On a bleak Saturday afternoon in January the rare but clearly predictable southern California storms were raging, though fairly subdued in my own neighborhood; so much so that out of my kitchen window there appeared the uplifting sight of flocks of white sails, each of 12 or 15 small boats, out on the rainy bay. Momentarily perceived as flocks of white doves afloat against the dark and lowering sky and water, the two-person crews were testing their seamanship aweather rather than alee as usual, and while one or two small vessels were yawing wildly along the course, all regained port safely. Alone and under the weather physically and spiritually, it occurred to me that for 3 days I had been keeping my household lights burning during the day and most of the night as if to alert for encroaching dangers -–two if by sea(?). In the face of news of tsunamis in Asia, floods in Scandinavia and Northern UK, and southern California weather turning deadly --- together with news of unremitting warfare in Iraq, I had been wandering in prayer for a meaning of sorts.
Hendrik Hertzberg (The New Yorker, Jan. 17 2005) noted that “The terrible arbitrariness of the (tsunami) disaster has troubled clergymen of many persuasions. The Archbishop of Canterbury is among those newly struggling with the old question of how a just and loving God could permit, let alone will, such an undeserved horror.” (p.35). I had thought of the white sails as signs, perhaps a kind of omen of oceanic hope, but the whole question apparently goes back to one of the oldest, if not the oldest book in the Jewish bible. In a brief review of Job’s experiences William Safire, a New York Times columnist concludes, in Where Was God, Jan. 2005, “(1) Victims of this cataclysm in no way “deserved” a fate inflicted by the Leviathanic force of nature. (2) Questioning God’s inscrutable ways has its exemplar in the Bible and need not undermine faith. (3) Humanity’s obligation to ameliorate injustice on earth is being expressed in a surge of generosity that refutes … cynicism.” At least I know it is not only me, these are the times when many people, in many different places, are asking the big questions: “where were you God –How could you let these things happen?” Safire’s comments are germane, but fall short of answering the present day bewilderment of hordes of victims and onlookers. Hertzberg says it more directly as he goes on to amplify our human plight: “Nearly four million men, women, and children have died as a consequence of the Congo civil war. Seventy thousand have perished in the Darfur region of Sudan. In the year just ended, scores of thousands died in wars and massacres elsewhere in Africa, in Asia, in the archipelagoes of the Pacific, and, of course, in Iraq. Less dramatically, but just as lethally, two million people died of malaria around the world, and another million and a half of diarrhea. Five million children died of hunger. Three million people died of AIDS, mostly in Africa. The suffering of these untimely deaths---whether inflicted by deliberate violence, the result of human agency, or by avoidable or treatable malady, the result of human neglect---is multiplied by heartbroken parents and spouses, numbed and abandoned children, and, often, survivors vulnerable to disease and starvation, and dependent, if they are lucky, on the spotty kindness of strangers.” This writer adds, “The giant wave that radiated from western Sumatra on the day after Christmas destroyed the lives of at least a hundred and fifty thousand people and the livelihoods of millions more. A hundred and fifty thousand; fifty times the toll of 9/11, but ‘only’ a few percent of that of the year’s slower, more diffuse horrors. The routine disasters of war and pestilence do, of course, call forth a measure of relief from public and private agencies (and to note that this relief is almost always inadequate is merely to highlight the dedication of those who deliver it). But the great tsunami has struck a deeper chord of sympathy.”
Why do we not consider a different question, why do we still not stop to think or wonder if our Lord has not been asking similar questions of us over the years. “O man, you have been here many times before, you know what “natural” events and your own propensity for violence can do. Where are you when it is time to build the ark, to gather the flock, to prepare for future safety and while peaceful resolutions are still possible? Where are the early warning signals that only now, in India at least, you think might be put in place? When did you work and plan and spend your military and defense budgets for flood and famine relief worldwide ahead of time, instead of creating more death and destruction; when did you to plan for the loving and secure communities that you are capable of building, the kind of world I made you for and reminded you of in the Garden?” Why do we play to the crowd and so rarely think first of others rather than rush to profit-taking ---and then sue each other for unrequited love after the fact?
During this musing one of the newer TV programs came on hosted by an attractive young lady named Maria, recently employed in the trading pits of the NY stock exchange (where long term problem solving is usually scarce). A good presenter, she had the task of asking one of our US senators about how the future plans for one famous pre-planned safety cushion, the Social Security Program, is faring in government circles. To her obvious (mock?) surprise, since this issue had been kicked around a lot during these last election days, the senator seemed to recall only the most recent words on the subject and stated that there were no plans in place at all at present. Whether our Social Security system is revamped to meet participant needs, –or if ever, --currently it is clear that this problem is high on many legislative agendas, often for purposes of political leverage. It is slow to emerge in enactment form because it involves the future, and many a legislator shies away from the role of prophet until the voice counts are in ---and also such mementos are heartily wished dead by some of our lawmakers. Like world peace itself, these issues are usually designed for aftermaths, for picking up the pieces after disaster has struck. Left to welfare agencies and “the spotty kindness of strangers”, we will be asked to contribute to the results of catastrophes that happen regularly -- in some regions on a daily basis. We may seek and even find alternatives to fuel oil –after it is gone, or at least after pouring a lot more of our money into middle-eastern pockets.
Even the well honed techniques of management, if applied to arcane government processes, could improve matters; this idea is usually rejected however, (noted by staffers as useful only for “profit making” agencies), but many believe every-day business practices could well institute change as opposed to status quo. (See recent reports on snarled government procedures). New pending solutions are often left to sketchy “relief” organizations that tend to be self perpetuating, and refer frequently to do-gooder phraseology having to do with the importance of giving “in time of need” --and will spring up to report the next need, and, etc.
Are not they who say “yes, we will help repair the damage that could perhaps have been prevented” very much like the “whited sepulchers” of old? They only confess the duplicity, and their own complicity, in self-oriented planning. In any event, I cling to the notion that those “white doves” out on the stormy bay signify peace and the loving nature of the one who said that those who seek wisdom must first really seek the Kingdom --presumably before they make up their minds about what constitutes wisdom. Some day we will learn to give the right answer: the UN General Assembly met on 1/24/05 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of Nazi death camps. Elie Wiesel spoke as follows, “The Jewish witness that I am speaks of my people’s suffering as a warning. He sounds the alarm to prevent these tragedies being done to others. And yes, I am convinced if the world had listened to those of us who tried to speak we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia, and naturally Rwanda.” The Arab countries were notable by their absence, and the UN itself struggles to maintain a leadership presence ---but such a body is sorely needed as we move steadily towards increased armed conflict around the globe.
We may still, however, be too busy following Pope’s directive, “Presume not God to scan, the proper study of mankind is man.” -- We can only learn worldly solutions to old problems that way –and that they usually do not work. Although our Father in heaven has given us promise of future happiness in the world to come, even now we struggle to make our way to its gates.