Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Two un-Natural Disasters

On May 12th, 2008, the city at Sichuan in South-Western China suffered a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Said to be one of the biggest quakes in the past century, at last count, the death toll has exceeded 13000, with thousands still buried in the rubble. In contrast, the Myanmar's 190kmph cyclone disaster (5th May 2008), the Chinese government actually requested foreign aid. This is gratifying, as saving lives should be placed above politics and economics. Myanmar's disaster statistics appear even more horrific. According to Foxnews, 22000 people perished and more than 41000 are still unaccounted for. The numbers are staggering.

Forbes gave a report entitled: "A Tale of Two Disasters." Indeed, contrasting the two cities disaster is one thing. Comparing the way the two respective governments are handling the situation is another. How they handle the situation reveals much about their philosophy of saving lives. One remains tightly closed to foreign aid in favour of self-preservation, and fear of external interference. The other openly welcomes foreign aid, putting human lives above all other things. In some ways, the reputation of China is at greater stake than that of the Myanmar's junta. China, being the host of the Summer Olympics this year, wants to portray an attitude that is more acceptable to the international community.

Six Degrees of Separation
It is easy to observe the attitude of the governments. It is not so easy, when we try to empathize with the victims and their families. At the first level, we may be a distant observer, when we do not have anyone we know living in either Myanmar or the Sichuan province. At the second level, we may have friends who know someone affected, and we do so on the basis of with the ones we know. At the third level, we may know certain friends/acquaintances personally, and deepens our ability to offer condolences. At the fourth level, we may know of family member outside our immediate family circle, drawing us closer to the epicenter of tears. At the fifth level, the most heartbreaking of them all, is to know about death of a beloved family person. Each level carries a different depth of concern. On the one hand, we are physically unable to weep for each and every loss. It will wear us down pretty quickly. Yet, we cannot simply be nonchalant about people dying. It will harden our hearts to numb any compassion we might have. I trust that many of us, will at least be indirectly related to someone there. I do not know about Myanmar, but I am sure that overseas Chinese will have one or more distant relatives in China. According to the theory of "Six Degrees of Separation," every human being on average will be within six steps away from one another. Any two individuals will be connected within at most five acquaintances. Though this is still a theory, it does communicate a sense of nearness that we are closer to one another than we think. Anthropologically, we are all homo sapiens, or human beings. Biblically, we are all descendants of Adam/Eve. Thus it is only 'natural' that we are concerned for one another, despite the distance, the nationalities, the ethnicity, held religious beliefs, or any human derivatives that attempts to distinguish one from another.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?
A question that commonly pops up in times like these is the age-old question: "Why bad things happen to good people?" Put it another way, one can ask: "If there is a God, and if he is good, why did he allow such natural evil to take place?" Tough questions. These have been debated through the centuries by various philosophers, theologians, thinkers and lay persons. Stoics will think that evil can be kept in check by reserving them only within the realm of imaginations. Thus, they will adopt a strict 'stiff' upper-lip and stern view of life, that treads through life that seems to ignore the emotions that comes with sufferings. Those who believe that the world tomorrow will be even better, tend to look forward to a future solution at the risk of avoiding the present pain and suffering. No solution can answer the above questions absolutely. All contain glimpses of possible explanations. However, explanations do not resurrect lost souls. It might make one feel better. I dare say that in times like this, theologizing or trying to explain things should be avoided as much as possible. Any such rationalizing should be done at other times.

Suffering is not something to be pooh-poohed away, but to be acknowledged and recognized as a horrible reality. Such things cannot be solved as if one can easily piece together parts of a complex jigsaw puzzle. It cannot be ignored and neither can it be simply dismissed. The best we can do (perhaps the only thing!), is to walk alongside the living, to hold their hands, to alleviate their suffering, to weep with them, or to simply share a hug. It is moments like this that dissolves all human differences to its lowest common denominator, that we are all made of human flesh and blood. In times like these, what else can we do? Like Philip Yancey, I recommend prayer. One advantage is that it forces one not to allow the head to move faster than the heart, or the hands/feet to rush headlong onto rash steps of goodwill without adequate consideration any negative consequences they may bring. We need to be wise with our good works too, and prayer is wisdom on our knees. Interestingly, in his question to Christians in Myanmar and China who were suffering persecution, when he asked them what can the Western Church do to help them. The reply was: "You can pray. Please tell the church to pray for us." You might think the same thing like me. "Is there any tangible thing that we can do for you? Did not the Bible teach us to love not in words but in actions?" Well, according to Oswald Chambers: "Prayer does not fit us for the greater work, prayer is the greater work." FB Meyer says it most poignantly: "The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer." William Shakespeare, in the play entitled "Richard III," makes a careful balance of self-control amid the whirlwind of confusion and despair: "Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray..."

At this point, I invite you to pray with me the following, inspired by a prayer shared with Philip Yancey by a person named Isaac from Singapore, after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
God, we cry for the victims in the Myanmar Cyclone disasters and the China Sichuan earthquake which occurred this month, even more for those who have not come to know you. Have mercy on us all. Surely, it pains our hearts to see people suffer greatly in these catastrophe. Sometimes, we wonder whether you truly care at all. We know you did not punish us this way due to our sins, for you came to save sinners like us. We know you love us, for you came to die on our behalf that we may be saved. But why do you keep silent now? Why was the world made imperfect with so many vulnerabilities and fault lines that crumble at the slightest winds and movements. Why didn't you blow the winds elsewhere, or allow the quake to happen at some secluded area? Doesn't it bother you that many lives are lost, families separated and young lives taken and wasted?

We know that you are the potter and we are the clay, and we have no right to question you. You are the way, the truth and the life, but we find it difficult to reconcile this disaster with your words of love. How can a God of love allow people to perish in such horrible ways? Forgive us for even questioning your love. We ask these because that is our degree of understanding what love is, and perhaps that is imperfect love, but that is what we have now. Not to be frank about our feelings betrays our desire to be honest with you. We know that many of our questions will remain unanswered on this earth, but we plead with you to continue to keep our faith alive and growing in you. Teach us to trust you in times like these, to see your loving hands hold the suffering, to hear your words of comfort among the grieving families. Above all, let your Spirit move the governments and powers of this world to do what they can to minimize the suffering and to bring about the love and care for one another. Help us all not to allow any of our doubts to degenerate into non-belief, but to strengthen our faith to move to hope, and for hope to become love, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.
The next time we come across Sichuan cuisine, or anything Sichuan or Chinese, say a prayer for those living or related to Sichuan in anyway. Let me end with this Franciscan Benediction:
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.


I call upon all to pray before, during and after any action or desire to help.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Kian Seng, thanks for an honest but meaningful write-up here. I have forwarded your article to my church's teens fellowship to set off thoughtful contemplation. Warm regards, Supre.

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