As with every disaster, God has been dragged in for an account in the aftermath of Haiyan. Where was he, asks Fatima Measham on the ABC.
When Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte went to Tacloban in the chaotic first days after the typhoon to assess what assistance his city could provide, he reeled from what he saw. "God must have been somewhere else," he concluded to reporters.
The Catholic Archbishop of Lipa, Ramon Arguelles, took theopposite view. In the second week after Haiyan made landfall, he said that the disasters recently faced by Filipinos are divine reminders: that their lives are ultimately in God's hands and that his will must therefore be followed. Referring to the recently passed reproductive health legislation, which guarantees universal access to artificial fertility control, Arguelles concludes, "When we oppose God, we are in danger."
These are typical responses in the wake of devastation. People fashion whatever God makes immense suffering comprehensible. He must have abandoned the innocents or smote them out of spite. Of course, both versions are offensive, and even reprehensible, in the face of debilitating grief.
I myself don't tend to look for God in disasters - or at least, I don't look for him in the places where people usually look. Far too often, when people look for a way to make catastrophe easier to bear, they end up downplaying the human factors that contributed to its scale. God is reduced to either an alibi or an accusation. This does not sit well with my faith, nor does it sit well with reason. "Why did this happen?" can be resolved by empirical means, including things within our control, such as risk mitigation, disaster preparedness and response. Natural disasters like typhoons are not so much tests of faith as tests of political will and societal cohesion.
That is to say that theological engagement with Haiyan should not come at the expense of political engagement. These two in fact intersect precisely at the point of disaster, or more broadly, human suffering.
Liberation theology reframed Christian teachings in the context of political and social conditions that keep people from living lives of dignity. This overturned many ideas: that suffering requires only solace; that faith is a private affair with no political imperatives; and that sin is merely individual in nature not structural or societal. In this light, a theological reading of Haiyan that does not account for the social and political structures that have led to the death of thousands, as well as the indignities endured by survivors, is grossly inadequate.