After even the worst disasters, we will hear the still voice of hope

Published 15 October 2005
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 15th October 2005

First there was the tsunami. Then Hurricane Katrina. Now the earthquake in Kashmir has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Our prayers go out to the affected and afflicted, the injured and bereaved, to all those whose world has been shaken and destroyed.

In each case the response has shown us the true face of human care. We have discovered that we are still moved by the sight of suffering, however far away. Funds, food, medical teams and shelters have been rushed to the scenes of catastrophe. There has been little evidence of “compassion fatigue”. We weep. We act. We do what we can to stretch out the hand of help. The paradox of the human condition is that selfish genes produce remarkably unselfish persons. That, in troubled times, is no small consolation. But does a succession of tragedies coming so soon after one another signal something more?

Earlier ages believed so. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Casca speak of times when “these prodigies do so conjointly meet” that they are “portentous things unto the climate that they point upon”.

A succession of unnatural events was seen as an omen, a sign, a warning. The elements were restless. The gods were in a rage. The prophets of Ancient Israel were unlike the oracles of Ancient Greece, yet they too saw meaning in history. Disaster was a call from Heaven, a summons to repent. Is that way of thinking available to us today?

The idea that natural catastrophe is divine punishment is, for me, morally unacceptable. We are not prophets. We have no privileged access to the mind of God. We know that the victims of these disasters include children, the innocent, the old and frail, the poor. They were not the evil, the cruel or the corrupt.

These past few years I have heard far too many religious leaders, from all the Abrahamic faiths, confidently proclaiming that this or that event was divine retribution for one or other sin. These are the Job’s comforters of our time. They forget that the task of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted, not to add to their affliction by saying that they deserved their fate.

However, I am moved by the story of Elijah who encountered God, not in the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice that followed. It is not in the event itself but in its aftermath that we hear God’s word. So it seems to me now. When all the work of rescue and rebuilding is done, a quiet call will remain.

These terrifying events have shown us how small we are in the scheme of things. We have discovered that despite our differences — cultural, political, religious — there is much we share. We all need food, clothing, shelter, safety. An earthquake, a tidal wave, a hurricane, make no distinctions between rich and poor, believer and unbeliever, righteous and not-yet-righteous. The language of tears is universal. It needs no translator. That is precisely what makes us feel implicated in someone else’s tragedy. Beneath our varied cultural clothing, we are a single family bound by a covenant of human solidarity.

Why then do we expend so much energy on ethnic conflict, war and terror? Why do we so unthinkingly deplete the Earth’s resources, pollute its atmosphere, threaten its biodiversity? Why have we allowed some to grow rich beyond imagining while millions starve and die? All these things come from a world of narrow horizons, where what matters is me, here, now. If natural catastrophe has one blessing, it is its ability to make us forget, for a moment, our personal comfort zones and enter into the plight of others — so different, so far away, yet so like us.

There are times when it seems as if our moral-spiritual state has regressed to the age of tribal wars in the name of God, dishonourable then, inexcusable now. If this terrible sequence of disasters recalls us to our senses, reminding us of our vulnerability in the face of nature, our smallness when set against the Universe, our solidarity in the midst of suffering, and our share in the collective fate of humankind, we may still rescue a blessing from the curse. In the silence after the tremors that have shaken our world, we may yet hear the still, small voice of hope.