Monday, 14 March 2011

Local scenes and global perspectives 2

I must say I was having something of an argy-bargy with God over the weekend. It doesn't happen often, but last week's events got under my skin. That documentary about Kibera in Kenya, as you'll have gathered, moved me a lot. A million people crammed into one and a half square miles of mud huts with corrugated tin roofs, with communal toilets (up to 1000 sharing) with open sewers running down the centre of the alleys, awful child mortality. As Angela Rippon commented, "Here 'hand-to-mouth' literally means hand to mouth." Lennie Henry was lodged with five orphans, living in squalor, and couldn't take it. He was so upset that he broke the 'rules' of the film and asked to buy them a house with his credit card. It was an expensive house (£800) for Kibera, but hardly a palace. Samantha Womack was put with a young mum who worked as a prostitute to support her children and extended family up-country. Contrary to my expectations I understood why she did so, and how Jesus loved and forgave 'sinners'.

"Why, God, don't you get out your celestial credit card and rehouse the whole lot of them?" Actually, I know there is something much larger, more systemic, than bad housing conditions behind places like Kibera. My friend, Katie, recently wrote from holiday in Cape Town, that she "has been blown away by the poverty in the local township here... 40.000+ people crowded into a small space....." And, of course,  I know that God doesn't use American Express and doesn't bale out every result of human or satanic folly. That's something to do with free will, isn't it? I guess one of his questions is "Why don't you feed, or house, this multitude?"
Tsunami debris (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo)

And then came the earthquake happened off northern Japan, and its devastating consequences started to dawn us like the tsunami it caused, so that now Japan holds its breath lest a plutonium reactor melts down and explodes. Already the radiation levels have increased 100 miles away. Tens of thousands of people are dead or missing as the tsunami swept all in its irresistible path. And, what's more, the Tokyo stock market has plunged. I've heard it all described as "an act of God", an instance of the awesome power of nature, an example of the limits of the most sophisticated human technology, and the result of Adam and Eve's fall from innocence.... I find it very hard to understand as either the first or the last of those. I don't think we can thank God for the good things about it, such as the tsunami not causing damage in other Pacific Rim countries, if we rule him out of the bad parts. And while I'm happy to believe that "the whole creation has been groaning with the pains of childbirth until now", as Paul of Tarsus put it, it feels too simplistic a correlation to make to primal sin.

Rescue in Japan with body-bags (Photo ABC Australia)
I guess it's just part of inhabiting a planet formed as ours was. And a consequence of rising populations and increasing urbanisation, so that although the incidence of earthquakes hasn't noticeably increased, their human effects have become more catastrophic. We have an odd instinct to blame when disasters occur, blame someone or something for things going wrong. Blame whoever built nuclear power station on seismic fault lines, blame whoever built cities on them (though I gather that humans have chosen to live in such places from the beginning), blame authorities who allowed it all, and in due course blame someone for failures in rescue operations and in the reconstruction effort.

Photo © Ian Salisbury
And then today I've heard that another of my lovely young friends has cancer. Give us a break. Maybe it's copping out, but I'm cornered into concluding, as I was about my illness, that God is love (for which I have good evidence), but that love is far more incomprehensible than I'd imagined - so that somehow personal and international catastrophes both fall within that love, as does rescue from them. So I move backwards from Psalm 135.6, "Whatever the Lord pleases, he does in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps", to Psalm 131.1, "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up... I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvellous for me."

We certainly live in a mysterious and beautiful universe. This is a picture I was sent last week of the moon over the North Pole, with the sun just above the horizon. I understand the moon has recently been nearer than usual.
(Unknown source)


  1. Thank you, Michael, for putting into such eloquent words the thoughts and feelings that I (and others I know of the Christian faith) have been struggling with over these last few days. We must remember that God is good< even if it may be hard to see it at the moment

  2. Thanks, Jane. I've also been thinking about Job, and God's questions, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? ..."