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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

Was the tsunami an act of God?


An act of God! That’s what many call the tsunami disaster. But what kind of God would do such a thing? If a human being killed over 150,000 people and left thousands of the living in mourning, children without families and families without breadwinners, we would consider such a person a sociopath. Is God any less a sociopath if God is responsible for this tragedy? I cannot worship a God who is a sociopath.

Many religious people say that God had complete control over whether the earthquake in the Pacific happened and whether there was a tsunami. They say this tragedy was the will of God. One person said to me that God’s will was in every molecule of that water that rolled over Asia. Perhaps people need this view to cope with the tragedy. Who am I to dispute the comfort they get from such a belief? But I cannot join them.

Some people go even further and say that God actually caused the tsunami in order to punish people for their sins or to send a message. But a lot of innocent people died who needed no punishment and no message. In Genesis, God told Abraham that Sodom would be spared if there were even 10 innocent people. Were there not 10 innocent people killed by the tsunami?

Like many philosophers through the ages, I believe that if God could have stopped the tsunami and did not, then God is not all-good and so does not exist. However, if God is all-good, then God must not be all-powerful. I cannot believe in a God who could have stopped this tragedy but did nothing. I can believe in a God who did not have the power to stop this tragedy. In a contest between a God of infinite power and a God of infinite goodness, I choose goodness over power.

Yet, many people cannot accept a God who does not have the power to stop the natural tragedies of God’s creation. Once I was speaking to a parish group and introduced this idea of an “impotent” God. At the break, a man came up to me and told me that he was very threatened by what I said. I did not want to destroy his faith, and so I became very solicitous, telling him that this was only a novel theory I was mentioning and he certainly did not have to accept it. He responded, “Oh, I like the theory. It’s just your use of the word ‘impotent’ that I, as a male, find so threatening.” That made me wonder if our choice to believe in a God of omnipotent power over a God of infinite goodness is a result of theology done only by males. Women can live with “impotence.”

However, “impotence” is not the right word for God either. After all, a God who can create the world, who is responsible for every human being in it and whom Christians believe conquers the death that came to all the tsunami victims, is not exactly impotent. But is it not possible to believe in a God of tremendous power without believing that God’s power overcomes God’s goodness?

Could it not be possible to believe in God and yet to see that God’s creation is unfinished and is groaning to reach the perfection of complete union with God, precisely because creation is not God and God is not yet “all in all,” to use St. Paul’s words? Earthquakes and their resulting tsunamis are part of this imperfection, this incompleteness of creation. In that sense alone they are the will of God, because God made an earth that includes them. If God could have made our earth without them, God would have done so.

Yet, how do I explain the widely televised story of the Rev. Dayalan Sanders, who rescued his whole Sri Lankan orphanage of 26 children in a motorboat? He headed straight toward the advancing wave, stood up in his boat and said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to stand still.” He says the wave stood still for a few seconds, long enough for the boat to get over the wave and out to sea, before the wave crashed down on the orphanage and demolished it. Was it because he was a Christian, rather than a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim that his prayer was heard? I think not. God is not a banker who needs the right sectarian religious combination before opening the safe of divine goodness.

I believe the wave probably did stand still for a few seconds because God has given us human beings much more power over creation than we know. When God created this world, God put energies into the universe that we have not begun to tap. I believe faith and prayer is one of the ways to tap those energies. The Rev. Sanders’ faith and prayer was strong enough to tap it. It was not God’s caprice that made the wave stop for a few seconds, but rather the same God-given natural laws that caused the earthquake and tsunami in the first place.

While I cannot accept a God who jumps in and out of creation to change the laws of nature that God made in the beginning, just because God gets angry at humankind, I do believe that God is present both in natural tragedies, such as the earthquake and tsunami, and in human-made tsunamis, such as the Iraq war or the Holocaust. I believe God’s goodness is present in such tragedies, even though God’s power to stop them is not.

God’s goodness is present because God grieves with us when tragedy happens, even when God cannot stop the tragedy from happening. God’s grief must be great at the present time!

How do we worship a God who has no power to stop earthquakes and tsunamis? We minister to God’s grief by serving the suffering. We comfort the sorrowful, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and rebuild the devastated society.

Marjorie Reiley Maguire lives in Milwaukee. She is a Catholic theologian with a doctorate from Catholic University and a lawyer with a doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of Wisconsin.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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