Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Is God Unjust: The Tsunami
and the Book of Job


The following is the transcript of a presentation on April 6, 2005, at Santa Clara University. The event was part of the Ethics at Noon series sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU.

David DeCosse :
Today we are very pleased to have three members of Santa Clara University's Religious Studies Department presenting on this very important topic-Is God Unjust? The Tsunami and the Book of Job: Professor David Pleins, an expert on the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Job; Professor Paul Crowley, S.J., theologian, whose book on Christianity and suffering is forthcoming; and Professor David Pinault, an expert on Islam, whose most recent book is Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India.

The Book of Job in the Old Testament is one of the great reflections in the Western religious and literary tradition on the meaning of God's justice and human suffering. Today, we will be turning to the Book of Job, in our initial presentation by Professor Pleins, as a way to frame and attempt to understand a catastrophic event of human suffering like the massive walls of water that wiped away, in moments, tens of thousands of men, women and children in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and elsewhere in Asia.

Professor Pleins will present that framework, Father Crowley will offer thoughts on these matters from a Christian perspective, and Professor Pinault will speak of the meaning of these events in Islam, which is the dominant faith of the population hardest hit by the tsunami-the thousands of people in the Banda Aceh area of Indonesia.

Throughout our presentation and discussion, we invite your reflection on the theme of human dignity. No doubt human dignity is understood in different ways by different religious and philosophical traditions. I am sure that many of you understand it in the terms of your own very specific struggles to make sense of your lives. But whatever approach we take to understanding the concept, it does seem that the meaning of human dignity is bound up inevitably with ultimate questions of value. For many religious people, human dignity is founded on God's everlasting love. But what if that loving God appears unjust and unwilling to stop a tsunami from destroying the very people God is said to love? In light of such events, is the foundation of our dignity secure? And is not the struggle for meaning in the face of such events one of the greatest challenges to the dignity of all those who suffer? Or as with many in modernity, is the most meaningful reaction to such apparent divine indifference the assertion of a human dignity that does not wait for God to make good on the promise of justice? We hope today will shed light on these and many related matters.

DAVID PLEINS: An ancient book and a modern catastrophe-I have to admit that when we first talked about holding a panel on Job and the Tsunami, I had some doubts. Why turn to an old Middle Eastern story to understand a contemporary Asian tragedy? So, I decided to do what any self-respecting scholar does, who has doubts about the topic of the day, I Googled it. Leaving my decision in the hands of the god of technology, I lifted up my prayers and said to myself, "If I type in 'the Book of Job and Tsunami' and get a sufficient number of hits, I'll join the panel."

I got more than I bargained for. Not only were there hundreds of hits -- and this was just shortly after our initial discussion of this event -- but I also found Job-like struggles over religious belief taking place around the world as people searched to make spiritual sense of this widespread disaster. The tsunami, it turns out, put all of our beliefs about God's justice and the value of human life on trial.

Answers of a sort were not in short supply. There was the Vatican speaking of the precariousness of human existence and of the need for solidarity and conversion. We are not as powerful as you might think, we were told. The Vatican insisted that God is not sending natural disasters as a punishment; instead, the event encourages us to heal the sick, feed the hungry and quit wasting our treasures on terrible and deadly weapons.

Then there were the fundamentalist Christians, one of whom opined, "I don't look at the tsunami, I look at the Cross." She explained that in situations like this, she looks up to God and asks, "Are you trying to get our attention?" As if the tsunami were God's moral megaphone designed to rouse us out of our spiritual slumber. She went on to say that since we're all going to die anyway, the tsunami didn't bring an overall increase in death in the world. So, the key thing is to worry about that moment after death and ask, Where are we going to spend eternity? For its victims, according to this fundamentalist Christian, the tsunami was merely a speed bump on their journey to a happy afterlife-provided Jesus was their Savior.

Another fundamentalist treated the tsunami as a theological blip on the screen and quickly turned aside from the disaster to harp on her political pet peeves: abortion, homosexual marriages, and the taking of Jesus out of Christmas-apparently, a more important matter than the tsunami. She saw the tsunami as a sign that God will not be mocked and that our turn as a sinful nation might be next. A tsunami in Asia is a divine warning sign to Americans to shape up. It's always about us Americans, isn't it?

