God, the Tsunami and Human Generosity

by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun Magazine  www.tikkun.org

The unimaginable levels of suffering caused by the Tsunami have reminded all of us of the fragility of human life. We at Tikkun want to encourage all our community to do whatever you can to assist the efforts at rescue and repair. We strongly encourage you to donate monies to relief efforts through American Jewish World Service, Asia Tsunami Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018, 800- 889-7146, the American Friends Service Committee, Crisis Fund, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102 215-241 7000; or Doctors Without Borders PO Box 1856, Merrifield, Va. 22116-8056  1-888-392-0392. .

We know that our individual efforts to send money, sacred and important though they are, cannot come close to reaching the level of the tens of billions of dollars that will be needed to help the millions of people who have lost homes, work, and everything the own or with which they could make a living. Only a full-scale governmental effort on the part of all the countries of the world, and most particularly the wealthy countries, could make much of an impact at this level of financial need. So it is particularly distressing to find once again that those of us who live in the U.S. have to witness our own country giving a pathetically small amount of money (at the moment I'm writing this, more money is going to be spent for the celebration of President Bush's second inaugural than is being sent to SouthEast Asia to repair and rebuild). The hundreds of billions of dollars being sunk into a war against Sunnis in Iraq is monies that could have been spent on providing the kind of advanced warning systems, and solid construction of buildings, that might have dramatically limited the damage and deaths caused by this terrible storm. Once again, the unequal distribution of wealth on the planet plays out dramatically in the poorest and most defenseless being those most hurt.

So when I was asked last night, during a guest appearance on an ABC radio call-in show, "Where was God During the Tsunami?", my first response was to say, as I've said about God during the Holocaust, "Isn't this an attempt to avoid the more pressing question of "Where was humanity? Why have we been so unwilling to take serious responsibility for the well-being of others on the planet?"

But I want to get to the theological questions, also, once we begin to understand a bit more about the political role the Tsunami and similar disasters play in the consciousness of many in the advanced industrial world.

To get there, some context is needed.

Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year!! The difference between the almost non-existent coverage of this on-going human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in
South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.
  Imagine if every single day there were headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show saying:  "29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition" and then the rest of the stories alternated between detailed personal accounts of families where this devastation was taking place, and side bar features detailing what was happening in advanced industrial countries, like this: "all this suffering was happening while the wealthiest people in the world enjoyed excesses of food, worried about how to lose weight because they eat too much, spent monies trying to convince farmers not to grow too much food for fear that doing so would drive down prices, and were cutting the taxes of their wealthiest rather than seeking to redistribute their excess millions of dollars of personal income." If the story were told that way every day, the goodness of human beings would rebel quickly against these social systems that made all this suffering possible, suffering far far far far far in excess of all the suffering caused by tsunamis and other natural disasters.

If we were being told this true story every day, we'd quickly find that the progressive forces seeking a new global reality would come to power in democratic elections, and that the ideas that we in The Tikkun Community propose, like the Global Marshall Plan (let the U.S. lead the advanced industrial societies in a global consortium dedicating 5% of their combined GNP each year for the next twenty years to alleviating hunger, homelessness, poverty, inadequate education and inadequate health care), would no longer seem "unrealistic" to most people on the planet, but immediate survival necessities.
One important  reason that this doesn't happen, whereas the suffering from the Tsunami does get the coverage, is that the Tsunami can be seen as "natural" and therefore no one is being blamed, no one has to feel guilty about consuming a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and no one is mobilized to challenge the existing systems of power which fund and control the mass media. However devastating, the Tsunami's story line is safe and predictable and unlikely to challenge the current global distribution of wealth or power.

Most reporters and news editors have internalized their sense of what the top-management in their industry considers "news-worthy" and thus they didn't give much attention to the U.N. story and its dramatic and tragic dimensions. It you pressed them, they would probably say something like this: these stories about global poverty don't really interest anyone, because most people know that nothing can be done about it, given that everyone they know is more interested in getting their own material needs satisfied than in worrying about global redistribution of wealth-so there is no point in pursuing that story, because the kinds of changes needed to deal with it will never happen anyway.

One reason that social change seems so unrealistic is because not only these news people but almost everyone else has been taught that others are only motivated by narrow material self-interest. Yet when we watch the response of the people of the world to this tragedy we see just the opposite-a huge outpouring of generosity. Millions of people are making contributions, and billions are showing signs of caring. And it is this way whenever we face a situation in which the official media lets down its normal "cynical realism" and tells us that it's o.k. to show our caring side.

Those who despair are mistaken--the goodness of humanity is always just a few inches from the surface, on the verge of being released. One reason why Right-wing Christian churches have been so successful is that they give people a spiritual context within which to let out their caring sides without worrying that they will face cynical put-downs from others around them. One task for progressives interested in social change is to find the best way to facilitate that process in a progressive context, but that will require a new sensitivity to a spiritual framework that validates and supports that spirit of generosity within most people.

