Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Disasters, natural and unnatural

Not all disasters are "natural" -- many of us were shocked when a gunman killed two and injured several others during worship in the Tennesee Valley UU church in Knoxville, Tennessee USA on 27 July.  Trauma experts and other help from both UUs and civic authorities were sent to the stunned congregation immediately.  The initial shock at a 'random' event by some madman with a vague grudge against life and liberals had to give way to a more reflective response as it became known that the gunman had had previous contact with UU events, including at least one in his home some time before.  

Many of us will remember that almost exactly three years ago rains caused severe flooding in Transylvania, causing extensive damage including Unitarian churches and homes, and the Transylvanian Unitarians from 'dry' areas rushed to give practical assistance.  Only a few years before that the swollen Danube flooded central Prague causing severe damage to the Unitarian church there.  Unitarians around the globe raised funds and sent encouraging messages. Earthquakes have hit Unitarians (among many others, of course) in Indonesia in the past few years and the coast of the USA from about Texas around to South Carolina is periodically hit by hurricanes and severe storms, damaging homes and public buildings including Unitarian Universalist ones.  Florida is bracing itself for a "hit" even as I write this.  And the pictures on British television of the flooding in Northern Ireland where one month's rain fell in a few hours yesterday, are heart breaking. 

In Indonesia, the Unitarians there, members of the ICUU member group Jamaat Allah Global Indonesia, rushed aid to their stricken citizens, non-Unitarian as well as Unitarian.  Many Unitarians and Universalists around the world contributed to an Appeal, publicised by UUSC to help them do this.  When earthquakes hit Pakistan a couple years ago the very small Unitarian community there also strived to provide practical assistance to their fellow citizens, many of whom hate Christians and don't bother to make an exception for Unitarians.  American UUs were active in providing both short- and long-term support to residents of New Orleans after Katrina and will no doubt assist as they can if aid is needed after the current emergency in Florida.  We, like decent people of all religions and cultures, respond to disasters as quickly and generously as we can.  Organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Oxfam, UNESCO, Tearfund, and others, while receiving government funding, depend on the generous responses of the public to do the emergency relief work that they are set up for.

One bit of good news: No one was killed in Northern Ireland by the floods yesterday and no homes or churches of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (the religious liberals closely connected with British Unitarians) were directly affected -- in fact, amidst the turmoil of roads closed by floods and landslides they still managed an ordination!

Why do bad things happen to good people?  What, you don't assume that Unitarians and Universalists are good people?  Very insightful, but the fundamental question remains.

Universalists have long held that the best motivation for good behaviour is a response of love to being loved, rather than the traditional motivation based on fear of punishment for being bad.  It was a hard struggle in many lands to get the changes in public policy that this theological understanding implied, from education to public health, from prison reform to worker and child protection.  That reforming battle continues.

There may be a temptation to see good behaviour as a kind of protection against evil things happening, and perhaps some people do contribute to disaster relief as a kind of insurance policy, but the truth is that if reality were so constructed that well behaved people were rewarded with good health, long lives, and wealth, while bad people had brutish existences, then many fewer of us would behave badly.  

We will each have our own resolutions to the question of why a God of Love would not build goodness into the structure of the way things work --  in fact some take the intentional evil done by both individuals and communities as proof that a God of Love cannot really exist.  I share my conviction that it is precisely because goodness and justice are not built into the way the physical world operates that we have the obligation to do our best to build goodness and justice into our human community.  To the extent that we are successful in this never-ending struggle, goodness and justice will exist; to the extent we fail, goodness and justice will not exist.  

Meantime, we will be subject to the same range of natural and unnatural disasters as everyone else and will continue to need to respond as open-heartedly as we can to immediate needs even while we engage in fundamental reform of our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting.


No comments: