Towards the end of Tuesday lunchtime I got an urgent phone call. “Turn on the TV and see what has happened to your home City of Christchurch”. I watched the scenes with a mounting sense of horror and disbelief. The cathedral, secure icon of the city with gaping holes, people running through the dust and smoke from swaying and falling buildings – familiar buildings in familiar streets …., bodies being pulled from crushed cars, dirty water bubbling up through large cracks and undulations in the previously smooth roads I had driven on a few weeks ago, and everywhere chaos.
Every now and again we are suddenly reminded that despite our best efforts we are actually not in control. Yet there is also a sense that just as Job encounters God in a whirlwind, that even in the midst of disaster there is an possibility of an underlying revelation about ourselves and what is ultimately important – Yes – and I will even say worthwhile. Remember that in writing to a people who have been forced to become refugees, the prophet Isaiah says, ”The foundations of the earth do shake. Earth breaks to pieces!” (Is 24:18), ”… the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed. But my kindness shall not depart from you; neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, said the Lord who has mercy on you!” (Is 54:10)
A little over sixty years ago in the aftermath of World War II with the firebombing devastation of cities like Dresden and Coventry and America’s use of nuclear bombs against human populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in his memory theologian Paul Tillich wrote a sermon entitled “The Shaking of the Foundations.” He said when we read “The foundations of the earth do shake.’ ‘Earth is split in pieces,’(this) is not merely a poetic metaphor for us, but a hard reality. That is the religious meaning of the age into which we have entered.” In his sermon Tillich describes a social and spiritual reality which reoccurs every time there is a major disaster. He also praises prophetic voices who are willing and able to name the painful realities of the time and thus bring a word of hope. As Tillich put it “Prophets are able to do so because they did not speak of the shaking of the foundations, but of the one who laid the foundations.” The learning then from the prophets is that ultimately for the human condition, the buildings and other symbols of human-made triumph can come and go, but underneath that there are some more important values.
One prophet in this sense in the recent Christchurch earthquake was the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral Rev Peter Beck. When the Earthquake struck in the middle of a busy Tuesday lunchtime, in front of a throng of tourists, visitors and lunchtime passers-by the ground convulsed in a nasty jolt, bringing down the Cathedral Spire, with a group of tourists trapped on the falling viewing platform. A few of the trapped dead and the wounded were rescued from the rubble. At the time of writing an unknown number lay presumably dead under meters of rubble within the Cathedral. Asked what he thought of the now devastated cathedral Rev Peter Beck described the loss as “nothing compared with the human cost”.
While the initial reaction is to think of those multistorey buildings in ruins, and the work of a lifetime laid to waste, the real treasure is found in those who promptly set about the precarious task of rescuing those trapped – or comforting and tending to the traumatised and wounded gathering in the Christchurch parks.
Every time there is another natural disaster we hear the expression Act of God which to me conjures up an image of a demented nasty and vindictive magician zapping targets at random for unfathomable purposes just because he can. It is not a theological image to which I subscribe. Nevertheless in the cases of natural disaster I have encountered, and this last week has been very bad, I cannot say truthfully that no good is found in disaster. And if you happen to believe as I do that earthquakes are simply an inevitable part of nature and are not organised for the express purpose of teaching individual human lessons – and that if we believe that we say God is Love and find this love expressed in our interactions – such disasters set up opportunities for finding new and creative ways in which we can deal with one another. Large earthquakes are clearly bad news, and some are terrible, yet perhaps even an earthquake may provide new opportunities.
Tuesday’s earthquake in Christchurch is turning out to be no different. Suddenly it was as if some had just discovered their purpose in life. Passers-by suddenly stepped into the role of heroes, searching through the rubble, pulling out the wounded, comforting the shocked and terrified and basically looking out for one another. Doctors and emergency first aiders were working at all hours in the triage centres and the hospital while the rescue teams and emergency services work round the clock, painstakingly checking each pile of rubble and each creaking and each swaying building. Neighbours called in on one another and volunteers helped care for the homeless at the community shelters. Perhaps this is what a gospel is supposed to mean.
With every quake, sooner or later there comes the revelation there is more to our physical world than shaking earth can destroy. The suggestion then is that there may be more to our social world than shifting powers of nature can ultimately threaten. Even cynics like me may then be forced to acknowledge that there might be more to our souls than even the greatest disaster and loss can defeat.