A recent AP story tells us that “137,321 people were killed in 11 countries in southern Asia and East Africa from the massive earthquake and tsunamis on Dec. 26.” In a December 27 BBC “Thought for the Day,” Fr Timothy Radcliffe rightly warns us, “We should be wary of pious words; they may seem just trite and empty.” But we are called to solidarity. Fr Radcliffe also reminds us of Mary and St John at the foot of the Cross – “All they could do there was to be there with him. When the time for words comes, they will be given.”
This will need to be a long-term solidarity. “It will take years for those who survive to rebuild their lives.” But this is easier said than done. After the Beslan tragedy, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “I think it is probably the suffering of children that most deeply challenges anybody’s personal faith.” And, now, a third of the thousands of corpses left by the tsunami are those of children. We cannot even experience a catharsis by channeling our anger and frustration towards Islamic radicalism or flawed foreign policy. We are left with just an inescapable dread, a grim hopelessness before an unfeeling Fate. An article in this morning’s Chicago Tribune cited an excerpt from the Stephen Crane poem, “War is Kind and Other Lines”:
A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.”
How do we, as Christians, keep this unimaginable horror in our minds and hearts? Perhaps we can turn to one of the most ignored books of Scripture, Ecclesiastes. The narrator, Qohelet, did not survive anything so sudden and destructive as the tsunami, but he suffered a sort of destruction in “an unpredictable world where events seem to spin out of control and social order is completely disrupted…. Nothing seems permanent, nothing seems reliable in such a world” (C.L.Seow). Qohelet tried to define himself by wealth and reputation. “I made … I made,” he writes. But “what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun?” (2.23) Qohelet then had to suffer the loss of relationships and to face the utter futility of his attempts to understand God – “No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (3.11). It is no surprise that he concludes that it is better never to have been born and that the day of death is better than the day of birth (7.1).
But Qohelet is no nihilist. The exegete Eric Christianson tells us, “In Qohelet’s acknowledgment of the failure of living he affirms the reality of the experience of those who live. By saying that the stillborn is better off than the living he affirms that it is because there is a defining faculty in the individual that that person, while living, is prevented from being consigned to the designation, ‘cipher of words.’ By thinking, by reflecting on events, by centering the place of experience and by feeling the weight of absurdity so deeply, he acknowledges that the self is not simply a mental peg on which to hang his ideas and observations. The self is at the centre.” This self is still somehow able to speak to Another, even in pain. And it is in this very self “where God answers and where the act of feeling life is not feared but is affirmed. … God answers humanity not with words in the wind, but with joy in the heart, in the innermost and secret places.” The real conclusion, then, is – “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works” (9.7). Qohelet does not end with despair.
Christianson cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The person, as a conscious person, is created in the moment when he is moved, when he is faced with responsibility, when he is passionately involved in a moral struggle, and confronted by a claim which overwhelms him. Concrete personal being arises from the concrete situation.” Qohelet loses everything; there is even a special poignancy when he says, “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands” (7.26). But Qohelet is still willing to think, reflect on concrete events, center the place of experience, and feel the weight of a real absurdity so deeply. And in doing so, he find God with the self that remains to reject and lament when everything else is lost and words cannot console.
In the tsunami, we are confronted with a claim which overwhelms us. It might be tempting to forget about the people affected, to hold the tragedy apart from our prayer lives which, we feel, could not possibly withstand the pressure. But, as Christians, we should trust that even when there are no words and the “universe” seems to tell us that it has no sense of obligation at all, we can still speak to Another who will respond in our hearts. And we can then, despite it all, eat our bread with joy. And so we follow St Paul’s command that we “weep with them that weep” (Rom 12.15), even when they number so many.