Why I am ignoring Burma and China

I have not been moved greatly by the natural disasters in Burma (Myanmar) and China. Why not? Am I callous? I sometimes feel a bit guilty for this. But somehow deep down these things do not move me.

One thing that I could say is that the tens of thousands who die in high profile disasters like these are in fact a small number compared with those dying every year from largely treatable diseases like malaria, which causes over a million deaths a year. It may seem callous to calculate like this, but there are probably more lives saved or rebuilt per buck from providing simple mosquito nets to poor Africans than from responding to the latest fashionable disaster appeal.

But there is also a more theological reason for not focusing on natural disasters, which is well put by John Hobbins quoting David Hart:

[T]here is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

Hart’s essay is profound, and also touches on how this matter relates to understandings of the atonement. If this extract doesn’t make sense to you, read it all. It is in line with Hart’s conclusions that John adds:

Suffering and death have no meaning whatsoever except insofar as they will be vanquished forever.

Indeed! To Christians death should be a joyful release from this earth (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), although of course tinged with sadness for those left behind, and suffering is temporary and a preparation for greater glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). As for those who die without explicitly being Christians, it may well be that God reveals himself to them in their dying moments; or maybe God knew that they would never repent and believe and so there was no point in keeping them alive. In any case, God is in control of all this. We should avoid falling into the world’s way of thinking in which death is the ultimate disaster.

So, as Christians we should not let ourselves be distracted by giving excessive attention to natural disasters, which are bound to come, but should keep our focus on the work of building God’s kingdom.

0 thoughts on “Why I am ignoring Burma and China

  1. What moves me about these disasters and about other problems such as the need for mosquito nets that you mention is that they reveal the face of humanity. The Chinese and the Burmese both have as we all have the need to save face. We need to be seen to be in control, to be seen to be responding to our responsibilities, and so on. These disasters, like the misuse of money and power around the world in both legitmate government and crime, show us humans what we value and to what extent we will go to get and retain such. How do we change the heart of the ones who need to be able to admit they are not in control ‘by themselves’? What is the nature of our wholeness together that allows the non-victim to help the victim and yet not create a false dependency or a false obligation?

    Here I come to agree with seeking first the Sovereign Rule of God who has shown us in Christ how to respond in the Spirit – this is the path, walk in it. It is a path of repentance – so when we are able to hear how wrong we are/were, we can stop and rethink our problem space. It is a path of mutual inter-dependency. It is a path of openness – sometimes… and of hiddenness – sometimes. It is a path that does not put us at the centre – as gatekeeper of the tent of meeting – for our Lord Jesus Christ is at that centre and it is sufficient. It is a critical path, encouraging us to grow and judge when the time is right – for we have this judgment from him that we through his death are beyond our own individual judgment. Then we will learn a new wholeness, hearts changed. And we will learn how to use the mammon of unrighteousness. Then we will find the face that is truly ours, the reflection of the Glory, and not the one we think we ought to have had in our pre-judgment.

  2. Peter, the quotes and reflections are indeed profound. The idea of suffering and evil in the world has been a subject of mind for two years now.

    I did a series on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Some of our members got mad, while others appreciated what I had to say.

    While I do think suffering and evil are best resolved at the Cross, I still think we need to be aware of the pain around us, whether as a result of diseases or natural disasters.

    I do think we need that balance…

  3. I’m not comfortable, Peter, with your approach to death. You see death as a release, and in some circumstances it is, but often death is the enemy, pure and simple. The cyclone and earthquake that invested Myanmar and China, respectively, are an aspect of creation which we expect to be eliminated one day. In the meantime, we cannot but groan and lament, with the help of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8).

    You say:

    as for those who die without explicitly being Christians, it may well be that God reveals himself to them in their dying moments; or maybe God knew that they would never repent and believe and so there was no point in keeping them alive. In any case, God is in control of all this.

    That’s too glib. You speak those words as if the survivors in China and Myanmar, and their Creator, cannot hear you. Presumptuous on both counts.

    In the Bible, natural disasters are understood as wake up calls, as occasions on which to repent.

    That said, I agree with you that the Gates Foundation is doing the right thing to spend its billions on malaria prevention. It doesn’t make up for the fact that he is a Bush supporter, but it’s better than nothing (sarcasm alert).

  4. Peter,

    While I understand your sentiment it does not seem to me that it is consistent with the New Testament.

    Consider the reaction to Jesus to the death of Lazarus, consider the compassion he continually showed to the sick and dying.

    Consider Paul going around making a collection of money for Christians in Jerusalem.

    Now I have not blogged about Burma or China, I have no problem with not doing so. I quite agree that when there are fashionable disasters it is important to continue to work at the other problems.

    But I do not think it is appropriate, or in anyway consistent with the gospel to not show compassion to those who have lost everything and to those who are dying. Christian or not they are all loved by God just as much as anyone else.

