Over the last few days there cannot be a person who has not contemplated the tens of thousands of dead in Haiti – or rather attempted to contemplate, because both in terms of numbers and degree of loss and pain it is actually unthinkable.
Our human brains are not designed to compute suffering on such a scale, especially when the numbers rise on a daily or even hourly basis. The extent of the earthquake also makes it impossible to think about individual losses, unless, of course we know someone who was killed or who lost a family member.
The ways in which we mentally and spiritually respond to such catastrophes raise many great issues, both human and theological.
To begin with, and this was apparent in the first few hours after the news broke – many felt that we needed someone or something to blame. We needed to find some human factor in the disaster. Perhaps we still think this way. The equation of cause and effect.
It’s a perfectly natural response – one that has been engrained in the human psyche since the dawn of time. Just look at the great myths of the Old Testament and other religious traditions. The flood of Genesis was sent by God because of the wickedness of man. The same story is found in the Sumerian culture where the earth is punished by the gods for its decadence. Also the Greek tradition, the Roman tradition, and the Norse, and the Hindi scriptures, and even the folk-tales of some of the native tribes of both North and South America.
This is the notion that somehow humankind is the author of its own misfortunes, and that there is divine justice to hand. We have moved away from such primitive ideas, although there will, no doubt, be some people who will disagree. Claiming to represent a form of "true" Christianity and enjoying a high media profile - I hope that they are treated with the utter contempt that they deserve.
More common these days is the environmentalist blame game. We can attribute natural disaster to something that we have done to the planet. But not this time. What happened to those tectonic plates beneath the Caribbean was nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or any other popular “green” issue that otherwise we deem important.
What happened last week was rather an example of nature simply being nature in an amoral, indifferent way.
Once more we have been reminded of our smallness before nature.
That’s not an easy thing to accept because in this so-called enlightened age we are taught that we can aim at controlling our destinies. Nothing could be further from the natural truth.
It makes us uncomfortable because in the 21st century we find it impossible to accept that bad things just happen, that there was no way of stopping them, that no one is to blame and that no one can be sued.
Simply put, the earthquake, like any natural disaster, strikes at our modern, often foolish sense of being masters of our condition and fate.
Faced with such a prospect of powerlessness we can ask where God is in all of this. That’s a fair question, because if we reject the primitive notions of divine judgment and retribution, God, if we believe in a God, still has to be somewhere in all the mess.
The commonly asked question as to why God allowed such a thing to happen must never apply. It may belong in the Sunday School but not in spiritually grown-up minds. It is the wrong question. God, our image of God, must not be that of a puppeteer or controller - rescuing some but leaving others to die.
It is rather the reverse. God, our image and understanding of God, is a God who has let go of all control and who reigns, not by wielding power over the lives of his creation, but by becoming one of them – powerless and vulnerable, yet glorious.
Glory revealed in a new-born baby, and in the nailing of a man to a wooden cross. There, and only there, does God show the true and complete divine nature.
God is therefore incarnate - in the fear and trauma of the victims, in the grief of countless thousands, in the efforts of governments, military and other agencies who struggle to bring even the simplest of necessities to suffering communities. Medical aid. Clean water. Basic food. Shelter. God is there, incarnate, in the physical touch that says, "I care. I'm here to help."
God is also in our response and that of millions the world over.
Because we are all called to give.
It doesn’t matter which agency, which fund you support, so long as it is making a difference to the Haitian people. Just do it! Choose your charity - then send the donation.
We may not be able to comprehend this disaster, but, in Christ’s name we can love and support those who live and rebuild in its aftermath.
With people all over America, all over the world, let’s act in Christ's name!