President George W. Bush has been criticized for his slow response to the tsunami disaster and for the “stingy” amount of U.S. government aid ($15 million) he was initially willing to offer the victims. The president has since raised that amount to $350 million, but governments of smaller and less wealthy nations have contributed much more proportionally than the United States. Bush is unimpressed by such comparisons and used the relief effort to slyly deprecate what government can do in such situations, extolling the private generosity-and thus the moral superiority-of individual Americans.

Americans are, in fact, a generous people, but the U.S. government’s nonmilitary aid budget is miserly at best. Fortunately, U.S. troops took a prominent logistical role in getting the outpouring of aid from around the globe to the survivors. Even in time of war, government must perform humanitarian tasks not directly related to national security at home and abroad. Franklin D. Roosevelt, another wartime president, drew lessons from his experience that President Bush would do well to heed. In Roosevelt’s last inaugural address (January 20, 1945), with victory in World War II close at hand, he was determined to broaden his countrymen’s notions of the role America must play in the world. “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace, that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away,” he said. “We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that ‘the only way to have a friend is to be one.’ We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear.”

“Citizens of the world”? That is not a sentiment embraced by this administration. Yet Emerson’s call to friendship and simple human solidarity remains a powerful moral and political force. How else explain the unprecedented humanitarian response of the Western and industrialized world to a natural disaster afflicting total strangers half a world a way? Increasingly, people do feel themselves to be citizens of the world, drawn together by the communications revolution, ease of travel, and the global economy. The result has been paradoxical. In many instances, advanced countries have exploited poorer ones. Yet for all its faults, modern liberal and secular culture places a much higher value than earlier and often more religious societies on relieving the suffering of others. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “We live in an extraordinary moral culture, measured against the norm of human history, in which suffering and death, through famine, flood, earthquake, pestilence, or war, can awaken worldwide movements of sympathy and practical solidarity.” These sentiments have Christian roots, roots that need to be defended and reinvigorated. But the Enlightenment and modernity had to make a “breach with the culture of Christianity,” Taylor argues, before these extraordinary humanitarian impulses could achieve the universal reach they have today. Religious tolerance and the human-rights revolution have made this feeling of fellowship possible.

Although suffering can be ameliorated by “movements of sympathy and practical solidarity,” the stark reality of seemingly meaningless death and destruction remains. The tsunami has evoked much commentary on the “meaning” of the deaths of innocents and the malevolence of nature. This, in turn, has brought forth responses from religious thinkers trying to make sense of the age-old question of how a benevolent God can permit such evil. Columnist and Orthodox priest John Garvey offers one response (“Is God Responsible?” page 10), reminding us of the “horror of ordinary daily suffering” and how elusive consolation can be. In a related vein, theologian Joseph A. Komonchak (“The Violence of the Cross,” page 19) tackles the perplexing subject of “atonement” or “penal substitution” theology.

Contrary to widely held opinion, Komonchak notes, the church does not teach that a wrathful God demanded his son’s death. Nor, of course, does God demand the deaths of innocents in tsunamis or other natural catastrophes. Instead, Komonchak writes, it is Christ who reaches out to and accompanies each of us in our struggles with pain, injustice, violence, and death. Christianity offers no “explanation” for why God permits evil, but rather tells the story of God’s solidarity with humankind. It is a solidarity we all must work every day to extend. Even government can play a role. 

January 18, 2005

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Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: View Contents
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