A Post-Disaster Culture

By Jonathan Olford   •   March 31, 2006

In a poignant scene in the movie Hotel Rwanda, the hotel manager, who is also the central character, thanks a photojournalist for covering a horrific ethnic cleansing. He says to the journalist (in my paraphrase), “Now the world will know.” The somewhat calloused but accurate journalist suggests, “No, they [Westerners] will look up from their dinner and say, ‘How awful,’ and then simply return to their dinner.”

During the past several years we have seen a dramatic rise in violence, societal intolerance and civil unrest. Watching news reports of suicide bombings, torture, war and terrorism, as well as seemingly intensifying natural disasters, has become a part of our evening routine.

Yet, for the most part, we bury our heads in the sand. Some Christians caught in the middle of a tragedy are thrust into the recovery process by necessity. And certainly others have volunteered to serve with relief, humanitarian and evangelical organizations. But I believe that churches in general remain in tragic denial, hoping that someone else–some government agency, some overworked disaster relief organization or someone–will take care of the recovery and all the hurting people.

New Culture
As the impact of recent catastrophic events unfolds, we are seeing a new culture emerge.

This “post-disaster culture” is made up of individuals who have experienced terror and its accompanying losses from such tragedies as 9/11 and the bombings in Oklahoma City, Bali, London, Paris and Nairobi. Millions have been traumatized by recent natural disasters as well. The 2004 tsunami affected many nations; multiple hurricanes pummel Florida each hurricane season; and the Gulf states, Mexico, Haiti and the Caribbean have been hit hard as well, resulting in loss that defies comprehension. Earthquakes have rocked Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Wildfires in California have devastated homes and businesses.

And yet all the people who live in these places are merely representative of a whole world in chaos–without answers, without hope, without direction. Depression and grief are ever-present forces in a culture struggling to establish a sense of normalcy and equilibrium.

Encounters with a catastrophe and the resulting loss and suffering need not be linked to destructive fanatics or to a natural disaster. When people around us experience the effects of a fatal or serious car accident, a missing child or a sudden heart attack, the necessity to “manage” pain, loss and grief becomes a very real part of life.

The ‘Why?’
In John 9:1-3, Jesus and His disciples came upon a man blind since birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Was this man born blind because of his sin or the sins of his parents?” We may not phrase the question quite that way, but in a culture desperate for answers, a determination to answer “Why?” so often follows a trauma of any sort. Some might quietly ask, “What do you think they did to deserve this?” or say, “God must be really trying to teach this person a lesson.”

But look at Jesus’ answer to His disciples: “This was not due to the sins of the man, nor of the parents, but so that the power of God might be seen in him” (Cf. John 9:3). What a concept–God is not out to get us. Trauma can shatter, alter or strengthen our notion of who God is, but we must understand that within His redemptive plan, emotional and physical pain have been experienced by His choicest saints throughout history. It is often when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable that God’s strength is revealed in us.

An Asian man had both of his children by the hand as they ran away from the tsunami wave that took thousands of lives. As the wave landed, his two children were wrenched from his grip and all were swept in different directions. Both children were killed.

Days later the man was reunited with his parents. Upon hearing his news, they disowned him, saying, “Clearly the spirits of our ancestors were punishing him. He should never have let go of his children.” He was crushed.

In this condition, he returned to the site of his nightmare, and it was there that someone asked him to tell his story. The Christian worker who sat down with him that day was able to empathize with his loss and understand his deep grief and his sense of loneliness and desperation. Her empathy prompted him to ask her how she could be so interested in him and in his story. In response, she led him into an understanding of a heavenly Father who loved him and who grieved for him as well. In that setting he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior–and was joined to an eternal family.

There’s no way to fully understand the emotions of someone who has lost a loved one; someone who is trying to envision moving forward while carrying an overwhelming experience of loss–unless you are that someone. We must be careful not to minimize people’s pain. And we must be grounded in an accurate understanding of how a loving God permits suffering and loss in a fallen world that is attempting to find solace and answers outside of Him.

Our Calling
To engage with hurting individuals is a calling to the Church. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, NIV). We must reach out to these individuals, recognizing that we live in a post-disaster culture where we rub shoulders with broken people every day. Our calling is to reach out to them and to offer Christ’s presence in crisis.

Pray that God would continue to work through the chaplains and Christian leaders who are initiating movements of love and concern to those in Indonesia, Pakistan, the Gulf Coast region and in the lives of many who suffer. And as the Church of Jesus Christ, we ourselves need to be willing to step forward. In the aftermath of tragedy, we must respond to the trumpet call that resounds in the lives of people God desires to have as His own.

Jonathan Olford will be one of the featured speakers at the “His Presence in Crisis” Evangelism Conference, June 19–22, 2006, at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, near Asheville, N.C. Learn more and register online now!

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