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Our solidarity after the tsunami shows the way to a lasting peace
CREDO by Duleep de Chickera
CEYLON 050115-1
January 15, 2005

[Article in The Times, London, by the Bishop of Colombo]

[The Church of Ceylon (E-P) - Ceylon] THE TSUNAMI hit the coastal communities of Sri Lanka like a first fatal heart attack. It came unexpectedly, when people were going about their daily routine, and with killer force.

Behind the statistics of the thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians dead and displaced in this multifaith island of 19 million people is the personal and intimate. These are people who lost everything. They lost their houses and treasured heirlooms such as beds and wardrobes. They lost intimate belongings; everything from toys to the familiar cups from which thousands of cups of tea had been drunk. They lost deeds and savings books, educational certificates, character references and driving licences; precious documents indispensable for economic mobility.

But mostly they lost loved ones. A mother of four who had lost her two younger children, still in a state of shock, said almost matter-of-factly: “We can gather belongings again but not even God will give us back our children.” A distraught Roman Catholic priest told me he had buried 300 children over the past four days.

Helping people to cope with grief and shock is a most important long-term challenge in this cruel tragedy. All over the teardrop-shaped island, trauma counselling agendas are being hurriedly put together. Professionals and common sense agree that befrienders are the immediate need. Intelligent, caring people with listening skills are in demand. The woman who said, “It is God who must give us thanks for keeping faith through this meaningless tragedy”, must be heard. Agnostic space for integrity of faith will be required in this process. Easy, traditional God talk demands restraint for God to be really heard.

This emphasis on the personal is also the necessary antidote to the threat of Mammon. Large sums of money and “experts” flooding in for relief and rehabilitation, a sense of power in decisions connected with people’s destiny, aid proposals, holistic schemes, model cities and infrastructure systems have a subtle way of dehumanising the crisis. These and all things in the name of relief, rehabilitation and development must be held in perspective as ventures serving people. The Sabbath must serve humans with dignity.

“The sea that sustained us took everything from us” — this comment from a fisherman applies to people too. Both have the potential for nourishment and destruction. Sri Lankans know this only too well. We are a paradox. A people of renowned hospitality, we have been destroying each other in a senseless civil war for most of the past two and a half decades. Thankfully, a ceasefire has held for two years.

At the moving interreligious event to remember the victims of the tsunami, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said: “This tragedy demands a new perspective for peace in Sri Lanka” — wise words that leaders and people must reflect on and pursue.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy signs of a latent spirituality emerged spontaneously. People crossed barriers as the less vulnerable reached out to the more vulnerable.

In spite of some glaring lapses and blatant partiality, people went out to the “other” regardless of ethnicity or religion. I saw Sinhala youths share food with Tamil refugees, and poor Tamil plantation workers offer relief to now destitute Sinhalese communities. I sat with a Muslim imam, a Tamil Methodist minister and senior Sinhala police officers as they discussed relief for all three communities. I heard at first-hand of a young Tamil woman who was saved from the surging waves by a Sinhala soldier who plucked her up from a tree. All over the affected areas numerous temples, kovils (shrines), mosques and churches simply opened their doors to all in need. Here were welcome glimpses of community under God, the nourishing potential in Sri Lankans and possibly the beginnings of a new model and perspective for wider sustainable peace. But the gently rolling, welcoming sea came against us with fury — and Sri Lankans are like the sea.

“What have you to say about the kingdom of God?” (“now” clearly implied) was the question fired at me by a Buddhist from a leading local NGO as soon as I sat down next to him at a lecture in Colombo. This forthright (theological) question centres on God in the tsunami. For the churches of South Asia, steeped in poverty — and within living memory of dominant colonial Christianity — the “vulnerable God” theory is relevant.

A powerful dominant God is distasteful and alien to the poor and powerless. Much more, the “vulnerable God” theory flows very much from the text as well. The incarnation clearly conveys a God of love who deliberately takes on vulnerability to identify and save.

As waves ravaged humans, the vulnerability of this creator God of both waves and humans was sensed in the deafening silence. God is love and the freedom that love confers imposes inherent restrictions on controls on all creation. Human relationships, between parent and child or among spouses, bears this out. So the loving, liberator, parent God who was not in the wind, earthquake and fire was certainly not in the tsunami.

The vulnerable God however is not a passive God. This distinction is essential for faith to be kept. To borrow a phrase from Bishop Geoffrey Rowell’s recent pastoral letter to his diocese, this God is an insider. In Christ God took human form to stand with humans in our suffering and loss. The incarnation is historical fact as well as a telescope into the ways of the same God in past and future history. As God was in the historical incarnation, so God has been with those who suffer grief and loss. This God invites God’s people to do and become likewise.

The usually gentle waves of the sea are soothing to tired Asian feet that stand in poverty and bear an immense burden. The vulnerable servant Lord touched and washed feet. This was more than an act of humility. This was an enacted parable highlighting that relevant ministry begins from where people are placed — where they stand — and addresses suffering.

Large killer waves destroy all within their path. Dominance, whether in our theologies about God, leadership, aid or attitudes, is anti-Christ and counter productive to peace, justice and reconciliation. The way forward for all, South Asians who grieve as well as the world at large, is mutually to touch and wash each other’s feet.

“Remembrance and Solidarity” was the theme of the Diocese of Colombo for the new year soon after the tsunami struck. We will carry this into Lent as well. There are many to remember with grief and thanksgiving. But memory must not enslave. It must set us free, to rise and go forward together, as there is work to be done which will hopefully lead us into Easter. -- The Right Rev Duleep de Chickera is Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Published with acknowledgements to, and the permission of, The Times.