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Making Sense of Disasters | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 30, 2005

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As a faithful reader of L’Osservatore Romano, I cannot help but notice that the popes are in the habit of sending a letter of condolence and encouragement when there is a disaster in the world that causes a significant amount of damage. The disaster could be a train wreck, a flood, a hurricane, a bombing, a terrorist attack, a volcano eruption, a drought, a war, a tsunami in Asia, or a storm on Gulf Coast. With this effort from the Holy Office, almost no disaster goes unnoticed.

Moreover, with the advent of worldwide television and the internet, these same disasters are immediately on many nightly news programs or websites throughout the world. It is no longer necessary that the disasters happen within one’s own back yard, or country, or even continent. This information system has been with us almost a half century now. We are seeing it become so effective that a cyclone in Iowa, a broken dam in California, a meteorite in Mongolia, a volcano eruption in Italy, a mass murder in Scotland, or a beheading in Saudi Arabia is almost as near to us as the lists of fatalities on our highways. Often more so. We are, as it were, overloaded with disaster. And, as it were, disasters are "made for TV," much more riveting than good news.

In former centuries, when a hurricane struck some distant island, or some ship went down, or some tribal war killed half the population of some country, it might take five months for the news to reach us. Now we know about it almost as quickly as those who are in the eye of the storm. It almost seems as though the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are busy visiting us every day. We get no time to re-coop. We have frequent hurricanes in Florida, then tsunamis in South Asia, then floods and mud-slides in California, blizzards and storms elsewhere. Today we worry about Mobile and New Orleans. Sudan is an ongoing tragedy. Every airport in the world operates as if some human disaster may strike at any moment. Homeland Security only exists because we were not secure.

Is there some way to think about such things? Is there some danger in the very awareness of them? Surely, we want to know about disasters, don’t we? It would be rather inhuman to be indifferent to them, wherever they are. How would one go about thinking of them without being either panicked or indifferent? Are we going to blame God for creating a world in which earthquakes happen? What if they didn’t? Do they serve a purpose? What if we never had too much snow or too little rain? Would it still be the planet Earth?

The first step, I suppose, is to make a general distinction between disasters that are caused by nature and those caused by man. Remember, you are equally dead if the cause is a terrorist or a bolt of lightning. Someone told me at the time that he heard on television a Muslim cleric maintain that every death in the Asian tsunamis was directly willed by Allah. This claim may reveal something about Islamic theology.

On the same basis, however, we could say that God willed the death of everyone who died yesterday afternoon in Canada, no matter what the cause. Certainly, God, in creating us, knew we were mortal, subject to death. Even though, had Adam and Eve not sinned, we might by privilege have been preserved from death, God knew that we, as finite human beings, were to die. So the fact that people die – whether murdered or by heart attack or flu – is related to the will of God. He evidently set up the whole system.

Moreover, we are told that we know not the day or the hour of our death. Our deaths still are in the hands of God, even if someone shoots us at high noon. But it is not like He is wiping us out whenever He feels like it. All who die, of whatever cause, die in the Lord. Nor does this mean that they need not be, on their part, prepared to die whenever it should occur. Half the sermons in the world are – or probably should be – about how to prepare for death

It has been said, for instance, that the tsunamis in Asia last winter constituted one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit Sweden. Come again? Yes, there were numerous Swedish nationals vacationing or on business in this area when the tsunamis struck. Many were lost. Why were these the ones to go and not those who visited the same area, say, last year? We do not like to think about these things because we do not like to think it can happen to us. Even as I write this, we await the toll for the Gulf storms that pummeled southeast United States.

When I hear of tsunamis or hurricanes, I recall the lesson of the Bridge of San Luis Re. This famous novel was set in Peru, I think. It was about a rope bridge, strung over a canyon, that broke several centuries ago. The plot of the novel asked just why each of the ten or so people on the bridge was there when it broke, casting them to their deaths. It turns out that each one was there, as the novel reveals, for some inner reason in the person’s history. They were all graced by the bridge’s collapse.

We probably can say much the same of those who died in tsunamis, be they from Sweden or Thailand or our own shores. And we can say the same of those who died in the hurricanes or in the mud-slides. We can probably say the same thing of each of the forty or so thousand who are killed each year in automobile accidents, or those killed in Iraq on all sides, even the suicide bombers. We can say it of those who die in New York or London hospitals each day of whatever cause. What we cannot say is that we know what this cause is. What we are not free to say is that it has no providential purpose that touches each in his hour.

