Saturday, October 08, 2005

Interpreting Tragedy: Rorschach Blots on World History

People are always trying to make sense of tragedy. Like the ambiguous Rorschach blots, what you bring to the table often colors your conclusions far more than what actually meets the eye. The human wish to see order -- and, particularly, the easiness of seeing what you are predisposed to see -- is especially visible at times like these.

In the wake of last year's tsunami, certain Muslim camps blamed the disaster on non-Muslims and moderate or apostate Muslims in the area. In the wake of this year's hurricane Katrina, I have heard an amazing array of explanations including a Jewish Zionist who claimed Katrina was God's judgment on the U.S. for turning against Israel over the Gaza strip issue, Muslims who claimed Katrina was an answer to their prayers that the U.S. might be hurt and wounded gravely, and someone within a Christian group claiming that Katrina was God's judgment on the decadence of New Orleans, particularly in its timing of interference with a self-styled "Decadence" celebration. It is likely enough that many of these comments came from "fringe" members of these groups; speaking in the case of the Christian, I'm in a position to notice that this was in fact a "fringe" situation and the person wasn't finding much support. I can't speak for other groups but wouldn't be too surprised if there were the same kind of "fringeness" about the comments.

With the current devastating earthquake near Kashmir -- and given the disputes between Hindus and Muslims over the ownership of that territory, and recent violent history, it's likely enough that the "God's judgment" scenario will be visited again. Of course, even if someone were sure this was God's judgment, either side of the dispute is free to claim that it is the other party's fault, or if their own fault then the fault of not beating the other side decisively enough soon enough. Contesting a region on a geological plate boundary may or may not enter the discussion of why this particular contested territory was visited by an earthquake.

Some things have struck me as most typical of all these interpretations:

1. An unquestioned assumption that there was a divine judgment involved;
2. An insistence that God's judgment addresses a certain dispute and endorses the speaker's own side of the dispute, no matter how implausible the tie might be to the dispute in question or the side of the dispute supported;
3. A complete lack of reflection that their own side might possibly have done anything wrong so that, if God's judgment were in fact visiting, it couldn't possibly be against their own group.

It is difficult to see how submerging New Orleans has anything to do with the Gaza strip. It's also difficult to see how it could possibly be a punishment on the city's decadence when Bourbon street and the French Quarter ("sin central", so to speak) was the one part of town that received particulary light damage. The most obvious reason for this, for those of us who visit New Orleans with any regularity or know the city's history, is that these parts of the city were the oldest parts of the city which were built above sea level instead of later behind levees and below sea level.

For Christians in the mainstream, the doom-mongering can distract attention from its right focus. Our foundation for discussing tragedy is Jesus' words on victims of tragedies contemporary with his earthly ministry: "Were they more worse sinners than the others? I tell you: No. But unless you repent, you will likewise perish."

Jesus insisted strongly that God's particular judgment on specific people or groups is not actually lurking behind every disaster -- a point which seems to escape many doomsayers. And neither is there going to be anyone who escapes the human situation of facing disaster at some point in our lives; if nothing else, we all face it at the time of death. Jesus did not say that a pure life or culture will keep disaster away; more like the world has a "condemned" sign hanging on it. Jesus did not direct us to blame the victims as especially deserving of punishment; based on his comments leading straight the other direction, our insistence on blaming the victims seems to be an exercise in missing the point. Jesus' message is for us to be right with God ourselves because, sooner or later, our own day will come. Given the unpopularity of that message, it's no wonder that we so often manage to miss the point.

1 comment:

Susan Hanson said...
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