Among the inconvenient truths about terrorism that European and American publics avoid facing up to is this: aerial bombardments with drones, cruise missiles and fighter jets are merely expensive, knee-jerk reactions by governments designed to give the semblance of “doing something” to their electorates. They have no clearly defined military or political end in view. If no conventional war has ever been won by air campaigns, how much less likely the unconventional war against ISIL (or al-Qa’ida).
The UK and US governments have clearly not learned from the fiascos in Iraq and Libya. These military adventures left over a million Iraqis killed and the region awash in advanced weapons that have fallen into the hands of new militias of which ISIL is the most dangerous. Indeed, ISIL could be called George W. Bush’s baby. The latter’s post-9/11 “war on terror” was the perfect global recruiting program for Islamist terrorists.
Prior to 9/11 the international community was threatened by a few hundred terrorists in the Hindu Kush mountains. Today there are tens of thousands, and these numbers are bound to swell as every child killed by French, American Russian or British jets becomes a propaganda victory for ISIL. Their leaders must be rubbing their hands with glee as Hollande’s and Cameron’s response to the Paris attacks is just what they sought. It bolsters their apocalyptic scenario of a final war of Islam vs West- and, of course, the ignorant Donald Trumps of the West play right into their hands.
I doubt if the French people, by and large, have any idea of who and what is being bombed in Syria and Iraq. The French President has not told us how many ISIL fighters are occupying the Syrian city of Raqqa with a population of around 200,000; yet this city has been bombed mercilessly by French jets since the Paris attacks. The bombing of oilfields by British jets will only hurt the millions of people who live in ISIL-controlled territory who need diesel for heating, transport and electricity. As for “putting boots on the ground”, I doubt if ISIL fighters are going to engage U.S forces directly; they will do what the Taliban did- melt into the towns and countryside and come back to fight another day.
Instead of bombing oilfields, Western powers could coordinate their national military intelligence services to find answers to such questions as: Who are the middle-men who are buying oil from ISIL and to which states do they sell it? Who is funding ISIL (some, I suspect, are wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are Western allies!)? How can we better equip and support the Kurds who are the fighters most likely to inflict major causalities on ISIL? How can we help Turkey secure its long border with ISIL-held territory to prevent fresh fighters entering the area? How can we counter ISIL’s populist propaganda in the West and build better community relations in cities where the radicalization of Muslim youth is greatest? I pointed out in a previous Blog post that the Danish city of Aarhus has an excellent program of rehabilitating (rather than incarcerating) young Muslim Danes who went to Syria with romantic ideals of jihad, and came back disillusioned. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/11/denmark-rehab-isis-fighters_n_5798626.html)
Given that the UN Security Council is united (a rare event!) in denouncing ISIL as a terrorist threat, this is an opportune moment to bring regional and international pressure to bear on the Iraqi and Syrian regimes to accommodate Sunni demands for greater political participation. That would pull the rug from under ISIL which has claimed for itself the role of Sunni liberators. The political situation has changed dramatically now that Russia is also in the fray. Assad, like Saddam and Gaddafi before him, will have be constrained rather than toppled, however repugnant such a solution may be to all of us who care deeply about human rights.
David Cameron was right in telling the British Parliament that this was a battle against “intolerance and fascism”. But the same ideology is rampant across Europe and the U.S., and the EU is making shameful deals with Turkey to take all Syrian refugees (there are already over 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, living in abysmal conditions). Surrendering to collective fear, closing ranks against foreigners, and authorizing governments to sacrifice others for the sake of our “absolute security”- this is to show ourselves as morally bankrupt as ISIL and its supporters. Addressing “intolerance and fascism” at home is the best way the West can show that it retains some aspects of its Christian heritage. At the end of the day, this is a battle between fundamental narratives concerning how we conceive both divinity and humanity.
In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama described the brutal and cowardly attack last friday evening as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
“Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress,” Obama said. “Those who think they can terrorize the people of France or the values they stand for are wrong. … The American people draw strength from the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but are values that we share.”
