Friday, September 02, 2005

Suffering and God

Hurricane Katrina

It was truly an incredible storm: barely at hurricane strength, and that only just before coming ashore for the first time on the east coast of Florida, Katrina crossed the Florida peninsula and entered the Gulf of Mexico, where, drawing energy from the warm waters of that shallow sea, it grew into a Category 5 hurricane. Only a puff of dry air from onshore just as it approached Louisiana kept it from coming onshore directly over New Orleans; and reduced it to a Category 4 storm, with wind speeds a bit lower, and a landfall to the east. Even so, Katrina’s hurricane-strength winds extended more than 120 miles from the center of the storm, and tropical storm-strength winds extended as much as 230 miles from the center. This added to the swath of destruction, from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle. It caused the 30-foot high storm surge that was so devastating to Biloxi and Mobile and Gulfport and even Pensacola, as well as the smaller cities and towns along the Gulf Coast. Katrina spawned countless tornadoes, which are believed to have contributed to the destruction in Biloxi; and which destroyed homes, businesses, and farms in Georgia, and in Tennessee. Eleven deaths were attributed to Katrina in her passage of Florida. It is still too soon to have any idea of how many people have died in the Gulf Coast region; estimates for New Orleans alone could run into the thousands.

The Human Dimension

Our actions also contributed to the impacts of the storm. We’re the ones who built a city that is, for the most part, lower than the water surrounding it. We’re the ones who built on the coastal wetlands that once helped absorb the storm surge, protecting those who lived further inland. We’re the ones who, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security from “riding out” earlier storms, or just complacent, or yes, even just too lazy to pack up, did not heed the calls for evacuation. And now, human nature continues to add to the depths of the disaster, as looting and shootings and robberies and rapes take place among people who are desperate, and, yes, selfish. (I know how to recognize these things because all of them are true about me, to one degree or another.) The vast majority of people are doing their best to cope, I’m sure – and I thank God that my family is not there, that I am not there. (I also thank God that the members of my extended family who do live in the area south and east of New Orleans all left before Katrina arrived, and are safe, although they do not know when they will be able to return to their homes and businesses.) If my children were sick, or hungry, I’m sure I’d want someone to help. But I don’t understand the anger that is being shown on the cable news reports; I don’t understand the people who blame the government, and blame us, for the consequences they face. I don’t understand breaking into a store and stealing clothing, or guns, or television sets, or computers. Food and water? Yes. It’s not right, but it is understandable; it can be forgiven. But the rest? I don’t get it.

Suffering and God

Part of me wants to say more: but the dimensions of the catastrophe are so overwhelming that words fail. However, one more aspect needs to be mentioned here, and I will try to take a run at grasping it: How could God have allowed this to happen? (This is not my question; but I know many people are asking it.)

I don’t think at all that this is God’s “wrath” or “punishment” for the wild revels that are part of the “Mardi Gras” celebrations in New Orleans, or for allowing a “Gay Pride” festival, as some have suggested. Others say that this is God’s way of expressing His disapproval for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; or for U.S. support for Israel. Are these people serious? If they are, they don’t understand God at all!

Some have said that disasters of this sort are permitted by God – and this is a key distinction: permitted, not caused – to wake us up from the delusion that the good things we enjoy, both tangible (the food and other material abundance we have access to) and intangible (such as freedom) are the result of our own labors and wisdom alone, and not gifts from God. I’m much closer to this point of view; I think this is much closer to what the Orthodox Church and faith teaches and believes. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Because none of us is good, really – that’s one part of the puzzle. This calls to mind a passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke:

There were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. (KJV; Luke 13:1-5)

We are all sinners; those who are now dealing directly with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and those of us who find the impacts come from secondary causes. Their suffering is undoubtedly greater than mine. My family is safe; my home is intact; our stores are still open, and fully stocked. Our city functions; and most everyone here isn’t suffering. It may be trite to say it, but, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I don’t know what I would be thinking or feeling or saying or doing if our home was gone; or if we were faced with the prospect of living in a shelter for months or years; or if my children or wife were sick, and left outside in the heat and the rain and the cold of night, because there was no shelter for us – no food, no water, no medicine, no sanitary facilities. As to my sins, I probably deserve to suffer more than those who are suffering. We must all repent; we must all reach out to do what we can, directly and indirectly, to help those in need, who, like us, are bearers of the likeness of God, made in His image – for, inasmuch as we do it for the least of these, we have rendered that love and care and consideration to our Lord.

We live in a fallen world. The potential for wickedness is found in us all. This is another reason why the good sometimes suffer – to remind us of the depths to which we may plunge, if we do not have a standard by which to live, if we have no morality except the law of the jungle – which, tragically, we see in operation in New Orleans right now. I can’t help but think of the countless New Martyrs of Russia, who, while on their way to the camps, or while in the camps or in prison, were starved, and forced to endure exposure to the heat and the cold and the rain and the snow. Parents watching their children die because there was no food to give them; children watching their parents die as mother and father had given up their food ration to save their children – the list goes on and on. I hope I could endure in patience and peace; and I know I need to be at work at the task of doing my part towards my transformation from who I am to the person I should be to faithfully reveal the presence of Christ in our midst. I am not that person; may God help me, and help us all, to become more Christ-like.

What made it possible for the saints to endure torture and imprisonment and beatings and starving – made it possible for them to sing hymns joyfully while caged up, or on their way to their death? It is this quality which separates us from the acts of desperation that we are driven to when we have no hope within us, no faith, no trust, that there is a life beyond this fleshly, material world. Lord, have mercy, and grant to us all to see Thee in Thy glory, and to know Thy love and mercy; so that the trials and tribulations being faced today, great and small, individually and as a society, may lead us ever closer to Thee, and to life without end in Thy kingdom!