People of Faith and the St. Stephen’s Day Tsunami

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 3 »People Of Faith And The St Stephens Day Tsunami

By Sean McDonagh, S.S.C.

Sean McDonagh, S.S.C., a Columban missionary, has spent 20 years ministering to the T’boli people of Mindanao, Philippines. He is consultant to the General Council of the Columban Fathers on ecology and environment and writes on ecological and religious issues. Among his many writings are Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology and The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction, which is published by Columba Press, Dublin.

Since the St. Stephen’s Day earthquake and tsunami many people have been asking: Where was God on 26 December? For some it was a confirmation that God does not exist. How, they ask, could a loving and caring God allow so many ordinary people to be destroyed in such a horrific way? If God is omnipotent could he not have stretched out his hand and saved these innocent people?

Others see such a happening as punishment for a community for deviating from the true path of ethics or religion. This approach is illustrated by the Sodom and Gomorrah story in the Book of Genesis. The moral argument here is very simple. The people were not living good lives. In fact, they were committing various kinds of sin so God decided to punish them. Abraham interceded with God to spare the inhabitants but when 10 just people could not be found Yahweh rained down fire and brimstone on the towns (Gen 19:25).

It is worth remembering that, morally, this is quite a satisfactory answer. There is a simple equation—if you do evil, you will be punished. This is the kind of argument which the promoters of law-and-order cherish. Some Muslim leaders in Indonesia claimed that the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia was Allah’s way of punishing these countries for encouraging the tourist industry which promoted sex, drugs, and alcohol. Even moderate Muslim leaders like Yusuf al Qaradawi in London favored this explanation. He stated that people might ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others. Whoever examines these areas discovers that they are tourism areas… where forbidden acts, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use, and actions of abomination are widespread.1

While leaders of fundamentalist Christian communities might have similar ideas and see the calamity as God’s punishment of the human race for the crime of abortion, the mainline Christian churches avoided such easy theology.

It hasn’t always been like that. In the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of Lisbon on 1 November 1755, many Catholic preachers claimed that God was punishing the people for their wickedness. The problem with this explanation in the case of Lisbon was the fact that a disproportionate number of those who were killed were pious people who were attending Mass on the Feast of All Saints. This allowed the philosopher Voltaire to poke fun at the Church. He wrote:It hasn’t always been like that. In the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of Lisbon on 1 November 1755, many Catholic preachers claimed that God was punishing the people for their wickedness. The problem with this explanation in the case of Lisbon was the fact that a disproportionate number of those who were killed were pious people who were attending Mass on the Feast of All Saints. This allowed the philosopher Voltaire to poke fun at the Church. He wrote:

Will you say: This is a result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God!….
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris.

The best refutation for the simple equation between well-being and moral probity is found in the book of Job. The book begins with a dialogue between God and Satan (maybe not the devil as we know him but, at the least, a character who was up to no good). God is happy that his servant Job is so devout and law abiding. Satan cleverly points out that the reason for Job’s piety and righteousness is that he is powerful and economically secure. God refuses to accept this explanation and allows Satan to strip Job of all his possessions. Worse was to follow as his loved ones were killed, he was covered in sores, and began to endure incredible suffering.

Job Challenges the Traditional Morality

So the stage is set for the moral and religious drama. It is obvious in Job’s case that suffering is not a punishment for personal sin. Job’s friends, who were more at home in the old morality, tried to persuade him that, somehow, he must have sinned in order to deserve such awful punishment. Job affirms his innocence and directs his anger against his so-called friends and against God whom he accuses of being unjust. He cries out for a day in court where he could sue God. In chapter 38 God does appear from the heart of the tempest and in the next three chapters responds to Job. God doesn’t set out a point by point refutation of Job’s charges. Rather, God presents the wider picture of his involvement with and in creation. As a corollary, the limited nature of human knowing is brought into sharp relief. God poses a series of questions and Job has no answer.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Who pent up the sea behind closed doors
When it leaped tumultuous out of the womb?
Have you ever in your life given orders to the morning
Or sent the dawn to its post? (Job 38-42)

Job is overwhelmed by this experience and his anger dissipates. The ending in the epilogue, which was probably written much later, is all too neat and tidy.

The book of Job put the final nail in the coffin of those who believed that sickness or tragedy is invariably the result of sinfulness. That does not mean that it is not lurking just below the surface in many cultures. It also demonstrates that those who question God’s inscrutable ways are not thereby putting themselves outside the pale of the community of the faithful. In fact, as it happened, Job questioning God’s seemingly unjust action strengthened his faith. By contrast, the faith of his so-called friends was shallow and puerile.

