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Disaster and the “Silence of God:” A Brief Essay

The last decade or so has witnessed several horrendous and catastrophic events in the Asia-Pacific region.  The notable ones were: 

                 (1) The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in December 26, 2004, “killing 230,000–280,000 people in 14 countries” (Wikipedia).

                 (2) The earthquake and tsunami that of Japan on March 11, 2011, “killing 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injured, and 2,562 people missing across twenty prefectures, as well as 228,863 people living away from their home in either temporary housing or due to permanent relocation.  A 10 February 2014 agency report listed 127,290 buildings totally collapsed, with a further 272,788 buildings "half collapsed", and another 747,989 buildings partially damaged” (Wikipedia).

                (3) The super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan on November 8, 2013.  “It is the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, killing at least 6,300 people” overnight. (Wikipedia).  My hometown was one of the hardly-hit areas.

They all brought unprecedented and unimaginable destruction of properties and claimed thousands of lives.

The topic at hand raises the age-old question: Where is God in times of disaster and suffering?  The notion of the “silence of God” in times of disaster presupposes the absence or inactivity of God viz-a-viz destruction and indescribable human sufferings. But is God really silent?  

 I only have two points to make.

Firstly, the notion of the “silent of God” in times of tragedy must be juxtaposed with the biblical notion of “a fallen world” and a “groaning creation.”

This, in my view, is a theological necessity and an hermeneutical imperative.  Otherwise, we might end up affirming an inaccurate and, therefore, dangerous theological concept.  It is inaccurate because, God is and has never been silent in times of tragedy and suffering.  The notion of the “silence of God” is a theological commentary on the paradox of destruction and suffering viz-a-viz the notion of a good and omnipotent God.  But it is, in itself, an inaccurate theological presupposition.

Moreover, the concept is, at the same time, dangerous. Unclarified, it may may cause in the mind of some people, especially the survivors, resentment against a good and omnipotent God.  God could be conceived as inutile in their moments of suffering and loss.  Hence it may result into some form of atheism.  As Arthur Custance writes:

“At such times thoughtful men do not become atheists because they find it irrational to believe in a spiritual world which is above and beyond demonstration by ordinary means, but because of emotional insult, the feeling that if God is really such a Being as we His children claim Him to be, He could not possibly remain silent, He would have to act manifestly, mercifully, savingly, publicly.” (Quoted by Derek Flood in his article on Suffering the Silence of God, p. 1).

So, to avoid falling into the pit of theological inaccuracy and some form of atheism, the “silence of God” concept must be juxtaposed with the biblical understanding of the fallenness  of or of a “groaning” creation.   Doing so brings to the fore the biblical realism that we live in a fallen and, therefore, groaning creation.  Hence disasters, man-made or natural, are bound to happen every now and then.  Pain and suffering are part of the fallen human experience.

The point is that the notion of “God's silence” in times of disaster should be juxtaposed with the biblical understanding of “fallen” world  or a “groaning” creation.  The juxtaposition of the two concepts provides us, missionaries and development workers, with two helpful hermeneutical tools in understanding the presence of God in times of suffering.

First, it makes available a balancing view for the inaccurate theological presupposition that God is silent in times of disaster.  And, second, the “groaning” creation view provides us the necessary context and reality of tragedy and  suffering in the here and now. 

Commenting on the horrendous disaster of the Japan tsunami, David Bentley puts it this way:

“And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.”

Hence, by putting the two concepts side-by-side, our disaster response and development work, whatever form that may be, becomes more enlightened theologically and biblically.

Secondly, the presence and activity of God must be re-defined in times of disaster/tragedy. 

Traditionally, God's presence and activity are, almost always, associated with conditions of “peace and order,” “wholeness and prosperity” or “power and triumph.”  Hence, disaster, chaos and human suffering are, almost always, seen as the works of the Devil, who constantly opposes the works and purposes of God in and for the world.  “The Deist argument coincides with this view, believing that God is omnipotent yet personally un-involved in the world, running the world “from a distance” (Yancey, 80).  Thus the “silence of God” in times of disasters and destruction.

