Where Is God When Disaster Strikes?

Interview with Jamie Aten by Nigel Bovey

This article was originally published in The War Cry on February 20, 2016.

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Rech Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, Illinois, Dr Jamie Aten specialises in the psychology of religion and disasters. But his interest is more than academic. In 2010, he founded the college’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute, as he tells Nigel Bovey

Dr Aten, why did you choose to study psychology?

I was an alto sax player and always wanted to be a musician, so my first subject at university was music. But I then realised that something was missing. I couldn’t see myself as a high school band director. I really wasn’t sure where I was headed professionally but ended up taking an introductory psychology course. I found myself intrigued by insights into why people behave the way they do and believe what they believe, so I switched to psychology and have stayed there ever since.

Dr. Jamie Aten

Dr. Jamie Aten

How did the idea for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute come about?

In my graduate training in counselling psychology, I was interested in rural health disparities and investigating how faith communities could play a role in improving psychosocial care to the underserved people in rural areas. As a family, we then moved from the Chicago area to south Mississippi. We arrived six days before Hurricane Katrina hit. On our first Sunday in town, we went to church. The pastor announced that there was a hurricane coming that was going to be worse than Hurricane Camille, which had devastated the area in 1969. My wife and I turned to one another, not knowing what to do to get ready for a hurricane. As we were talking, the pastor continued, saying that the reason why we were all there was because God had called us to be there and if we evacuated, it was because we didn’t have enough faith in God. As a psychologist, I started to think there were a lot of issues that he was raising that would have a direct impact on a large portion of the congregation in terms of their response. After the service, we asked some of the locals what we should do. One of them said: ‘Don’t worry. At worst it’s going to be like camping for a few days.’ My wife and I thought that didn’t sound too bad and perhaps we were overreacting. We went into a store to get some supplies only to find that everything had been sold. When we got home, I remembered the post- 9/11 public service announcements about preparing for terrorist attacks and disasters with plastic and duct tape. I went running around the house, frantically searching for the duct tape. When I found it, I was elated. But then I thought: Now what? I realised how unprepared I was. In the event, we did evacuate and it took about a month for the university to reopen. As we tried to get back to normal academic life, I gathered my team to refocus our attention on our research into rural health in the Mississippi Delta. As we were talking, one of the students asked why we weren’t studying what was going on with regards to religion, faith and mental health among those who’d been affected by the hurricane? After some brainstorming, that’s what we did. We carried out a study just weeks after the hurricane passed. One of the standout findings was that mental health centres were working well above capacity as people came to terms with the emotional and mental trauma. But I noticed that very few ethnic minorities were seeking mental health care. I contacted some of the African-American clergy and discovered that many people were turning to the Church for help. I saw first-hand that faith-based organisations, such as The Salvation Army, are critical to a community’s resilience after a disaster. One of the drivers behind setting up the Humanitarian Disaster Institute was to help congregations not only respond to disasters but also to think about how to care for the most vulnerable people in their communities after the disasters have taken place.

Why should churches get involved?

Isn’t disaster management and aftercare a responsibility of the State? Typically, it is a church that already has a relationship with the most vulnerable people in a community. When helping church leaders to prepare a disaster response programme, I often ask what their theology of disasters is. Most times, they look blank. But then I ask them what their theology is on topics such as suffering and caring for the marginalised. That’s when the light goes on and they start to see how their beliefs might inform their response to disasters.

What is your theology of disasters?

The biblical story of Joseph is a helpful model. In the years of plenty, he stewarded the resources and prepared for leaner times. When the famine came, Egypt was able not only to feed itself but also to offer refuge to those from a different land who came for help. I’ve also found it helpful to consider the ways the good Samaritan helped as an example of how to respond after a disaster. And I’m drawn to the story of Nehemiah when I think about ways the Church might help with disaster recovery. Overall, the Scriptures compel the Church to help those in need – and where there is disaster, there is need.

How do people and churches think about and prepare for disasters?

Some of our research suggests that many people believe disaster will happen to someone else, but never to them. After Katrina, I heard people say that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I heard people say the same thing after the Haiti earthquake and again after the Japan earthquake and tsunami. There is also the idea that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Our post-Katrina research shows that many people who’ve been through a disaster tend to think it won’t happen to them again. Just months after Katrina, we asked church pastors whether they would be drawing up contingency plans for the future. Unanimously, they said yes. They were adamant – they would never be caught off guard again, they would put together disaster response teams. A year later, we asked the same pastors: ‘Do you have a plan?’ The answer was almost always no.

In the biblical story, Joseph was in Egypt because his jealous brothers sold him to slave traders. During his time there, he was falsely imprisoned for sexual assault. When he confronted his brothers, who were escaping famine, he told them that while they meant evil, God meant what happened to him for good. Does God mean natural disaster for good?

