Blaming the Victims

While the death tolls are still mounting from the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean, some prominent religious leaders haven’t wasted any time engaging in politicking and opportunism.

Last Thursday, Rev. Sam Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, issued statements rebuking the United States, among other nations, for not signing on to the Kyoto protocol.

Don’t see the link between a massive earthquake and global warming? Kobia and Noko certainly do. The results of the disaster are “a clear warning on what climate change could to do the world,” said Kobia. Noko agrees, finding the earthquake and resulting tsunami to be “a reminder that we would do well to heed, at a time when even the relatively inadequate efforts by the international community to address climate change continue to be subverted and undermined by some of those most responsible.”

If this is what passes for the prophetic witness of Christians these days, then the ecumenical movement is in sorry shape indeed. Citing global warming as a cause of the earthquake and tsunami is too far-fetched, even for these religious leaders. But Kobia and Noko are unflinchingly quick to use the scale of this disaster as an excuse to shift focus back to one of their pet ideological topics.

Such opportunism demonstrates a serious and disturbing lapse in leadership. Instead of attempting to honestly assess the problems exposed by the disaster and its aftermath, the ecumenical leaders exploit the tsunami and launch into radical environmentalist talking points reminiscent of the rhetorical tripe that characterized this year’s disaster flick, The Day after Tomorrow.

Instead of chiding America (and implicitly the world’s favorite villain, George W. Bush) for global warming and for the tsunami damage, we should focus attention on solving genuine problems that contributed to the disaster. Lack of economic development, infrastructure, and communication systems made Southeast Asia’s experience of the tsunami worse than it had to be.

Developed nations have much greater ability to take concrete actions which save lives, leading up to, in the midst of, and following natural disasters. The infrastructure and systems are in place to get out warnings, to enable evacuations, and to set up emergency medical facilities in the aftermath.

One of the nations affected, India, recognizes this fact. India has wisely resisted signing on to Kyoto, understanding that its people need economic progress more than environmental purity at this point in time.

In light of India’s stand, the statement from Kobia and Noko, whose organizations represent 342 and 138 member churches respectively, reads more like a placement of blame for the disaster on its victims. Is this the kind of message the ecumenical movement really should be sending? In the wake of natural disaster, implying that India would be better served by sacrificing development to environmental orthodoxy resembles pharisaical arrogance more than the evangelical message of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the radical environmental agenda shared by Kobia and Noko is tied up with flawed economic theories that enslave rather than liberate those in the developing world. The WCC and other ecumenical groups are fond of decrying the global economic “empire” of the West. And in the meantime, the poor in developing nations languish in poverty, ripe targets for enormously destructive natural calamities.

Disasters like those of last week’s earthquake and tsunami cannot be avoided, but their devastating effects can be minimized. And the key to minimizing such damage lies in economic prosperity and development, not in ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

If the ecumenical movement is truly serious about examining the causes and implications of the tsunami’s huge toll of human life, its leaders should begin to reconsider their own role in bringing relief to the world’s afflicted masses.

In doing so, they might discover that their opposition to the free market has helped keep poor nations in the bondage of poverty, making their citizens more vulnerable to the threat of natural catastrophes. And they might also realize the greater relevance of Jesus’s question, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:4 NIV).

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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