Hurricane and Natural Catastrophes, “Where is God in All this?”

My block of East Atlantic Beach, After Hurricane Sandy

Practical or (within the Hispanic context) popular theology places an emphasis on the lived experience of the faithful community. I offer my experience of Hurricane Sandy in a recent post as the setting for a theological investigation on how our Church needs to respond to these situations. Like most theological investigation the question of theodicy (the concept of God’s Justice or better yet asking the perennial question “where is God in all this”) is often times done within the academic halls and it fills volumes of writings that are studied within a sanitized academic setting. Yet practical/popular theology recognizes that the appropriate place for this investigation must reside with the lived experience of the people. Curiously enough this branch of theology has been explored from tragic experiences that others have had. Famous theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Edward Schillebeeckx wrestled with this question during the aftermath of the Second World War. More recently contextual theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and Jon Sobrino continue to contribute to this project. These are meaningful contributions to the topic, yet practical/popular theology also makes it a point to say that it must not only be informed by the experience of the people but it must also be able to relate to the people who, like the neighbor above, are stating their theological concerns and frustrations.

Theodicy poses a challenge to practical theology in that it raises one of the most difficult questions that people confront in some of the most horrific experiences that they have. It is a question that is easier to address within the realm of theories then in the lived experience. People who have just experienced this disaster are part of an historical tradition that has wrestled with the famous Epicurean question, “If God is all powerful and God is just where does evil come from?” We must explore the role of the Church in being present during these difficult questions and journeying with those who suffer in a way that allows people to engage in reflecting and developing their understanding of theodicy in light of their experiences.

Jesus himself offers a response to a similar question that he reflects with his disciples. In the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel they consider God’s purpose over an act of political violence and a natural tragedy. The common belief is that those people who suffered these tragedies were obviously great sinners and deserving of God’s wrath. Jesus responds in this way; “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Lk 13:4-5) Jesus then goes on to offer a parable of the barren fig tree. This parable emphasizes a couple points. The owner, God, is looking for the tree to bear fruit. In asking for repentance Jesus is asking that we engage in a conversion process whereby we bear the fruit of God’s love to one another. The gardener (who plays the role of Jesus) will do what he can to promote the mission of God’s enduring love for all creation. The second point that is made with this parable is that God, in His mercy, will patiently wait for us to bear fruit. The disasters that begin this chapter then are not God’s condemnation against a group of sinners, instead they are an opportunity for us to grow and repent by being agents of God’s love to one another.

St. Ignatius Parish, Long Beach NY

The central Christian answer to the question of “Where is God?” in the midst of disasters such as this recent hurricane is the Paschal Mystery. The idea that the suffering and death of Jesus was not in vain, social injustice would not have the last word. God would vindicate His suffering servant and raise him so that we, as Christian disciples, can be witnesses of God’s great love for humanity. This is the mystery of faith that allowed someone like Monsignor Romero of El Salvador to declare, moments before he was assassinated, “I do not believe in death without resurrection.  If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” Through the resurrection God would give meaning to the senseless and unjust death that Jesus experienced. So it is that we are called to experience God in the suffering that people go through and in that way we can respond with faith by bringing God’s love to one another especially to those who have suffered. Pope Benedict XVI tells us:

To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.

But then Pope Benedict XVI would raise the question, “are we capable of this?” He then goes on to say that on our own we are not capable of this, but then again he suggests that we are not alone.

Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’s Passion.  Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises.[1]

Jon Sobrino reminds us that the question of theodicy must also bring us to raise the question of anthropodicy[2]; in claiming the divine dignity that we all share through God if we wish to hold God accountable we must also be able to hold ourselves accountable as well. St. Paul reminds us that “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1Cor. 3:9) We are not passive agents of the Gospel mission. Sobrino rightfully will place the challenge of God’s justice at our feet. “The challenge to God, and to human beings, is where were they both in Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulag…? Where are they today in the African Great Lakes, Haiti, and Bangladesh?[3]

A Sign of Hope

Without having a deep theological foundation of theodicy the community in which I live demonstrated an innate sense of anthropodicy when we helped each other and accompanied one another in the aftermath of the hurricane. Certainly acts of vandalism and looting that take place when a community faces devastation but overall it is overshadowed by the goodness and assistance we experienced with our neighbors. The broader community responded as well, outside of first responders and social agencies I was blessed with an amazing outpouring from family, friends, co-workers and students who reached out to offer whatever they could. That type of compassion accompanied by a strong sense of solidarity moves a community to engage in a form of goodness that transcends our social conventions. Instead of relating with one another within the cultural framework of competition and self-preservation we are able to relate with each other in a spirit of self-less giving and authentic solidarity. Reflecting on the 2001 earthquake of El Salvador Jon Sobrino describes this as a “countercultural goodness.”

Organizations passing out resources in Long Beach

Goodness shows that evil can be overcome, although sometimes at a very high cost. The generosity, integrity, and solidarity that appear in times of earthquake show that the good is possible, but at the same time they unmask the selfishness, corruption, and arrogance of governments and agencies, and they challenge those who helplessly or cynically hide behind perceptions of inevitability. Thus against all apparent logic, goodness becomes something conflictive and countercultural.[4]

Hurricane Sandy hit us right before a major election. It was inspiring to see how this community, in light of all that it suffered, made sure that it would engage in voting process. East Atlantic Beach had the voting booths open in the beach house one week after the Hurricane and we along with many New Yorkers made it to the polls to participate with our civic responsibility. In the midst of our devastation we would not hide behind a feeling of “helplessness or cynically hide behind perceptions of inevitability.

National Guard distributing resources

Hurricane Sandy provides us with a teachable moment. During catastrophes and natural disasters we can recognize this type of “countercultural goodness” where we allow ourselves to be moved by what Abraham Lincoln called, the “better angels of our nature.” Sadly these moments eventually pass away and we again succumb to our culturally competitive values. The question for us is, how can we sustain this “countercultural goodness” that allow us to adopt these countercultural values and norms which are authentically Christian? The task for practical/popular theology is to build on the experience the community has and further empower us by placing our experience within a theological framework which will move us deeper into adopting this “countercultural goodness” accompanied with a communal vision of hope.


[2] Jon Sobrino, “Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope” (Orbis Book, Maryknoll NY, 2004) pg. 25

[3] Ibid., pg.26

[4] Ibid., pg.103

[5] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861: http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html

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About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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2 Responses to Hurricane and Natural Catastrophes, “Where is God in All this?”

  1. Sebastian MacDonald says:

    John, An excellent reflection on a catastrophe, full of theological and religious elements reflecting a history of Christian and Jewish reflection on the tragedies of life. It helps to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

  2. jdgonzo73 says:

    Thank you Fr. Sebastian, I always considered the question of theodicy to be of special significance to the Passionist spirituality. I am looking at devoting some attention to this within pastoral ethics as I pursue my degree program.
    I hope you are doing well,
    John

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