Tsunami disaster engages questions of faith

An “act of God.” More than 100,000 deaths. Unimaginable suffering and grief. An international outpouring of aid. Religion was a powerful undertow in the aftermath of the devastating South Asian tsunami in late 2004. ReligionLink offers story ideas and resources for covering natural disaster stories.

Web resources

  • “Tsunami Aftermath Resources”

    Jonathan Dube of Poynter Online collected a useful list of Web links and resources for covering the 2004 tsunami in South Asia.

  • “Covering the Tsunami”

    The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offered resources and advice for journalists covering the tsunami.

  • The Pluralism Project

    The Pluralism Project at Harvard University lists resources across the country by religious tradition, including interfaith resources. It is aimed at engaging students in studying the new religious diversity in the United States.

  • National Press Foundation

    The National Press Foundation offers resources for journalists, including disease specialists.

Where is God?

In times of tragedy, even the most faithful can ask, “Why us? How could this happen? Who can we blame?” In the United States, those questions are mostly filtered through a Christian or Jewish perspective. Yet in the South Asian countries where the tsunami hit, the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths are dominant. The tsunami and similar natural disasters — such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti — offer an opportunity to explore, in local communities, how universal questions play out in different faith communities, some of whose beliefs may not be widely understood by most people in America. As the media flood the public with images of the dead, the grieving, the hungry, the injured and the emotionally drained, questions resonated across all faiths, as well as with people who have no connection to any organized religion. How are Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists in your communities responding? Look for stories that show how their faith understandings play out in religious rituals, grieving and aid efforts. How do they differ from Christians’ responses?

A Biblical disaster in the modern world

Like an Old Testament disaster, the tsunami brought death, famine, threat of plague – and questions about God. Yet this story wasn’t told in sacred texts; instead, it was told through television, the Internet and satellite photos. Hours after the tsunami hit, people around the world began turning to technology to get information about the scope of the disaster, to look at photos and video of the devastation and, in many cases, to find loved ones. Did seeing a modern-day disaster of seemingly biblical proportions help people to better understand the tragedy, or did it create spiritual despair? Were religious leaders and people in the United States and abroad turning to religious texts describing disasters to help them cope with the tsunami’s aftermath?

Christian aid in non-Christian countries

American religious organizations of all faiths eagerly responded to calls to help tsunami victims. With that came tensions created by Christian organizations helping people of other faiths. Christianity is distinct in Jesus’ evangelistic call for disciples to spread the good news to “the ends of the earth,” which makes Christian aid suspect in some people’s eyes. Within Christianity, there are different attitudes toward helping others. Some say the primary goal is to help others because Jesus said to love neighbors, and enemies, as self. In doing that, Christians are witnessing to their faith. Others see the primary goal as sharing their faith with others in order to convert them, which has led to tensions and, sometimes, violence. How did different Christian aid organizations – both local and national – approach their efforts to help tsunami victims? What did local Christians say about their motivation for helping victims? Consider profiling aid workers of different faiths about why and how they respond to the need for help.

  • The South Asian Journalist Association listed some of the secular and religious organizations that responded to the disaster.
  • Samaritan’s Purse, headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, undertook extensive relief efforts and said it was trying “to save lives and share the love of Christ.”
  • Church World Service, which represents 37 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations, planned extensive aid. It said it worked “to strengthen common witness among Christians and nurture interfaith dialogue and cooperation.”

Healing psychological scars

For the most part, governments, international organizations and secular and religious aid groups focused on getting tsunami survivors medical treatment, shelter, food and water. But long after those needs were met, experts said, survivors and those who helped them were left with psychological and spiritual scars that take time to heal. How do relief agencies in your community help victims and volunteers alike? Tell the stories of local people who have given aid in international disasters who can say how it changed their perspectives about the world, themselves and their faith. Most denominations and large religious organizations employ disaster response specialists, most of whom also have religious training. Many are ordained. They can address how faith-based disaster response is different.

  • Church World Service offered psychosocial care for children traumatized by the tsunami, according to a news release.