And in a message of solidarity to the people of France, the British Prime Minister David Cameron he said: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight.” He added: “Today the British and French peoples stand together as we have so often before in our history when confronted by evil.”
Further, “These were innocent victims enjoying a Friday night out with friends and family, no doubt at the end of a hard week. They were not seeking to harm anyone, they were simply going about their way of life – our way of life.”
The responses of President Obama and David Cameron to Friday night’s terrorist outrages in Paris reveal, once again, just how mired such Western political leaders are in self-righteous hypocrisy, historical naiveté and double standards.
How ironic that I should be reading at the present moment a marvellous book (The Guardians) by the Harvard historian Susan Pedersen on the Mandates Commission of the short-lived League of Nations which sought, with limited success, to curb the acquisitiveness of the French and British imperialists after the Great war of 1914-1918 and make them accountable to international opinion. The British and French were at each others’ throats when it came to the division of Africa and the Middle East, following the defeat of the Germans and Ottomans, finally settling for the French creation of new states in Syria and Lebanon while Britain had sole jurisdiction over Palestine and Mesopotamia (later Iraq). As for West Africa, it was the main foreign recruiting ground for the French army until well into the 1920s. A common history of rapacity and feelings of civilizational superiority – but I doubt if this is what Cameron meant when speaking of “our shared values” and ‘our way of life”.
How ironic, too, that Cameron is right now lavishly entertaining the Indian Prime Minister Modi who, when state minister of Gujarat, presided over the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims by right-wing “Hindu” mobs. How was the terror experienced by such Muslims in Gujarat (who were also “not seeking to harm anyone, they were simply going about their way of life”) different to that experienced by Parisians?
A few weeks ago, Cameron was again rolling out the red carpet, this time to the Chinese President- demonstrating once more that “British values” include kowtowing to despots and turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity so long as it benefits the British economy. The church pastors, human rights and pro-democracy activist, and journalists who have been killed or imprisoned in China carry little or no significance in the eyes of British and American governments or business leaders.
As for President Obama- of course, the carnage inflicted on the French is an attack on all of humanity, but so are aerial bombardments of Palestinian families, suicide-bombings of Shi’a mosques in Pakistan and the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria. Are these no less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? And what is it exactly that an American and a Frenchman share that the rest of us do not?
Perhaps we should re-phrase Obama’s speech thus: “We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not only values that the French people have (fitfully and unevenly) cared about- just like the rest of us- but that we should all repent of our complicity in historical injustices and renew our collective commitment to pursue justice and peace for all humanity.”
I wish there were American and European Christians who would openly raise these questions in their media (print and virtual), colleges and universities, and political assemblies! It would be a powerful demonstration of the distinctiveness of the Kingdom of God and how the Gospel liberates people from the self-righteous parochialism that surfaces even in times of national tragedy.
How does an obscure Polish priest who is gay become the centrepiece of the leading headline in yesterday’s online BBC news worldwide?
Since long before Europe even existed, the Roman Catholic Church has required all priests to take a vow of chastity, along with vows of poverty and obedience, at their ordination. Those who are unable to fulfil these ordination vows leave the priesthood and some join other Christian denominations, most notably Anglican. But it seems that when it comes to a priest with a gay orientation, the requirement of chastity is seen as “homophobic” and the Church is expected to change its practice to suit his “sexual preferences”. The BBC with its cult of “political correctness” propagates such double standards.
It appears that the only time the BBC shows any interest in ecclesiastical matters is when the “gay” issue is on the agenda. The recently concluded Vatican synod had far more pressing issues to consider, but one would have gathered from the bias of BBC reporting that the entire synod was dominated by disagreements over homosexuality. That the latter is not the most important pastoral or moral issue for the vast majority of the Roman Catholic church- most of whom are found in the Two-Thirds world- does not register on the minds of BBC journalists. But by constantly highlighting cases of so-called homophobia while completing ignoring other news stories, including the systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in many parts of the world, the BBC practices a form of cultural imperialism (“we will keep hounding you until you accept our values”) under the guise of liberal tolerance.
