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COMMENTARY: Getting it right during tragedy Adam Hamilton, Sep 22, 2010
By Adam Hamilton Special Contributor
Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series.
I was flying from San Antonio to Dallas a few weeks after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I had been in Port au Prince just a week earlier to meet with church leaders and to survey the damage so that our church could develop a strategy for early response.
I sat in an aisle seat. There was an empty seat in the middle and a woman sitting at the window. I looked over at her and saw that she was crying. I asked if she was OK, and she said she was just thinking about her mom, whose birthday she was flying to Dallas to celebrate.
She said, “I was just thinking about how much I love her.”
We struck up a conversation about our parents and our children. Somehow the conversation turned to Haiti, and I told her I had just been there.
Then she asked the question that usually signals the end of a conversation: “What do you do for a living?” I told her I was a pastor, and she said, “Oh,” in a somewhat hesitant tone.
I thought that might be the end of the conversation. But a few minutes later she turned and said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, anything,” I replied.
She asked, “How do you reconcile a loving God with the terrible devastation that happened in Port au Prince?” I sensed she had been thinking about this, and that she was asking this earnestly.
The following is some of what I told her.
Let me first say that I don’t believe God caused this earthquake. It was not meant to teach the Haitians or to punish them. I don’t think God caused this quake. We have a pretty good idea why earthquakes happen—it is not the Bible but science that helps us here.
Several years ago I spent time studying the latest theories about earthquakes. I shared my understanding about them with her.
Earthquakes are the result of a process that actually cools the core of our planet, produces mountain ranges, and creates the earth’s magnetic fields. Under the surface of the earth, magma is super-heated at the core, it rises like hot air and then spreads and cools as it comes closer to the surface of the earth.
As it spreads it carries the earth’s plates, moving them. The magma cools, falls back towards the core, reheats and rises again, continuing the movement. The plates rub against one another, stick and eventually get unstuck, releasing massive amounts of energy. This process appears to be essential for life on our planet.
Port au Prince lies on one of those places where the plates were stuck. The damage was exacerbated by the fact that this is a very poor nation and buildings were not constructed to withstand this kind of earthquake. When human beings collide with the powerful forces of nature that allow life to be sustained on our planet, nature always wins. When you add poverty to the equation, the results are catastrophic.
So the question is really, where was God in Port au Prince when the earthquake occurred? God wasn’t shaking the earth in order to kill innocent people.
But I saw God in a medical team from a church in Iowa, treating people in the midst of the rubble. I saw God in the doctors and rescue workers, who were moved by the tragedy and left the comfort of their homes in the U.S. to be of help. I saw God in the people in the caravan of semi trucks loaded with food and supplies traveling between Santa Domingo and Port au Prince.
God was the source not of the earthquake, but of the comfort and hope people found as they buried their dead.
On Wednesday night, while our team was in Port au Prince, there was another earthquake, and from the makeshift tents you could hear people cry out in fear and then quickly break into the singing of hymns. God was their comfort and strength. For those who lost loved ones, God is the only hope that they will see their children or parents or friends again.
I saw God in an old man who had played organ for a Methodist Church for 55 years. He said he did not know how, but somehow God would bring resurrection to Port au Prince. I saw God in the generosity of my congregation who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid the victims.
If you take God out of the equation in Haiti, you still have an earthquake with 200,000 people dead, but you have just removed the single most important source of comfort and hope.
When I finished sharing all this with the woman on the plane, she responded: “I’m Jewish, and that is the best answer I’ve ever heard. Thank you. That gives me hope.”
Christians get it wrong when they attribute tragedy to the will, plan and hand of God. They get it wrong when they blame victims as the cause of their own suffering.
But they get it right when they walk with those undergoing suffering, and when they selflessly serve their neighbors in need.
The Rev. Hamilton is pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. Excerpted from his new book, When Christians Get it Wrong (Abingdon).