Yet in the rest of our lives, few of us are ever encouraged to show caring beyond our small circles of friends and families, and if we are urged to show caring, it is only for the victims of some kind of natural disaster, but not for the kinds of problems we could actually deal with through collective restructuring of the world's economic and political arrangements--because that would threaten the interests of the powerful. They are all too glad to divert our attention to the disasters that can't be changed, and to channeling our anger into anger at God instead of anger at our social system.

      So here we get to the question of blaming God.

  It's quite amazing to behold, actually, how many people responded to the question on last night's a.m. radio by calling in to give messages that were roughly of the following sort: I am really angry at God, and this is precisely why I don't believe in Him.

        I don't know any other non-existing being who gets such a bad rap. It's as if people need to invent God in order to blame Him for something about which they are justifiably in despair.

But  of course, I do believe in God, so how can I think about this God and His/Her/Its role in the Tsunami?

I don't know. I think that whatever else I say below, I want to start with the fact that I do not know, that there is a limitation of knowledge and understanding built into being a human being at this stage in the develoment of the consciousness of the
universe. I was not there when the foundations of the universe were being put together-and that is a point that was made too in the Book of Job long ago when he similarly questioned the lack of justice in the world God had designed.

I have no answers-where answers dissolve the question. I have responses, where a response is understood to be a way of staying in connection with the validity of the question and the questioner. Actually, I want to consider two possible

1. Global Judaism and a New Conception of God

For several thousand years, at least since the destruction of the
First Temple in 586 BCE, Jews have been grappling with the absence of God in history. That thinking must now move to a new stage in the 21st century in which we fundamentally transcend some of the older stories we told ourselves about God.
To put it bluntly (for the radio talk show audience): stop thinking of God as some big man up in heaven sitting there and making individual judgments about who shall live and who shall die, where he should put a tsunami and where he should put a beautiful sunset. Instead, understand God as THE FORCE OF HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE UNIVERSE, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it
moves the being of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be. Seen this way, God is not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace,and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully. Or in more traditional theological language, God is a Creator, and the creation is still taking place as the God energy of the universe develops and manifests more and more through the universe, shaping it to be more fully in accord with God's aspiration for a world of love, compassion, justice, peace and generosity.

Heresy, you say? Only if your conception
of God derives from a Greek notion of the All-Knowing, All Powerful Unmoved Mover-a conception which at times has seeped into and shaped medieval theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but which isn't the only possible way to
understand God. If, on the other hand, we take our cues from parts of Torah that think of God as bemoaning the choices that human beings made, even at times thinking that maybe S/He made a mistake in creating humans, or as weeping over the
consequences of Diaspora (Shechina, the Divine presence, going into Exile with the Jews according to one midrash), or as sufferiing from the consequences of human choices, or the Christian vision of God as needing to suffer on the Cross, then
you get a different and more vulnerable vision of God, one more in accord with the notion of God not as the one responsible for everything that happens, but as an emerging voice of compassion and love in the midst of a world not totally under His/Her control.

In that case, God is joining us in mourning for the victims of the Tsunami, not its cause.

Or, to put it another way, God is the
part of Being (including the part of us) that is yearning for a world in which this kind of suffering will be diminished and in which those parts of the suffering that can't be stopped will be
accompanied by responses of generosity and kindness. God is in need of human beings (and, perhaps in other planets, other kinds of beings) to participate in this process of building more love, generosity, caring and compassion throughout the universe. Our task is to be God's partner in tikkun, in the healing and transformation of the world, and in the mourning for those aspects of suffering that cannot be overcome.

2. The Ethical Biosphere.
This is a second approach, not continuous with the first, which I think deserves some attention-the view that the natural disasters of the universe are connected in ways that we cannot know yet with the ethical and spiritual distortions of life and consciousness at its current stage of development. The living planet, the gaia energy of our planet, cannot reach a state of being settled and calm until the moral and spiritual realms are more centered and connected with the universe's ultimate moral design. 

On this account, about which I have some serious worries, 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 as gaia, a living being. In its most sophisticated form, this view recognizes that the moral system described by the Bible is only one of a series of attempts by humanity as we develop deeper self-understanding, to articulate what the God of the universe wants from us, and that at every subsequent moment that understanding has evolved as we have evolved, but that nevertheless at its core the universe does want a world of more love, generosity, kindness, caring for others, peace, and joy. On this view,  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, love and kindness. Till then, gaia will be restless, its tectonic plates shifting, its weathers unpredictable, its diseases finding new ways to reproduce.

So on this view, the earth is a biological/ethical/spiritual unity,
and its functioning is in accord with its aspirations toward consciousness, love, enviromental sensitivity, generosity, and social justice. But when there are contradictions or constraints in the development of love, consciousness, environmental sensitivity, social justice, and generosity then there is a malfunction which eventually manifests in physical disorders,
whether they be disease or whether they be earthquakes or tornadoes or floods or other disruptions of nature.

This is basically the point of the Bible's account of the plagues facing
Egypt, but now working on a global level.