  5. Yes, John, those words were a bit glib, not quite expressing what I wanted to say. You are of course right about disasters as a wake-up call. I need to reconsider what I said there. I know very well that God can read my blog, but should perhaps have realised that I might have readers in China although probably not Burma.

    Dave, I don’t want to show any lack of compassion. But I only have so much compassion to show, and the Burma and China victims are receiving much more of it than the malaria victims, and probably others who have not even attracted the attention of the Gates Foundation. I note that Jesus only specifically showed compassion on those around him, those he saw and met. He didn’t have much compassion on those who had died in a natural disaster outside his immediate experience, Luke 13:4. Of course that doesn’t invalidate compassion at a distance, but we can hardly say that Jesus’ example mandates it.

  6. peter–

    buddy, you’re making me nervous. i’m having trouble reconciling the paradox that the author of this post is also the author of this post.

    i understand that huge catastrophes are a source of great angst in one’s faith and cognitive dissonance over theodicy issues. (in my case, they led to agnosticism.) but don’t just give up, and justify resignation. go look at your ‘response to poverty’ post i cited above. stay in touch with healthy folks, believers and non-believers alike, who you can listen to you about your need for change.

    for my money, the good samaritan teaching wins here. as you’ve written before, let your response be reasonable and justice-filled.

    peace–

    scott

  7. Scott, I don’t quite see your point.

    I don’t agree that “huge catastrophes are a source of great angst in one’s faith and cognitive dissonance over theodicy issues”. At least, they aren’t for me. I don’t want to question the reality of your angst, but I suggest that, as John Hobbins and David Hart explained, it is based on some theological misunderstandings.

    What I wrote here is surely compatible with what I wrote in the previous post you linked to:

    each Christian, with God’s guidance, needs to make an informed decision about which causes to support and which ones to ignore. A Christian who ignores all issues of poverty and injustice is probably acting unethically. A Christian who refuses to support your own pet project may simply have made a sensible decision to target limited resources elsewhere. …

    [Christians] may buy Fairtrade coffee or respond to appeals with pictures of starving children, but in most of the way they live they continue to support the structures which lead to third world poverty. Is it too cynical of me to suggest that most giving by Christians, and others, falls into this category? …

    there is a need for informed choice, rather than simply giving to the cause making the most tear-jerking appeals. …

    As Christians, before we make our responses to poverty and injustice, we need to understand what we are doing, into which of these categories it fits. We need to avoid simply responding to pressure and guilt put on us by others. Yes, we need to do something, but a small contribution well targeted may be much more effective than large amounts spent on ill-considered causes.

    Perhaps you feel that in my latest post I am concentrating on evangelism rather than social issues. That is a misunderstanding. When I write about the priority of “the work of building God’s kingdom”, I am not making any such distinction. Since God’s kingdom is one of justice, building it includes doing away with injustice in this world. I don’t claim that we will be able to do this by our own efforts, but our efforts should at least be working towards this end.

  8. peter–

    you wrote:

    “But somehow deep down these things do not move me.”

    huh?

    if these kinds of catastrophes don’t move you, what does? if some sort of angst feeling about these kinds of catastrophes isn’t part of being the body of christ, and a collaborator in the kingdom of god, what is?

    scott

  9. OK, Scott, I see what you mean. But I find it difficult to understand why people have continuing angst about such matters. As we are all aware, earthquakes, cyclones etc keep coming, every year several times. They are a fact of life, and there is not much we can do about them – although better houses, sea defences etc help. If my faith were shaken every time, it would be a very insecure faith. But it is not shaken because it is a secure faith, built on a much more solid Rock than any on this earthquake-prone planet.

    In my other post yesterday I shared how I had been through depression. Perhaps through that I lost the ability to be easily moved by others’ suffering. Perhaps the healing has not been complete. But it means that when I see great needs I don’t react out of emotion, but from a rational assessment of the situation. I hope that doesn’t make me some kind of unfeeling monster. I am moved, although not always so deeply, by needs I actually see in those around me and can do something about, and I do it.

    This is not of course to say that a more emotional approach is anti-Christian. There is room for both approaches.

    It is ironic that I am being accused of being unemotional on this one but carried away by emotion over the Todd Bentley outpouring.

  10. Peter,

    “It is ironic that I am being accused of being unemotional on this one but carried away by emotion over the Todd Bentley outpouring.”

    Not sure it is ironic, but it is a concern for me. Maggi Dawn (who is a long, long way from you on the Todd Bentley issue) wrote:

    “focusing on a “bless ME” kind of Christianity particularly sticks in the throat in a month where two massive natural disasters have left hundreds of communities bereaved and materially devastated.”

    See also An Unequal Blessing « A Deconstructed Christian for worrying examples from the Lakeland chatroom.

    In summary, this thing seems to be somewhat out of balance. Gospel issues (justice, fighting poverty, compassion, …) seem to be lost when there is a focus on an exciting experience.