In both Christianity and Islam we also find the idea that suffering is sent to test us. In the face of adversity, particularly unmerited suffering, will we lose faith in God or will we continue to believe, even though what has happened doesn't make rational sense to us? One often witnesses such strong, steadfast faith in the time of persecution. In the book of Maccabees such faith is grounded in a robust belief in the resurrection from the dead. During his painful execution the second brother proclaimed that the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his law that we die, to live again forever (2 Macc 7:9). I am sure many who suffered in this disaster have been helped by such belief. Still it is somewhat unsatisfactory as an explanation, particularly when the suffering was not inflicted by other humans but by natural processes.

An Ancient, Complex, and Fragile Universe

I believe that to find a more adequate explanation we need to look closely at what happened on St. Stephen’s Day 2004. We must begin with a wide perspective grounded in a contemporary cosmology which tells us that our universe and world is an incredibly complex and beautiful one. It is also very fragile. We now believe that the universe began with an extraordinary flaring forth where matter, time, energy, and space came into being together. We use the banal term Big Bang to describe this magical moment of origin—which bears the "seeds" of everything that would emerge in the universe from the majesty of the seas to the beauty of Beethoven’s music and the genius of Einstein.

Physicists tell us that if the explosion had happened at a millionth of a second slower, the universe would not have developed. Within a short period of time it would have collapsed back on itself. If, on the other hand, it had been a fraction faster it would never have enfolded back on itself, through the power of gravity, to form the first supernova stars. This is where the heavier elements were forged and, in their dying moments, were made available to second-generation stars like our sun and also our earth. Without these stars there would be no carbon; Without carbon there would be no life on earth.

With the development of our solar system five billion years ago our earth is located itself 93 million miles from the sun. If it were any closer or any farther away from the sun, life would not have emerged. Thomas Berry calls this "cosmic moments of contingency grace" but it must be emphasized that they emerge through the interaction of the fundamental laws of nature. There is no magic or short cuts. It has taken an unimaginable time scale for the universe and earth to evolve in such a way that it could bring forth life and conscious life. We can say that it took 13 ½ billion years to bring forth human life.

Our own earth is a complex and evolving structure. It is made up of three primary spheres: the core, the mantle, and the crust. The density and temperature of the materials that make up the earth increase as we approach the metallic core. This has a solid interior and molten exterior. The brittle outer layer of the planet is made up of different kinds of rocks. Some are 4 billion years old. These rocks consist of various combinations of minerals which are formed by a variety of processes. They include internal pressures and forces such as the movement of plates and volcanic eruptions. Natural processes also lay down and compress sediment in the oceans.

Without all this complex interaction there would be no life on earth. Our planet would be as dead as Mars. We would have no birds, flowers, animals, or human love. What happened on St. Stephen’s Day is that the Indian tectonic plate, which was sliding under the Burmese plate snapped upwards with extraordinary force along a 1000-mile fault causing an earthquake which registered 9 on the Richter scale. This made it one of the largest earthquakes in recent decades. The displacement sent a wall of water fanning out at 500 miles per hour from the epicenter.

The Destruction of Coral Reefs and Mangrove Forests

Human activity over the past 30 years did exacerbate the loss suffered in this disaster. The reason is simple: Mangrove forests and coral reefs are nature’s way of protecting coastal regions from typhoons and large waves like the one that devastated the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean. Extensive living corals act as a buffer against the waves and the tangled root systems of mangroves absorb the first shock of waves and help break their lethal power.

In areas where coral reefs were intact there was much less loss of life and damage. These include the islands of Maldives which are close to the epicenter of the quake. The Government of Kerala State reported that the areas where mangroves flourished reported less damage than in places where there were fish farms or openbeaches.2 Fr. Tom Kocherry, an Indian Jesuit who leads the National Fish-workers Forum, claimed the immense destruction of the coast for aquaculture exacerbated the impact of the tsunami on the eastern cost of India.3 In 1960 a tsunami hit the coast of Bangladesh where mangroves were intact. Not a single person was drowned. In 1991, on the other hand, thousands of people were lost in the same area when a tsunami hit because, in the intervening 30 years, much of the mangroves had been cut down.

Growth in Shrimp Production

Since the 1960s the Asia sea-coast regions have been plundered by the large industrialized shrimp firms that brought environmentally-unfriendly aquaculture to its shores. Shrimp cultivation in the year 2000 reached 8 million tons a year. Shrimp production has grown tenfold in the past 15 years. It is now a $9 billion industry feeding the palates of first world consumers. Shrimp consumption in North America, Japan, and Europe has increased by a massive 300 percent within the past decade. It is estimated that every area of shrimp farming has an "ecological footprint" of 100 acres in terms of the destruction of mangroves and the surrounding land, and contributes to ocean pollution. In economic terms, for every dollar earned from exporting shrimp, there is a deficit of 10 dollars in ecological, economic, and social damage. In this calculus the economic damage caused by the tsunami exceeds the total value of the shrimp industry by a factor of three or four.

Some figures are illustrative of this. Since the 1960s Thailand has lost 65,000 hectares of mangroves. Indonesia has lost 70 percent of its mangroves.4 In India, mangroves have been reduced to one-third of their original level. Communities have been forcibly removed to make way for commercial fish farms.

