Faith in the face of natural disasters

In the aftermath of the terrible Kahramanmaras earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, Mauricio Silva, Columban Interreligious Dialogue Coordinator in Britain, revisits his research for his Master's Degree dissertation in 2010 and explores faith in the face of natural disasters.

A man walking among destroyed houses in Syria

In 2010, the coast of central Chile suffered a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 which was followed by a devastating tsunami. As part of my dissertation for an MA in Applied Theological Studies at Birmingham University that year, I decided to analyse the church’s statements and responses following the tragic events. The research led me to identify emerging theological insights in the field of natural disasters (as well as potential strategies derived from them). In the aftermath of the most horrendous tragedy in Turkey and Syria last week, I believe the research recommendations still have some valid points, not only for Christian churches but also for other faith communities that engage with the issue of faith in the face of ‘natural’ disasters. The following is a modified extract of the concluding section of that research.

The framework developed by Professor David Chester (University of Liverpool) and the theological insights of various liberation theologians, have guided us in this research to propose three general recommendations for faith communities.

1. The need for a theological reflection that goes beyond the meaning of natural disasters

Any relevant response of the church to these tragedies must convey an invitation to the faithful to engage in a theological reflection that avails of biblical, magisterial and liturgical resources. In the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, and following on the prototypical experience of Job in the Bible, a reflection that journeys through the ‘language of prophecy’ and the ‘language of contemplation’. First and foremost, there needs to be an invitation to mourn the losses and to journey through wrestling with God’s will in a prophetic plea of protest – similar to the one found in the dialogue between Job and his friends. Then, there should follow an invitation to enter into the deeper mystery of suffering with a trusting heart, acknowledging the human limitation to make sense of any tragedy. Theological reflection on disasters still tends to rush into offering either retributive justifications or explanations that seek to find an educational value in the suffering of vulnerable people. Both of these exercises are concerned with a search for meaning. We state with Marylyn McCord Adams that the significant question is not why God makes the innocent suffer, but how we can continue to trust in God amid a distressful situation. For Gutierrez, both languages - prophecy and contemplation - eventually merge into a ‘silent praxis of compassion’ born of the contemplative, worshipful encounter with a God who is mystery.

Consequently, in the face of natural calamities, and beyond efforts to search for meanings, faith communities must engage in a reflection leading towards that ‘silent praxis’ of compassion and solidarity through which the Christian faith offers healing to a broken world.

2. The notion of vulnerability and a praxis of compassion and real solidarity.

Chester’s stress on the necessity to articulate increasing dialogue between theology and disaster studies has made us aware of the need to find complementary areas in both disciplines in order to serve best the needs of victims of disasters. Any relevant response to natural disasters must consider those socio-political and historical conditions which increase the suffering and evil inflicted by environmental/political forces, particularly among the poor and marginalised in our societies. As research shows, it is underprivileged who suffer most losses in the face of these catastrophic events, therefore, it is vital that faith responses to tragedies are guided to uncover and tackle all the multidimensional variables which bring people to a situation of vulnerability. When the church incorporates in its discourse the notion of vulnerability, there it finds an opportunity to enhance its theological reflection on suffering and can contextualise more confidently its mission in post-disaster conditions.

Jon Sobrino finds in the victim’s situation the setting where salvation becomes possible. This is because the victims’ determination to survive in the midst of devastation manifests ‘something like the primordial saintliness’. Victims become God’s presence in the reality. This is why we say that the victims of natural disasters bring salvation into the world since they unveiled the oppressive structures which inflict vulnerability.

All this has the power to awaken in society a humanising and profound sense of solidarity that sees victims and non-victims supporting one another. Furthermore, the recognition of vulnerability as a means of engaging communities in reflective action provides the analysis of the victimss' situation with its rightful political-historical dimension. 

3. Enabling communities to a reflective practice on the occurrence of natural disasters

It is acknowledged that faith communities enjoy a high degree of cultural alignment with the population and particularly among vulnerable communities everywhere. This notion was also highlighted at the ‘Faith, Community, and Disaster Risk Reduction Forum’ in Melbourne in 2009. The forum drew attention to a variety of factors that give faith communities a key role in disaster prevention and mitigation. Some of these include the following.

  1. the facilities offered by churches/temples (which can be used for shelter or food distribution)
  2. the church’s local immediacy (which allows its members to respond without delay to the needs of victims)
  3. the church’s immovability ( they will stay in the place of disaster after the relief agencies leave)
  4. the church’s institutional experience as a provider of education, health as well as emergency relief.

Faith leaders must acknowledge the enormous potential of faith communities to respond effectively to the needs of the victims of natural disasters in coordination with other social agents.

As stated above, the church must participate in promoting a culture of preparedness. The aspects of this culture of preparedness in which the church can participate may be the following.

  1. Pursuing the building of effective relationships between the different faith community leaders and governmental agencies in charge of providing programmes of prevention and relief. Also pursue a stronger relationship with other faith communities, particularly of other Christian denominations. All this is in order to promote operational coordination in the face of disasters.
  2. Promoting community resilience, particularly in the area of environmental sustainability, in order to motivate communities to seek resources to identify areas of communal/environmental weakness and the ways to tackle what may put at risk livelihoods. iii) Helping the faith communities to articulate their own narratives on what constitutes a disaster for them. This is an exercise that draws from the past and present experiences of natural disasters but also from the liturgy, the biblical tradition, and other religious and nonreligious sources. Church leaders can use their authority to encourage communities to communicate those narratives to the civil authorities which deal with the effects of catastrophic events. 

Mauricio Silva is the Columban Interreligious Dialogue Coordinator in Britain.

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Comments (1)

  1. Mary:
    Mar 27, 2023 at 11:57 AM

    Interesting to hearing about your dissertation. Thanks for sharing.


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