ZENIT carries a report today of the situation in Haiti, following the earthquake that happened two days ago. The Catholic News Agency carries a report here, which includes the call of Pope Benedict for prayers and practical assistance to the people of Haiti. As well as giving some indication of the situation of the people of Port-au-Prince and of the religious and seminarians, the reports say that the Archbishop of the diocese of Port-au-Prince is one of those who have been killed by the earthquake. The most recent BBC News website coverage is here.
The Today Programme - BBC Radio's flagship news/current affairs programme - this morning carried a package that asked the question: "Where is God in Haiti?". The package opens with an account of a testimony published in the Guardian newspaper, and there follows an interview with the Archbishop of York.
Archbishop Sentamu answers this question by saying that, in the light of Christmas when God becomes man, we should say that God is with the people of Haiti, beside them at this time. He also points out that God is like Christ - who was broken and mutilated on the cross. In that sense, for the Christian, we can try to understand the experience of the people of Haiti as a sharing in the suffering experience of God himself. Quite rightly, Archbishop Sentamu rejects any suggestion that an event such as this is a punishment for wrong doing that can be attributed in any way, however remotely, to those who are suffering.
But, as Archbishop Sentamu was asked in the interview, why does an all powerful and merciful God allow such an event? [It is interesting that such a question can be asked of God as understood in Islam, as well as of God as understood in Christianity.] The first part of an academic answer to this question needs to recognise that what we learn about God from the events of the world around us, and what we learn about God from the sources of his revelation to us, cannot in principle be opposed. In a theological language, it is the same God who is both creator and saviour/redeemer.
The second step is to recognise the reality of the suffering (or, if one wants to use the term, the physical evil) that is shown in the consequences of an event such as the earthquake in Haiti. It is truly awful, horrible, indescribable - shocking to the extent that it really should disturb us. It represents in the fullest and deepest sense part of the mystery of suffering, a mystery that we are challenged to understand. Part of this mystery, expressed in the testimony quoted at the beginning of the BBC Today Programme package, is the question of why one person might survive when another does not, why an earthquake might devastate Haiti but not the London.
For the Christian, however, this mystery of suffering includes a "new" element. Through his suffering on the Cross, Jesus redeems this mystery of suffering and, without denying its reality as a mystery of suffering which it still remains, enables it to have an orientation towards a mystery of good. In the living of the Christian life, this is most fundamentally a matter of grace - God's freely given gift of himself to his people - and so it makes absolute sense for the Christian to engage with it in the realm of grace. This is why Christians pray for those who are suffering, pray for the relief of their suffering and the healing and welfare of the survivors; and they say that they are doing so as an act of solidarity that makes visible the solidarity existing in the realm of grace.
This mystery of good also has its physical expression in practical solidarity and aid being sent to the people of Haiti. The mystery of good is both individual and institutional - so the aid, both practical in terms of skilled personnel and equipment and material in the form of food, medicines etc, that come from the nations and aid agencies of the world are a participation in the mystery of good. And, of course, it is not only believers who take part in this mystery of good.
At this moment, in reflecting on a particularly awful and powerful manifestation of the mystery of suffering which is still part of our headline news, it is perhaps not appropriate to ask how that mystery of suffering comes to be part of our world. Such a question is for another time. But, for the moment, we can keep in mind that mystery of good which is a counterpart to the mystery of suffering. The new media - the internet and satellite telephone communication - enable us who are far from these events to have an experience of this that would not otherwise be possible.