Each hectare of mangrove destroyed results in an estimated loss of 670 pounds of marine harvest. This harvest is sustainable and generally available to poor coastal fishermen. Shrimp farming is not sustainable and benefits the rich local entrepreneurs and first world consumers where the life cycle of a fish farm is between two and five years, mangroves and corals are the nurseries for many of the species of fish which coastal fishermen catch.

Risks were Played Down by Tourist Industry

Human safety was also sacrificed on the altar of tourist interests in Thailand in the last decade. SmithThammasaroj—formerly the head of Thailand’s meteorological office—was forced to resign under a cloud in 1998. He was accused of scaremongering when he warned that the south-west coast faced a deadly tsunami. The tourist industry accused him of jeopardizing the industry by scaring away foreign tourists from areas around the island of Phuket. If his warnings had been taken seriously and monitoring equipment had been put in place, many of the 9,000 who are reported dead or missing could have been saved. One week after the tsunami the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, appointed Thammasaroj as a minister in charge of the newly established national disaster warning office.5 Too late for 9,000 people! It is also true that many hotels and guest houses were built much too close to the beach, often in contravention of local planning laws. But money can help waiver environmental laws!

Our Image of God is Shaped by the Experience of Jesus

So where is God in all of this? I can only answer this out of the context of my particular faith—which is the Christian faith. I believe in a triune God who has empowered the emergence of the universe and our solar system as briefly outlined above. This is to say that God works through the processes of nature and in the case of humans, through our freedom. Much of the thinking that expects God to reach out and stop the tsunami before it drowns people stems from an understanding of God as one who can do anything he likes, regardless of what the consequences might be. In other words, he can set aside, in an arbitrary way, the consequences of human freedom, such as the bad choices people make, or even the laws of nature itself. If one subscribes to this notion of God, then it is easy to see how such a God can be seen as capricious and cruel when God doesn't intervene to stop a natural disaster or the "Shoah" Holocaust. But such an understanding is based on the absolutist and arbitrary exercise of power that often characterizes oppressive dictators or kings in our social order. At its root is power understood as domination and control.

The gospel of Jesus has a very different way of looking at power. It believes that the only authentic understanding of power is to be found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The cross of Jesus reveals God at his/her Godly best and that is characterized by self-emptying love. The resurrection, on the other hand, tell us that this God of infinite love can and does bring life out of pain, suffering, bafflement, and, especially death. In other words, death is not the last word—for anyone, especially those like Job who are loving, kind, and innocent.

The cross and resurrection taken together tell us a number of things about God. Firstly, that God’s capacity for love is boundless. Secondly, there is an extraordinary incomprehensible vulnerability in God. Thirdly, that God freely enters into this self-limitation. In this understanding, God’s omnipotence doesn’t allow a click of the fingers to stop the earthquake. This is the Deus ex machina image of a God who interferes when humans make a mess of things or the earth acts in what, from our experience, seems to be a cruel and arbitrary way. As I have said above, God acts within the limits of human freedom and the processes of our universe and planet—which he has created and is creating. God’s extraordinary, even omnipotent, outpouring of life and love takes place within a kenotic or self-limiting evolving context. Finally, the God revealed as the Father of Jesus Christ has the capacity to bring life out of death for every human being, and—according to Paul in Romans 8:18-20, 23—wholeness to a fragile and oppressed creation. This, I believe, is a particularly important dimension of Christian teaching when we reflect on the loss of young people whose lives were snuffed out before they ever had a chance to blossom. It affirms that they have a future in God.

So where was God? God was in the pain and terror of those who were drowned or maimed by the tsunami. God was in the heartbreak of a parent who was clasping the hand of a child to carry him/her to safety when suddenly the power of the tsunami forced him/her to let go and see the child drown before his/her eyes. God was in the heroism of those who risked their own lives to save loved ones and strangers. We Christians do not believe in a stoic God unmoved by human pain and tragedy. Rather, we believe that the God who is portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son is one who is touched by pain and suffering (Lk 15:11-32).

The Christian message challenges those who follow Christ, who came to serve and give his life for us, to imitate his love and caring especially for those whose lives have been destroyed by this terrible event. The outpouring of care and love across the globe has been wonderful and, as Christians, we should give thanks to God for that. But we must also remember that the reconstruction phase will take months and years and that our generosity should not end as the media move on to another disaster story.



1. "A liberal quandary for a right-on Mayor," The Independent, (15 January 2005, 13).

2. Vandana Shiva, "Lessons for Life," The Guardian, (12 January 2005).

3. Mari Marcel Thekaekana, "Corrupted Defense," The Guardian supplement (5 January 2005, 12).

4. Devinder Sharma, "Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy," accessed on Znet Commentaries,sysop@zmag,org, 10 January 2005.

5. Sutin Wannabovorn, "Thai meteorology chief who got it right is brought in from the cold," The Guardian accessed on, 12 January 2005.