Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hope in the Midst of Tragedy

Five years after hurricane Katrina struck, many in the media are revisiting New Orleans and other places in the gulf devastated the storm (and in the case of New Orleans, devastated by faults within the levy system that gave way). Successes are celebrated as well as questions of why has more not been done. The following is an article I wrote which appeared as a guest editorial in The Birmingham News five years ago. I posted a version of this essay after the earthquake in Haiti and I re-visit it here as a reminder of one way we find hope when tragedy strikes.

Finding Hope After Katrina
by Charles Kinnaird

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
~ Viktor Frankl in
Man’s Search for Meaning

Christianity has a problem that arises from three basic precepts:
1. God is all-powerful and all-knowing;
2. God is loving and good; and
3. Evil is real.

This is a recipe for dissonance. In two thousand years, these theological concepts have never been reconciled nor have they been abandoned. I am in no position to try to debunk any of these three notions, but I am in a position to feel the ache and the loss for words in response to that perennial question, “How could a loving God allow such devastation and loss of innocent life?”

Hurricane Katrina is the latest tragic event that causes many to ask, is there really is a God out there, or is this just a barren, meaningless universe? It has even prompted some to claim that God is punishing sinners. Preachers and theologians have always felt the tension of trying to communicate faith and hope to people in light of intellectual honesty and trying times. Harold Kushner’s popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, managed to affirm that God is a loving God and that evil is certainly real, while rejecting the idea that God is really all-powerful. Some religions and sects will question whether evil is real, or just an illusion in order to explain the presence of suffering and evil. Many preachers like to remind us of the fact that someone brought sin into the world, and don’t forget that old chestnut of free will. Theology likes to create nice tidy boxes to put things in, but the problem is that life is not nice and tidy.

It would be a cruel understatement to say that Katrina was an untidy incident. I’ll be honest, for days I tried to avoid the emotional impact. I tried to keep some distance as I viewed the news reports. Then the reality began to hit, and along with it, the tears that one tries to fight back, the deep sighs, the heaviness that weighs upon the chest and the brow. There came inevitable shock and the sorrow of so much devastation. I returned to a book that I had found very helpful when I first read it many years ago. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning came out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His was the only voice I could think of that might be appropriate to listen to in the wake of our current storm. The core of that book for me was a passage close to the middle of the work which is quoted above. Frankl goes on to say, “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead start thinking of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

If we are being questioned by life, what is our response? Here are some things I heard in the week following the storm: I heard anger that response was so slow. I heard outrage that the poor, the handicapped and the needy were being overlooked and neglected. I saw bitter tears over the loss of life and the suffering of children. I saw responses from some individuals who were determined to do whatever they could to help. I heard scorn heaped upon the comfortable wealthy bureaucrats in Washington who seemed literally unmoved by the massive suffering. When I read the words of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, God is described by these very same responses.

I cannot put this into a tidy box that will resolve all questions and ease the tensions of living, but I can say that in the midst of the chaos and horror that followed Katrina, I saw and heard God in our midst. I saw God in your face and heard God in your voice when the sorrow and outrage was expressed. As real people began to move to care for the evacuees by offering help, refuge, and hope, I took heart. There were people showing great care for life, even lending aid to pets that were displaced. I saw how we respond when we are questioned by life, and that response gives me hope in the midst of tragedy.


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