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

The occurrence of any natural disasters not only just brought with it sufferings and losses but it also raised some ontological and theological questions to which human beings have different responses. ?Who did this??, ?Who is to blame?? ?What have we done to deserve this??, Why didn?t God save us?? ?Where was God when we needed him?? are among those questions the speaker will address on our ?CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum?that will be on:

Date : Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Time : 12.30 – 14.30 (free lunch)
Venue : Room 306, UGM Graduate School Third Floor
Speaker: Prof. Dr. Bernard Adeney-Risakotta (Director of ICRS-Yogya)
Topic : Disaster: The Language of Religion, Science and Culture

The Discussion is free of charge. We invite you to share your perspectives, comments and criticism on the issue. Below is the paper which will be presented.

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

This post is also available in: Indonesian

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