The path to healing

  • Rosemary Chinnici

    Rosemary Chinnici, a disaster specialist, Roman Catholic nun and pastoral theologian, considered the psychological and theological aftermath of disasters in a talk she gave after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In every disaster, she says, after an initial “honeymoon” time of helping, sharing and altruism comes a period of disillusionment with aid efforts before rebuilding begins in earnest. During times of frustration, when aid does not reach people quickly or effectively, she notes that people — even those not directly affected by the disaster — often seek a sense of security. She warns that comforting talk about God can sometimes be a safety device that keeps people from embracing and responding to the suffering of others, both at home and abroad.

Responses to suffering

Personal stories from natural disasters are wrenching. Parents whose children were swept away. Children whose parents were swept away. People hoping beyond hope to have, at least, a loved one’s body to bury. People starving while grieving. Natural disasters illuminate life’s painful injustices. Religious traditions all address suffering – its meaning, reasons for it, how to deal with it. In South Asia, however, there was the added element that so many of these communities were suffering already, from economic problems, civil war, poverty and other plights. As one online letter writer asked, “Why all of a sudden do we care about the welfare of the people who have been affected by the tsunami, a natural disaster? Every day many of those people are poor and don’t have enough to eat because we are greedy and want too much.” While not everyone agreed with the writer, it is true that suffering goes on daily all over the world, with relatively little awareness of it in the United States. What makes people respond to some kinds of suffering and not others? What makes them reach out? People who study charitable giving are always trying to unlock the answers to such questions. Why will people call by the hundreds to adopt an abandoned puppy featured in the news but barely consider what they might do to address poverty in Third World countries? As donations pour forth from America, talk to local clergy and aid agencies about what triggers people to give and how they try to influence that.

Muslim charitable giving

Indonesia, which suffered the greatest human loss in the 2004 tsunami, had more Muslims than any nation in the world. Other affected countries also had significant Muslim populations. Muslim Americans were eager to contribute to relief efforts. But did the American government’s increased scrutiny of Muslim charities in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affect donations from that community? How did Muslims in your city react to the disaster? What methods did they use to donate funds to ongoing relief efforts? Did Muslims in your community have a difficult time donating money through Muslim charities?

Interfaith efforts

The killer tsunami not only affected people from different countries and cultures but also different religions. In the United States, that invited opportunities for people of different faiths to join together to collect money and resources for relief efforts. Some of the seeds of such interfaith efforts were planted or strengthened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Did such interfaith efforts go on in your community? How did the groups working together? Was this a new occurrence in your community or had interfaith bridges already been built? What were some of the challenges they faced in working together?

The difficulties of doing good

As thousands of Americans donate money and supplies for disaster relief efforts, video images remind them that it is often hard to offer effective help. Reaching people in remote areas and working with governments unprepared for such large-scale relief efforts involves frustrations. In addition, the outpouring of aid after the 9/11 attacks reminded Americans that money does not always get to the places they think they’re helping. After the tsunami, information circulated quickly and widely on how people could make sure they were giving to reputable charities with effective plans for action. As aid efforts unfold, reporters can examine what is going well and why and what new challenges relief agencies are facing. Many of these can be told locally, as local groups and organizations gather supplies and money.

Tragedy promotes global community

The tsunami took place on the other side of the world, in countries whose landscapes, cultures and religions are unfamiliar to many Americans. Americans’ generous response surprised some U.S.-based aid groups, who expected lesser reaction because the disaster was so far away. Some private citizens headed overseas to help. Reporters can find stories that explain how the global community is becoming more closely knit together by talking to people about what inspires them to give. Have they visited one of the affected countries? Do they know someone from one of them? Have media images affected them? Has their place of worship – and its global affiliations – inspired them to help? Do they do business with a company in one of the affected countries? How do places of worship that include members of different countries use individual stories to connect people to the tragedy? How do workers at international companies that do business in the area respond?

What to pray

Worship often focuses on praise and thanksgiving to God, but Christianity, Judaism and other faiths also have rich heritages of expressing anguish and lament. After the Sept. 11 attacks, certain psalms and prayers took on special meaning for victims and relief workers. What psalms and prayers are they turning to now? What religious rituals do Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims use in times of anguish? What can the traditions learn from one another?

  • Religious leaders of different faiths can talk about arguing with God and expressing anguish in their tradition. Seminary professors and professors of religious studies and comparative religion at local colleges and universities are also a good resource.

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