Responding to Catastrophe—Both Natural and Human-Wrought
As we were preparing the October issue of The Cumberland Presbyterian for delivery to the printer, Hurricane Irma had just fled the state of Florida, leaving it to survivors and to those committed to helping them rebuild shattered lives. Less than two weeks prior, Hurricane Harvey did much the same in southeast Texas. Between these two storms, the worst earthquake to hit Mexico in a century was recorded. And then, Hurricane Maria arrived to devastate the islands of Dominica and Puerto Rico, thereafter setting its sights on other already-ravaged parts of the Caribbean.
The images and stories of loss emerging from these events are heartbreaking. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives have been forever altered, and by most accounts it will take many years and many billions of dollars to erase the physical evidence of nature’s destructive power. For many of those who are now struggling to return to some sense of normalcy in their lives, such events are nothing short of catastrophic.
As is the case in most post-disaster days, however, we are now seeing the very best of humanity on display in the streets and towns of southeast Texas, Oaxaca State in Mexico, the Caribbean, and much of the state of Florida. People embracing suffering people, seemingly with little regard for any of the differences that in more peaceful times separate them.
It is almost as if all the issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, political leanings, and/or socio-economic status that seem more often to have us at each other’s throats have been buried by the rubble of need, blown away by the winds, or (reminiscent of baptism, perhaps?) washed away by the floodwaters.
It’s a curious thing to me, and perhaps an observation from which we could learn a better way, if only we’re willing. In the worst of times, we humans tend to model the best of times—however briefly. Tragedy seems to draw out an innate capacity for empathy with which, as I see it, God endows every human being at birth—even for those we would normally hold at arm’s length (at best) or otherwise treat as inferior or less deserving of our unqualified love. And the roots of that empathy are in love—the very love that God, through the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ, assures us will win in the end.
So, why are we like that? The answer for Christians, of course, is not so hard to discover. We give of ourselves in difficult times because we know that it’s what Jesus would do. The answer for persons who do not consciously or intentionally follow the Way may point to some other reason, but as I see it, God, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, is still behind it all.
The empathetic responses of love-in-action that we see following tragic events such as hurricanes and terrorist attacks surely spring from that part of humankind that God, upon creating us, saw as “very good.” We were created to serve God, the very source and definition of love, and love effects a desire to act selflessly and courageously—a desire to embrace brothers and sisters who are hurting. The outpouring of love-in-action is just what we are naturally inclined to do, I think—both in service to God and in our sense of community with those who suffer.
A more difficult question, though, is why we seem unable to sustain the generous outflow of this God-inspired empathy for others beyond times of heartbreak and tragedy? I wonder if we unconsciously (or consciously) maintain thresholds of worthiness by which we measure when and to whom we’re ready to extend our love-in-action in times of pain, calamity, and loss? Are there levels of adversity that simply may not be profound enough to warrant our putting aside our prejudices in favor of embracing someone who is suffering, regardless of the reason?
These are vexing questions, and the need even to ask them is probably more an indication of our failure to live up to the demands of our faith than anything. We have short attention spans, after all, and are all too susceptible to weariness. In a sense, it is easy to respond selflessly to the suffering wrought by the infrequent hurricane or earthquake. The sense of community we feel with the victims of such events stems in part, I think, from the fact that they are so infrequent. The precipitating events are typically short in duration, and it is not so difficult for us to relate to sudden, unexpected pain and loss.
But how do we respond to the tragedies and heartbreak that have persisted for years, or decades, or even centuries? The legacy of heartache and misery wrought by years of systemic bigotry and socio-economic injustice, for example. Such man-made tragedies involve no less suffering than a natural disaster, but are of course far less visible.
The kinds of suffering we inflict on each other—homelessness, lifespans shortened due to lack of access to quality healthcare, poverty resulting from restricted access to quality education, the horrifying rates of suicide in LGBT and veteran’s communities (attributed to bullying and inadequate mental health services, respectively)—all are tragic, all involve great suffering and loss, and all are in need of a massive, concerted response, not unlike the response we are able to muster following a hurricane or an earthquake.
We may look at the seeming persistence of human suffering and loss and become overwhelmed by the need—overwhelmed to the point of despair, and tempted to surrender to the enormity of it all. Or we can observe the love-in-action that is helping to renew and rebuild lives in southeast Texas, Mexico, the Caribbean, and in Florida and see a powerful affirmation of just the kind of strength and perseverance of which God has made us capable—regardless of the kind of suffering we’re attempting to relieve.
It isn’t at all difficult, of course, to picture Jesus mucking out waterlogged houses, clearing rubble, providing food and water to the hungry and thirsty, and nailing up new sheetrock and shingles. Neither is it difficult to picture him advocating publicly for social justice, embracing the bullied, ignored, and disenfranchised, and sheltering the homeless and the refugee. While more visible, perhaps, human suffering is not limited to whims of natural disasters. As Christians, we must never allow our response to human suffering—in any form—to be so limited.