  11. Dave, thanks for your point and for drawing my attention to Maggi’s post. I have just posted the following comment on her blog, which can serve also as an answer to you:

    You certainly have a point about not all the seed bearing fruit. Indeed some falls on rocky ground etc. Is that a reason not to sow? Not in Jesus’ parable.

    Your last paragraph is irrelevant. The Lakeland outpouring is NOT “overlaid with promises of material gain”; at least I have seen no signs of this “prosperity gospel” teaching in the significant parts of it I have watched. I hope this is not simply an attempt to smear this work of God with guilt by association. So I don’t see any link between this outpouring and the natural disasters, ones which it seems we can do nothing about, except the one which Jesus drew in Luke 13:2-5: we all need to examine our own spiritual state. And if this is wanting, perhaps we can put it right by allowing our faith to be revived at Lakeland or Dudley.

    Meanwhile deconstructed Heather accuses Todd Bentley of “ignor[ing] the malnourished, the poverty-stricken, the widows, the orphans”. Does she know about his work with orphanages etc? I don’t know much myself, perhaps I should research this. Of course some people are going to send in dubious prayer requests, but you can hardly blame the organisers for what people put on their chatroom site.

  12. Peter,

    If I started using our blog to make prayer requests for 1,000’s of $ I am confident that it would get a response from you. You would point out the problems with that type of prayer.

    Do you see this happening on the Lakeland chatroom? Do you think anyone runs a chatroom without an admin watching and moderating?

    I want to see the Holy Spirit bringing life, hope, transformation. But is this it? Not so sure and the less I see of open accounting, the less I see of scripture in preaching, the less I see of concern and action on justice (and I do not mean just direct funding of a few specific projects, I mean prophetic teaching on the lifestyles & greed of the 1/3 world etc) the more I worry.

  13. Dave, I don’t know why your comments are being held for moderation. Perhaps “chatroom” is a keyword. Sorry.

    Yes, I’m sure there is some moderation of the Lakeland chatroom, and anything really abusive would be deleted, just as I would delete really abusive comments on this blog. But I accept many comments putting views quite different from my own, including yours, sometimes with my own response but often without. I entirely refute any suggestion that I fully endorse every comment here unless I explicit rebut it. I think you would have the same policy on your blog. And I think you should allow the Lakeland chatroom to have the same policy.

    Anyway, you are making two assumptions here: one that the moderators did not in fact distance themselves from this kind of prayer request, which we can only know by reading the entire voluminous feed; and another that this prayer request was in fact selfish, when it might have been for urgently needed funding for some very unselfish cause.

    Do you see any evidence of lack of open accounting in this matter? Or are you making another unjustified smear? Have you looked into this issue? Dave Faulkner has, so read the comments on his post about Fresh Fire’s tax affairs, which seem open and reasonable.

    I’m sorry, Dave, but I see you as having joined the crowd of those who are determined to find fault with this move of God and look for any trivial excuse to do so. I pray that God does not treat you as you deserve for having that attitude.

    I agree that I would like to see more “prophetic teaching on the lifestyles & greed of the 1/3 world”. But if Todd Bentley is to be condemned for not doing this in every sermon, then I would think at least 90% of the preachers in the world stand condemned in the same way. So why pick on Todd?

  14. Hi Peter. I am reading your stuff (as much as I can manage anyway) on Lakeland and Dudley. I have come from a background that is sceptical of this kind of thing and although I want to and try to be open minded backgrounds can be powerful influences!

    So it is really interesting to review this again. So thanks for taking time to post on it. Your last paragraph on the last comment is very interesting. When I have time I will enjoy reading through some of the other links you have posted elsewhere.

  15. Peter,

    a) I do not agree with your interpretation of Dave Faulkners findings. At least there IMHO are open questions.

    b) I have been fortunate to have been able to spend time with a Rev Dr Malcolm White, a Methodist Minister who is part of the team at Westminster Central Hall. I have been to his healing services, I have been forward and had a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit at work. I have not denounced Todd Bentley. I am however, wanting to weigh the evidence for myself.

    c) My latest post does quote Todd Bentley directly with his views on finance. I am interested in your views on his teaching.

    d) There are many things that I am totally reliant on God not treating me as I deserve. Sadly they continue to happen. Happily I believe that Jesus offers even me forgiveness and reconciliation with God is possible through the actions of Jesus on the cross.

  16. Thank you, Dave. I hope you have seen my response to your latest post.

    As for Todd’s financial affairs, I agree that we have not seen the full evidence. We could probably ask Fresh Fire for a full set of accounts, which would have to be freely available if the Canadian system is like ours. Meanwhile I have seen no positive evidence of irregularities, only rumours and allegations. On the basis of 1 Timothy 5:19 we should not entertain any such accusation unless there is clear evidence.

    I don’t claim that Todd, or myself, is perfect, just that God is genuinely using him and I want him to use me in the same kind of way.

  17. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Answering the unanswerable on suffering

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