Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When Bad Weather Happens to Good People

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When Bad Weather Happens to Good People

Article excerpt

What is God doing when thousands perish in earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and famines?

Near the end of the Prayers of the Faithful one Sunday morning, I heard this plea: For the thousands who drowned in the Asian typhoon last night. We pray to the Lord." Everyone dutifully prayed to the Lord, and the prayer became a gnawing puzzle for me. What on earth is going on here? What's the Lord going to do for those who died in the typhoon that hasn't already been done? Presumably God already knows about it. Presumably God caused it, or allowed it, or at least witnessed it. Or perhaps, in ways that surpass all human understanding, huge numbers of human deaths in natural calamities may somehow be good in the mind of God. It just appears to be a disaster to our limited minds and hearts; so just quit asking stupid questions and trust God.

But since Saint Augustine once praised "faith seeking understanding," I asked some fellow Christians, even some who are paid to know, what place God plays in natural disasters.

* What do you, as a believing, praying Christian, think God is doing during tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and famines that kill thousands of people through no apparent human cause?

* If you pray for the victims, what's the nature of the prayer?

* Could God have prevented the calamity? If so, why did God not prevent it?

* If God could not have prevented it, what's the nature of prayers of petition?

These are not two-bit questions. Take the country of Bangladesh, for instance. As recently as 1991, a cyclone killed 125,000 people there; back in 1970, a worse cyclone killed 250,000 people in the same country.

How can I even think of 250,000 people? Well, how about 1,000 packed airplanes all crashing on the same day--20 planes going down in each state of the union?

Again, how does God fit into any of this?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard wrestles with this problem for a whole wonderful book, For the Time Being (Vintage). Although she never really settles the big questions, she does help put them into context. "Every year, 60 million people die; of these, half are children under 5. Every 110 hours a million more humans arrive on the planet than die into the planet."

So it took God only about a day to replace the 250,000 Bangladesh cyclone victims in 1970. Is God, then, some sort of easy-come, easy-go population manager, almost whimsically zapping thousands at once and simultaneously birthing substitutes to fill their places?

Ground zero

Maybe people at the scene of such disasters have some clues. But when I ask a few, I get mixed replies.

Martin Lueders, a photojournalist of much grief and travail, has come to embrace the View of playwright Spaulding Grey, who believes there's an evil cloud that travels around the planet, working its evil ways.

Lueders doesn't personally believe God controls the weather or human atrocities upon fellow humans. He just photographs the unexplainable sorrow and sadness.

Fellow photojournalist Hector Emanuel, who works with the Red Cross to document disasters, thinks all of this can be attributed to random occurrences of nature. He doesn't pray for the victims or believe in God. In the aftermath of disasters, however, he often hears the survivors crying out, "Thank you, God" or "Thank you, Virgin." Emanuel respects that in people and thinks they're better off for it as believers. But he, personally, stays detached.

Douglas Ryan, Catholic Relief Services' country representative for Honduras, speaks quietly of the way Hurricane Mitch challenged and matured his prayer life. The October 1998 hurricane wiped out 10,000 Hondurans when it ravaged that small country. When you're pulling kids and the elderly out of the mud, says Ryan, "the gospel message takes flesh--the sheer physical expression of recognizing Christ in the poor. …

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