Fr John's Homily - Natural Disasters and Human Evil

23 March 2019 | General Interest


Natural Disasters and Human Evil

Project Compassion for Caritas Australia - Solomon Islands and Water

Lk 13.1-9,  Ex 3.1-15, 1Cor 10.1-12

Only Luke recounts these two human tragedies in Jesus’ time – one a human sacrilegious atrocity committed by Pilate and then the semi-natural disaster of the collapse of the tower of Siloam. There are no other historical accounts to verify these events, but Jesus certainly makes a point of refuting the idea of causality, that those who suffered must have deserved their punishment because of past sins or whatever. And isn’t it a bit like that with Christchurch, where the earthquake of 2011 resulted in 185 deaths, and the deaths of 50 and so many more wounded physically and psychologically last week, the latter inflicted by human evil.

It is sometimes said that the oxygen of publicity can drive individuals and groups to doing evil things, and that others can be tempted to imitate aberrant or crazy behaviour. During this past week, the NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (at 38!) has shown remarkable maturity and level-headed, but firm leadership in her response to the atrocities perpetrated on observant worshipping Muslims, on behalf of all reasonable New Zealanders, and the worldwide human community, for that matter. She declines to mention the name of the evildoer, and speaks of this ‘not being who we are’, calling for a recognition of our common humanity and need to accept each other for who we are, and appreciate the richness of our diversity in faith, culture, ethnicity and backgrounds.

The observation of Ardern’s approach is that, very carefully: “She has chosen language designed to unify her nation rather than allow its divisions to grow more bitter”, stating: “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you… This is not us.” (The trouble is, it can be us, if we give in to the darker side of our nature, perpetuating ignorance and distrust, emphasising difference rather than common ground).  We saw how she wore a headscarf, out of respect, solidarity and sympathy with the victims and their families and friends, mourning with them at the refuge centre set up in Christchurch. And, in practical terms, visas were fast-tracked and issued for relatives to come from overseas for the funerals of the victims in short time. Surely, this is what could be described as the genuine human and Christian response?!

Her approach counters division between Muslims and the broader community, seeks to avoid any sort of culture war between left blaming racism and right attacking immigration, and looks to promoting security for all citizens, whoever and wherever they may be. We might hope the same of our leaders, political and otherwise.

In contrast, only this last week was a final verdict of a life sentence, handed down by the International War Crimes Tribunal on Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serbian leader, with Christian Orthodox background, who was one of the evil ‘ethnic cleansers’ (an obscene phrase in itself!) of the Balkans in the 1990’s, where thousands of men and even boys were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. While he described himself as a “psychiatrist and poet, with no military training”, Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the peace accords to end the war, called him “one of the worst, most evil men in the world”!!

We might wonder how is it that such hatred can enter the human heart and provoke such unmitigated and unimaginable evil, but we’ve seen it before, and we’ll likely see it again, sadly. Hannah Arendt wrote of the ‘banality of evil’, following the Holocaust, to remind us all how the dark side can emerge from dehumanising, ignorance and prejudice that lies beneath the consciousness of all of us at times. Local social commentator Walid Aly identified this when he made the shocking statement he was not surprised at this tragedy occurring, partly because of this underlying vilification and racism, which some like to promote, as we see on what I’d label the darker side of politics and the underbelly of our society in general.

Today’s Gospel reflects on several real situations of tragedy in Jesus’ time. There’s more than an element of bad luck involved, and maybe some human error, when it comes to the initial construction and its engineering of the tower. At the same time, Jesus shows no desire for revenge or even anger at the terrible things that have happened, but rather shows compassion without being ‘wishy washy’, as the Jerome Biblical Commentary puts it. He reiterates the call to us all as sinners to repent before it’s too late. One never knows what tomorrow brings, and catastrophes or accidents are not an automatic or deterministic reaction to human sinfulness, but can be often sudden and unexpected. The themes of peace and non-violence underlie his words all the way through the Gospels, yet so often left unheard and unpractised.  

Then there ensues the good old fig tree parable, an image of being given another chance for positive response, growth and productivity (like my magical cherry tomato plant outside my front door, which I have to remember to water regularly!), where we are all challenged to bring forth the good fruits prompted by the Spirit, dependent on your and my free will, to choose the right way to speak and act as genuine and faith-filled disciples.

(For Grade 1 Mass): Given the events of recent days, I present again Mem Fox’s latest, profound but simple, offering: “I am Australian Too.”  It reflects a clear call to rejoice in diversity and to welcome with open arms, never to isolate and ignore.

Hope is at the heart of our Lenten Gospel message, and again is the theme taken up by Caritas Australia in its Project Compassion Appeal for 2019, as we look at areas of need in our troubled world, to be informed as to what can be achieved by our continuing generosity and support.

So here is this week’s story, not so far from home, in the Solomon Islands, where fresh water supply, once more, cannot be taken for granted, by these our island neighbours.

john hannon   23rd March 2019

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