An Act of God?

Christ Church Cathedral, before and after.

As I sit on the flight back to Auckland from Christchurch I can’t help but reflect on the  goings ons of the last couple of weeks. It has been just shy of 3 weeks since Christchurch, the place I was brought up, was rocked by an earthquake killing more than 150 people and injuring scores more.

I must confess, I am not one of those brave New Zealanders that jumped on a plane straight away to come to Christchurch and help in the rescue and recovery effort, nor am I one of those who came to Christchurch to help out with food or water, or offering an open ear and warm hug. No, my reasons for coming to Christchurch were purely selfish, I came to help out my family. My family home was hit rather hard by the quake on the 22/02/2011 and so I flew to Christchurch (at the request of my father) to help him try and patch up the house…it was a lost cause however and I now fear that the house may need to be demolished. It was while I was in Christchurch helping my family however, that the inevitable conversations happened. Some sad, some happy, some hopeful, others hopeless, and now, as I sit on my flight back to Auckland, back to running water and power. Back to perfectly intact buildings and a place where liquefaction might as well be a foreign word, my mind wonders.

The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Reverend Peter Beck has become somewhat of an overnight national celebrity, and one of his remarks about the events of the 22/02/2011 has especially spoken to a lot of New Zealanders. When asked about his thoughts of the earthquake the Dean responded:

“God is not in the earthquake. The earthquake was not an act of God. The earthquake was the planet doing its thing the way the planet does. The act of God and the miracles has been the extraordinary way people have pulled together, reached out to one other. The act of God has been in the tears of people, in the weeping, in the lament. The act of God is in the compassion people are showing to one another. The act of God is in the courage people are showing.”

Anyone would agree that that was a good response, or at least as good as any response could have been considering the circumstances. Although it may have been a good response, was it good enough? The Christian church loves to talk about the idea of the “Creator God” or at least a God who ordered creation, so how does that theology go with the response given by the Dean? Scientifically speaking, the Dean is 100% correct. The earthquake was an example of the earth doing what the earth does. But if we believe in a creator God than we must also accept that God, however indirectly is responsible for this earthquake.

The big questions that come up at a time like this are not unique to the specific event or fallout of that event, they are rather a result of the human response to suffering. Long before the events of 22/02/2011 there have been (and continue to be) suffering on an alarmingly huge scale the world over, most of which is of our own making. The recent earthquake in Christchurch opened up an entire city’s eyes, and indeed an entire country’s eyes to suffering that happens on a daily basis around the world. This fact however, doesn’t make events like these any easier to handle, and it certainly doesn’t make it easy for churches and/or ministers to answer the big questions that come with these types of tragedies. I am not writing this in an attempt to offer an answer, to be honest I am still working through my own thoughts in regard to the earthquake. What i am offering though, is a change in how we approach situations like this, and suffering generally.

It is natural for us to try and place blame when we are faced by tragedies. It is a reaction that was built into our being when we were still infants. Something goes wrong, the reason is assessed, we find who was responsible, that person/thing is then held accountable and then we can carry on living. It is a natural part of how we live. But that process doesn’t always fit the situation. Insurance companies like to call events like the recent earthquake “an act of God.” When something goes wrong, from the unexpected death of a baby to a flood to an earthquake, people need answers, and when those answers can’t be found it is easy for us to blame God. It is this approach that we need to change. God’s shoulders are big enough to carry any burden or responsibility, but that doesn’t mean that that’s where the burden should be laid. We need to shift from a theology of “why” to a theology of “where?” In an attempt to avoid this post turning into a thesis I will go into what I mean by a theology of where in a later post. But to briefly explain, I think the Dean was halfway there. The Dean rightfully pointed out that God is in the aftermath, God was in the human response to this tragedy. But I think the Dean forgot that God was also in the earthquake. God was with those 160 people as they lost their lives to this disaster. God was with those who were buried for upwards of 6 hours. God was with the families and loved ones as they waited to hear the fate of their brothers, sisters, mums, dads, daughters and sons. God was in the earthquake.

Once again, I am not offering answers or a definitive statement on suffering in general or this tragedy in particular. At most I am thinking out loud and trying to come to grips with my own questions. I simply type these thoughts up and post them in the hope that they may help someone on their way to reaching a place where, although they may not be able to get all the answers, they are at least at peace with the questions.

He whakaaro noa iho tenei. It’s just a thought…

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