By Cath Taylor

Disasters are routine – our responses can’t be

September 21st, 2017

Irma, Harvey, Maria – they could be your elderly neighbours sitting down for a cuppa and a Scotch Finger biscuit together. Except they’re not. They’re killers. And they’ve contributed to the second costliest year of natural disasters the US and Caribbean has ever seen. And it’s only September.

Meanwhile, millions of people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and across Africa are sodden, homeless, hungry and bereaved in the aftermath of yet another annual season of monsoon, flooding, landslide and disease.

Some declare the end times. Ann Coulter didn’t quite point the finger at Houston’s openly gay mayor, but said that the idea had more credibility than climate change. While people may not agree on the existential issues, one thing is very clear.

We need unnatural responses to natural disaster if we’re going to solve an ever-deepening global problem. And people of faith are ideally positioned to do exactly that.

Here’s why.

There are at least two major problems related to natural disaster. The first is that natural disasters kill many more thousands of people around the world than we tend to know or care about. This has long-term devastating consequences for millions of lives, most of them eked out in poverty. Desperation deepens. Inequality grows. Resentment simmers. And meanwhile, we continue to be oblivious.

Why the oblivion? Because not all victims are equal. When Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the Caribbean and the US this month, Western media beamed images of white people and their frightened dogs into homes where people recognised the clothing brands, car badges and hairstyles (on both the people and the dogs).

At the same time, terrified parents were lifting their children onto their backs and wading through waist-deep water in Myanmar. The TV cameras were nowhere in sight.

It’s only natural for us to care most about those with whom we have things in common. But what happens when the lives of two thirds of the globe are ignored by the affluent other third? What happens when that pattern is reinforced again and again and again? If you sense a deep-seated anger and resentment in some of the more turbulent parts of the world, you’d be right.

What is it about people of faith that can make a difference in this setting?

All of Jesus’ relationships – culminating in life hewn from death –  are a call to each of us to go beyond ‘what comes naturally’.  Jesus redefined family to include any and all who worked together in the name of love.  He had a particular interest in those who were overlooked.  And this is what can make all the difference in a world where disasters, compounding poverty and inequality seem to have become routine.

It’s not enough for us to do what comes naturally. We must become the champions of rethinking what’s ‘normal’, what’s expected, what’s possible, who’s in and who’s out.

Not only will we keep an eye on unreported flooding in Niger and Tunisia, the shaking earth in Mexico, the children in the hungry places of Sudan; we’ll pray for, talk about and care as much for these people as we do ‘our own’.  And we’ll urge others to do the same.  As governments continue to give aid mostly to those who have something to give back (“aid for trade – perfectly sensible”) we have the opportunity instead to champion those who have the least and to reframe them as family.  It may not come naturally. But it’s a major part of holding together a world that is deeply fractured, where growing and unacknowledged inequality fuels the fury of powerless invisibility.

In terms of natural disaster, it’s what we do next that matters even more.

We can prevent disasters from becoming tragedies by preparing communities in advance – moving people to safety, building stronger homes and other infrastructure and creating proper evacuation plans, to name just the very basics. But this requires investment of cash and the vast majority of us are only moved to give once we’re emotionally impacted by scenes of loss and devastation.

Giving in response to disaster is a perfectly natural human reaction, but giving before one is much more effective. The absolutely tragic reality of disaster-prone areas is that most people in them know they’re sitting ducks – they simply don’t have the resources to do anything about it. It’s hard to imagine how that must feel – waiting for the next flood, the next drought, the next cyclone that will destroy your home and livelihood if not your life.

Our failure to commit to a vision that extends beyond the emotional impact of ‘here and now’ disasters condemns thousands of people to death every year and wastes millions of dollars. $1 invested to help reduce the impact of a disaster is more effective than $15 given in the wake of one.

Once again, there’s something about those of us who claim to be people of faith that urges us into the breach. Our vision is bigger than what we see in the here and now, the emotional pull of the media on our heart and purse strings. We’re not alone in the ability to see a much bigger picture and respond accordingly, but the dedication to build a world we cannot yet imagine is at the heart of the Christian narrative. In the face of increasing disasters, growing inequality and entrenched poverty, we need to push the boundaries of what comes naturally and easily.

We’re equipped and ready.  We need your help to get to work.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in these blogs are those of their authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UnitingWorld or the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia