Wednesday Forum: Disaster: The Language of Religion, Science and Culture

Terjadinya berbagai macam bencana alam tidak hanya membawa penderitaan dan kerugian, tetapi juga memunculkan beberapa pertanyaan teologikal dan ontological yang mana manusia memiliki perbedaan dalam mensikapinya. Siapa yang melakukan bencana ini? Siapa yang harus disalahkan? Apa yang harus kita lakukan ketika menerima bencana ini? Kenapa Tuhan tidak menyelamatkan kita? Dimana Tuhan ketika kita butuhkan? Segala macam pertanyaan ini akan dijelaskan pembicara dalam Forum Wednesday yang akan dilaksanakan pada:

Tanggal: Rabu, 22 Oktober 2008
Jam: 12.30 – 14.30
Tempat: Ruang 306, SPS UGM. Lantai 3
Pembicara: Prof. Dr. Bernard Adeney-Risakotta (Direktor ICRS-Yogya)
Topik: Disaster: The Language of Religion, Science and Culture

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Is there a Meaning in Natural Disasters? Constructions of Culture, Religion and Science

Bernard Adeney-Risakotta
Journal of Missiological and Ecumenical Research
Netherlands, October, 2008

The Meaning of Natural Disasters

One of my most vivid memories from the day of the earthquake in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on 27 May 2006 was of a family of Muslims praying in the ruins of their house. Even though their house was just a pile of rubble, the women had somehow managed to find clean, white, prayer robes. Father, mother and three children were on their knees with their heads in the dirt, then up on their feet with their arms outstretched to God calling out, ?Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!? God is Great! God is Great! It reminded me of something I saw in Aceh: a woman who had lost her entire family, standing among the ruins with tears streaming down her face, crying out Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Perhaps their responses bear a family resemblance to Job, who refused to follow the advice of either his friends who call on him to repent of his sins, or of his wife who suggests he should curse God and die. Instead the book of Job ends with a hymn to the unfathomable greatness and power of God. But there is no answer to the question ?Why??

Attempts to answer the question why seem inexorably to lead to two extremes: blame the victim or blame God. At one extreme, there is the relentless logic that sufferers must somehow deserve their suffering and therefore should repent (Job?s friends). At the other extreme is the equally relentless logic that God is evil or at least unjust. Since there is no way to win against God, you might as well just curse God and die. The victim?s unjust fate is sealed. To Job?s credit, he refused to succumb to either of these extremes. But he also didn?t answer the question ?Why??

In Aceh, on 26 December 2004, at least twice as many people died from the 9.3 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, than were killed in all the civil wars and riots throughout Indonesia during the ten years of chaos that surrounded the fall of Soeharto. In a few hours over 200,000 people died in Aceh alone. Human responses to natural disasters include a religious element. Transcendent, unfathomable suffering that arrives suddenly, without warning, elicits a sense of awe. We may, like Job?s friends, sit down in dust and ashes without saying a word for seven days. What is there to say when the grief is too great for human comprehension? In the end, like Job?s friends, his wife and Job himself, we must say something, even if it is in the form of poetry rather than dogmatic propositions. For many people, the urge to do something is even stronger than the urge to say something.

This article explores different symbolic languages people use in response to natural disasters. My premise is that different symbolic languages respond to different questions that arise from different cultural and religious contexts. Stanley Hauerwas wrote that our challenge is to build a ?community of character? that is capable of facing tragedy without resorting to self-deceiving explanations. Natural disasters may be interpreted as ?tragedies?, in the Greek sense, insofar as they are events that create great human suffering and are caused by powers that are far beyond human control. Whether or not a particular explanation is ?self-deceiving? may depend more on the question to which the explanation responds and the purpose of the explanation, rather than on the content of the explanation itself.

For example, right after the tsunami in Aceh I asked a tough, hard living, Muslim truck driver what he thought about the cause(s) of the tsunami. When the tsunami hit he was driving down the Western coastal road of Aceh. He was ripped from his truck and all his clothes were stripped away by the tsunami. As he was flung up by the raging water and debris, he grabbed the top of a coconut palm. That saved his life. He clung there bleeding for 36 hours before descending into mud and water that rose up to his neck. For two days he slogged through swampy water to his village, only to find it completely gone. He stayed a night with an acquaintance who lived up the mountain, then walked for another two days through mud and jungle to reach the city of Meulaboh. Meulaboh looked like the ruins of Hiroshima, but miraculously he found his wife and two small children still alive. Hearing his story and seeing the way he drove us through the jungle made me think, ?This guy is not easy to kill.?

His explanation for the cause of the tsunami was that it was God?s punishment because he and his people were not living according to God?s law, the law of Shari?ah. I spent three days with this rough man, trying to reach survivors who had no food, and I never saw him bersholat (pray), which is a basic requirement of Shari?ah. Perhaps he hadn?t followed Shari?ah for so long that he just didn?t know where to start. In any case, the urgency of trying to save lives in the midst of a crisis absorbed all his time, energy and attention. His obviously sincere explanation that the tsunami was God?s punishment was addressed to himself. Essentially his explanation said, ?I and my people are sinners. We need to repent.? Whether or not his explanation was ?true? in an empirical sense, i.e. that non-compliance with Shari?ah caused God to send a tsunami, it was at least not a self-serving rationalization. His explanation honestly expressed his own existential experience of feeling punished by God. We might not agree with the theology expressed by his explanation, just as we might not agree with a Hindu who said the tsunami was their karma. But only God can judge if his explanation was a self-deceiving rationalization.

The case is different if a theology of God?s punishment is used to accuse another group (scapegoating) or used as a tool of domination over others. If an ulama seeks political power by preaching God?s terrible punishment on all who do not follow his own narrow understanding of Shari?ah (Islamic Law), then we may suspect that ?self-deceiving explanations? are at work. Self interest transmutes theological reflection into an ideological tool of domination or a weapon of attack. The Acehenese truck driver told me that some religious teachers were saying that the tsunami was God?s punishment because of a Christmas party on the beach which may have included wearing bathing suits and drinking alcohol. I asked him if he thought Christians were then to blame for the tsunami? No, he said, ?Some Muslims are much worse than the Christians.? On the other hand some Christians said this was God?s punishment on Muslim Acehenese who oppressed the Church. Once again a natural disaster is used as a weapon of attack on those who are perceived as ?the enemy?. One characteristic of self-deceiving explanations is that they are a weapon of self-justification and attack on others. After the great earthquake in Lisbon (1755), members of the clergy went around the city looking for ?sinners? to burn at the stake to appease the wrath of God. Such actions may be motivated by a desperate attempt to blame the suffering on someone else. If the only interpretive option is to blame someone for the tragedy, then punishing the ?real sinners? is a way of absolving yourself from guilt.

Human tragedies, including natural disasters, do not have a single, fixed ontological meaning, such as ?the real reason this occurred was X?. The meaning of a tragedy is not fixed for all time, but rather changes in relation to human responses to the tragedy. We create the meaning. This does not mean that the meaning is just subjective or arbitrary. We are not free to create any meaning we wish. Rather the meaning is objective, substantive and social. The meaning is ?inter-subjective? and evolving. That implies that many people, thinking and acting in relation to each other, create the meaning of the natural disaster. New meanings are suggested all the time. Some meanings are simply superficial, self-deceiving or wrong. Meanings that are convincing and accepted by a community, change both the meaning of the remembered event and the future of the community that is shaped by its memories.

Gandhi was reputedly asked what he thought of the French Revolution. He thought for a long time before answering. Finally he replied, ?It?s too soon to tell!? Since we do not yet know the final outcome of the Western civilization that was shaped by the democratic thrust of the French Revolution (1789-1799), perhaps it is still too soon to say what the meaning of that event was. Or, to put it another way, perhaps the meaning of the French Revolution is different in America or France than it is in India or Indonesia. Similar things could be said about the events of 11 September 2001 in New York or the tsunamis in Aceh. What they mean is not fixed but evolving in relationship to human history.

When we were heading back to Meulaboh, Aceh after delivering food and information about water purification to Teunom, a small city on the coast, we were delayed by an Indonesian General who had arrived by helicopter and was holding a staff meeting in the middle of the only (barely) passable road. There wasn?t much traffic since the coastal road was destroyed and we were the first vehicle to make it that far through the mountains. After waiting for some time to see if he would notice us and move a few feet to the side, I finally interrupted his meeting to explain, as politely as I could, why we needed to pass. He was a bit shocked by our nerve, since no Acehenese would dare make such a request to a General, for fear of being shot. But in the end he smiled ironically and said, ?Libert, Equalit, Fraternit!? as he moved to the side and waved us pass. I guess he thought the French Revolution meant that even Generals should move aside to allow a muddy Land rover full of rag tag, humanitarian volunteers to pass.

What is the Question?

Religious and theological reflection by people who experience natural disasters is different from those who discuss them as a philosophical problem. For those who are overwhelmed by destruction and searing pain, a fundamental question is, Who did this? Who is to blame? This is a very important question to ask because it provides a key to what we should do in response.

One of my graduate students in theology at Duta Wacana Christian University was a pastor who was born and raised in Aceh. At the time of the tsunami his father had recently died and the whole family was planning to hold a Christmas reunion at his mother?s house near the beach in Banda Aceh. Elisa was two days late because he had to finish some term papers. He was on his way to Banda Aceh when he heard the news of the tsunami. He went on to search for his family. After climbing for hours through the rubble and around bloated corpses he finally made it to his mother?s house. As he stood on the wall of the ruins he saw desolation in all directions. Fifteen members of his immediate family were swept away and never seen again. In his heart he felt an overwhelming conviction that God had deserted them. He was alone. All the sermons that he had preached about God?s loving kindness returned to him empty. He explained to me that the problem was not just that all his family was dead, but how they died. Thousands of corpses could not be identified as they were bloated and disfigured beyond all recognition by the water and debris. Their bodies could not be lovingly washed, clothed in white and buried properly. They were not only dead, they were violated.

Elisa faced five major questions:

  1. Who did this? Who is to blame?
  2. Why me/us? What have we done to deserve this?
  3. Why didn?t God save us? As a devout Christian family with a son who is a pastor, why did God allow this to happen? Where was God when we needed him?
  4. Why did I survive? Why am I not dead?
  5. How do I go on living. What do I have to do?

I don?t know how Elisa is answering all these questions, but I was struck by his vehemence several weeks after the disaster when he said, ?God did not do this! God did not do this!? Who did NOT do this may be more important than who did it. It may take a long time to come to terms with the difficulty of answering the questions, ?Why me?? or ?Why didn?t God save us?? or ?Why did I survive?? But if he can say, ?God did NOT do this!? then at least his basic faith in the goodness of God can give him strength to go on. Several international, Christian relief organizations offered him large salaries to help lead their humanitarian aid, but Elisa refused. He told me he just wanted to concentrate on helping his only surviving nephew who was going through a very difficult time. For Elisa, his family boiled down to one person and only he could be family to this troubled teenager.

The example of Elisa is in contrast with that of my ?grandmother?, the oldest living relative on my wife?s Javanese Muslim side of the family. A devastating earthquake killed over 6,000 people in the vicinity of Yogyakarta and destroyed my family?s village of Tajih, near Prambanan. When the earthquake hit, our grandmother had just performed the morning prayers (sholat subuh) and was going for her morning walk. Because she could not stand up on the heaving earth, she just sat down. Her adult son was frantic, searching for her and calling her name. Finally he found her and cried out that their old teak home was destroyed, level with the ground. She looked at him calmly and said, ?Let it go. Let it go.? (Biarin. Biarin.) Grandma was pasrah, i.e. submitted to the will of God. In contrast to Elisa, Grandma believed that God did it. Therefore the only thing to do was to let it go. Don?t hang on, but trust all things into the hands of God. Her strength gave hope to the rest of the family.

The differences between Elisa and Grandma were not determined by the differences in their religions. Reformed Christian Elisa and Muslim Grandma are not too far apart in their faith in the sovereignty of God. But their questions were different because their personal experiences of tragedy were different. Grandma ?only? lost her home and she was already submitted to God and ready to face her approaching death as a very old woman. Elisa not only lost most of his closest family, he was also relatively young with a whole life ahead of him. Perhaps he too will be pasrah (submitted to the will of God) in time. But he cannot go there easily without cheapening the magnitude of his loss. The magnitude of his grief for those he loves demands that he ask who is responsible and be assured that God is not the direct source of his pain and loss.