I have written before on this Blog (e.g. The Death of Argument, 16 July 2010) of the insidious effect of “political correctness” and “victim politics” on Western universities and law courts, the very institutions which should be protecting peoples’ civil liberties. Attaching the suffix “–phobic” to a person or institution is considered sufficient to dispense with all argument. Ironically, it is the same when any criticism of Muslim teaching or practice is denounced by Muslims as Islamophobic. The inability to discern between valid arguments and invalid caricatures or stereotyping is a sad reflection of both the state of higher education and the state of contemporary politics.
In the U.S., the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that more than 55 per cent of colleges and universities maintain at least one policy that substantially restricts constitutionally protected speech. They issue “trigger warnings” to students when courses offer content that might upset them, instead of enabling students to understand contrary opinions, sift their content and refute what they may regard as erroneous.
Earlier this year, a proposed debate on abortion at Oxford University was cancelled by the organizers due to militant feminists who protested that both debaters were men and “those without uteruses” had no right to speak on the subject. These self-fertilized women obviously need to attend a class at the university on human embryology. As one astute observer noted, “YOU-cannot-say-that” has come to supplement “You-cannot-say-THAT”. Both incompatible with academic freedoms. Both echoes of the Orwellian thought-police.
From uteri to penises. The latest celebrity victim of “victim politics” is the feminist writer Germaine Greer. Her scheduled guest lecture at Cardiff University in Wales was cancelled following strident protests by LGBT students. Her crime? Her publicly expressed opinion that transgendered women were not really women; that they did not “think, speak and behave as women”. Instead of openly engaging Ms. Greer in vigorous debate, the students and weak-kneed university authorities preferred to silence her. One spokeswoman deemed Greer’s views as being “offensive” to “our transgender siblings.”
Speaking at a liberal university in the U.S. four years ago on the theme of “justice”, I could sense that students were embarrassed when, towards the end of my talk, I mentioned “protecting embryonic and fetal human beings” as one example of practising justice. This was taboo, long associated with those right-wing fundamentalists. But, then, when I gave as two further examples of practising justice “defending the rights of the poor” and “reducing anthropogenic global warming”, they were confused. These belonged to a different political agenda.
Jews like Bernie Sanders expose the absurdity of so-called “pro-life” churches and Christian colleges being indifferent to the plight of impoverished mothers, those who have no access to affordable health-care, and all whose lives are imperilled by climate change. His remarks may offend many American Christians, but for that very reason they are to be welcomed. Offending for the sake of offending is not the same as offending through arguments that some find unpalatable. The latter is what every great educator, not to mention Jesus himself, has done.
The mania over “-phobias” has led to many universities in the U.S. and Britain now ceasing to be places where ideas, however controversial, are voiced, explored and either embraced, modified or refuted. Instead, they have become the principal promoters of conformity by giving into the politics of resentment and victimhood. Are they becoming citadels of mindlessness? Sorry, no offence.
Rarely do we hear good news coming out of the United Kingdom. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive two bits of good news in the month of September. The first was the decisive rejection by the House of Commons of the Assisted Suicide Bill which, if passed, would have turned British physicians into professionals who kill their patients rather than caring for them. The second piece of welcome news was the election of the veteran politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (and, therefore, of Her Majesty’s Opposition) against all the smug predictions of political soothsayers.
Arguments for assisted suicide stem from shallow views of individual autonomy and compassion. Compassion is an ambiguous concept, and it has been used in history (e.g. by Nazi doctors) to justify horrendous crimes against people not thought fully human. It is thus not morally admirable when divorced from other moral considerations.
