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Divining a Reason for Devastation

Followers of Various Faiths Differ on Natural, Supernatural Explanations for Tsunami

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page B09

Catastrophes often leave religious leaders fumbling for explanations. But there has been no shortage of reasons given for the South Asian tsunami that killed more than 147,000 people, many of them children.

In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the hardest-hit area in the world's most populous Muslim country, imams blamed the Dec. 26 tsunami on lay Muslims who were shirking their daily prayers and following a materialistic lifestyle. Others said Allah was angry that Muslims were killing Muslims in ongoing civil strife.


Rajanga, a Hindu fisherman, prays on the beach at sunrise in the village of Nagapattinam, India, as fires burn in the background in the wake of the tsunami. (Ami Vitale -- Getty Images)

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In Israel, Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of the country's top religious leaders, called the disaster "an expression of God's wrath with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing -- be it people's needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, moral turpitude."

In Sri Lanka, which recorded the most fatalities after Indonesia, Buddhist survivors told the story of a tsunami that flooded the island kingdom 2,200 years ago when a king killed a Buddhist monk in a fit of anger. They wondered which political leader angered the sea gods this time.

On the Internet, self-appointed prophets said the reason was God's anger at the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries hit by the tsunami, or His displeasure at the number of abortions worldwide. Some said the large-scale tragedy was a sure sign that the world will end soon.

Other commentators were less ready to assign responsibility to an irate divinity, instead pointing to the vicissitudes of nature.

"I personally don't attach any theological significance to this -- I listen to what the scientists say," Greek Orthodox theologian Costas Kyriakides in Cyprus told Reuters. "God is always the fall guy. We incriminate Him completely unjustly."

Such a position begs the question of whether a creator-god exerts control in the world. But for many people, the "nature did it" response provides a legitimate explanation for the disaster and the widespread death it has caused, according to scholars and theologians.

Hindus, for example, generally reject the idea of a vindictive god bringing destruction to the world, said Ariel Glucklich, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University and a specialist in Hinduism. Krishna and other major gods who participate in human history are "always unfailingly on the side of good," he said.

But in Hinduism as in Buddhism, a powerful force is said to be at work: karma, the belief that a person's fate is related to actions in previous lives and current existence, Glucklich said. Karma is a "non-divine mechanism," meaning there is no god keeping track in a Book of Life and doling out punishment. In general, people are responsible for what happens to them.

For example, a tsunami victim whose bicycle broke down, leaving him stranded on the beach, might be at fault because he failed to maintain his bicycle properly -- perhaps as a result of drinking too much. But karma is also interactional, meaning that children who died in the tsunami might have died because of actions of their parents, Glucklich said.

Buddhists also look to the natural order when dealing with tragedy, said Bhante K. Uparatana, a native of Sri Lanka and chief monk and founder of the International Buddhist Center in Silver Spring.

Despite experiencing great sadness for family and friends lost in the tsunami, Sri Lankan Buddhist immigrants in the Washington area have not come to him with the question "Why?" Instead, Uparatana said, they accept the Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent and they look for ways to improve their lives by eradicating bad karma.

Any natural disaster, whether a tsunami or the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year, offers a chance to learn something, he said. "We have to be more generous, more compassionate and show more lovingkindness to one another and respect each other. "

Disasters show how quickly death can come, "that it can happen to me, my family, my friend, my enemy," Uparatana said.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is more likely than Hinduism or Buddhism to view the tsunami as an act of God, a reminder of human weakness "that puts an end to the illusion of human omnipotence," said Sulayman S. Nyang, a Muslim and a professor of African studies at Howard University who has written and lectured extensively on the Islamic faith. But the devastating natural event probably will stimulate increased theological investigation into the relationship between humanity and the environment, he said.

The "religion of the environment" includes such questions as whether the Earth, through God's action or its own force, lashes out because people are poor stewards of forests, animals and natural resources, Nyang said. He said it also addresses the interrelationships of nations and cultures, and how war and other violent acts can affect the balance of nature.

"God uses nature to remind humans not only about humanity, but sinfulness as well," he said. "When humans bleed, nature bleeds, too. And when nature lashes out, it's more destructive."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun, a magazine devoted to "the healing and transformation of the planet," presented a similar theme this week in an online newsletter.

Part of his answer to the question "How could God have allowed this to happen?" includes a point of view that "deserves some continuing attention -- the answer from karma or universal justice," he writes.

Referring to the earthquake that caused the tsunami, he goes on to say, "The tectonic moves of the earth are part of a totally integrated moral system that has been in place since the earth began to evolve. That moral system, described by the Bible, tells us that the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God's creatures coheres with God's will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity and kindness."

For Mohammed Abu-Nimer, director of American University's Peacebuilding & Development Institute, the important question is not whether God caused the tsunami but whether people of different faiths and politics will work together in response to the crisis and use that goodwill to keep from "going back to the default mode" of pre-disaster conflicts.

Thus far, the word from Sri Lanka is good, Abu-Nimer said. He has contacts from a five-year period -- 1995 to 2000 -- when he traveled back and forth to Sri Lanka to lead workshops on conflict resolution. Participants included members of various communities in the war-torn nation: Tamil rebels opposing the Sri Lankan government and the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians often at odds with one another.

One of his colleagues in Galle, in the south of Sri Lanka, sent an e-mail saying that "new bridges across community are being built," said Abu-Nimer, who before the tsunami hit was scheduled to conduct interfaith workshops in Sri Lanka. He hopes the workshops will proceed as planned in March.

Nyang said the tsunami presents an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to increase its "moral currency" while sending financial assistance.

The tsunami region is populated by members of the world's major faiths -- Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity -- and U.S. moral leadership "can be effectively utilized to give a more beautiful image of America not only to Muslims but to all religious groups," Nyang said. He calls the opportunity "America's Indian Ocean moment."


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