After the tsunami: 1. Death comes to paradise

3 Nov

Samoa is a beautiful place. It has been called 'paradise' because it and its people are so beautiful. But for us, death and destruction came to paradise. How can this be?

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami, the media around the world presented headlines such as 'Island Paradise turns to Disaster'. One Melbourne newspaper reported an expat Australian, who lives in Samoa, saying: 'You live in Samoa, this is supposed to be paradise. But I can tell you it's not paradise today.' (The Herald Sun, Thursday October 1, 2009, page 4)

Paradise: this is the ideal place, and the place to which people hope to go when they die. Paradise is our dream of life without suffering, beyond division and hurt, guilt and shame: paradise is life without death, life as it was meant to be.

So we imagine. What does it mean for us, for me, to deal with the stark and painful reality that in this idyllic place we almost lost our lives, while many others did, and thousands of innocent and lovely people lost their homes, family members, village communities and livelihood? This is no dream, this is real.

We went to Samoa for the beauty of the place and the people. We took some fabulous photographs of beaches and sunsets. We enjoyed the people. They are a gentle people, whose historic culture has not yet been overtaken by the consumerist fixations of the Western world, though it is in acute danger of that. The people still live closely identified with their village culture and system. The Christian churches are very strong in Samoa and the people belong to their churches and are deeply involved. On week nights you can see large numbers going to choir practice: women's, men's, youth, children—Sunday services include all these. It seemed to me that here the church is still very much part of the social system. Christianity adapted itself to the village system and the system welcomed the new religion, in the early 19th century.

The people are essentially moral, kind and generous. They live close to the earth, work hard and enjoy music and life in general. I noticed often that people working at the various places we stayed would sing as they walked along. They live in 'paradise'.

Something else I noticed was their friendly interest in us, compared with our inherent suspicion of strangers. We're fairly seasoned travellers, and I guess we have learned to be careful of our wallets, watches and the like. One evening, we were out for a short walk in the cool breeze. Several young men approached us and asked where we were going. I was immediately suspicious. In fact, when we talked with them, they were simply asking where we were going! 

I have thought about the extent to which we live our lives covered up. This is about protection. But I am also speaking about the literal meanings here.  In Samoa, people wear clothing but they are, in another important sense, less covered up. Their clothing is designed for coolness in the heat, and modesty. Here is the first of many contrasting aspects of my experience, before and after the tsunami. Before, I felt that I was a person much 'covered up' and protected, protective. After the tsunami, I was exposed. I lost almost all my clothes and the only things I was wearing were taken away, while I was in hospital, and by some mishap I never got them back. I was, as the old translations of the Bible put it, 'undone'. It isn't just my clothes that were washed away.

What happened to paradise? In the days after the tsunami, Samoan people said to us again and again, 'This has never happened before.' We found it strange that they kept apologizing to us that we had been so hurt, whereas we were so concerned for them and their villages, their communities. But it is striking that a people with a rich and long oral history were so adamant that they had no history of tsunami. Earthquakes and tremors they have known, but not a tsunami.This was new in paradise.

The wave was a dramatic shock: just to think about it causes me a sense of outrage. It was violence unannounced. The earthquake set off a wave which moved at around 700 kms an hour, at first, and by the time it reached the shore it was moving at about 50 km an hour. When such a wave is knee-height, no adult can stand up in it. But at 3 to 4 metres high, no one had a hope. Children and adults were swept away, buildings just smashed apart. Some villages were inundated and the bodies needed to be dug out from the sand. Death and destruction came in a few seconds. The final death toll is not known, but it's around 160 people.

This violence and destruction was so quick, so indiscriminate, so undeserved. Here, as in many other situations, there is no rationale about who lived and who died, who suffered and who escaped. This is unmitigated outrage. In paradise!

So what do I say? I have thought much about this, while trying to recover. One of my first thoughts was provoked by two statements offered to us while in hospital in Samoa. First, a doctor who was caring for us simply said, as he was leaving the room: 'Everything happens for a reason.'  He was meaning to encourage us to see that some good would come from this experience. Hold on to your hope! I had not at that time spent much time thinking about why this had happened, in any deep, philosophic sense. I had rather more immediate pre-occupations.

The other statement was offered to us by a Catholic priest who visited us in hospital, prayed for us and offered us encouragement. He said to us that God did not send this tsunami, or cause it to happen. The causes have to do with the earth and perhaps how we treat the earth, but God did not make this happen to us. Rather, God is with us in our pain and will strengthen us in the journey ahead. I like what he had to say, theologically. But the sense of outrage remains: the pain is still there!

I have thought a lot about which biblical stories might inform my reflections. Perhaps naturally I turned to the story of Noah and the flood. I did not find much comfort or insight there. I turned to Jonah, who found himself overwhelmed not only by the sea but also by the vomit of a large fish. I found some identification there. But the story I really have to deal with is the story of Genesis 3, the story of 'paradise' and the coming of evil, suffering and shame to the humans made in God's image: death comes to paradise. This is the reality I have to deal with.

For forty years I have wrestled as a philosopher and theologian with the 'problem of evil'. Many forms of Christian theology take this story to be the original 'fall' of the creation, but especially the humans, from an original, idyllic state. There are so many important questions here, and so many puzzles. If we think about 'how', we really don't get very far. Evil is said to have entered God's previously perfect world: by means of a fallen angel, or a serpent, or a woman: all get the blame. But not one of these explains it. If the world was perfect, without evil, how did it come into being?

At this point, I just want to step back from all this and say that I think the question is not the most helpful one. it's not about 'how', it's about 'that'. It simply tells us that even in the most idyllic places, shame, guilt, jealousy, brothers killing brothers, storms and destruction happen. One philosopher remarked that he was not so much surprised that roses had thorns, but that thorns had roses. For me, it is about both. There are roses and there are thorns.