The problems with invoking compassion to justify assisted suicide and euthanasia are, at least, threefold: (a) It can justify the killing not only of terminally ill patients, but of anybody suffering what they regard as “unbearable pain”, psychological as well as physical; (b) It ignores the advances in and availability of palliative care and undermines the quest for more public funding for such care (the Hospice movement was pioneered by Christian healthcare professionals who demonstrated practically how it was not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain!); and (c) Why not, out of compassion, end the lives of all severely disabled babies and adults, who will never function to their full potential, even if they do not suffer pain- because they drain public resources from those who are thwarted in their personal ambitions by a lack of the latter?
For these reasons, compassion is always subservient to patient autonomy in the more sophisticated arguments for assisted suicide. Indeed, the patient’s autonomy now seems to be the only moral value that is taught in courses on medical ethics. It rests on an unreal conception of the human person, as if we were isolated monads choosing to enter into relationships rather than being constituted as persons through relationships which, for the most part, are not chosen but given. It ignores not only our human inter-dependencies, but also the way our so-called free choices and desires are themselves shaped, indeed manipulated, by social, cultural, political and economic forces of which we are only dimly aware. (Why else would business corporations spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements?).
Thus, by focusing on the individual’s expressed desire, to the exclusion of all other considerations – not least the impact on the medical profession itself- arguments in favour of assisted suicide perpetuate views of the human person that will be destructive of other areas of society in which respect for human life has hitherto been taken for granted.
Assisted suicide is being pushed in the media by a highly vocal, secular liberal elite. As John Wyatt, a paediatrician and medical ethicist, counters in his book The Right to Die? (to be published in the UK in November): “It is surely reasonable that the autonomous desire of a small number of resolute, vocal and determined individuals to have a legal and medically supervised means of killing themselves may have to be curtailed if it exposes large numbers of vulnerable people to the risk of lethal harm. The individual autonomy of a few cannot and must not trump all other considerations.”
Curiously, compassion for the helpless victims of government economic policy is absent in the political discourse of the same social elites. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election should be greeted by all who care deeply about the absence of compassion – and indeed justice – in British public life. He is an old-style socialist, committed to returning Labour to its roots (interestingly, among the founders of the Labour Party were several devout Methodist laymen). He has promised a more inclusive way of doing politics, giving a greater voice to those who didn’t vote in the last General Elections, particularly young people and working-class Labour supporters who felt alienated by the identical agendas that all political parties were offering.
One does not have to agree with all his stated political or economic beliefs (I certainly don’t) in order to welcome his intention to tackle the obscene levels of income and wealth inequality in Britain. Such inequalities, long ignored by most mainstream economists, not only widen the gulf in educational and job opportunities but also undermine the solidarity of citizens in a democracy.
Corbyn has thus opened up a space for the return of political ideas and serious political debate in Britain. The news media have joined parliament in turning their backs on the poor, and failed to expose the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding human rights that has been practised by successive British governments (the latest instance of which is the way corrupt Chinese tycoons are being wooed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer while refugees are shut out, and jailed Chinese dissidents and the people of Hong Kong and Tibet are ignored). Let’s see if Corbyn delivers. And if the media will rise to the challenge of addressing the moral issues at the heart of politics.
My last post on World Refugee Day seems quite timely ten weeks later. (Caring for my wife during her cancer surgery and treatment has naturally pushed my Blogging to the background in recent months).
If 3-year old Aylan Kurdi had been black, would images of his body washed ashore on a beach have elicited the same outcry among Europeans? (I think I have written enough about racism in India and elsewhere to be absolved of the charge of being Europhobic!). Such images can awaken the world to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden societies. But emotional reactions cannot substitute for level-headed appraisal of the causes of conflict and what needs to be done to contain or resolve such conflicts.
History and context matter in thinking about politics and economics. The Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and their followers refuse to acknowledge how much the American economy (and especially the farming, hotel and restaurant industries) is dependent on exploited “illegal migrants”, and the connection between the latter and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement which has seen highly-subsidized US agribusinesses virtually destroying Mexican agriculture.
