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AUTUMN 2005
Vol 39 No 1


Editorial:
God does care!

Charles Hill
JOB AND THE TSUNAMI

Richard Colledge
INNOCENT SUFFERING AND THE CHRISTIAN GOD: SOME PHILOSOPHICAL REFLECTIONS

Joseph Grayland
SIXTY YEARS AFTER AUSCHWITZ: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY?

Cardinal Idris Edward Cassidy
CATHOLIC DEVOTION AND THE UNITY OF CHRISTIANS

Paul Babie
THE UKRAINIAN GREEK-CATHOLIC CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA AND THE FILIOQUE: A RETURN TO EASTERN CHRISTIAN TRADITION

Elaine Wainwright RSM
IN FEAR AND GREAT JOY: FORTY YEARS OF FEMINIST BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP

Reviews

Kevin Mark
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS



 

Job and the tsunami

CHARLES HILL

THERE IS PERHAPS a streak of fatalism in us all. I always feel uneasy when well-meaning people choose as a text for liturgical celebrations, whether weddings or funerals, those fatalistic musings of poor dyspeptic Qoheleth that begin, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ I could fall victim to that streak when pondering the recurrence of disasters on particular days; Florence, that beautiful city of priceless art treasures, has been flooded three times in recent history since the days of the Medici, and always on November 4.

Now it is the turn of Boxing Day. Though the term is associated with gift-giving, the day itself is coming to take on a sombre hue for me. First the bushfires of 2001, when seven homes along our little street were lost (‘the street of ashen dreams,’ in the purple prose of one ‘journo’), not to mention many other homes and lives not far away. And now the Asian earthquake and resulting Tsunami that have caused such loss of life, suffering and desolation in our own region. It’s fate, commentators declare. My time wasn’t up, someone just back from Phuket told me yesterday.

Unfortunately, there are always those who want to put a face on fate, from Qoheleth, whose meditation on the futility of life led him to conclude that we are pawns in God’s hands, to local religious leaders reading into the tsunami the lesson that ‘disasters are part of his warning that judgement is coming.’ It was a rabbi who wrote the book Why bad things happen to good people; and then of course there’s the book about Job, who like many of the tsunami victims lost all his children and his possessions (but not his wife, who advised him that all he could do was to curse God).

Job, we know, did not accept his wife’s advice—at least, as far as the opening chapter or two go—and has been quoted endlessly for his alternative response to cataclysmic disasters, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ We may disagree as to whether this analysis does better justice to the deity from religious leaders and writers than the Tsunami as divine warning or AIDS as divine retribution.

A recent such interpretation of Job’s God given in my hearing was at the funeral of a young professional man, weighed down with pressure at work, who came home one night, snatched a glimpse of his newborn daughter, and went up and put his head on the train line. At his obsequies, after the celebrant had offered us the comfort of the stoic Job of chapter two, the young widow rose, and with immense courage simply read to us the devastating poem ‘Carrion Comfort’ of that tortured soul Gerard Manley Hopkins, for whom ‘No worse there is none.’ No pious platitudes for her, or for Hopkins; disaster and desolation and bereavement should be seen for what they are, not candied over.

And, of course, the real Job knew that, too—and curse God he did: ‘Let the day perish on which I was born, let that day be darkness, may God above not seek it, or light shine on it’ (3:3-4). It wasn’t fair, he didn’t deserve it; and right through the book he wants his day in court, with God in the dock, no matter what platitudes his friends come up with about bad things not happening to good people. Everyone knows they do, the real Job insists (not the plaster-cast puppet of the opening folk tale), so what has God to say for himself? Hopkins wanted just that response, as did the grieving widow.

The Old Testament, of course, could raise the question, but not supply the answer. It may be one reason why we do not have many commentaries on Job from the early Church Fathers. St John Chrysostom left us one in the fourth century, and he clearly has problems with a querulous Job arguing the toss with a God who afflicts the just and lets robbers rest peacefully in their own tents (12:6). Job eventually does get his day in court, but is left speechless before a God who, while conceding that it is right to challenge the platitudes of old Wisdom about only good things happening to good people, rebukes Job for questioning the wisdom of the one ‘who laid the foundation of the earth’ and ‘shut in the sea with doors’ (38:4, 8).

To Chrysostom and his Antioch congregation, close to the shores of the Mediterranean (mare internum) and the Black Sea, euphemistically known as the ‘Friendly Sea’ (pontus euxinus), seas respect their limits, as the crea- tor reminded Job as an index of his irrefutable wisdom. Chrysostom, like the Fathers generally (and that cleric today citing the stoic Job’s untroubled acceptance of his fate), could not question the history of a biblical text that begins with a paradigm of stoicism and shortly subjects that very paradigm to severe questioning; so he cannot quite grasp the sapiential author’s purpose. Hence he is happy to have God lecture Job on divine wisdom, counting on the experience of his congregation that ‘the sea everywhere throughout the world shows that unless it were held in check, the water would be likely to pour out everywhere,’ but that happily in the designs of a providential God it is ‘incapable of exceeding its limit of height or breadth.’

We now know that is not always true, though it may not invalidate the author’s argument about divine wisdom visible in created nature. Chrysostom, too, came to know that seas are not always compliant and ‘friendly,’ especially the Black Sea. Exiled to its shores by clerical and imperial leaders, he understood why even in antiquity people like Ovid had found it was rather an ‘unfriendly’ sea when likewise exiled there. Chrysostom finally fell victim to it; he had found that bad things could indeed happen to good people, though his last words are reputed to have been, ‘Glory be to God for all things.’ It must have been hard to say that in Comana in Pontus on September 13 in 407—or in Aceh, Phuket and the Maldives on Boxing Day 2004. Would that have been Job’s first response?

Charles Hill lives in the Blue Mountains. He teaches and writes on the Bible, theology and the Fathers.