Christians think of it as “God’s will.” Buddhists call it “karma.”
Whatever the terminology, a prominent religious scholar told a Salt Lake Interfaith Month audience at the University of Utah last Wednesday that during times of natural disaster, believers from both faith traditions tend to roll up their sleeves and help those in need rather than speculate about the theological implications of adversity.
“There is a tendency in the media to focus on those who describe natural disasters as divine retribution from a Christian perspective or as Karmic retribution from a Buddhist perspective,” said Dr. Beverly Foulks McGuire, an assistant professor of East Asian Religions at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. “But during times of crisis, everyday Christians say, ‘I don’t know the mind of God,’ and everyday Buddhists say, ‘I don’t understand how karma operates, I just know this is an opportunity to serve.’ And they do.”
McGuire was the featured speaker for the first Neale Nelson Memorial Lecture, named for the former pastor of Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City and a U. of U. alum. It was held Wednesday in the university’s Marriott Library as part of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable’s Interfaith Month calendar.
Drawing from media reports circulating around the time of superstorm Sandy in late 2012, the Japanese tsunami in 2011 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, McGuire cited religious leaders who suggested that superstorm Sandy was “divine retribution for the legalization of same-sex marriage,” that the Japanese tsunami was an opportunity to “wash away selfish greed” and that Hurricane Katrina was “retribution for abortion.”
She quoted Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic: “You can’t shake your fist in God’s face 364 days a year and then ask, ‘Where was God when Katrina struck?’”
And yet, she said, public opinion surveys indicate that while 56 percent of Americans say God is in control of everything that happens in the world, only 38 percent believe that natural disasters are a sign or punishment from God.
Which probably has something to do with the fact that there are so many Christian relief efforts — and, in the case of the Japanese tsunami, Buddhist monastic relief efforts — at times of natural disaster and crisis.
“Some people find solace in the idea that God is in charge and that he is with us, executing his will in our lives and in nature,” said McGuire, who specializes in the study of Chinese religions. “Others find it comforting to think that we humans are in this together, and that its up to us to take care of each other, no matter what happens.”
Suffering is integral to our life experience, she continued. “In times of suffering you want to rely on your religious community for support,” she said. “We find strength with each other.”
And that communal strength allows both Buddhists and Christians “to make sense of our suffering” by helping them to recognize that although the physical elements are beyond their control, “we do have control over how we respond to the things that happen around us.”
Compassionate, caring response during times of natural disaster forms a bridge between Buddhist and Christian faith traditions because of the similar way in which they respond with their hearts and their physical efforts to people in need and leave the talk of divine retribution or karma to religious “experts.”
“The media focuses on those who have strange ideas about how God works instead of talking to the faithful people who are actually physically involved in the relief efforts,” McGuire said, adding that perhaps the best response to crisis is illustrated by the friends of Job in the Old Testament.
“First they sat with him, absolutely silent,” she said. “Then they went to work to provide comfort, caring and counsel.”