Saturday, March 26, 2011

Acts of God: It's how we react

Mar 26, 2011

We'll never know why tragedy strikes, but how we overcome defines us
By Yen Feng

A LOT has been said about the Japanese response to the triple disasters of quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. While most have been decent and respectful, others have come across as being - how shall I put this mildly - really bone-headed.

In the days following the March 11 disaster, two newspapers - in Thailand and Malaysia - ran editorial cartoons depicting a sumo wrestler and the Japanese icon Ultraman running away from tsunami waves. In China, some netizens cheered the disaster, saying that it was 'payback' for World War II.

Then there were the Americans - 50 Cent, Hulk Hogan, and Mr Gilbert Gottfried, a voice actor and comedian, who all thought the tragedy was a fine time to crack a few jokes - though no one seemed to be laughing, especially not Mr Gottfried, who was later fired from his job voicing the mascot of an insurance company.

Now, I have my own list of people who should be fired - including religious extremists whose comments top the lot of all the bone-headedness going around.

On March 14 - three days after the massive earthquake hit the north-eastern coast of Japan - American conservative radio host and political commentator Glenn Beck called the disaster a 'message' from God.

A few days later, Mr Cho Yong Gi of South Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church - said to be the world's largest single church with 800,000 members - told news media the Japanese had only themselves to blame for the earthquake.

'Because the Japanese people shun God in terms of their faith and follow idol worship, atheism, and materialism, it makes me wonder if this was not God's warning to them,' the pastor said.

The world has been left in shock by the events that have gripped Japan in the past weeks. To some extent, I can understand the impulse to turn to God in the face of such widespread devastation.

It is the same impulse that drives us to ask 'Why?' in times of other ineffable - and often personal - tragedies.

Religious perspectives can provide ways to help explain, give meaning to, or at least relieve, unexpected human suffering.

But it is one thing to turn to God for answers, quite another for someone to suggest they know what God was thinking, and an abomination to name a tragedy as a vengeful act from God.

Mr Beck and Mr Cho are not the first - and unlikely the last - to use natural disasters to advance religious ideology.

Last year, a senior Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, said that Iranian women cause earthquakes when they wear immodest clothing.

'Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,' he said during a Friday prayer sermon.

The same year, when an earthquake killed nearly 220,000 people in Haiti, American evangelist Pat Robertson said it was because Haitians had 'sworn a pact with the devil' to help them shake off colonial rule in the 18th century.

And when the tsunami hit Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004, Islamic extremists said the disaster was sent by God to punish non-practising Muslims.

God is conjured up as an avenging force against 'Them' - however one chooses to define the 'sinning' victims of natural disasters.

What a load of bunk it all is. Thankfully, such views are in the minority.

Most religious leaders agree that no one can speak authoritatively about God's will in natural disasters and other unpredictable tragedies. The hard fact of life is that sometimes, bad things happen to good people.

Theodicy is the branch of thought that tries to reconcile evil and suffering with the existence of a good God.

But the truth is, humans can never really come to grips with the why of suffering. We will never understand.

Inadequate and brutish this answer may be, it is perhaps the most honest - and one we all try to live with.

Four years ago, my partner died, at age 33, of a malignant skin cancer, after receiving treatment for it for three years. The diagnosis was made two months after we had run a marathon together.

I asked God: Why? Why us?

When God was silent, I turned to books. My situation was neither new nor unique; surely, the answer was out there, and I had only to find it to be freed, so that I could finally stop asking: Why?

I haven't; perhaps I may never.

My partner's death, I know, cannot compare to the absolute destruction of thousands of lives in Japan.

Even for the survivors, the nightmare, in so many ways, is just beginning.

The nuclear threat aside, they will face a long, difficult road ahead to rebuild their lives. Along the way, some may find the answers they need.

Others, like me, may not.

The problem with religious extremists is not just that they tout these answers so readily, when anyone who has ever experienced personal tragedy will know there can be none to be found so soon.

It is that as thought leaders who have the power and influence to shape public opinion, they have chosen a message of exclusion and blame based on fear and ignorance, rather than a message of charity and compassion.

Since the earthquake, the world has been moved by stories of how the Japanese have responded with courage and dignity.

In a recent column in British newspaper The Telegraph, the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, argued that no one should be blamed for acts of nature.

He wrote: 'The most important lesson from the Japan earthquake is that there are no lessons for human behaviour.'

But I think that there is one: That in the end, most of us who have suffered loss want to be defined not by our trials, but by how we overcome them.

That is why we go on.

Despite the religious extremists' theory that the Japanese are themselves to blame for the tremors that ruined their lives, the people of Japan, by their quiet courage, have shown themselves to be on truly firm ground.

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