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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

Fascinated and afraid

What use is prayer when the thief in the night is no ordinary thief, but a cataclysm that sends its life-sucking power across a third of the world? A cataclysm that indiscriminately swamps entire communities or capriciously snatches a lone child off a hillside?

Prayer is the comfort, the slender life reed for believers, a deceptively strong handhold for life and death.

A mountain of mud buried thousands in the Philippines? Thousands lost lives in an Iran or Iraq earthquake? The Christmas tsunami and these other events are like the funeral from the home of the neighbor down the street, the neighbor we hadn’t yet introduced ourselves to. We are alerted to the death, as we work or shop, trim back the bushes or paint the front door. We see the coffin and cars leave the house, we see the mourners return without the coffin, we see them all disperse later in ones or twos or carloads. And all is as it was before. Though it isn’t. A regret we hadn’t taken the time to introduce ourselves, perhaps. And so we pray.

In this end-of-year disaster, though, the unfamiliarity that might have us quickly skipping to the next bit of news is trumped by the sheer enormity of it all. The drowned 116,000 and counting -- who can imagine those numbers? We can’t. Fascinated, and afraid, we keep getting drawn to the grim definition of what’s happening. After a while, the description of things heaped up, turned over, swept away, begin to dull the senses.

But that other number, the one that defines this in all its grimness, the people lost, keeps ticking up. How to get hold of this? One tries imagining all of the people in a long-ago hometown, gathered all in one place, and then multiplied, 10, 11 times. Or the size of an entire, sprawling suburban city, all of the people there, gone in an instant.

Now stretch that out over continents and countries and cultures and religions.

The massive ocean bed earthquake confronts us with ourselves:

How do we respond? How can we not connect with the larger human family, so many ordinary people, so many children?

Why, we have to ask, did it take our president 72 hours to rouse himself from his vacation house to a microphone to speak simple words of concern?

The tsunami forces a confrontation with ourselves; the world is calling us on our self-understanding as a generous, compassionate people. The rest of the world is becoming impatient with us. And the Christmas horror in the Indian Ocean has bared some embarrassing blemishes.

What does it say to the rest of humanity when a country that spends more than $1 billion a day on ordinary military pursuits and another $5 billion per month on active wars in two countries offers $15 million in response to what quickly is showing itself the worst natural disaster in recent history? We’re grateful that the amount was soon raised to $35 million. But that still seems a pittance in the face of so much devastation.

The New York Times, in an editorial headline, asked the direct question: “Are We Stingy?” And answered “Yes,” backing up the conclusion with figures that remain, for the most part, hidden from general view. “According to a poll, most Americans believe the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent,” said the Times editorial.

Further, it noted that while the European Union gave $37.1 billion in development assistance in 2003, the United States gave $16.2 billion; in 2002, the figures were $29.9 billion for the European Union, $13.2 billion for the United States.

We have said before on this page that two important questions for the beginning of the new millennium are: Who are we in America? and What is being done in our name?

Those questions are aimed mostly at what the United States is doing militarily and clandestinely, particularly as it gets deeper into the war on terror. But they also apply quite well to the other ways in which we approach the world, show our concern for the rest of humanity and choose to use the enormous wealth and power we have accumulated.

The desperately poor who huddled along the devastated coastlines, the rich vacationers from the West, the Christians and Muslims and Hindus and others who lost families and livelihoods and homes -- all will find ways to cope and deal with the memories and the loss.

And we who were spared? Individually we’ll pray and give what we can. As a people, we’ll ultimately be left to deal with how we responded when there was nothing at stake -- no oil, no territory, no ideological battle -- but our humanity.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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