Not to be outdone, end-times enthusiast and best-selling novelist Tim LaHaye didn't see the tsunami as a direct punishment from God but claimed that the increase in earthquakes in recent times is a sign that the world is about to end. The victims of tsunami are apparently the unwitting participants in a drama scripted in the Book of Revelation-just another chapter for the "left-behind" novel series, I suppose, only these people weren't left behind, so I'm not sure how he's going to handle this event.

Fundamentalist Christians weren't the only ones hopping on the theological bandwagon. One Buddhist in a BBC report explained that we all die sooner or later. The victims of the tsunami were saddled with Karma for short-lived lives. But, there's a bright side, he said: They all have the opportunity, once the shock from sudden death wears off, to ascend to the Buddha of limitless light, to be reincarnated as people who help others. I suppose it was the deceased victims turn to have their remains picked up by those who had previously been reincarnated as aid workers. But this is getting too complicated.

One Muslim saw the tsunami as the will of God. We have the right to question, he says, but need to see the event as a sign to do something positive. Of course, it remains an open question why God needs to wreck the world in the first place, so that we have to sort out the mess that God has made. Wouldn't it be easier for God to leave well enough alone? The world's in enough trouble as it is, without God gumming up the works.

One Hindu suggested that we are in a thousand-year era of destruction, the "Age of Kali, " and this sort of happening comes with the territory. We're in a time with setbacks, obstacles, and disease. Like the Buddhists, this Hindu saw the event in terms of Karma, the debits and credits we amass through many lifetimes. One day we'll escape the endless cycle--though unfortunately for those who perished not this time around.

An Atheist put things more simply: Science tells why it happened, and it's up to us to pick up the pieces. Where there's no God, there is no theological problem.

One thing's for sure, the tsunami did not pick and choose among believers or nonbelievers. People of all faiths and no faith died in the maelstrom. On the other hand, all faiths and all sorts of secularists got involved in the relief efforts. Catholic charities in India coordinated teams of Hindus, Muslims, and Catholics to search for bodies. Even the U.S. Military got out of the war business for awhile and at least temporarily helped to restore life rather than destroy it.

I think there are several lessons in all of this that we can glean from the Book of Job. The first is that when we try to make theological sense out of all of this, we can start sounding an awful lot like Job's friends. Picture the scenario: Job has lost all his children and is writhing in pain, cursing the day he was born. The three friends arrive ostensibly to console him, but proceed to accuse him of all sorts of evil deeds, offering rational, theological, but poor explanations for Job's suffering. They offer clever arguments and propose equally clever schemes but are really clueless about how to make theological sense out of what is happening to poor Job.

Today is no different. Across the board, regardless of background, people from all religious traditions fall back on trite explanations, preconceived schemes, and preposterous views in an effort to make sense out of what is simply tragic. To paraphrase Charles Darwin on the cruelty of the world, God may design the laws of nature, but when lightning strikes, we cannot believe that God designedly kills the person who was struck.

So, why bother to involve God or the gods at all? In all these ruminations about God and the tsunami, the figure of Job is far closer to Charles Darwin than he is to the fundamentalist Christian or the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. The writer of the Book of Job is less concerned with answers than with raising uncomfortable questions about suffering: "Why is there life for the wretched?" he shouts. "Why do the wicked prosper? Is the lamp of the sinner really snuffed out? Does misfortune knock on his door? Where are the days of judgment? The times when the wicked are put on trial?" Job's universe is a universe out of control, running on no rational basis and surely not on any simple scheme of automatic rewards and punishments. The rich exploit, the poor are crushed, and God sits in Heaven apparently oblivious to it all, or acting as the sadistic host of a satanic game show.

God's whirlwind appearance to Job at the end of the book doesn't make things any neater. In fact, Job is overwhelmed into speechlessness when he comes to see how endemic suffering is to the scheme of things. In God's world, torrential storms crack open the earth. That's a quote from Job, not from the tsunami event. Lionesses shred their prey. Lion cubs crawl about hungry. Antelopes tighten in labor, only to birth calves who never return. The wild ass scours the earth for food. The ostrich treats her children cruelly as if not her own. The horse stamps and sniffs for war, vultures dine on bloody carcasses. Job's demand that God simply topple the mighty is not in the cards. It is a world where the behemoth bellows and the leviathan spits fire.

The book's vision is not one of karmic payback, fundamentalist end-times chronologies, signals from Allah to do good, or even scientific scenarios for plate tectonics. It is instead a vision, where pointed questions get asked, faith is shaken to the core, injustice is railed against and God is called to account. As Virginia Woolf once said, "I read the Book of Job last night-I don't think God comes well out of it."