But, as already pointed out, this is theologically inaccurate.  It is both dualistic and simplistic.  The presence and activity of God, therefore, must be re-defined such dualism.

We are arguing here is that God is and has never been silent in experiences of tragedy and suffering.  But how is God present?  Or, how is God's presence experienced or be viewed?  The presence and activity of God in disaster/suffering can be seen in two levels.

            (1) In the plight of the victims and survivors. 

                 (a) A compassionate presence.  Compassion is not the disposition of mercy from a position of privilege or power from a distance; apart from the locus of suffering.  Rather, it is shared along side, with the one who suffers.  That's the meaning of the word “com-passion.”

Panentheism, the view that God is in everything God created, lends to the compassionate presence of God.   The groaning, the sufferings and pain, of creation is, therefore, “felt” or “experienced” by the Creator.  The crucifixion of Jesus as the “only begotten Son” is also understood this way.  The crucified Christ is seen as the apex of God's involvement with the pain of the victims.  The cross is the “suffering presence” of God, the Creator, with the victims.  So, during disaster, the presence of God is to be viewed and communicated as a suffering presence with the broken and the vulnerable.  It will deliver us from the pit of theological inaccuracy implied by the notion of the “silence of God” concept.

                 (b) A calling presence.  Since God “suffers” with the groaning creation, with the broken and the vulnerable, that presence becomes a calling or inviting presence.  The suffering and brokenness of the survivors is God “inviting” those of us from the “outside/distance” to respond in compassion.  The desperate cry for practical help in their time of brokenness and helplessness is, in a sense, God's call for us, as individuals and Aid/Development Agencies, to come along side those who suffer; to accompany them and be the compassionate, restoring and liberating presence of the Creator-God. 

            (2) In the light of the responses of Aid/Development Agencies/ organizations.

                  (a) A serving, caring presence.  God does not act in a vacuum, although God can.  God embodies Godself in and for the world.  We see this both in the Old and New Testaments.  The calling of the Patriarchs, Moses, the Prophets and the Judges are among the OT illustrations of God's caring presence.  The incarnation, on the other hand, is the omega point of God's historical caring embodiment.  In Paul's writings, we see it in the notion of the Church as the “Body of Christ” in the world.  The church does not exist for herself.  The church is called out of the world with the commission to be God's serving/caring presence in the world.  In other words, God's work and God's presence are  usually mediated by human agencies, including the Church. 

Makoto Fujimura affirms this when he wrote about the horror of the 9/11: “God is here now, in the thousands of volunteers coming in to help and in the many loved ones and friends calling to encourage and to pray” (Five Reflections: Relevant Magazine, 11/9/12) 

Thus the ministry of relief, rehabilitation and empowerment or development is not to be seen simply as a social work or a human response to disaster.  Our service becomes more meaningful when it is seen as the serving and caring presence/act of God with and for the survivors.

                 (b) A healing, liberating presence.  God is a healing and liberating God.  We see it concretized in the liberation of the Hebrews from the oppression of Egypt.  We also see it in the wholistic ministry of Jesus.  Jesus of Nazareth did not only forgive sins and offered the gift of eternal life to people; he also healed the sick and the demon possessed as well as fed the hungry.  Thus our disaster response should address the totality of the person.  We should avoid the dualism of the spiritual versus the physical.  If there is such a thing as “wholistic mission,” then, there should also be a “wholistic development.”

The point is that any advocacy or engagement we do, personal or organizational, that promotes healing, liberation and wholeness, it is God working in us and through us for the love of the survivors.  Our relief, rehabilitation and development work is God's compassionate, caring, serving and liberating presence; they are God's earthly embodiments with and for the survivors.

Conclusion

This concluding quote aptly summarizes the paradox of God's “silence” viz-a-viz disaster and human suffering; it poignantly describes our journey and ministry as Aid/Development workers and organizations as we together seek and humbly respond to God's call of healing, liberation and wholeness, with the best of what we have and are and in whatever way possible.

“I do not claim the ability or the desire to fully comprehend God.  And so I wrestle with what I can see and know, and I accept the inner call to do something about the suffering I see.” (Bronwen Henry, 2013 Issue of God's Presence in Suffering).

Danilo A. Borlado


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