Editorial: To be with us in what we suffer
At the time of writing, the official count has reached 33,179 deaths from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. The final figure might be twice that, according to the United Nations.
It was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever seen in the region. The devastation has been compounded by the debilitated state of Syria after 12 years of civil war, by freezing temperatures, by the unsafe construction of many Turkish tower blocks – arrests have been made as a result. Hospitals have been destroyed. Dams have broken, causing flooding. One relatively new aspect of this disaster has been seeing people trapped in the rubble appealing for help on social media.
Earthquakes have always been a challenge to the Christian faith. So much of the suffering in the world can be blamed on human wickedness and folly – factors which certainly exacerbated this disaster – but not the movements of the Earth. Traditionally, Christians have said that the world was good, just and happy, until human sin wrecked everything, but tectonic plates are the Creator’s work, not ours.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was a particularly notorious example, coming on All Saints Day, during Mass. It disproportionately demolished churches, and seemed to focus its ravages on the faithful.
Earthquakes are a particularly graphic illustration of the fact that the universe seems to carry on its business without regard to us, without regard to justice or mercy. The creator of such a world, as the French thinker Voltaire said in response to the Lisbon earthquake, seems ‘without wrath, without pity, calm, indifferent’. Or, in Richard Dawkins’ words, the universe is ‘neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose’.
Do we have a way out of this theological impasse? Up to a point. I think we have to accept that the movements of tectonic plates and viruses, and everything in between, are not steered to achieve happiness or justice. Ebola does not strike someone for a purpose. The fabric and processes of time and space are indifferent to us.
And yet we have a story to tell that makes all the difference. God created. God sustains. Our world is not micromanaged, but neither is it purposeless. I am adrift in a brutal world, but I am a child of God. I have value. God proclaimed the universe good, with all its horrors, and – for what it’s worth – I agree. Anyone who disagrees might try and do better.
And though so much in the world is indifferent to us, God is so far from indifferent as to take on a breakable body and embrace all the callousness the world had to offer, to be with us in what we suffer and to raise it up.
In the process, he gave us a more important challenge than any of these. ‘Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’
This article was published in the March 2023 edition of Reform