NATURAL DISASTER IS NOT ALL ACT OF GOD
POVERTY IS THE CAUSE OF SUFFERING
Why do people starve? The answer is quite simple. They starve because they are poor. But the world would rather give food aid to the starving people than making them rich enough to feed themselves, because we are not willing to give up our affluent life style. We rather give what we can spare. We should ask the same question about the tragedy in Haiti. Why God allows such a devastating catastrophe to happen? The answer is the same. Because Haiti is poor. Cheaply built buildings crumbled easily. Let’s talk about the food shortage first.
At the height of famine in 1985, I went to Makele in Northern Ethiopia to observe the feeding operations. I was just appointed as Coordinator of the famine relief of the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. The horrific scene I saw must still be familiar to many people’s memories, skeletal bodies of dying people lying on the ground with their hollow eyes looking at the merciless camera. However, a big surprise came next. Representatives of the relief organizations were taken to a hotel by the government officials for lunch. It was a wonderful Italian dish. It was only a few miles away from the feeding camp where people were starving to death. There was food if you had money. Even in the midst of famine, food is available. In fact, food has always been plentiful in the world. The problem is rather too much food, and food producers in poor countries don’t get enough income because surplus food from overseas is cheaper. Ethiopian peasants died because they had no money to buy food nor could they produce food. Why? There was no farm credit for inputs and implements. Southern Alberta is a semi-desert, but farmers do not starve and keep on producing food, because they have access to credit and crop insurance. Food production is possible in the semi-desert, because there is enough money to build infrastructure such as irrigation systems. If you don’t have money, you can neither produce food nor buy food. So you starve.
There was a scandal in Europe in the midst of the African famine of the 1980’s. An Italian journalist noticed that a tin of corned beef had a label, “Made with beef from Ethiopia.” OXFAM, U.K. picked up the story and did some digging. They discovered that during the height of famine, Ethiopia increased its food export. Ethiopia exports beef, coffee, and sugar. How do they do that? Because their factory farms has better land and government subsidies has been generous: the government needed foreign currency to buy weapons to fight the civil war. So Ethiopia had surplus food in the middle of starvation. The problem was that people could not live on coffee and sugar, and beef was too expensive to produce for farmers.
The problem of hunger in the world is not the problem of availability of food, it’s the question of accessibility to it. Food is plentiful and available if you have money to buy it. If you have money, you can produce food too. The Western countries are reluctant to give farm subsidies to the poor countries because our agro-business does not want more competitions, while our governments’ subsidy to the food producers is enormous. So we don’t mind giving surplus food as food aid, but we don’t want the poor countries to become rich enough to produce their own food. We don’t starve because we have money. No money? They starve.
The miracle of the feeding of thousands in the Gospel according to John has an interesting added story. Verse 8 says, “There is a boy who had five loaves of barley bread and two fish.” That food was what Jesus blessed and fed five thousand people with. The point of the story is not the miracle but the sacrifice made by the boy. Many people interpret this story as a miracle story that proves that Jesus was the son of God. I don’t believe that this is the point.
If you learn about other religions, such a miracle is not unusual. Many legends are miracles stories. They simply try to express their belief in an exceptional person by telling the amazing stories of miracle they are supposed to have performed. They may have made up such stories. Even if it is a made up story, you can not dismiss it because it conveys an important message. You have to ask why people created such an image of the person they loved and respected. For example, it has been fifty-three years since I left Japan. Every time I visit Japan for family celebrations and other events, I am always surprised by the myths created about me during my absence. I got tired of correcting their mistakes nowadays. Instead, I learned to appreciate the image of me created that reflects their view of Tad Mitsui. If you want to believe this story as a historical fact to prove Jesus Christ was the son of God, that is your choice. But you can not dismiss the importance of this story because it is a made up story. I believe it has an important meaning even if it was not a miracle.
For example, I see the sacrifice that the boy made by giving up all the food he had is a very important point of this story. Five loaves and two fish were all he had. It could have been his lunch, or could have been a lunch for his family. But when he heard Jesus saying to the disciples to find out what food they could find, he gave it all up. He didn’t give up some and kept most of it for himself. But He gave it all he had. When someone is ready to sacrifice everything, amazing things can happen.
Haiti is a tragic country. Earthquake resulted such a devastating catastrophe because the country is so poor. Buildings were built, according to our standard, very poorly. Imagine a three story concrete block building without any reenforcement? Earthquake is a natural disaster, act of God if you will. But the rich can cope with it much better, because everything is of a better quality, buildings and infrastructure. And a poor country is often densely populated so one crumbling building can kill more people than it does in Canada. Sometime ago, there was a terrible earthquake which killed more than three thousand people in Nicaragua. The same earthquake with the same strength hit San Fernando Valley in California at the same instance. The total death toll in California was six people. Again, just like the case of food shortage, people suffer more in a poor country.
The problem is that we are not willing to deal with poverty, because the solution to poverty requires sacrifice on our part requiring not just a spare change. A system change is required. We are not ready to give up the system that has made us rich. We don’t mind giving food aid, but we don’t want them to become our competitor. Haiti used to be a rice producer. The land is suited ro rice production. But cheap rice from Louisiana and North Carolina destroyed the Haitian rice farming. The farmers in the States can produce cheap rice because they are subsidised in the tune of 41%. American farmers didn’t intend to destroy Haitian rice industry, but they didn’t want to give up government subsidy either. And they need to sell their surplus rice overseas.
Feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish is a miracle. It is not a miracle because Jesus proved his magical power as the son of Gos, but it is because there was someone who gave up all he had. God will bless such sacrificial love, and perform miracles, even today.