Similarly European, no less than American, politicians refuse to admit how much the unfolding tragedies in the Middle East have been precipitated either by their own adventures in the region or by their favourite local allies – not least the continuing plight of Palestinians and Iraqis. Leave aside plain human compassion. We have a special moral responsibility towards peoples whose suffering is partly or wholly due to policies of our governments, or the actions of our forefathers.
There are some tough questions that European governments and their citizens need to address if they are to prevent the present refugee trickle into Europe turning into a massive flood. To those who bravely proclaim “refugees are welcome” (and I admire such folk), I want to ask, “Are you prepared to welcome the poor, the elderly and the disabled who are often those most affected by war, or is your compassion limited to the young, the fit and the wealthy who can make the dangerous journeys by sea and road and contribute to your economies?”
Everybody agrees that human smuggling syndicates must be broken up and the ringleaders brought to justice. But, given the lack of the rule of law in so many states, are European and American navies prepared to evacuate refugees from war zones themselves?
As I pointed out in my last post, the largest refugee populations are hosted by some of the poorest countries of the world, often those bordering on war-torn nations. The number of those who make their way to Europe and North America are miniscule in proportion. The vast majority of Syria’s 4 million refugees, for example, are to be found in the Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What assistance do these people and their host nations receive from those in Europe, Asia and elsewhere who want to keep them out of their own territories?
Perhaps the two most straightforward questions in relation to the Middle East/North Africa that the Western media appear to be downplaying are:
(1) Why are European governments not pressurizing the Gulf states to do more for Arab refugees? There are many European professionals living in these wealthy states and Western governments have strong commercial links with them. The West may depend on them for oil, but they too depend on the West (not least for arms and banking). They are desperate for the (hollow) global esteem that comes from building the world’s tallest buildings, super-luxury shopping malls and quixotic Disneylands, or hosting the soccer World Cup- all at the expense of cheap labour from South and Southeast Asia. Europe and the U.S pander shamelessly to such repressive feudal states.
These states can easily absorb and employ more Arabs from the region and, by doing so, would combat the widespread perception that Muslim refugees have to depend on non-Muslim peoples for shelter because their own leaders are too selfish, incompetent, or both. Indeed, failure of Muslim governments to care for their fellow Muslims is being exploited by radical Islamist propaganda. It is the way Islamists try to justify their legitimacy to Muslim populations from Morocco to Bangladesh.
Imperial British and U.S governments contributed to many of the region’s conflicts, from the post-League of Nation’s “carve-ups” (including the creation of Iraq and several of the Gulf states) to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the present Arab regimes benefited from such historic agreements and recent Western military interventions. So they cannot avoid responsibility for the consequences nor blame Israel and the West for all the problems piling up on their doorstep.
(2) Is the West serious about defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Hitherto the military response has been half-hearted. The American media’s obsession with Iran has blinded Americans to the role played by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states in fuelling regional instability. Indeed, it seems to be the case that much of the weaponry being supplied to ISIL has been funded by Gulf sheiks who want to rid the region of Iranian Shi’a influence.
Obama’s famous “red line in the ground” regarding the use of chemical weapons has been repeatedly transgressed by both Syria’s Assad and by ISIL (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/mission-to-purge-syria-of-chemical-weapons-comes-up-short-1437687744). But neither the UN nor the Western powers have made any concerted military response, save the occasional drone attack on ISIL militias. Unless the international military coalition hits harder at ISIL units possessing chemical weapons, and at the same time creates “no-fly” zones over Syria and “safe-zones” to which civilians can go to receive medical and other assistance, Syria’s hapless population will continue to haemorrhage.
Last weekend we were invited to remember World Refugee Day, Father’s Day and International Yoga Day. No need to guess which was the most popular. Crass commercialism rules. And the greatest tragedy for me is the way it has engulfed so many affluent churches, reinforcing their inward focus and tendency to being mere pawns in the hands of corporate and political forces.
