Natural disasters are litmus tests for both societies and individuals. How we react tells us a lot about ourselves–both how we explain the disaster philosophically and how we tackle its aftermath practically.
The Christmas Day tsunami is one of the greatest natural disasters in history. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and damaged in a night. We feel an instinctive urge to denounce and punish those responsible for such a catastrophe. Yet we cannot satisfy that urge because there is no one to hold to account. All the deaths and destruction are the result of an underwater earthquake–or what insurance companies call “an act of God.”
Will some be tempted, then, to rage against God? Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus who were the tsunami’s main victims in Asia are unlikely to do so. These faiths all stress–in very different ways–submission and acceptance of life’s inevitable tragedies.
But Christians have always been anguished by the question of impersonal evil. They must feel particular unease that God allowed these horrors on the birthday of His Son. And reports of innocent children being swept away from their parents intensify such anguish.
When the 1960s Aberfan mining disaster killed almost all the children of a small Welsh village, the Anglican archbishop of Wales said in a broadcast: “I can only dare to speak about this because I once lost a child. I have nothing to say that will make sense of this horror today. All I know is that the words in my Bible about God’s promise to be alongside us have never lost their meaning for me. And now we have to work in God’s name for the future.”
Theologians do offer arguments to deal with the problem of impersonal evil: God who gave us all life has the right to take it away. He almost never intervenes to suspend the operation of natural laws of a fallen world. When He does work miracles, it is for reasons that may appear arbitrary to our limited understanding. And, of course, Christ has ultimately overcome all death, waste, and tragedy through His Resurrection.
But acute personal grief is not sensibly treated by general theological arguments. In such circumstances Christian leaders have concentrated instead on our duty, in the Welsh archbishop’s words, “to work in God’s name for the future” to bring nature under better stewardship and to heal nature’s victims.
By those tests the Christian world–in particular the United States which remains the largest single nation in which Christianity is a powerful majority belief–has acquitted itself decently in the days since the tsunami hit. The U.S. administration has sought to erect early warning systems against future tsunamis (indeed it had already begun to do so before the disaster) and the American people have spontaneously rushed to Asia’s help.
There has been a large outpouring of charitable aid from the public (not all of it from Christians, obviously) for the victims of the disaster. The actress Sandra Bullock has given $1 million, the computer entrepreneur Michael Dell $3 billion, and Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova $10,000. And the list goes on.
It would not surprise me if, when some final accounting becomes possible, the total of private charitable donations surpasses the considerable total of official government and United Nations aid now being mounted.
Significantly, this generosity is not confined to helping the Western tourists among the victims. It extends also to the villagers and fishermen whose homes have been swept away along with the luxury hotels. Christian compassion has been globalized and made more ecumenical.
Some Muslims have complained that Muslim charities have not displayed a similar universalism but have instead sent their aid to coreligionists. This might well be a topic for some future debate. But when people do good, we should not instantly complain that they are not doing better. And in our current world of clashing civilizations, compassion is bound at times to run along familiar cultural channels.
What we must hope is that the process of giving and receiving will soften the civilizational clash. GIs hand out food and medicine from helicopters not for political reasons but to aid the stricken. If their visibility also reduces the hatred of the Christian West on which Osama bin Laden feasts, however, will that not be a good thing for both Christian and Muslim civilizations?
Where do the post-Christians of modern Europe fit into this pattern? The peoples of Europe, who are somewhat more religious than their governing elites–being lapsed Christians rather than secular fundamentalists–have shown the same generosity as Americans. In Britain the total of private donations has already outstripped the government’s promised official aid total (though Tony Blair has promised to match whatever the people give.)
But Europe’s elites still face a religious dilemma–who to blame for the tsunami? They cannot find a reason to blame George Bush on this rare occasion. They cannot rage at the traditional Christian God since He has been banished from public debate. They cannot blame nature which Europe’s Greens have transformed into the beneficent goddess, Gaia.
