Port-au-Prince, January 2010

The news out of Haiti wrenches at me.

Disasters always make me feel bad; in part because I care for all the people hurting out there, and in part because I regret that I don’t care more. I read the news and went back to having breakfast, a reaction I fear will be extremely common the world over. Certainly the news out of Haiti has been atrocious for decades if not centuries, and the world rarely bats an eye. Still, this is not going to be a white-guilt post. I fired off a donation to the Red Cross and signed up to give blood, and given my current circumstances that’s about what I can do right now.

Disasters, however, also raise the hard questions again. Haiti is a land that has had  no luck at all, and now the biggest earthquake the region’s felt in two centuries hits the poorest city in the hemisphere? That’s on beyond bad luck, that’s almost malice. As if God has it in for them; that has, in fact, been suggested. Seeing the devastation in Port-au-Prince, it would seem God is cruel, vengeful, or simply not there. So I have to ask, as with every disaster, how can I watch such tragedy and still believe in a holy power that is both vast and compassionate?

As with everything else, there are many causes at work; the simple answer is almost never right. Haiti is a classic example of all the factors that govern human life going wrong at once, and combining to produce even greater horror.

First off, part of the problem is people don’t always recognize the true nature of their environment. Most of the United States, for instance, was settled in the last 200 years — an eyeblink, in terms of geology and ecology. In many regions we’ve been operating as if current conditions will last forever. But Los Angeles was built in a desert, despite being somewhat more damp when the first settlement began; the Mississippi will eventually change course to the Atchafalaya channel, whether New Orleans likes it or not; the Oglala Aquifer isn’t inexhaustible. Likewise we build in earthquake country and don’t always realize it. Do the construction codes in St. Louis remember the New Madrid quake?

I’m not saying we should abandon all the geologically active regions in the world. Frankly, some of the planet’s best places, for scenery and agriculture, are in the shadows of volcanoes or perched above fault lines. The occasional quake and eruption are the price we pay for having rich soil and good views. We just need to be aware of that price when we build.

Moreover, most of us don’t have much choice about where we live, and this is particularly true of Haiti.

Let us also acknowledge just how much of this crisis was made or exacerbated by human behavior, without any divine intervention one was or another. A 7.0 quake in California would do damage and kill people, but probably not thousands. This is because the region is affluent enough to construct its buildings with earthquakes in mind, and also affluent enough to have a built-in emergency response system and access to more. A quake in the Bay Area would have help from LA, for instance, plus thousands of dedicated personnel already in the region with up-to-date equipment and training, and the damage would not be quite so disastrous in the first place.

Haiti has none of these advantages: not the well-built houses, not the emergency response teams, no mutually-beneficial help close to hand. It has a powerful neighbor in the United States, but considering the US’s shaky track record with neighborly decency, that’s sometimes no help. Plus there are the simple logistical difficulties in getting help to an island; what’s worse, I’m informed that the harbor of Port-au-Prince is currently unusable due to quake damage.

There’s not much that anyone can do about the island part, but all the other problems are rooted in poverty. And poverty is humanity’s creation, not the divine’s. The culture of corruption that has grown there over the centuries is also a deep problem, but If the island’s staggering inequity in wealth had been addressed vigorously and creatively long before this, the death toll today would likely be far lighter. History has a hand in every tragedy, and in history, no one’s hands are altogether clean.

So this disaster wasn’t solely the creation of a cruel deity. The human race has deepened it through letting Haiti’s poverty persist unchecked. This is a particular shame upon the United States, that one of the richest countries in the world has not helped the poorest, despite being, as it were, next door; although it is well worth mentioning that the United States has attempted to help before, usually with disastrous unintended consequences. Sometimes American intervention has actually furthered the corruption and helplessness of the Haitians, rather than benefiting them (and sometimes the US interventions were utterly self-serving). Help is not always easy.

Which leads to my next point. I think such natural disasters, combining historical, environmental, and economic factors, actually present us with a tremendous opportunity: the chance to be good to each other. Compassion, meaning literally a sharing of suffering, is perhaps the strongest path to lifelong friendship. Help in hard times is long remembered, and often reciprocated. Quite aside from the enlightened self-interest, helping each other is simply good, to say nothing of being in line with almost every moral teaching ever. As I said, it is is not easy — but it remains very right regardless. Moreover the US efforts in the past have sometimes been extremely self-serving, which may account for a considerable portion of their failures.

Since I believe the One Who Loves is more concerned with how we treat each other than how we worship or what laws we follow, I feel the One permits such catastrophes to happen so that we help each other. Permits, I say, not causes. It may also be a lesson on the limits of free will: we choose to live on fault lines, we choose to impoverish each other, we choose to ignore our environments and each other — and all choices must have consequences, good or bad, or they are not choices at all.

So, we can choose to help Haiti. We can also choose how we give that help; with both hands wide open, or more parsimoniously with strings attached. Will we give our aid as gifts outright, without judgment, or shall we impose strings, as the West so often does, requiring a poor nation to dance to our tune before we let the loans go forward?

We can also choose how we respond to the longstanding corruption in Haiti: shall we decry it, even as we try to ignore the corruption in our own society? Shall we confront it? We have a choice of either tinkering at the top of the power structure, or perhaps more constructively helping ground-up change where the Haitian people themselves take the lead.

I believe that the One Who Is is powerful and merciful and occasionally just; I believe that the tragedy in Port-au-Prince is not divine vengeance or caprice, but bad luck compounded by poverty, the indifference of the wealthy, and a history of violence and political turmoil that is not the fault of the Haitians alone. And I firmly believe that we will be judged not on how we bring God into this, but by how we bring ourselves: bring ourselves and our help to those who suffer, no matter who or when or where, now and forever.

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