One of our areas for future research is religious attribution – what was God’s role in this disaster? A church’s caring response to affected people is one way in which God redeems the consequences of natural disasters. Even if a church doesn’t have a plan, it may have resources or effective ministries that can be leveraged to help in times of disaster. In Jesus’ parable, the good Samaritan, for example, doesn’t set out knowing he’s going to help a victim of violence, but he sees the need, has the money for the man’s accommodation and, most importantly, is prepared to help.

To what extent are natural disasters purposed acts of God?

I do not believe God sends disasters to harm people. A geologist friend says that earthquakes are good for the planet, as they help reset some aspects of creation that can lead to new forms of growth. The problems come about when we are harmed by disasters. I believe disasters are a result of the Fall. Disasters may point to the fallen nature of creation, but the Church’s response points others towards God’s grace.

Are disasters a mode of divine punishment, God expressing his wrath?

One prominent preacher announced that 9/11 was God’s judgment on Americans’ sexual excesses. Another said that the Haiti earthquake occured because the country was cursed through voodoo. I, though, do not believe that natural disasters are a method of God’s punishment. The labelling of natural disasters as ‘acts of God’ comes about because people need to see purpose and find understanding in order to cope. We need to understand the source of a threat. When under stress, our perspective is defined by ‘them’ and ‘us’. In a terrorist attack, working out who is the ‘them’ is fairly straightforward. But an earthquake is a different matter. No human group is to blame, so we ascribe causality to God. Some time after Hurricane Katrina, there was a deep-water oil spill that caused ecological damage along the Mississippi coastline. People didn’t ask the same religious questions about the spill that they did about the hurricane. The world doesn’t need Christians arguing for God’s grace; it needs Christians expressing God’s grace, especially in times of disaster.

As well as providing the resources of premises, food and clothing, what can a church best offer in a disaster?

Time and space to listen to the survivors. A useful insight from the biblical story of Job, who suffered a string of personal disasters, is that his friends sat and listened to him at first. This was helpful. It wasn’t until they started talking and blaming that they caused Job more harm than good. Sometimes as Christians, we unfortunately can act like Job’s friends. In a disaster, people need to express their worries, concerns and fears. We need to learn to listen and support others while not judging.

With millions of people living on flood plains and geological fault-lines, to what extent is humankind, rather than God, responsible for the suffering that can often result from a natural disaster?

Some disasters occur over which humankind has absolutely no control. However, we are regularly doing things that put our lives at greater risk. For example, research shows a connection between human lifestyles and the impact on climate change. In the past 40 years, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of natural disasters. Some researchers are suggesting a link between these and climate change. Climate change is also changing weather patterns. Researchers from our institute were working in a refugee camp in Kenya when the rains came. The deluge washed away roads and houses. The locals had no reason to prepare, because historically the rains did not fall at that time of year. In various parts of the world, the population is moving from rural areas to condensed urban settlements. Often, this means people are moving from a place of safety into harm’s way. In Miami, everybody wants a sea view, so the coast is lined with skyscraper condos that are built on the water’s edge. But the city was not built with disasters or evacuation routes in mind. We need to give more consideration to community resilience in urban development and city planning to help mitigate potential risks to citizens.

When and how did you become a Christian?

I grew up in a small farming community where there were as many churches as bars. Everyone I knew was a Christian, at least culturally. I grew up going to church, but my faith didn’t really become my own until I was around 19 and went to college. I’d written an English essay and when the professor gave it back, there was a note on it telling me to see him after class. He asked me if I was a Christian. When I answered yes, he asked why. I had no response for him. I was distraught at that. I was identifying myself as a Christian and I regularly went to church – but what did I really know about my Christian faith? I started to read C. S. Lewis. Over the weeks, my agnostic/atheist professor and I would swap books and discuss what we’d read. As a result, my faith became stronger.

What convinces you that Jesus is the Son of God?

When I was growing up, it may have been the authority of the Church and of people I trusted. Then in college, it was the philosophical and reasoning process. By exploring the person of Christ from the sciences, my faith was reinforced. Perhaps the biggest confirmation about the reality and goodness of God has come through the support and encouragement of fellow Christians, especially in personal times of trial.

As a psychologist, you understand the concepts of illusion and delusion. Faith, particularly Christianity, has been described in both terms. Why isn’t your faith either an illusion or a delusion?

Each of those terms is an oversimplified view of what belief in God is – that faith is merely some kind of coping mechanism. Faith is not an opiate that helps us escape problems. Faith actually sustains me through times of suffering. Faith also challenges me. Having faith in God does not automatically make life easier. It raises questions. It identifies complexities. Faith is not as simplistic as some people make out.  

Next week: Facing the personal disaster of cancer