VIEW FROM AFAR

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE SUDERMAN
Natural disasters-an ice storm in Kansas or a tsunami in the south Pacific-are “Acts of God” in insurance company lingo.

Insurance companies have a tidy view of the world. For them, all disasters are neatly divided into three boxes: acts of God, acts of war and “This is somebody else’s fault; go to court and make them pay for it.”

Disasters make all of us into theologians and philosophers as we try to make sense of things. We struggle with the origin of evil or, as Albert Camus noted, simply accept “the benign indifference of the universe.”

Or maybe, we just shrug our shoulder and say, “Stuff happens.”

Some religious folks assign very specific meaning to disasters. The Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, for example, has issued a press release clarifying that the Asian tsunami was not a random disaster, but merely God’s way of killing homosexuals who travel to the Sodom and Gomorrah of Thailand.

For this famed Baptist Divine, the other folks who drowned are probably what the military calls “collateral damage.”

The Rev. Phelps gives us no inspired word on ice storms.

The tree huggers are strangely quiet about tsunamis. For them, Mother Nature is benevolent and merely needs protection against human interventions such as global warming. The murderous havoc created by shifting tectonic plates does not fit into their worldview.

(They have, however, expressed concern about the tsunami creating a difficult time for sea turtles-a higher priority for some folks than widows and orphans.)

Thus, far the conspiracy theorists have stayed underground about the tsunami. A likely scenario would be to note that most Democrats in America live along coastlines. Thus, if the new CIA director can learn to manipulate tectonic plates, he can eventually wipe out enough Blue State voters to create a Republican Reign that will last a thousand years. The current tsunami was merely a test run.

For cable TV, the tsunami is a welcome relief. They have milked terrorism until we are all in perpetual state of high anxiety, Scott Peterson will spend the rest of his life on death row and Larry King has already done interviews with every person who ever knew him.

So now they can move on: “Tsunami-could it happen in Kansas?”

Eventually they will run out of tourist videos and discuss the bottom of their speculation list: “Ice Storms-Could they happen in Sri Lanka?”)

The shifting tectonic plates caused the earth to wobble on its axis and now our planet spins a bit faster. Each day is a fraction of a second shorter. (This gives folks like me who are perpetually tardy a new excuse for lateness, “Don’t blame me, the year is not as long as it once was and time seems to be moving a bit faster.”)

Probably if we are honest, we know neither why a freak storm shuts down central Kansas in January nor why a geological shift of tectonic plates creates a tsunami-merely that they happened. This is called a mystery.

There is second mystery. There has been an outpouring of compassion, material aid and neighborliness-both locally and globally-for the victims of these two disasters. This love for victims is also a mystery.

Frankly, I think the theology of insurance companies has more decency and compassion and understands these mysteries better than the theologian from Topeka-the Rev. Phelps.

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