Sunday, October 09, 2005


The Horror in Pakistan and India

Thirty thousand people were crushed to death in an avalanche of stone and cement yesterday. The number is beyond imagining, even as it is dwarfed by other disasters like the 1918 flu pandemic and a baker's dozen of man-made holocausts. Either we've had a lot of these disasters lately or the new news media has become more efficient at hyping, but I should just say reporting, them. (Amber alert murders and blondes missing in the Caribbean are hyped; these stories require repetition).

Still, it is worth wondering if too unrelenting a series of disasters will cause our modern world to lose its already precarious hold on reason and begin regarding these calamities as signs – presumably signs of a divine hand that is either benevolent and displeased or not benevolent in the first place.

As far as divine hands go, I raise mine in favor of the theology presented in the Simpsons, whose characters all have three fingers and a thumb. G-d, who does make cameo appearances, is depicted as a hand in the sky with five fingers. I know this doubles as the cartoon drawers' inside joke that they are the five-fingered (ok, four plus a thumbed) collective god who create their characters, but it also suggests the image of a six-fingered (five plus a thumbed) G-d who has drawn us.

"…There is one within,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn'd and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war.
Which drizzled blood upon the Capital;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
Oh Caesar,…".

If you prefer something more contemporary to Shakespeare's depiction of a freaked-out wife of Caesar describing calamity below brought upon us by displeasure above, there is always Bill Murray in the first Ghostbusters describing to an incredulous mayor of New York what would happen if the Keyholder were to successfully contact the Gatekeeper, releasing thereby the malevolent god Zuul:

"Dogs and cat living together…".

To me, all of this goes back to the distinction between godly religion and paganism, a distinction that is not between mono- and poly- as to theism. The pagan Greeks and Romans acknowledged a unitary force behind the distracted and adolescent three-ring circus playing around on top of Mount Olympus. The true difference is not between many and one but between (a) listening intently for what G-d or the gods want of you, known as prayer, and perhaps modestly asking for something, and (b) not asking the gods at all but trying to order them around. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, in focusing on the incantations and spells which order the gods to do our bidding, both get paganism right. Under Judeo-Christianity, who does whose bidding is reversed. You can also ask if you want, but you can only ask.

But I wouldn't waste any breath in asking for the mud huts in Pakistan to be raised by divine hand. In this world, as JFK said, G-d's work truly must be our own.

And as each part of the world grows more acutely aware of every other part, our sense of responsibility over what we can no longer pretend not to know about must grow. If a divine hand provides anything, it provides not disasters, but the urge and impulse to alleviate them. Ultimately that urge and impulse should impel us equally toward charity, volunteerism and as well toward good citizenship. The last because every dollar wasted to bad government or bad policy is another dollar not available for relief, and every percent hike in the tax rate above what's necessary squeezes more charitable giving out of existence. And that would be a calamity indeed.


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