On the other hand Grandma is not that concerned with the questions of Why? Who?s to blame? or Why me? For her the burning questions are more concerned with how she can strengthen the family to face their loss. As the matriarch of a large extended family, Grandma provides a model for the rest to follow. All they can do is let it go and rebuild as best they can. Neither Elisa nor Grandma offered cheap, ?self-deceiving explanations? of the tragedy. Elisa said ?God did not do this!?, while Grandma said in effect, ?God did it, so let it go!? But neither of their opposite answers rings false. The question of God?s involvement in tragedy is unanswerable in the long run. The truth is more complex than whether or not God did it and their opposite answers contain a similar conviction. Neither Elisa nor Grandma denies the mystery of God?s agency in natural events, but both affirm the essential goodness of God in tragedy. For Elisa that implies that God did not curse his family or predestine them for destruction. For Grandma it means that even if they lose all their family has built over hundreds of years, God is good and they can rebuild.

The difference in their questions is not only related to differences in their age and experience of tragedy. It is also affected by their education, gender and class. Elisa is a highly educated, male, ordained Christian Minister (pendeta). Grandma is without formal education, a woman and from a relatively poor family. As a highly educated, male, minister, Elisa is trained to ask theological questions and provide answers to pastoral dilemmas. Grandma?s role is more practically oriented. She?s not expected to ask ultimate, philosophical questions but rather to help her clan survive in difficult times. In Indonesia, women are frequently entrusted with financial management and most of the practical details of running the family. In contrast men are responsible for symbolic, spiritual leadership in the community. Men are socialized to be more intellectual and abstract, while women are expected to ensure the family?s practical survival on a day to day basis.

These are socialized gender roles rather than essential characteristics (kodrat) of men and women. Nevertheless they profoundly influence the kinds of questions women and men tend to ask (or not ask) in response to natural disasters. In Lawrence Kohlberg?s well known theory, the highest stage of moral reasoning is a Kantian commitment to universal, abstract, ethical principles. Carol Gilligan points out that this is a very white, male perspective. Women are far more likely to focus on the impact of a decision on the practical well being of people around them rather than on abstract ethical principles. There is no inherent reason why commitment to abstract moral principles should be considered a higher stage of moral consciousness than practical action on behalf of the people around you.

If this gender difference is discernable in the West, it is even more pronounced in Indonesia. In the book, Perempuan dan Bencana (Women and Disaster), the Indonesian, women authors are overwhelmingly oriented to practical questions of how to respond to the suffering of the victims the earthquake. Of course the book also includes philosophical and theological reflection but that is not a major focus. The question ?why? is just not as important as the question, ?what must we do?? In contrast, most of the essays by male authors in the book, Teologi Bencana (Theology of Disaster) are heavily focused on philosophical and theological questions, in particular, questions about the goodness or justice of God in a world of suffering (theodicy). The difference between the two books is the result of different methods used to produce them.

The Theology of Disaster book grew from an academic conference which called together some of the leading theologians in Indonesia. Almost all of these theologians (including men and women) had directly experienced major natural disasters and were involved in efforts to aid the victims. At the conference they did what they were trained to do: they presented academic papers reflecting on their experience and interacting with the literature on their topics. All but two of the authors are Christian theologians with advanced degrees and the disasters upon which they reflect are very diverse. They include natural disasters, civil wars and ecological disasters.

The Women and Disaster book was produced through a different epistemological process. For over a year, women from different religious, social, economic and educational backgrounds labored together, to help victims of the earthquake in Yogyakarta. The book they produced was specifically designed to give voice to women victims of the earthquake who are normally voiceless. They held a series of workshops in which village women, activists and intellectuals formed teams to help each other recount their experiences and write them down. These women were asking different questions and facing different problems than those faced by the theologians. Different questions, different gender and a different process produced a very different kind of book. If the meaning of a disaster is determined by the questions we ask in the face of tragedy, we should not be surprised that people of different gender, class, education, culture, religion and socio-economic status will have different questions and different answers.