For those who have a misty view of a patient Job who gets a lesson in celestial mechanics from a hulky God, well, read again. As William Safire snapped in an article written in response to this Job and the tsunami, "Job's moral outrage caused God to appear." Disaster is not a signal for Job to do good; he does good to get revenge on a God who has let the world spin out of control. This is the crux of the book. By challenging God and rejecting the received wisdom about suffering, Job went to a deeper theological level than any of his friends. He learned that it's not our business to make excuses for God, or as in Voltaire's, to try to defend God when disaster strikes. It doesn't comfort me much to think that God was beside the people drowning as they went down. Why didn't God lift a hand as any normal person would try to do? Like the doctor in Camus' The Plague, Job didn't wait for God to do anything about the poor and the oppressed. He stood on his own integrity, which was rooted in his having been the defender of the victims of oppression, and took action. Because of his fierce questioning and his determined acts of solidarity, Job was accorded at the end of the story the greatest honor. He was said to be the one who spoke well of God, while the friends were treated as theological liars.

The bitter irony and attractiveness of Job's theology is not lost on Miroslav Volf, professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, who asked, "Why did the omnipotent and loving One not do something about the tsunami before it struck? I don't know. If I knew, I could justify God. But I can't. That's why I'm still disturbed by the God to whom I am so immensely attracted and who won't let go of me." Rather than giving us answ ers about God's justice and the meaning of life, the Book of Job teaches us how to live as people with faith in the question "why?" Perhaps that's the only answer we can hope for.

PAUL CROWLEY: My presentation is in three parts. The first part is setting up the problem by referring not to the tsunami but rather to another catastrophe that has taken place over a longer period of time, HIV-AIDS. Secondly, I will be looking at the specific question that we sometimes call theodicy: How can we justify God in the face of catastrophic human suffering? Thirdly, I will be looking at what these reflections might suggest, especially in light of the Book of Job, about the topic of human dignity.

In recent years, a lot of my own work has been devoted to HIV-AIDS and some of the theological issues that have come out of that catastrophe. Some of these issues are obvious, such as questions of moral theology and ethics. Some of them are not so obvious; for example, what does any catastrophe, especially one like this, tell us about the mystery of human existence, the way in which love, sex, disease, desire, sin, death, life, yearning all come together into complexes of suffering?

But the most perennial question that I have encountered in my work has been the one that is also raised by the tsunami and by virtually every other major human catastrophe. It is the question of God's justice in the face of it, especially because so many people suffer who are in one way or another deemed innocent.

The problem of speaking of God's justice is that we are using a human term to qualify the divine mystery, imputing to God an expectation on our part that can only be comprehended within the sphere of human experience -- the sphere of how human beings deal with one another, justly or not. I am going to be suggesting that perhaps this isn't what we should be asking.

Let me take a closer look, though, at this question of whether people deserve to suffer, by focusing on disease, first of all. Does a person who has smoked all of his life somehow deserve or merit lung cancer? In the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, there is a man born blind, and he is presented to Jesus as someone who perhaps deserves it because he is paying for the sins of his forbears, or perhaps for his own sins. But, Jesus' response is that this kind of a theology doesn't compute for him. There is no moral calculus here to figure out. Instead, for Jesus, there is a calculus of mystery. The blindness is there so that people can see the works of God precisely in the blind man. And so Jesus turns here to the paradox of revelation, which takes his place in and through decrepit human beings, and rejects the moral calculus of a theology of retribution or of divine punishment for sin or of divine judgment.

To go back to HIV-AIDS just for a minute: Some people would say that this is the great exception, that it does fit a theory of divine retribution or of a divine punishment, especially in the morally disputed terrain of sexuality and homosexual sex in particular. They claim that the transmission of the disease involves the violation of a taboo that is inscribed in nature, and therefore that the disease itself is nature's revenge or in some sort of larger sense, God's revenge, God's judgment on a whole class of people.

Interestingly enough, Pope John Paul II had something to say about this. When John Paul was visiting San Francisco a few years ago, as the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to burst forth, one of the reporters , Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked him, "Do you see this as God's judgment, or in some way is this an expression of God's justice?" (And, I might add that the word justice has a long, convoluted history within scripture that itself would be worth several sessions.) The pope responded that we cannot say. He said, "We only know that God is justice, God is mercy, God is love." What I find interesting in that response is that he is not saying that God is just or unjust. Like a good theologian, he cleverly evading the answer by saying that God is justice itself, so that justice is an endowment of divine being, something that is encountered precisely in the exercise of mercy and of love. That's something that I would like to return to a little bit later.

