Faith Thrives Where Grief Lives

Believers often wrestle with tragedy and death on the Mukono campus of the Uganda Christian University. Families are large and disease common, affecting young and old.

Terrorism and tribal conflicts in this culture often lead to violence, injury and death.

“Someone will say, 'My brother died last night,' and he will say it as a simple statement of fact,” said Father Stephen Noll, vice chancellor of this Anglican Church of Uganda school. “Someone may report that a particular student will not be returning to class because he was killed in an ambush by the 'Army of God.'”

It took time for Noll to adjust, after leaving his post as dean of an American seminary to help support the growing churches in Africa. He watched the faithful face so much pain and loss without losing faith in a compassionate and just God.

“It's not that they don't grieve,” he said. “They know — as a common fact of life — that bad things happen to good people. They accept that in the context of their faith.”

Thus, Third World believers may wonder why leaders in privileged lands such as Great Britain and the United States have been so quick to point angry fingers at the heavens following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

For example, Anglican leaders in Uganda were surprised by this headline in the Sunday Telegraph in London: “Archbishop of Canterbury — this has made me question God's existence.” The online version was just as blunt: “Of course this makes us doubt God's existence.”

Press officers for Archbishop Rowan Williams protested that these headlines radically oversimplified the truths that the theologian and poet had tried to communicate in his complex, candid tsunami essay. Critics had focused on his statement that it was wrong for Christians not to doubt the goodness, or even the existence, of the biblical God in the face of 157,000 deaths.

“Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers,” wrote Williams. “Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel more deeply outraged…. The question: 'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?' is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't — indeed, it would be wrong if it weren't. The traditional answers will get us only so far.”

Meanwhile, religious believers in violent and impoverished parts of the world often find comfort and coherence in the traditional answers of their faiths. Noll stressed that it would be wrong to oversimplify this. Nevertheless, he thought Ugandan responses to the tsunami were revealing.

“For God the issue of dying is not as tragic as it is to us because whether dead or alive we are still in His presence,” said Father Grace Kaiso, spokesman for the Uganda Joint Christian Council. “God whispers to us in times of peace and shouts to us in times of tragedy and unfortunately we pay more attention when He shouts. So through the tsunamis He was shouting to us and awakened us to the reality of death, which can come suddenly, of His power and of His salvation which we should take advantage of.”

Imam Kasozi of Uganda's Muslim Youth Assembly responded: “God does what He wants to do. If people are not responding to His call of upright living, He will punish them.… When God sends punishment, it does not discriminate between wrongdoers and the upright ones. This incident was two-way in that the wrongdoers were punished and the upright people who were doing God's will were taken early to heaven.”

The key, said Noll, is that many in the West tend to question the sovereignty of God, preferring a “weakened God or a mystical God or no God at all” to an omnipotent God who permits disasters.

“People in traditional societies,” said Noll, “face quandaries of God's justice daily with the death of a relative from AIDS…or a crazed insurgent, and they lean in the direction of accepting disasters as God's sovereign will. They also have a more vivid belief in the afterlife. While they mourn the loss of life, they console themselves that God's justice will be vindicated in the end.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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