And in the absence of any guidance from the elites, the people have turned their instinctual fury on the omnipotent power that has replaced god in the post-Christian imagination–namely government. It is no exaggeration to say that in country after country the people have raged at politicians over the tsunami–not for causing it but for responding inadequately to its impact.
Tony Blair has been viciously excoriated in Britain for failing to return from an Egyptian vacation to tackle the crisis. In Sweden, the foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, is denounced because she went to the opera rather than to her office after news of the disaster. Her prime minister, Goran Persson, made matters worse by explaining that he could not ask civil servants to work on December 26 because it was a public holiday.
Superficially, this public anger is unreasonable. There was probably not a great deal that Blair, Freivalds, or Persson could have done at the office. But their insouciance undermined Europe’s secular myth of all-encompassing government. Having offered something never promised by the Christian God–namely, security from the cradle to the grave–the government took the day off when a major emergency occurred. It had to do so–it had given its own officials the same soft options that the citizenry had accepted. And its spending priorities–welfare over defense–meant that there was very little it could do to help the Swedish and British tourists in distress. It lacked America’s ability to deliver help when and where it was needed.
When the tsunami struck, among the temples it swept away was that of the post-Christian god of welfare statism–the latest in a series of European gods that have failed.
The United Nations and its agencies have, of course, made very similar promises to those of post-Christian European elites. Even if they had not, they exist for the very purpose of dealing with crises such as the tsunami and its dreadful aftermath. Yet reports from the stricken areas suggest that the U.N. has delivered very little so far to them apart from bureaucrats and plans for co-ordination. It is the U.S. (and in particular the U.S. military) that has done most practical work of sending in food, water, medicine and shelter to the survivors–with assistance from the Australians, the Dutch and the Indians among others.
Even when the U.N. gets fully going, the U.S. will still be providing at least 40 percent of U.N. aid. In addition to America’s quarter-share of the U.N.’s costs, almost all U.N. aid will be transported to stricken areas by American planes, ships, and helicopters. In short, the U.S. is the dominant force in this disaster- relief program
There is no great disgrace in that–the U.S. has greater capability than other countries and agencies even in combination–and we should not scorn U.N. relief efforts because others can do more sooner.
What is disgraceful is that there has been a concerted effort by the U.N. and its ideological allies–against the evidence and all commonsense–to insist that the U.N. must take the lead in organizing the relief effort, to allege that any independent U.S. help is “undermining” the U.N., and to claim credit for aid that the U.S. and Australia had actually delivered.
The first case of this was the accusation (since withdrawn) that the U.S. and Western countries were “stingy.” Then ideological charities such as Oxfam demanded that all aid should be channeled through the U.N. even though, as Rosemary Righter of the London Sunday Times pointed out, it was clear that the U.N. was not capable of coordinating such a massive effort. Next, Britain’s former International Development Secretary, the left-wing Clare Short, declared that the U.S. was seeking to “undermine” the U.N. by joining with Japan, India and Australia in a practical coalition to coordinate aid to Asia. Sadly (and absurdly), Tony Blair seconded her demand that the U.S. should acknowledge U.N. leadership. Most recently (as reported by the blogger Diplomad) a local U.N. representative in Aceh asked that U.S. and Aussie military flying in aid and introducing clean water to the area should wear blue U.N. helmets in order to “soothe local cultural anxieties.”
In other words for the U.N. and its claque, helping the stricken takes second place to getting the credit. They have to obscure the realities revealed by the tsunami crisis. Otherwise, American generosity will re-fashion the global image of the U.S. as a callous superpower and American efficiency will shame a U.N. still struggling to catch up with American aid efforts.
And if the U.N. cannot perform its basic task of disaster relief as well as independent nation states like the U.S., Australia, and India, then its claim to be the center of a future system of “global governance” will wither and die.
Charity today begins abroad; so does politics.