Friday, January 14, 2011

Natural Disasters

January 14, 2011

Our own Kevin York-Simmons recently presented a paper at the Annual Conference of the Society of Christian Ethics in New Orleans. Building on the work of Jon Sobrino he looks at the increasing incidence of moral analysis in the wake of natural disasters. At one level this looks like media looking to assign blame in the wake of such disasters. Why was the death and destruction caused by the Haitian earthquake so much more severe than the Chilean one a few months later, when that one was so much more powerful? Kevin looks at the moral, pastoral and theological consequences of Sobrino’s approach and the proper place of human agency in ’natural’ disasters.

I was remind of the work of Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (Viking, 2005) which looks at how societies choose to fail or succeed, including making choices that lead to ‘natural’ devastation.

Kevin does not shy away from addressing the complexities of poverty and race. Is there any way that decent building codes with relatively costly consequences could have been introduced or enforced in the midst of Haitian poverty? Those codes made the difference for Chile. Were the policy decisions that let the levees of New Orleans remain inadequate in spite of evidence of the same over a long period of time somehow a result of unconscious prejudice against the poor black people who would be most affected in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

He also recognizes the real difficulties of a tendency to undertake analysis (and blaming) in ways that end up blaming the victim. I found myself thinking about the work of Valerie Batts on modern racism (and other ‘isms’) in which she identifies how the issues and challenges of the power group are mirrored within the non-power group and internalized in different ways. For example a liberal teacher might pass a student doing inadequate work in order to somehow try and mitigate the student’s disadvantages in life. That ‘dysfunctional helping’ can get internalized in the student over time as an attitude that believes it is not necessary to do the work because it is always possible to ‘beat the system’. In addition, the conversation takes place on multiple levels (personal, relational, institutional and cultural) with the frequent consequence that we ‘talk past each other’ in these important conversations. The work that different groups in society need to do in order to be prepared to mitigate the consequences of natural disaster differ according to one’s ‘place’ or ’position’ in the various power relationships involved.

On the theological front, Kevin recognizes that a moral analysis of natural disaster relieves us of the kind of theological conclusion that assumes that such disasters fall upon sinners who, by their actions, have in some way deserved the disaster. I’m not sure that much of the blame game goes far beyond this kind of analysis. Sobrino, apparently, turns to an idea of God suffering with those who suffer and leaves it at that while seeking to move the focus to human choice and human agency in the devastation wrought by these disasters. The question, of course, is whether or not our story of faith assumes that God can or should prevent such natural disasters as earthquake, flood and famine.

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