Tuesday at 5:00 PM a powerful earthquake shook Port au Prince and Haiti to the core. Like many poor countries the core is not very solid, so nearly every structure in the city collapsed, and along with them our understanding of following Jesus was damaged as well.
Many Christians feel compelled to explain current events from a religious perspective. This compulsion is not altogether bad, provided that those who speak have some connection to God’s mind and heart. Sadly, most people caught up in religious tradition do not possess God’s heart in such matters. Jesus clearly was on the look-out for the false assumptions that nearly always follow disasters:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Luke 13: 1-5
This challenging passage reminds us that disasters have occurred in nearly every culture in every age, and the response of religiously-minded people have been predictable in every age. Predictably wrong. In this short passage Jesus judges the lives not of the victims but rather the thoughts of his followers, and urged them to change their way of thinking.
“Do you think . . .” Two times Jesus challenged his followers to consider their thoughts about the horror going on around them. It seems that their default position regarded disaster as pay-back for wickedness. Were these Galileans or Siloamites really bad people? What does it take to rise to the level of “worse sinner,” or “more guilty?” The problem is with the way we think: we want to rate sin, and worse, rate sinners. Jesus had a different perspective, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) The heart of the Christian message is that our world (and all of us in it) is already desperately sick and dying. It does no good to divide the passengers on the Titanic into first-class or steerage, we are all in need of rescue. Who can anticipate an earthquake or a heart attack? The core issue is whether I am reconciled to the Creator.
“Unless you repent . . .” Surprisingly, Jesus calls for his disciples to repent! With God issue is not other people’s sin, it is my sin. And perhaps even more surprisingly, the sin I should reconsider is my tendency to evaluate the lives of others. We have not come very far from the first century: “bad things happen to bad people” we think, presumably because God’s way is immediate punishment. Drop the F-bomb during the day and you will stub your toe that night. This way of thinking does no justice to God or the poor guy hopping around holding his toe. Mark this down: the essence of the New Testament word “repent” is to change the way you think. Metanoia, literally, to change your mind. A hundred years of fundamentalist thunder cannot alter Biblical revelation.
Suffering has been set loose upon the world since the days of Adam and Eve. The causes of suffering are wide-ranging and difficult to divine. The suffering of the innocent is the most gut-wrenching. We are now exposed to that suffering in Haiti, but we should note that such suffering was going on in Port-au-Prince before the earth began to move.
When the world asks, “Why?” the church should answer with Presence. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that the Suffering Servant was already there, already in place before the most recent disaster struck. He was present in his followers, who have been in Haiti for generations, loving the poor, caring for the orphan, and comforting the widow. It is unspeakably sad that the poor, orphaned, and widowed have multiplied overnight, but the servants of Jesus have been and will be there with them. Wall Street had no interest in Haiti last week, and has none now. The political powers of this age had no regard for the Haitian people and will return to politics as soon as the cameras find other subjects to record in the coming months. Who else worships a God who bleeds and cries? Not the businessman, not the politician, and not the soldier.
Mother Teresa observed that it takes no theological training to give a cup of water to a thirsty child. This, too, is part of the good news of the Kingdom: as the world turns its attention to Haiti it draws closer to the Kingdom and the King. Movie stars forget their self indulgence and offer their wealth and influence to people in need. In so doing, they are not far from the Kingdom of God. Soldiers use their training to save lives and feed the poor. They are not far from God’s Kingdom. Comfortable middle-class people finally open their wallets to the cries of the poor. They are not far. It will be the church who remains in Haiti next month and next year, because the Kingdom of God is in Haiti for generations to come.
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, World Vision, Convoy of Hope