Secondly, if that is the case, for many people, God is still in the docket. God needs somehow to be justified. And that is one of the issues that is certainly raised in the Book of Job. Jesus himself was confronted with this kind of a question. Apparently, there was a local catastrophe in his own time, reflected in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, where a tower seems to have fallen and killed 18 people. And Jesus says to his listeners, of those 18 people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them, do you think that they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means.

Voltaire, in 1755 after the famous Lisbon earthquake, famously wrote, "Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices than London and Paris immersed in their pleasure? Lisbon is destroyed and they dance in Paris." In other words, there's really no coherence in this moral universe.

This is one of the central arguments running through the Book of Job. Job is confronted by his friends, his interlocutors: Job must have done something to merit the disasters that have befallen him. And yet, as we know, he protests that he did not, that this is a false theology, one which implies a theory of divine justice that doesn't really work here.

Likewise, as we heard from Professor Pleins, there have been various reactions to the tsunami, various ways to try to explain it. Some sort of divine punishment is a very common idea or theme running through many religious responses. I have read many responses suggesting, for example, that this is divine punishment for depravity, for secularism, or even more classically for the sins of others being visited upon the innocent people who were killed and who lost their lives or their livelihoods. We find Hindus blaming Muslims and Muslims blaming Hindus and everybody blaming George Bush. In any case, there has often been some kind of a theory of retributive justice invoked. But, we have seen already that this view is rejected in the Gospels, certainly by Jesus himself, and it's also rejected at the end of the Book of Job.

So, then, what does this say about God? This is where the classic question of theodicy comes up. Theodicy is a really a philosophical attempt to justify God in the face of innocent suffering, to somehow maintain that God is, nevertheless, good and God is somehow all powerful. There's a long history here that we can't go into right now. But many theologians are arguing today that classical theodicy is inadequate for dealing with matters of the magnitude that we are looking at today, whether it's tsunami, whether it's AIDS, whether it's a massive earthquake. Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, writes in his essay, "Why Does God Allow Us to Suffer?" that theodicies like this, where we're trying to justify God, are ultimately insufficient, and that the incomprehensibilities of evil that befall us correlate in some ways with the incomprehensibility of God himself. God is mystery encompassing even the mystery of evil; not that God causes evil or not even that God permits it-those classic formulations that people often rely on-but rather that, as he puts it, the incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God. So, rather than seeing it as a problem, in and of itself, the attempt to understand evil may actually be an entrée into the divine mystery. Rahner says that in the actual course of our existence, the acceptance of God as the intractable mystery and the silent acceptance of the inexplicability and unanswerability of suffering are one and the same event. That really turns the questioning around for all of us in the face of any kind of disaster.

So, where does this leave us? What about human dignity? As for Job, dignity is established first of all just by virtue of being human. When suffering befalls us, when a tragic reversal hits us, it is terrible because we are human. So, there's a certain sense in which, ironically, suffering and tragedy actually establish human dignity.

Secondly, in Job, there is a steadfast standing up to and enduring suffering to be sure, but also Job stands up to God. Dorothy Soelle, the famous German Protestant theologian who just died recently, said, Job is thus stronger than the old God, that God of a moral calculus.

Finally, I would say that the people who have survived the tsunami themselves are a testament to human dignity. As Professor Pleins pointed out, they are living within a chaotic universe, a universe that is much larger then they are, or we are, or our questions.

So, the question finally is not necessarily whether God is just or unjust, or even whether God is justice, as the Pope put it, but whether we can see beyond our own predicament as it were, and see that our predicament is, in a sense, an entrée into the mystery of God.

DAVID PINAULT: As in the Bible, the Koranic God is just, merciful, and all-powerful. Hence, the same problem arises of theodicy, that is, how to reconcile divine justice with human suffering.

The figure of Job, known in Arabic as Aiyub, does appear in the Koran. But, references are so brief that Muslim theologians have tended to look elsewhere for contemplation of human suffering, and I would say especially with regard to the figure of Abraham who appears repeatedly in the Koran. One passage that's frequently cited by Muslim theologians in this context, from Chapter 2 of the Koran states, "And God tested Abraham by means of affliction." That is to say, suffering is construed as a test of one's faith, of one's willingness to accept whatever God decrees. Implied here is an acknowledgment on the believer's part of the mystery surrounding the divine will and how the divine will does not necessarily lend itself to human understanding.