If anyone experienced a local church remembering World Refugee Day, I would love to hear from you- and especially how it was remembered.
Since 2000, the 20th of June has been marked by the UN as World Refugee Day to honour those who are forced to flee their home countries under the threat of war, persecution, conflict and environmental disasters. The UN High Commission for Refugees informs us, in a report released last week, that one out of every 122 people in the world is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to 59.5 million, compared with 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. Overall, the largest refugee populations under UNHCR care are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis – together accounting for more than half of global refugees.
Refugee camps have become permanent settlements for many people, as in Palestine since 1948. Children born in such camps may spend their entire lives there, lacking citizenship rights let alone access to basic education and healthcare. These become the breeding ground for political and religious extremism. Pakistan, Iran, and Lebanon are hosting more refugees than other countries, yet receive scant financial help from the rich world (the politicians of whom only complain about the relatively meagre numbers who end up on their shores). Humanitarian organizations are also massively under-funded. There is no political will to resolve long-standing conflicts, and statesmanship on the world stage is sorely lacking.
In Denmark’s recent elections, the results of which were announced on World Refugee day, the candidate who received the most personal votes turned out to be the most fascist, running on a brazenly xenophobic ticket. Danes and Britons can go as “economic migrants” to the USA. But an “economic migrant” to these countries from Africa or Asia is regarded as a criminal. And often, especially in Britain and Australia, it is the recent migrants from South Asia who become the most vocal in opposing migration from their home countries, jealously guarding their jobs from competition.
As for the patronising demand that all migrants must “accept our values”, it is clear that the Western media will never rest until their sexual mores are imposed on the rest of the world. Tourists show no respect for native values and sensibilities- as in the case of those who stripped off their clothes on the top of a mountain in East Malaysia that local peoples regard as sacred. The typical Western media reaction has been to ridicule such local superstitions and “backwardness”. Ironically, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia have been pilloried in the same media for the way their aboriginal populations were decimated by “re-education” in mainstream (often church-run) schools. So, either “They should become like us” or “Leave them to themselves”- this is the impoverished language of late modern secularism. Respect for other peoples and their cultures involves mutual listening and interrogation, not blind accommodation or arrogant dismissal.
As for International Yoga Day, this was the work of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a good example of how traditional Indian religious practices have been colonized and “de-religionized” by Western enthusiasts and then reclaimed, commodified and transmitted by modern Indian gurus and their middle-class followers as a political tool.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “discipline”. It has a complex history with a number of disparate traditions, but the classical text is Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras which was probably composed around the fifth century A.D. It was Swami Vivekananda in the late nineteenth century who elevated yoga into both a “science of supra-consciousness” and a unifying sign of the Indian nation. As the religious historian Peter van der Veer notes (in his book Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain), this was not only for national consumption but for consumption by the entire world.
“This is a new doctrine, although Vivekananda emphasized that it was ancient ‘wisdom’. Especially the body exercises of hatha yoga, underpinned by a metaphysics of mind-body unity, continues to be a major entity in the health industry, especially in the United States. What I find important in Vivekananda’s construction of yoga as the core of ‘Hindu spirituality’ is that it is devoid of any specific devotional content that would involve, for example, temple worship and thus a theological and ritual position in sectarian debates. Vivekananda is, first and foremost, interested in Hindu unity… Hindu nationalism could hardly exist without such a notion… there seems to be no escape today from the relentless marketing of India’s spirituality.”
Thus for modern religious Hindus, yoga is “Indian spirituality”. For Western “fitness” devotees, yoga is merely a route to mental calm and physical health. Both represent the combination of consumerism and cultural imperialism that we saw last weekend. I suggest that truly divine spirituality is rather seen in the men and women who risk their security and comforts to protect, support and speak for refugees all over the world.
