I opened my computer this morning and the first headline I saw screamed, “Thousands Feared Dead in China Quake.” At first I thought the copy editors had made a mistake. That disaster was in Myanmar, and, frankly, it was sort of old news by now.
But then I realized Myanmar had been slammed by a massive cyclone, not earthquake, and when I scanned down the New York Times home page I saw that the death toll there had been raised to 32,000.
And, oh yeah, at least 22 people were killed yesterday by tornadoes in Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma.
So as we begin a new week, religious leaders around the world will no doubt be asked for a rhyme and a reason for the suffering they are seeing. No answer will likely satisfy, as this guy stated a few years ago.
“If there was a God, how come he let all that happen?” Tom Cotton, 51, of Pinion Hills asked while finishing a burger at a Carl’s Jr. in San Bernardino.
“If it’s his plan,” Cotton said, scanning the restaurant as if he was going to curse, “he’s sure got a messed-up plan.”
God only knows what that plan might be.
“If God is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil,’ C.S. Lewis, the Christian philosopher and children’s author, wrote in “The Problem of Pain.’ “What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His Eyes, and what seems to us to be evil may not be evil.”
There are no easy answers. Each religious tradition has its own way of looking at these things. And it’s complicated.
Yes, Buddhists in Myanmar and China will blame karma. Protestants in Missouri may blame Original Sin. Many people around the world, from many faith traditions, will wonder who is being punished for what.
But on a day like today, when children are buried and thousands of people (bodies?) are missing, what explanation can possibly be satisfying?
As one Catholic priest who advises the U.S. Bishops Conference, Father Thomas Weinandy, told me for my book:
What gets preached from the pulpit and by the bishops is “Let’s support these people, take up a collection and do what we can to help them get back on their feet,”—rather than addressing the theological issues that may be raised. Part of the problem is that there is no simply answer. You can’t get up on a pulpit and say this is why this happened, other than to say that God has his purposes and ways and hopefully it will all become clear in heaven. What is there to say other than that we have to know that God loves us, that we have to trust in him, that he’s on our side in the end? Other than that, what can you say?
As much as I believe I serve a loving and just God, I’m not sure I will ever understand why natural disasters that leave tens of thousands in mourning come with the gift of life.