This is developed in the 10th Century with the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari, who is the founder of the Asharite School of Theology that has profoundly shaped the Sunni denomination of Islam up until this day. He offers a famous thought exercise to his students concerning the difficulties of understanding the divine will. Ashari says, "Let us imagine a child and an adult in Heaven. The adult has a higher place -(you may know from the Koran this conception of the pavilions of paradise)-the adult has a higher place and the child asks God, 'Why did you give that man a higher place than you gave me?' And God replies, 'Because of all the good deeds that that man performed in his longer life.' The child gets indignant and asks, 'Then why didn't you let me live longer so that I, too, could accumulate more good deeds?' And God replies, 'Because I knew that you would grow up to be a sinner, so I made you die early as a child.'" Thereupon, says Ashari, a cry will rise up from the depths of Hell, and from all of its sinners in the flames: 'Oh, Lord, why didn't you slay all of us and make all of us die before we became sinners?'" The lesson Ashari offers here, in all those actions in this world, God is just and merciful, true, but, not in ways that we can ever comprehend. He concludes, what is required of us, then, is simply acceptance, submission, and obedience, which of course is the root meaning of the term Islam.

I should also note that the Shia minority tradition in Islam offers a somewhat different perspective by emphasizing the concept of voluntary suffering, centered on the 7th Century battlefield death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, in Iraq. This death was interpreted as a voluntary sacrifice on behalf of the Muslim community, with his title, Sayyid al-Shuhada Hidat or the Lord of Martyrs and his Power of Shafa'ah, or intercession on behalf of sinners who embrace suffering through rituals of self flagellation, to remember Hussein's martyrdom. Hussein's voluntary suffering and death at Karbala in Iraq approximate in some ways, at least, certain aspects of traditional Catholic teachings on Christ's crucifixion and the concept of redemptive suffering.

But, in the context of contemplating natural disasters, I'd recommend a look at Chapter 7 of the Koran, with its references to earthquakes, a rain of fire and brimstone, and the closest equivalent to a tsunami that I can find in the Koran: that is, a giant wave of water that engulfs the chariots and soldiers of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea, much as it does in the Bible. Here affliction is presented not as a test or a mystery or an opportunity to identify oneself with the Lord of Martyrs, but instead, Chapter 7 of the Koran presents natural disasters as a punishment for sinners and as a vindication for the surviving righteous minority, somewhat like the rapture theology of certain Christians fascinated by the Book of Revelation.

And in fact, in the immediate aftermath of the December 26 tsunami, a number of fundamentalist preachers in Saudi Arabia argued from their mosque pulpits that the tsunami crashing into the tourist resorts of Thailand was God's punishment for the tourist lifestyle of sensuality and pleasure-an indictment that overlooked the 125,000 victims in Indonesia, people who were not only Muslims but impoverished. I should mention that a number of other Muslims reacted to those preachers in Saudi Arabia and condemned their interpretations. This is really a source of controversy.

Finally, in this overview of Muslim responses to the mystery of suffering, I should note the controversial writings of the Lebanese poet, Ali Ahmed Said, who goes by the pen name Adonis. Adonis is a Muslim, educated in France, an admirer of Camus, a poet, who in his writings turns for inspiration to the Jahiliyah. Adonis turns to the pre-Islamic Era and the ancient Pagan, polytheistic poems of the Arabian Peninsula. In his writing, Ali Ahmed Said examines a world in which gods exist, but they are not transcendent; the gods cohabit the earth along side us. And such gods are not all-powerful; neither are they just or merciful. They are simply nature spirits with whom we must share the Earth. For the Pagan poets of ancient Arabia-and this is a view that Adonis admires-what happens to us in the way of suffering is random and not the product of any divine plan issuing from an omnipotent and just God. It is up to us to make sense of what happens to us. Adonis reminds us that a world in which humans have the task of finding their own meaning in suffering is also a world of potential freedom and opportunity to construct one's own cosmos, an opportunity for the assertion of human dignity, not because that dignity has been assigned us by a scripture or a God, but because we have struggled to assert it for ourselves. I see Adonis' work as a challenge to all the Abrahamic faiths to resist complacency and reassess teachings they might be tempted to take for granted.


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