On my first visit to Nepal in 1989, I was appalled at the grinding poverty in which the vast majority of its citizens lived. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the rich world came to trek, climb the Himalayas or seek some variation of private nirvana. None of this tourist wealth “trickled down” to the poverty-stricken masses huddled on the river banks in Kathmandu or in the remote villages which had neither roads nor healthcare facilities. The Hindu caste-system was strongly entrenched, and conversion to Christianity forbidden. Yet an “underground” Church flourished, comprising mostly very poor folk; and foreign Christian doctors, nurses and agrarian researchers helped build a functioning infrastructure while corrupt politicians and business elites pocketed the wealth flowing from tourism.
Most of the “tourist paradises” of the Majority World – from the Caribbean islands (playgrounds of the rich and famous) to Bali, tell the same story. The poor are invisible not only to the hotel and tourist industry, but to the global media, until disasters in the form of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis strike. But the recent tragedy in Nepal illustrates the close nexus between corruption, oppressive religious and cultural systems, and the betrayal of citizens by their own governments.
When the Indian Ocean nations were devastated by the tsunami of 26 December 2004, I raised the question: why is it that when hurricanes and earthquakes hit places like Florida or Japan, the loss of life is minimal; but that when the same disasters occur in Central America or South Asia, the devastation is mind-boggling? The answer is simple and straightforward: poverty. Or poverty combined with corruption and incompetence on the part of government officials. In South Asia, annual warnings about floods and cyclones are routinely ignored when the technology needed to save lives and property is readily available. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps (that absorb much of the impact of tropical storms and ocean surges) have virtually disappeared from our coastal belts. Building contractors frequently violate safety standards, even when building in earthquake-prone areas.
Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, even animal predation, and other natural events are not aspects of the Fall, as has been understood in much of the Christian tradition, but rather the way God has chosen to bring about ecological changes and biodiversity on the planet. The awesome Himalayan ranges themselves were produced by earthquakes. The “fallenness” of the human condition is expressed in our increased vulnerability to such events. It is sinful human actions (including wrong priorities) that result in the heavy loss of life, much of which is preventable. Poverty and economic inequalities on the scale seen in our world cannot be blamed on God. They represent a violation of God’s will for humanity.
God has chosen to create us humans as part of a material world. So, as material beings, we share in the unpredictability and vulnerability of the rest of the created order. Our solidarity as a human species is what leads to our rejoicing in the joy of others and weeping over the pain of others. To only receive through the good that others do, but not to suffer the consequences of what others do, would be a denial of our inter-dependent creatureliness. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are a painful reminder of our fragility, our interconnectedness with and dependence upon nature.
When tragedies strike, the first thing to do is to express our human solidarity, not to forget that these are our fellow men and women, creatures like us who are in the image of God and for whom Christ died. Our Christian response is well summed up by the theologian Jon Sobrino: “To let ourselves be affected, to feel pain over lives cut short or endangered, to feel indignation over the injustice behind the tragedy, to feel shame over the way we have ruined this planet, that we have not undone the damage and are not planning to do so, all this is important. It motivates compassion and immediate emergency assistance, but more importantly it sheds light on the most effective way to help in the tragedy.”
There will always follow the clamouring existential questions and our feeble, stuttering human answers. But more importantly, what we experience is a sense of indignation that “the same thing” always happens and “the same people” always suffer; and a yearning for things to be different some day.
Finally, every protest against innocent suffering, as well as every free embrace of others’ suffering, are both alike reflections of God’s own response to suffering – as seen supremely in God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. In Christian thought, God is inherently relational: a three-fold movement of ceaseless giving and responsive love. So, in answer to the oft-asked question, “Where was God in these tragedies”, we can say, humbly yet boldly, that the Triune God of sacrificial love was present in the pain and terror of the victims, in the grief of the survivors, in the heroism of people who risked their lives to save others, and in the anger and protest expressed against the vulnerability of the poor in a technologically rich world.