Where is God in a humanitarian crisis?
Writing in the Autumn 2011 edition of the New Wine Magazine, Baroness Caroline Cox, CEO of an organisation called the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) offers two responses to how we should reconcile our belief in a loving and omniscient God, with the images seen on TV shows of babies dying in anguish and other humanitarian crisis.
'Pity weeps and turns away. Compassion weeps and puts out a hand to help.’
These challenging words of St Francis of Assisi help to explain why it is often in the extreme forms of human suffering that we find the greatest manifestations of Christian love and even joy.
Confronted by any suffering, and perhaps especially by suffering on a huge scale in war or natural disasters, we can all weep – and, feeling helpless or overwhelmed, turn away. But compassion puts out a hand to help – however inadequate that help may seem. And so often, when we do engage with those who are suffering, we find miracles of grace: Good Samaritans giving joyfully and those who are afflicted inspiring us with love, peace and generosity.
Generosity in poverty
Often it is the poorest of the poor who are the most generous. Examples abound. I will never forget a time when we were taking medical aid to Poland in the dark days of martial law, when there was often no food in the shops and people were dying from hunger. Fresh fruit for non-Communist Party members was especially scarce and many suffered vitamin deficiency diseases.
On one occasion we offloaded our aid in a town stricken by poverty and chronic shortages of food. One member of the church had been able to grow some strawberries. After unloading, the local community prepared a feast for us of those precious strawberries. I tried to eat as few as I could, leaving as many as possible for those in need of these vitamin-filled delicacies. Then, when my truck driver Tony and I left, I found a brown paper bag hidden under my seat containing the remaining strawberries. I was choked and asked Tony how he explained the situation when he returned to the UK; how the plight of the Polish people was so desperate, yet they were so generous. Being a good Cockney, he expressed himself better than I did, simply saying, gruff with emotion: ‘They got nothing, and they give you everything.’
I’ve heard it said that ‘only where there is great suffering can there flourish that which saves.’ We often see this in humanitarian crises. Our Lord did not promise us lives free from suffering, but he often proves that he is ‘a very present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46.1). One Anglican Deaconess in the midst of a life-threatening humanitarian crisis told me: ‘I pray to God in the calm days; then when trouble comes, I find him at my side – and I know real peace’.
Remembering the Holy Innocents
Another insight into the subject of suffering came to me when I was in southern Sudan during the war which left two million dead and four million displaced. I had been walking through killing fields of human and animal corpses and the burnt ruins of the scorched-earth policy inflicted on innocent civilians. The final evening I sat outside my tent and wept. My faith was profoundly challenged. Then it occurred to me that perhaps one reason why we, who live in freedom and relative abundance, fail to come to terms with such suffering is reflected in the way in which we celebrate Christmas. It may seem incongruous to think of Christmas in the scorching heat of Sudan – but it is the beginning of the story of God’s love manifest in his incarnation, which ended in his death on the cross.
At Christmas we appropriately celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. But as our Christmas festivities continue, with parties, Christmas presents and happy Bank Holiday activities, we tend to forget that, while Mary was celebrating the birth of her son Jesus, many other mothers were weeping for their dead sons, killed by King Herod. Many churches do remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents on 28 December, but if we forget or downplay that part of the equation of Christmas, it is perhaps not surprising if we do not have a theology capable of understanding the mystery of suffering.
My thoughts continued to that ‘Good’ Friday when Christ was dying in agony on the cross, and all his mother could do was to stand with him while the sword of suffering pierced her heart. It occurred to me that perhaps part of any Christian’s calling should be a readiness to attend whatever Calvaries our Lord may call us to attend and to be present, as Mary was, in heartbroken love, profound grief and immense respect. For it is at the foot of the Cross that we can glimpse some insights into the meaning of suffering, and of the redemptive power of sacrificial love.
Of course these Calvaries do not have to be in war zones. They may be on our own doorsteps, in hospitals, hospices or elsewhere in our local community. But those of us who are privileged to visit Christians suffering in humanitarian crises, often caused by persecution, are always humbled and inspired by their faith, love, courage – and joy! Their faith rebukes and shores up mine.
The persecuted Church continues to worship joyfully even in the ruins of burnt-out buildings and to grow even in the midst of tribulation. Moreover, with very few exceptions, we do not find any desire for vengeance. The Christians we meet demonstrate love and forgiveness for those who cause their suffering – like Ma Su, a lady from the Karen tribe in Burma. Her village had been burnt to the ground, her home and all her possessions destroyed and then she was shot in cold blood by a Burmese soldier. When asked how she felt about the soldier who shot her, her reply was simple: ‘I love him. The Bible tells us we must love our enemies. So I love him. He is my brother.’
Her words echo Christ’s on the Cross, praying for forgiveness for those who were inflicting his agonising death. That is the heart of the Christian gospel of redeeming love which is so often manifest in the suffering of humanitarian crises: not removing the suffering but redeeming it. And that is why we can, against all our human instincts, call that dark Friday of Christ’s agonising death ‘Good’.
This article was first publish in the Autumn 2011 edition, and appears copyright of New Wine Magazine, and is used with kind permission.