The tsunami teaches us a lot about our own mortality

My first reaction to the Asian tsunami was that it's not the sort of thing to have opinions on. When a giant wave suddenly sweeps some 150,000 people to their deaths you're horrified, you make a donation to the relief effort, and you contemplate your own mortality. But there aren't really two sides to it, are there? After a decent interval various observations suggest themselves. First, the relief effort now enters its critical phase. In most natural disasters the first couple of days are crucial as people search for survivors. In this case, a huge number of "survivors" escaped the first killing impact, but are now menaced by hunger, disease and smashed infrastructure.

Second, though the attention and sympathy of the world are rightly engaged by this calamity, it should not divert all our efforts from others in need of help elsewhere in the world, including a place called "Canada." Charities have seen an increase in the targeting of donations in recent years. But let's trust their judgment and give at least some money unconditionally.

Third, we need less political symbolism and a little more emphasis on action. Who cares that Paul Martin (or Tony Blair) did not cut short his vacation? What did you want him to do? Fly to Jakarta for an official visit, further straining Indonesia's overburdened infrastructure? Go to Sri Lanka and huck sandbags? A brief statement of concern would have been fine, then a call to the relevant minister saying get DART in the air now.

Fourth, in the longer run, we will have to deal intelligently with why natural disasters cause more harm in poorer countries. Just four days after the tsunami, Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail: "If there were any justice, it would be the wealthiest countries that bore the brunt of nature's tragedies. Instead, it is always the other way around." I cannot grasp his claim that justice would be advanced by the drowning of 140,000 people in a wealthy country like, say, New Zealand or France. But since he raises the point, bad economic policy perpetuates poverty and poverty kills people, so bad economic policy kills people. No matter how good it makes its wealthy western advocates feel.

Fifth, those who say government must dispense charity at home and abroad because citizens aren't sufficiently generous are quite evidently wrong. There may be other justifications, but not that one.

Sixth, what's gone wrong with our understanding of deeper issues? The normally sensible Robert Fulford wrote in the National Post that "There's not a theologian on Earth who could give a persuasive explanation of this tragedy. But if there's no way of explaining what it means in religious terms, is there a way we can give it geopolitical meaning? Can we seize upon it as an opportunity to shape the future?" No. If God is dead, there's no point in our auditioning for the post. Meanwhile, the not normally sensible Archbishop of Canterbury responded as though it was the first he had heard of evil and suffering afflicting innocent people. Who is this "Job"?

The most important question to ask about any religious doctrine, including atheism, is not whether it is comforting or meets my needs, but whether it is true. And as it is plainly obvious that terrible things often happen to people who do not deserve them, any religion worth 10 minutes' consideration has an explanation of it. Hence that large branch of theology called "theodicy."

The standard non-atheist explanation, and I think the only plausible one, is that if good were automatically and immediately rewarded like popping money into a vending machine and getting a chocolate bar back, the world would lack depth, there would be no drama of salvation and the whole thing would not have been worth creating. It may strike you as absurd or even deranged: John Stuart Mill rejected it indignantly. But it has persuaded many kind and intelligent people including, as a letter noted in yesterday's Citizen, St. Augustine. Either way, it's not a new argument, and if it got you through the Black Death, the Holocaust, rape, torture and famine, it shouldn't suddenly crumble now. For as Chesterton wrote of war, "if it is terrible that two million men should die together in a campaign, it is also terrible that all men without exception must die separately elsewhere." The real issue isn't this death or that death but death itself.

So let's do what we can to help those afflicted by the tsunami, and everyone else in need, and remember that one day we too must die. That's still pretty much it, isn't it?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson