The Haiti Earthquake

Sunday 17th January 2010
St John The Baptist, Clayton

I was going to talk to you today about the fulsomeness of the Marriage Feast at Cana but in view of this week's events in Haiti, I think it is more important to say something about what theologians call Theodicy, to address the question how can an all-loving God preside over a world of earthquakes? This week we have seen what television commentators describe as "Biblical" scenes although I am never quite sure what makes them Biblical rather than Homeric, and they and atheist militants have been asking their pointed questions about God and disaster.


We should start with states of perfection, which we ask Christians would call "The Garden of Eden". Whether or not you believe that Genesis Chapter 3 is actually historical or whether you think it is symbolic, it tells a story of how Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil having been tempted by the serpent. One interpretation of this story is what is crudely called "The fall" or "original sin". Because humanity in the person of Eve had disregarded God in the matter of the Tree, Adam and Eve were thrust out of the Garden: she was promised labour pains and he was promised hard labour.


Yet another way of looking at the story comes from an ancient tradition that the serpent, far from being a tempter, was the symbol of wisdom and that, in tasting of the fruit of the tree, humanity graduated from naiveté until its true self as a race created to exercise free will, to love God in worship and to love each other as a way of loving God.


The place which is perfect, therefore, is not a place suitable for who we are and why we are. Still, did it really have to be this unfair? The answer is that humanity does not have any kind of common agreement on what is just and what is fair. Most cultures have formulated an idea, and many of these are similar, but most of our fairness and justice is theoretical. But even if it were consensual, broad and deep, it would be human justice. We cannot expect God to behave in the way we find most admirable; God behaves in the way God behaves.


It is therefore important to be honest and say immediately that we do not know why there are earthquakes in God's creation and neither can we know; but we accept that disaster is part of our lot. Having conceded this clearly, without dithering, we might then go on to say that it is illness and disaster which allows us to choose to love one another in a way we could not choose in a perfect world. The problem with the atheist position is that it really cannot tolerate God creating anything but a perfect world; but, in that case, there would be no atheists!


Having understood that there are things we do not know, let us now look at things we do know. The disaster in Haiti has allowed us to stretch out in generosity towards the unfortunate people of that island; in doing this we are doing what we were created to do. Loving comes naturally to us; not loving is an act of denying our own nature as creatures; but we also have to admit - and this is not easy at the moment -- that much of what is wrong in Haiti is the result of human shortcoming, not the mysterious will of God: de-forestation, flouting building regulations, a corrupt government, high crime and addiction levels and a refusal to make preparations for an almost inevitable emergency have all played their part in making this earthquake worse than it might have been.

In thinking, therefore, of what has gone on this week, we need to take away three important ideas. First, the natural disaster has given us ample scope for our generosity which often is somewhat thin unless sharply provoked. Secondly, we should all pray that the disaster in Haiti is the beginning of a new era for that benighted place; the people are not without resilience, as we have seen, and no people should allow themselves to be subjected to such a level of dictatorial and incompetence governance. Thirdly, in the 20th Century we came to know that God is not an old man on a cloud who looks rather sorrowfully on a sinful world. We have learned to recognise that Jesus was with the suffering in the concentration camps and he is with the people of Haiti now.

No doubt we will be faced with further comment on the contradiction between a loving God and an imperfect world. Don't run away; say what we cannot know and say what we do know; and we will then have done our best. That is enough.