Another way to look at these disasters is to consider that if we go around the globe each day (and this has been always true, not just now) there is always a disaster or two going on someplace. Our brains get overloaded with disasters and we close many out of our minds. Some disasters, we think, are more interesting than others. It is natural, so to speak, that some disaster happens all the time. We do not want to become jaded, but we do not want to lose a sense of proportion either. Disasters happen. This year, we have been forced to concern ourselves more with natural than human disasters, but that is just because the mix is different. The London subway bombings remind us of another kind of disaster. Both kinds of disasters go on pretty regularly. If we do not know this, we simply are not paying attention.

A good exercise is to consider that if it is God’s will, so to speak, that raging storms hit a certain part of the world every once in a while, even only every century, it is likewise God’s will that the sun comes up every morning, that it rains in Spain, and that deer and antelope play on their home on the range. In short, every day may bring natural disasters someplace in the world, but every day brings crops growing, rivers flowing, birds flying, babies born, and stars shining. Evidently, we cannot have one without the other. And on the whole, the blessings far outweigh the disasters, though we all remain mortal even in the best of times.

We must distinguish, as I mentioned, natural and humanly caused disasters. There is a temptation, and it is to seek the blame for natural disasters, as if somehow they could be prevented. We should do what we can, but at what cost? We are a litigious society and want to blame someone (usually not ourselves, of course) for our problems. To a certain politicized mind, every disaster must have a culprit. And of course, at some stage, it usually does. I recall during my Roman years, there was a huge flood in the Florence area. Much aid was sent from other parts of the world, but too much of it seemed unusable, or to be sidetracked, or never got there, or was stolen and sold. The same thing probably happens in most disasters. We should be more surprised if it did not. Still, we wonder what other countries will send aid to Americans overcome by Gulf storms.

The subject of who aids whom across the world is one in need of much attention for it contains a philosophic lesson of great significance. Whether anyone likes to admit it or not, the Untied States has become the chief source of international aid. It usually has the resources and the delivery capability, and yes, often, the heart. What is the source of this notion that wherever someone is in trouble because of a disaster, help ought to be sent? Even though it is secularized, it probably is Christian charity in ultimate inspiration. Not every nation or culture rushes to the aid of others. And often the question is, "is it aid or a quid pro quo?"

Yet, there are political dangers even to the most generous of sentiments. When a disaster hits someplace in the world, we say that it is our responsibility. Does this imply a claim to world power? Are we constituted the world’s caretaker? Certainly not a few accusations and suspicions have been made in this direction of aid meaning power. The general principle holds that the primary responsibility for aid is that of the country in which it happens, or surrounding ones.

What if said countries are poor or disorganized or corrupt? Some want to make the United Nations and its agencies bear the main responsibility, as if the U.N. is exempt from the problems of corruption and is equipped to provide the aid efficiently. Usually, it is not. We have seen enough of the United Nations to be cautious, I think. Still, whoever will help will be a help, in the long run, provided help is not a subtle way of gaining control. Again, I suspect that behind this question of aid to disaster there lies serious theological questions about concern, ability, and willingness.

We should think of natural disasters and prepare for them. We have forest fire fighting services. We have even some ability to predict earthquakes and volcano eruptions. We have fairly accurate weather forecasts, as we see on daily television or on the internet. We have police and armies. We do not worry too much about how many people were killed when Mt. Vesuvius blew up, or Krakatoa in 1883, or the blizzards of the eighteenth century. In a decade, no doubt, the Swedish tourists will be back on South Asian beaches in droves provided our planes still fly safely and avoid disasters that have human causes. New Orleans will have its Mardi Gras.

Disasters human and natural will undoubtedly continue. St. Augustine was always very good on this point. We should not doubt that they are given to us, ultimately, that we might ask about our condition and purpose in this world. None of us will be here in a century, whatever disaster may or may not happen in the meantime. That is, provided science does not find a way to keep us alive for two centuries, a feat that would, in my view, be probably nothing but another unmitigated disaster.

Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Martyrs and Suicide Bombers

On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3
On Writing and Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3
Chesterton, Sports, and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3
Wars Without Violence?
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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