Fires in Victoria – Where was God?

Jim Consedine

The fires in Victoria have been indescribable. Not only have they ravaged the state in a frenzy of destruction, but they have obliterated the hopes, the dreams and hard work of generations. With the exception of the Bali bombings, nothing in recent times has so painfully seared the consciousness of Australians. From the time the fires started on Saturday 7th February, more than 170 people lost their lives, more than 7000 were driven from their homes. Hundreds more were seriously burned, with injuries which may take months if not years to properly heal. Whole townships burned to the ground in a matter of hours, leaving hideous blackened landscapes like those of a nuclear winter. Thousands of Victorians of all ages have been traumatized. Many have lost everything they owned except the clothes they stood in. It has been a disaster of immense proportions.

On the second night there was a report on TV highlighting one man in almost total despair as he viewed the blackened remains of what had been his family home, now a charred heap and graveyard to two of his children. As he sobbed into the cameras, he poured out the despair in his heart, crying that there was no hope. Then followed an interview with a woman who reflected through tears on the goodness that has emerged in the firefighters, rescuers and community help that had been activated. Two stories of differing perspectives spoken, thousands full of heartache and grief left unsaid. Others stories emerged later of heroism and service beyond the call of duty. Richly human stories, all reflecting the tragedy.

A question many will ponder – where was God in all this? What sort of God would allow whole towns to be incinerated in a single afternoon, snuffing out the life contained therein? Some may ask, why didn’t God turn the winds the other way? Why was the rain in Queensland when it was needed in its southern neighbours?

These are legitimate questions, even if they reflect a somewhat simplistic understanding of God. But let’s face it – most of us have a very limited understanding of God and how the Creator works in our daily lives. Like people of faith down through the ages, millions still believe in a God who is concerned for our everyday lives and hopefully will respond to our prayers for help in times of need. Where was God when most needed in Victoria?

They focus on one of the great paradoxes of faith – the problem of evil. Where is God when evil is being enacted, when fires are burning, floods drowning? Why doesn’t God come to our aid and make the evil go away and replace it with goodness and justice? It is the cry of the oppressed, the refrain of slaves, the marginalized, those suffering injustice, illness and facing trouble throughout history. Why is God allowing this to happen?

This cry inevitably comes laden with anguish. It poses a very difficult question to attempt to answer. I have found a helpful insight in Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s account of the trauma he suffered in Auschwitz. As a teenager, he was forced to watch a young boy hanged on the gallows in front of all the other prisoners. It took the boy 30 minutes to die. Each prisoner was forced to walk past and look into the boy’s face as he hung, twisting on the rope. As he passed, Elie heard one of the men shuffling beside him ask bitterly, ‘where is God now?’ Wiesel heard an inner voice answer from deep within, ‘Where is he? He is hanging here on this gallows.’

That answer contains a deep theological insight. God was hanging on the gallows. It is a truth not well understood but which Christians among others hold. For Christians, God, called the Risen Christ, identifies with humanity and is to be found living within human beings. This means that God is locked up in prisons all over the world, lives on garbage heaps in the Philippines, runs with street kids in Rio, works in factories in China, provides parental care in Brisbane, commutes to offices in Hobart, buses to school in Auckland. Wherever people are, God is present, undergoing their pleasures and pains, celebrating, grieving, walking with them, living within them.

Where then was God during the fires? God was in and around and about the fire and all who were affected Obviously God didn’t start the fires, but would have certainly co-operated with those who fought them, encouraging them to do good (Rom 8). God’s heart bleeds for the lost ones, for the burnt ones, for those traumatised.

Those of us who live outside the fire zone form part of the human family, the Mystical Body, and are intimately connected to those who suffered. We are united by the God who was burnt in the fires but triumphs over death and destruction. In that belief ultimately lies our hope.

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