Different Sources of Moral Language to Address Our Questions

Different questions that confront different people in a natural disaster result in different responses. The differences are not only in the questions but also in the different moral sources to which people turn for answers. In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his associates analyze the moral languages of the American people. They ask, how do Americans describe their moral decisions and actions? What kinds of language and symbols do people use to explain what they do and why. If I may oversimplify a complex study, Bellah?s book concludes that most Americans use moral language that is heavily influenced by utilitarian and emotive individualism. Their moral language usually appeals to what they feel is right for them personally, based on emotional, aesthetic or practical considerations. Bellah suggests that in the past, Americans had a richer moral language drawn from the Bible and from the political tradition of republican, liberal philosophy. However these rich moral languages are being forgotten and replaced by a much more superficial, individualistic language that Alistair MacIntyre calls ?Emotivism?. People act on the basis of what ?feels? right emotionally, without much consciousness of the rich vocabulary and traditions that have shaped many centuries of moral reflection.

Indonesians are not much influenced by emotive individualism, but they are torn between different, overlapping and competing traditions of moral thought. Elsewhere I argue that traditional culture of the ancestors, religion and modernity are all part of every Indonesian person?s identity. These three ?forces? include symbolic vocabularies that are not choices for most Indonesians but rather integral parts of their historical consciousness. The symbolic languages, institutions and power of ethnic cultural traditions, religion and modernity cannot be separated from each other as they mutually influence and flow into each other. But they can often be distinguished. In response to natural disasters Indonesians find answers to their most urgent and basic questions in three major sources of moral explanation.

A. The Moral Wisdom of a World Enchanted by Invisible Powers

Firstly, most Indonesians believe in invisible powers which reside all around them. These powers may be malignant, demonic, brutish, neutral, ambivalent, benevolent or glorious. For some people, these local, invisible powers are to be cultivated, placated, feared, served or even worshiped. For others these powers should be avoided, cast out, ignored or cursed. But very few Indonesians disbelieve in them all together. The cosmos has not been ?disenchanted? in Indonesia but is full of hidden powers. In almost every ethnic group and subculture, the invisible powers are connected to the ancestors. The ancestors may be dead, but they are not gone. They are all around us.

Therefore it is not surprising that many legends and stories link natural disasters with invisible powers. I will never forget my shock when I was sitting in a living room with a small group of leading Indonesian intellectuals in early 1997. The group included Muslims, such as Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), Catholics such as Father Mangunwijaya (Romo Mangun) and Protestants such as Dr. Th. Sumarthana. The shock came when I realized they were talking about the social and political implications of the intense volcanic activity of the nearby Mount Merapi. Their discussion was not about the possible political and social impact of an eruption but rather about what the eruption signified in the world of politics. There was fairly strong consensus in the room that the eruption of Mt. Merapi meant the end of President Soeharto as President. A Javanese mystic suggested that Gus Dur was the wayang figure Semar and most people present nodded their heads seriously. As in a Shakespeare play, the physical cosmos and the political order were linked to each other.

Sindhunata, an Indonesian Catholic priest, relates that Javanese villagers who lived in his perish on the slopes of Mt. Merapi believe in a male deity (or power) referred to as Grandfather Merapi (Mbah Merapi). Eruptions of the volcano are part of the everyday lives of these people. From the volcano comes the amazing fertility of the land, but also the threat of death. The volcano is beautiful but also dangerous and awesome. As quoted by Sindhunta, a villager relates:

Grandfather Merapi is frightening but also full of love for (us) villagers. Grandfather Merapi is far from the palace and cannot be reached by human beings, but Grandfather Merapi also comes near to humans and gives fertility and life to us. With his lava and eruptions that kill, Grandfather Merapi demands human victims, but Grandfather Merapi also pays us back with the overflowing richness of nature. We hear again the roaring from Mount Merapi. And we feel like God is like Grandfather Merapi: This God is overwhelmingly powerful, but beautiful (dahsyat tetapi indah), He kills but He also gives life, He is far away, but always close, He demands much, but He also gives with generosity, He is extremely rich, but also simple.