I find this way of thinking both quite powerful  and quite dangerous. The danger is that it can easily be misunderstood as blaming individuals for their suffering. And this is exactly what happened on the radio call-in show I was on last night on ABC radio. The moment one person had called to ask me "Where was God?" a second called up to say that she was certain that the hundred thousand plus people who have died were people who had not yet accepted Jesus Christ into their lives and that this is what happened to such people. A Muslim called in with a slightly more compassionate message: these people were not to blame, but instead be seen as "martyrs" who would go straight to heaven and enjoy enternal bliss. I wasn't happy with either response, the second because I don't think we need to reduce our level of upset about what happened by reassuring ourselves about some future world of bliss, and the first because I don't believe that the individuals impacted by natural disasters have any direct responsibility or blame but are innocent victims.

The Torah makes clear that this karmic order doesn't happen on a one-to-one basis:
i.e. it isn't as if everyone who suffered in the plagues of Egypt was directly responsible for the enslavement and oppression of Jewish slaves, The Torah's claim-- that if we do not create a society based on love, kindness, generosity, justice and peace then
we will face ecological disaster-- is not a claim that each person who suffers from this disaster will be equally responsible for the moral disorder that generated the ecological crisis.

But what the Torah is also implying is this: there is no-one alive on the planet who doesn't have some part of the responsibility for the craziness that manifests in lack of justice, kindness, generosity, peace and love. On the social and political level, we've all allowed the world to get out of hand, and every decision we make to leave it to others, either because we are too satisfied with our lives to bother about the suffering of others, or too certain of the inevitability of the fruitlessness of our political efforts, is a decision which helps make the world the way we say we don't want it to be. 

We are all ONE, and that means the totality of
the moral craziness is our collective responsibility, and the environmental dysfunction that that moral craziness produces will eventually impact on all of us alike. Now, if you answer, "but why strike the weak in SouthEast Asia and not the strongin the US?" the answer might be, "it will happen here as well,
has been happening in many ways already in the form of cancer epidemics and other environmental diseases," but it might also be, "we are all one, and when the earth is morally dysfunctional the tectonic movement of its plates manifests all over and not in ways that we can directly correlate in a one to
one relationship with who did the latest moral outrage and where."

An analogy: when we inhale and eat various
environmental poisions which we ourselves created in the factories of advanced industrial societies, they may eventually cause cancer of the liver or the kidneys or the stomach. Now imagine a stomach or liver cell making the following argument:
"It wasn't me who took in this cancer-causing material, but the brain, the mouth, the hands-so it is unfair that I should be suffering when it was done by these other organs!" Well, it has a case to be made, but only on the supposition that the liver cell or the kidney or stomach cell isn't part of the
same unity as the hand, brain or mouth that ingested the poison in the first place. In any event, this is the current form of the argument that there is in fact a karmic explanation for what is happening today that should alert us to the need to do immediate tikkun olam to bring the world into a lasting

     It's easier for me to accept this point when it applies to the coming environmental disaster facing the human race than when it is applied to earthquakes and tsunamis. And yet I'm certain that we do not yet know enough about scientific causation to be able to rule this hypthesis out of the realm of rational thought, and will only be able to fully test the hypothesis when we actually reach the messianic era in which love and kindness, justice and peace, ecological sanity and generosity of spirit are the bottom lines of all people on the planet.

        So what, you may ask, does all this have to do with tikkun olam? Well, in what I've written here I've tried to block some of the ways that theology gets used as a way to diminish our need to engage in movements for social justice. Blaming God won't work. We need to be doing something. I hope you'll consider this a good moment to begin working more seriously with The Tikkun Community on our plan for social healing. Admittedly, it is a large and futuristic plan-but it also an immediate survival necessity for the human race. I invite you to read our Core Vision  http://tikkun.org/community/index.cfm/action/core_vision.html"

and to join with us in the sacred work of world healing https://www.donate.net/tikkun/basket.asp?dept_id=790&shopper_id=269938">.

 And as a first step, please do send money to those engaged in healing work in South East Asia (listed above) and some strong angry letters to the President of the U.S. and to Congress  to urge them to be more generous than they has been so far.

As I said, I submit this with humility, knowing the limits of my understanding, and thus putting it forward more as a way of taking the questions seriously than pretending to have a fully adequate response. But pursuing these issues is another dimension of the work of Tikkun, and that is why I am happy to invite you to respond to this with your own thinking (let me know if you object to me posting your response on our website or even in our magazine-unless you indicate to the contrary, everything you send to a magazine editor is fair game for inclusion in the magazine or its website or Tikkun mail).

Let me bless you for a Happy New Year and a world in which there are fewer and fewer disasters of this sort!

Rabbi Michael Lerner


and if you can't get through my Spam Arrest, send a copy of whatever you write to me to Jordan@tikkun.org

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, co-chair of The Tikkun Community, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco.   Tikkun, 2324 Shattuck Ave, Suite 1200, Berkeley, Ca. 94708