Samoa has not ceased to be a beautiful place, like 'paradise'. Even that day, elsewhere people were able to enjoy the beaches, the sun, the beautiful people.

But there is no denying the reality that death came to paradise. As it happened, in the days before the tsunami I had begun reading Jürgen Moltmann's autobiography, A Broad Place. I lost my copy but have since got another. In the German army, toward the end of World War 2, Moltmann survived a number of gun battles and as a 19 year old wondered why he had survived and the mate standing next to him was killed. This happened at least twice. Later, Moltmann has written that Auschwitz is the 'open wound' with which every modern theology has to deal. Modernity, with its vision of human rationality and progress comes to this …

This week, however, I have reached a chapter where he describes a group he came into contact with in his early career as a theological teacher. They were members of an internat
ional socialist movement. He writes: 'The people who belonged had, of course, all left the church and declared themselves to be atheists; but after the second glass of wine they always became theological and talked to me about God. This was not the banal consumers' atheism of today; what moved them was the old protest atheism of Ivan Karamazov. … As a theologian I felt at home in this group and didn't find it difficult to talk about God to these people who were godless or rebelling against God.' (p.64)

(Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov is a fabulous read, and Ivan Karamazov protests a world in which suffering is so indiscriminate, and innocent children die.)

This 'atheism' is the reality with which we have to wrestle, after the tsunami: here, the clothing of religion has been stripped off and there are no easy answers beyond the pain-killers. Reality here is awesome and awful. It can kill you. It's not an explanation I want. It is the truth. It is reality. No pretence.

There are so many aspects to this experience. It's about what the wave brought me (and us all): what came with it, what it has 'given' me, and what it might mean. But I know I will not see that unless I remain exposed, naked to the truth, awesome and awful though it is.

The God who creates paradise is somehow also with us in death, destruction and the pain, or not at all.

7 thoughts on “After the tsunami: 1. Death comes to paradise

  1. Thank you so much Frank for your honesty in wrestling with the ‘big’ questions. One of my closest friends is an atheist with whom I can talk openly and honestly about many of the issues that Christians want to ignore. Sometimes the pain is just too great for trite responses. Sometimes it seems that we have no hope against such uninvited destruction. How do we remain bearers of hope in the face of such despair? Yet somehow we must. Often the people who have suffered the most seem to be the ones to offer hope, how strange that seems.
    So thank you for sharing. It is appreciated more than you may imagine.

  2. Thanks to you, too, Sandy: you have travelled with us through these hard weeks, and all the while you’ve been in there pitching for people in need, and Daryl has been over there doing great stuff for people who don’t have the access we have had to medical care, and homes to go to etc, etc.
    Bless you, and him, and them!

  3. Thanks for this honest and thoughtful reflection, Frank. I pray that the physical wounds have already healed, and that the other marks upon you will reflect a continuing grace which is evident in this reflection.
    There will long be a sense of shaking one’s head in wonder at it all, having touched something deep within. How such beautiful things can be turned so quickly…
    Thanks again

  4. paradise,
    what a beautiful and sad lament,
    I too am still grabling with the ‘why’ question about the tsunami.
    that supposed paradise is home and the waves shattered everything i hold close to my heart and my island worldview. I feel betrayed by the sea that is our constant. our backyard. our livelihood. our life. our sea.
    and it turned on us so brutally.
    we can rebuild and relocate and re-educate but what of the sea imprinted in my memories, my coral scars, my childhood and me?
    this changes everything, nothing will ever be the same.

  5. How true that in such experiences everything has changed & can never be the same. You have suffered these losses, ‘received’ these strange, wild, life-endangering, faith-threatening “gifts” that have scarred & scared you & left you naked, exposed & vulnerable in previously unknown ways so aware of human fragility, that we are but dust.
    With you we wonder how we exist & have survived at all. It seems it takes time for the sands of life to settle, for scars to heal, lose their “redness” & become white. Then we hope we can begin to see that that which was beautiful before is beautiful still but in deeper, fuller ways. It is never the same. Through the suffering we hope we learn to respect the beauty more, as the sacred thing it is. We walk with ‘terror’ and somehow with faith on a holy ground that quite literally has the capacity to take our breath away.

  6. Thanks, Fotu, for your own response. My heart goes out to you. So too the members of my family.
    It is true that so much of what you had has been washed away.
    But so much, too, remains: beginning with you. You, and me, and us. We are still here, and we still have the great gift of life.
    Yes, we still grapple with the ‘why’: but there is no answer to that. Not an answer in the mind. Some people think they have answers for it all, but they just show how little they understand, or how little they listen to your pain. You and I know that there is no intellectual answer.
    The answer is not an ‘answer’: it is a response. And what you and I are doing now is our response. You, and me, and us and ours: we live on, and we hurt and cry, but we also love. That is our ‘answer’. Or else we go on, forever seeking some theory, or some compensation from a world that is not going to give it to us. No, it doesn’t work like that. The sea has washed away those illusions.
    Thanks for making contact, my friend. Let’s keep in touch. Peace be with you.

  7. Like many others Frank l thank you for your courage in telling your story/s. I can not even begin to imagine what it must have been ‘really’ like. I am truly thankful that you and those closest to you survived. Forgive me for the following ramblings, but making sense of these things is an extremely difficult journey, and l don’t know if there are any answers. Over time the pain, guilt etc. fades a little, enough perhaps to keep a sense of hope alive but it’s still there niggling in the background. Where is God in all of this? Through the wisdom of people like yourself, as written above, prayer and lament, and ‘listening’ I hope to know one day. Take care. Love to you and your family.

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