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FOR HAITI – lament longing for the light of life

18 January 2010

Tsunami theology

Matthew 18.10:
Do not despise one of these little ones
for their angels always
behold the face of my Father in heaven

God together swept out by the wave
No habitation left to stand upon the earth
Sea swallows without comment
smoothes memory all away
The children fathers mothers are not

Once little ones quite nothing now
waved away, Tsunami despised
Died with no arms about them
No eyes upon them

And the children who live still?
How can we be children without father, mother?
Rolled still by the wave, trafficked by the sea,
Let down by tectonic fall

Despised by unhomely earth
Busy with its own story

This poem, written in 2005, soon after the Tsunami of Christmas 2004, is recalled now a few days after the Haiti earthquake of 2010. It meshes theological and human issues which by their heavy mass and sudden appearance, pulverise and drown us. Tectonic plates make big news and big suffering. Hundreds of thousands of bodies are crushed under masonry; even more spirits are numbed and turned back to inner death.

A big event does this for many all at once, and it gets into the news and everyone sees it. But every day, individuals and families and small companies of people, mostly unreported, run into deep trouble, maybe because of a death, but often trouble deadly even though there is no physical death. The devastation of human life and spirit which becomes obvious in a tsunami happens in many less obvious ways. Living in a land where tsunamis and earthquakes do not happen does not give immunity from the devastation.

By such devastation, we are swept back to the waters of Babylon where the exiles sat down and wept: how shall we sing the Lord’s song there – or here or here? Their captors tormented them: Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How could they when they were far away from the devastated Jerusalem? They were more inclined to get God to take it out on the children of their tormentors but that would not help them. The narrow Gospel way, signposted Forgiveness, is so hard it is near impossible. (Psalm 137)

When the earthquake strikes in Haiti, can we find a song or hymn that can be sung in the desolation? Who has a suitable singable song? Has anyone ever composed one yet?


At Port-au-Prince’s demolished cathedral, a wrinkled, toothless old woman sat in the rubble with tears in her eyes, a bag of clothes and a container of water by her side.
“I lost so much. I am still trembling from the earthquake,” she said.
Nearby, a blind man strummed a guitar and sang softly.
“I am singing for my country, for the razed presidential palace, for the razed justice palace, for my dead father, my dead sister,” he sang.
“What has happened to Haiti I can’t put into words. There aren’t enough tears for all my sorrow.”

A disaster like this takes us out of all normality, where we usually live and can live. It takes us back to primeval chaos, when the earth was without form or void and there was no garden habitation for humanity. God had not yet spoken, so how could we speak in such a place? But the spirit was moving on the face of the waters in the dark (Genesis 1.2).

We like to start theology ( thinking about, from, to, with God) from within the full assurance of faith, in the house of the Lord, or in secular plenty and safety, but that is not always given to us. It is characteristic of Christian faith that while it receives with joy every good gift given, it lives from the Cross, from where the best dream, the best hope, crashed into the death of God and darkness over the whole earth. Somehow whenever Christian faith occurs, it is like, and because of, the resurrection of the dead. Faith is there, like a plant growing from Oh! So dry ground (Isaiah 53.2). Can theology be there too? It must keep close to faith, to the roots of faith, the basic creative and recreative struggles of faith, where faith is the miraculously resistant contradictory gift and not just a religious tinge of affirmation of a comfortably ongoing situation.

This Tsunami poem does not manage more than the very first step of such theology. It opens itself to the overwhelming disaster. God is mentioned but no more – the poem finds no way to say more of God, for the poet is overwhelmed with the overwhelming of God. It will therefore be judged as unsatisfactory by many believers and unbelievers. It does not vindicate God, there is no attempt at theodicy here. It stands where God in Christ goes, to death on the cross, and where we must start, again and again with any honest and practical thinking about God.

This place seems like the end. And more than ‘seems’. Death is the end: death strikes down the spirit, which is dismayed within us. Whenever we can, for as long as we can, we avoid this place, for whenever we get there, or even sense its shadow lowering upon us, our spirit freezes, fearing there will be no way out.

Christian faith does not pretend that death is nothing, or that death is not a power, taking many forms, that persuades us that we have come to the end. But Christian faith starts where it seems everything is ending, must end, cannot go on. It starts at the Cross, the end which is made the place and the stuff of new beginning. It is the miracle of recreation, of life from the dead.

The resurrection in question here is not what happened to the body of Jesus 2000 years ago but what new beginning is opening for people who are wretched in the body of death (Romans 7.24) today. Come Holy Spirit! Move on the formless waters in the dark till God speaks, Let there be light! And Christ rises as the Sun.

When people are crushed by death of relationship and of spirit, it is not easy to make what they are into a starting place rather than letting it stand in its dark triumph as the end. We are then in the place where the real miracle of the Gospel is called for once more: not the raising of Lazarus who would after a time die again – a mere postponement; but the real practical gift of an undying indestructible life here and now, thus making a real new start out of a real threat of a deadly hopeless end. (Hebrews 7.16)

Talking about this without making mistakes is almost impossible. Finding it in reality is miracle. This is the Gospel of Christian faith. It is a narrow way, not easy to travel. And it is a test for theology, looking for fit words.

CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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