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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

February 3, 2005
   Vol. 2, No. 36

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

The question looks theological but it may be a dodge

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I never wrote a word about the clanging question, "Where was God in the tsunami?" In fact, the question depressed me. Not the answer. The question.

But there was a lot of other ink spilled on it, nevertheless. Every newspaper in the country published features and interviews on the subject. Broadcasters did radio programs on it. Pastors did op-ed pieces for local newspapers everywhere. The press became a veritable textbook for Theology 101 courses.

I never liked the questions about God's role during a tsunami because to me the answer seemed obvious, even if not easy: God was exactly where God was when Job's friends, in the face of the collapse of his health, his wealth and his reputation demanded that Job ask, too, how is it that the good suffer and God does nothing about it? Clearly God, the life force behind all life, was allowing that life, both human and natural, to proceed unrestrained. It was that simple.

After all, God is not the average human administrator writ large. God is not amenable to either our expectations or the puny little human demands we call rational as we go our irrational ways. How to say all that in an interview for the religion page? The Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady, dealt with the very problem of the media itself. These are "age-old questions," he said, "and not adequately answered by sound bites, pious phrases or short articles." Indeed.

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Nevertheless, I had to admit, the question did generate in me another question that few, if any, were asking: Why, I began to wonder, did the God-question suddenly become such a major question in this society at this time? Why now and, of all places, why here?

Yes, this tsunami caused large-scale death but no more large scale than the famine in Ethiopia, also a natural disaster, or the deaths in Darfur, which are human disasters.

Isn't it possible that the very asking of the question betrays a tendency in this society at this period to make God responsible for a great deal of human misery that we ourselves have the means, if not to eliminate, certainly to mitigate. Is the problem, perhaps, that we know we have the physical ability but lack the political will to concentrate on development so we blame God for destruction?

Or is it that tsunamis, and all natural disasters, are out of our control in an era and a society that assumes control of everything: global finances, technological wizardry, the exploration of space and the nuclear capacity to bring about the end of the world.

Is part of the problem, at least, that we, who know ourselves to be in charge of everything interplanetary that's going on, seem almost insulted at the thought of not being able to command nature, too, while at the same time we do everything we can to destroy it? We pollute our skies, profane our waters, experiment with nuclear explosions in the South Seas and then never even bother to put up early warning systems of seismic activity in an area whose natural processes we may well have violated ourselves.

At the same time, we do not doubt our own right to bring about human destruction and disasters. Those things we call "politics" and "military security" and "foreign policy" and "justice" -- and free will. We do not want God interfering for the other side then.

We want God to interfere only in behalf of our convenience, on behalf of our politics, on behalf of our definitions of right. And we call it an assault on our 'faith' when that doesn't happen.

What we cannot control, do not see, cannot understand destroys the idol that is ourselves. Then we find ourselves dealing with holy doubt.

We must begin to doubt, perhaps, that we can do anything we want to do with this globe and get away with it. Australian researchers tell us in the latest issue of the journal Geology that the Great Australian Desert, a now uninhabitable two-thirds of the continent, remains that way today because of the kind of burning practiced by its inhabitants of 50,000 years ago.

We must start to doubt that we can go on destroying nature as we know it -- its rain forests, and ozone layer, and Great Lakes, and ocean harvests and top soil -- with impunity. Otherwise, when the oceans rise and the islands disappear and the coastlines erode and the fresh waters dry up, we will simply absolve ourselves of the responsibility to be fully human by asking again "Where is God" in all of this?

Now that nature has once again had its way with us, perhaps it will finally provoke accountability in us. Maybe we will begin to take responsibility not to control natural disasters but also not to provoke them. Perhaps we will learn to respect them, to cope with them well, to limit their effects, to rescue their victims. Then we will put sensors in the Indian Ocean to be able to detect seismic activity. We will see that the poor have more to live in than bamboo houses on the beach. We will build the relief centers we need to care for those who miss the signals or get lost in the water. Then the beaches of the poor will stand as strong as the beaches of the rich who survive hurricane after hurricane with loss of property but little loss of life.

From where I stand, the question, you see, is not Where was God in this tsunami? The question is Where were we? And why?

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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