made about where these are likely to be, and which ones will cause the most human suffering. We can't change the past, but we can help prevent future catastrophes if we start paying attention to what we already know about the causes of disasters.

How do we know that God isn't asking us to use not only our hands and our money, but also our brains and all that we have learned from the scientific study of geology and human social behavior?