The language of this quotation is an ancient language, passed down through stories from generation to generation. It encompasses a particular kind of moral language that sees death and life as part and parcel of each other. Death and tragedy are not trivialized, but they are seen as integrally related to life. This is the kind of worldview that led Grandma to say, ?let it go; let it go.? There is a balance, today comes death, tomorrow comes life. We need to accept our fate (pasrah), because really Grandfather Merapi, like God is really much too strong for us and in any case He knows best. He is terrible but beautiful and He loves as well as kills.

John Campbell-Nelson relates that some villagers on the island of Alor believed that the devastating earthquake there on 12 November 2004 was caused by government drilling in search of thermal energy in a place known for sulfur and hot springs. The place of the drilling was close to the epicenter of the earthquake and the sulfur springs were believed to be the place where one of their ancestors, who was a powerful witch, was buried alive. She was the one who caused the sulfur springs and she was really upset by the drilling into her home. Therefore she caused the devastating earthquake. The villagers were angry with both the government for drilling in a sacred place, and with the spiritual elders, who did not ask proper permission of the ancestors before allowing the drilling. Another version of the story drew on the ancient belief that the island of Alor was built on the back of a great dragon. The drilling pricked the dragon who shook itself and instantly destroyed thousands of homes.

The stories of Grandfather Merapi, a buried witch or a sleeping dragon are all moral accounts that demand reverence for the earth and a certain relationship with nature. If they are discarded as superstitious myths, there is a significant danger that the moral truths embodied in the stories may simply be replaced by modern myths of progress and scientific enlightenment which provide few resources for either reverencing the earth or facing the tragedy of natural disasters. One of the challenges for a theology of natural disaster is to integrate ancient cultural stories, theological refection and modern scientific understanding in a convincing account of the cosmos. We cannot believe in what we do not believe. For example, I have my doubts about the dragon under the island of Alor. But we can respect those who do believe and we can listen to their stories and respect the deep symbolic messages within them. Their stories challenge us to honor the natural world and resist unrestrained exploitation of the earth. Retelling the stories, honoring the ancestors who passed them down and following the traditions that give a people unique identity need not be confused with worshiping many gods.

B. The Moral Wisdom of a World that Rests in the Hands of God

Religions have a different moral vocabulary to respond to the challenge of natural disasters. Recently I had a mini ?natural disaster? of my own. I was walking along the cliffs on the South Coast of Java when I fell and injured my head and ankle. My glasses were shattered. Now, after a few stitches and various medications I am recovering at home, where we have a number of house guests, some of whom happen to be Indonesian Pentecostal Christians.

It is rather a chore to be prayed over so often and fervently by these loving people, but I am quite interested in the theological language they use to describe the event of my ?accident?. One woman told me she was awakened in the early morning of my fall, by an evil spirit who was attacking our household. The good woman demanded in the name of Jesus that the spirit depart and not harm us. Then she prayed for each one of our household by name. Another member of the family was praying that morning and my face appeared to her. Therefore she concentrated her prayers on my well being. Still another claimed to have also seen my face in a vision the day before that led her to pray for me. They all assumed there was a direct connection between these experiences and my fall in the mountains. They speak of spiritual warfare, of evil spirits attacking and of the miracle of God?s protection and salvation. Without their prayers and God?s gracious, miraculous protection, they believe I could have lost my eye (?miraculously the shattered lens did not enter your eye?), had a concussion or even died. God preserved my life and their prayers and sensitivity to the spiritual world gave them intimations beforehand so that they could pray for me.

There is a close relation between their religious language and traditional beliefs in ?a world enchanted by invisible powers?. That may be one reason for the phenomenal growth of charismatic Christianity in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These Christians, and most Muslim Indonesians as well, believe there are spiritual beings all around us. Javanese have names for different categories and types of these invisible beings. When they become stricter Muslims or Christians, they do not stop believing in spiritual powers and beings, but they change their language and relation to them. Muslims use the term jin (genie) because it is used in the Koran, while Christians use biblical language of evil

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