The Typhoon Haiyan continues to wreck havoc on the people of Philippines. It has already been described as one of the strongest storms to have ever made land-fall.
The death toll number is still a mystery, in the thousands, perhaps over 10,000 in just one city. Disaster relief agencies are having a hard time reaching people because of the scale of the disaster. There are hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Billions of dollars in damage.
In times like this, the world’s attention turns for a few days to the tragedy, before moving on to the next crisis, the next distraction, the next Miley Cyrus antics.
So what do people of faith have to say today? Where do we stand? Do we have a contribution that is actually informed by our faith traditions?
I suggest that our actions may look indistinguishable from the relief effort of others: direct action motivated by compassion. But some of the motivation and the inner reflection might look different. Ultimately a just and loving community is measured by the way in which we connect work out in the world with work on our own hearts. Action and contemplation must go hand in hand.
Here are a few points to keep in mind and in heart, in the mist of our direct action.
1) humility in face of suffering
When confronted with these atrocities, if we are not there in the Philippines, we are accessing the images and stories through the media. And the media can not simply show image after image, they need to have talking heads to fill up the news account. Instant analysis.
Sometimes that type of analysis is helpful, at other times it can actually be an excuse to avoid sitting with the overwhelming, heart-shattering suffering of human beings. Words cannot be an excuse to avoid the reality of human suffering, whether at an individual level or at such an overwhelming mass level. We are to sit with that suffering, as uncomfortable as it is.
2) suffering here, suffering there
We have seen in Katrina who differently the suffering of poor (and racially “other”) communities tends to be portrayed, and even experienced. In reaching out in compassion, we have to always be on guard against impulse in our own heart that seeks to rationalize their suffering as anything other than the fully painful reality of human suffering.
3) avoiding the pornography of suffering
The human heart responds to love, responds to suffering, responds to loss. We find God and humanity intertwined in these spots, when we love the most, when we are most vulnerable, when we hurt the most. These moments break the illusion of our own ego, the illusion of being cut-off isolated selves.
There is a temptation when it comes to natural disasters to avoid the vulenerabilty, avoid the human-to-human connection, to avoid finding God in the broken places, in the broken hearts. Yet this is precisely where we are called to look.
One way that our egos seek to do this is to turn suffering into a pornography. We seek to find ever greater and more disasterous displays of violence, ever more destructive pictures and videos. Stop. The pornography of suffering and natural disaster actually gets in the way of our direct and immediate response of compassion.
4) action, immediate and direct action
We are called to act. Immediately, directly, and urgently. No talk of “disaster fatigue” is to get in the way. We are to connect the suffering there to the suffering here, always being mindful of how the humanity there is already wrapped up in the humanity here. Our humanity is not something that we possess inside us, it is our very relationship with one another.
We are to reach out and act. This is how Christ acted, healing the sick and comforting the marginalized. This is how Muhammad acted, reaching out to the orphans and the widows and the poor. If we wish to be counted as people of faith, we are to begin with the “least of these”, those in the greatest situation of suffering.
Here are some places to begin.
5) Now what?
What will we do after the news crews have moved on?
What will we do at the time of the next crisis?
Will we keep looking for and looking after the “least of these” after this storm passes?
There is a suffering that won’t be recorded and won’t show up on images.
Will we be willing to ask the difficult questions, the wondering of why it is that we are seeing ever increasing temperatures around the planet, ever stronger storms. Will be willing to ask the hard questions that our way of life is not sustainable? That the pace of our production and consumption is leading to an environmental destruction that will lead to ever escalating cycles of death and suffering?