“Is this an act of God?” a TV3 reporter asked as we stood amid the carnage of the February 22 earthquake. It was a genuine question, posed by many in the aftermath of disaster.
The answer, of course, is no. “Act of God” doesn’t even stand up as a legal definition these days.
God doesn’t create earth tremors that kill hundreds of people. God is love, creative freedom, righteousness, and justice. And God doesn’t remove grace from any part of the world that God has created. No way.
So how do we understand a natural disaster such as the Christchurch earthquake?
Good biblical theology accepts that the devastation wrought by plate tectonics is a result of freedom – yes, freedom – in the world that God has created.
God's creation unfolds and develops, from the smallest atom to the movement of vast continents and mountain ranges, according to God-given principles of relative freedom.
God contains this freedom within the creative energy and purpose of divine grace, as a new creation is prepared and anticipated, but God doesn’t manipulate events the way a puppeteer does.
God suffers with creation as it groans in travail like a woman in labour, as St Paul reflected.
That’s to say, God takes on the pain and death of the world on the cross and offers back resurrection, in Christ. God in Christ overcomes the powers of sin and death, with a victory of grace and love.
God knows, this can be so painful. But this is the way God overcomes, and this is the way we’re called to live in a still- imperfect and unpredictable world – as an Easter people.
But let’s go back to the Christchurch quake…
In talking with Christchurch people this week I noticed a deep interest in the place and meaning of the Christian church, especially the church as represented by ChristChurch Cathedral.
This extraordinary and iconic sacred space at the centre of Christchurch has become the embodiment of the very heart of this city – albeit a broken heart at this time.
The Bishop, the Dean and other clergy connected to the cathedral, as well as priests throughout the stricken urban area, have touched some spiritual taproots which in some cases were deeply buried.
One of many signs of solidarity and hope has been the sight of the clergy collar.
We all know it’s just a strip of plastic but it singles out someone who lives with trauma and shock like anyone else, and yet is there for others in the name of God. And that strikes a deep chord.
Something equally profound became clear to me in the midst of the crisis.
A tragic event restores Kiwi community, in a time when many of us have retreated into private cyberspace, possessions, or the medication of drugs and alcohol.
These diversions can become symptoms of escape from the true realities and challenges of our city and our world.
But then calamity strikes, shaking the very basis of our life together, – and people discover that they actually need each other.
Neighbourliness and mutual compassion come alive again, re-creating community bonds that have shrivelled in the past 50 years.
Which is why I saw free water bottles thrust into the hands of thirsty drivers and pedestrians … ice creams handed out willy-nilly from passing vehicles… and homemade meals served up with practical help.
The image of God in everyone – however tarnished, fallen or unrecognized – can be glimpsed in the good that we become capable of.
Which goes to prove, once again, that wherever there is goodness, there is God.
David Moxon is an archbishop of this church.