The Meaning of Aceh

Years ago in my little town of Heavener, Okla., (population 1,800), an old man got gangrene in his left leg and had to have it taken off. It was an awful thing. He had diabetes and after years of treatment the only thing the doctors knew to do was to cut out the dying parts of his body to save the rest.
One night not long after that, at a reception following our town-wide Thanksgiving service, a well-intentioned preacher in the community commented out loud to no one in particular, that it was surely the man’s sin that caused that thing to happen.
‘‘I knew him when we was boys,’’ he said to us across the snack table. ‘‘He had too many women that weren’t his wife, and now God’s taken that leg off him to teach him the wages of sin.’’
That didn’t sound quite right, but I was younger than he was, so what did I know? Then from somewhere in back of me, Charlie Wilson, a Methodist and a recovering alcoholic, who knew a thing or two about sin himself, yelled, ‘‘If God was in the business of ripping off legs when somebody messed around some when they was young, then every man, woman and child in this town over the age of 15 would be walking around today with a limp.’’

I was thinking about that story this month, as we passed the tenth anniversary of the worst natural disaster in modern history. One decade ago on December 26, 2004, a tsunami rose up in the Indian Ocean and covered thousands of miles of land, over eleven countries, and took over two hundred and seventy-five thousand lives. The incredible number of deaths and suffering is beyond anything imaginable. In Banda Aceh, the hardest hit city, over six hundred thousand people lost their homes with waves reaching sixty-five feet high. It had the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-level atomic bombs.
All of that reminds me today of a cruel theology, popular among some of us who are Christians, that says that when a person dies or gets hurt it is because God did it, to teach us or test us or punish us for our sins.
But that belief is just wrong. And believing it sets us up for a terrible unbelief when we hear of an innocent father in Aceh having his equally innocent baby torn from his arms by the uncontrollable waters of one of the worst tsunamis in history. It is a theology that works fine when you are talking about God punishing Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden, but it fails badly when you’re talking about tidal waves and dying babies.
When I was young, my parents divorced. Eventually my father met another woman, a sweet person who happened to be in Heavener visiting her family, and they got engaged. But then one evening—one week before their marriage—they were returning home from a party when two teen boys in a pickup, who had been drinking beer in a corn field, drove straight into them on their way back to town for more beer. They all were killed instantly. But as wrenching as that story was to me at the time, God did not do that.
After my parents divorced my mother married again to a nice man with silver hair and a Maine accent who loved her deeply, but who had a series of long and ugly strokes that ground him down and drained his life for five eternal years until finally he begged her to let him die to get relief from the horror of meaningless living. And God didn’t do that either.
God doesn’t kill people. Storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, and human sins kill people. God didn’t cause the nightmares of Banda Aceh and Southeast Asia any more than God caused Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina or the six thousand lives lost (so far) to Ebola in East Africa. It is true that God is very much in the storms and wars, but God is in the healing not the killing. God is in the mending not the destroying.
God does live and move in the midst of suffering, but as its resolution, not its cause. God is in the relief workers, the doctors, the volunteers, the soldiers, the helicopters, and in the heroic acts of countless nameless people who risked their lives, saved their neighbors and rescued survivors.
God’s fundamental act in the universe is salvation, making the creation one, more whole, more ‘‘good,’’ and when the creation invariably fails or falls, God is in the midst of the hurt, working for some sort of reconciliation even in the brokenness.
Maybe when we ask, “What is the meaning of the tragedy,” we miss the point. Maybe “meaning” is actually something we give to an event after it happens. We make meaning from meaninglessness when stick our lives into the healing, and it changes us. It is how we respond to an event that gives it meaning.
When Charlie made his uppity comment about God giving us all a limp to punish us for our sins, the preacher turned away in a huff, and I don’t think they ever spoke again. I don’t think he ever forgave Charlie for his radical theology. And I don’t think I ever appropriately thanked him.