The wave first appeared as a dark shadow on the horizon that separates open sky from the deep. As it came closer some noticed that water levels on the beach had dropped precipitously. A few headed for the hills and safety. Some actually went out on the reefs to catch the stranded fish flapping on suddenly dry land. Most paid little attention till it was too late.
The devastation from December's Tsunami is almost without parallel in living memory. You need to look at man-made killings in places like Auschwitz, Phnom Penh, and Kigali to evoke the same shock. But even those blots on history cannot equal the scale of the swath of despair that remained after the wave-front of the overflowing sea.
What to make of it? Certainly tears are called for. And beyond the tears a recognition that the seismic shift that produced the Tsunami will in its aftermath continue to shake up the status quo—that the larger Tsunami may yet be to come in the relations between nations, at how we look at both man and God.
Newsweek, in an article titled "Countless Souls Cry Out to God" (1/10/05), examined how peoples of all faiths in the affected area might deal with the tragedy. The article pointed out that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians are asking "Why us? Why here?" And they look to their faith for some of the answers.
This has implications far beyond the introspection suggested by the faith challenge. It is not inconsequential that Sri Lanka is in the grip of a long-running civil war that has pitted Buddhists against Hindus. A subtext to the Myanmar repression is restriction of religious expression and the aspirations of Christians. India of late has been troubled by violence between Christians and Hindus, and Hindus and Muslims—and in fact the violence of partition and the continuing antagonism between India and Pakistan is essentially a religious war. And Indonesia, while almost monolithically Islamic, has ongoing violence between Christians and Muslims in places such as Ambon; and some of the most militant of Islamic Jihadis are in Aceh, where the Tsunami struck most severely.
We, and most of the world, are mobilizing our resources against a global phenomenon of terror that manifests itself by violent acts of death and destruction that have everything to do with religious faith. But the real story might not be the burning towers or terrorist training camps—it might be in tectonic shifts in how societies view religious faith and create shared moral values.
I confess to being a C-SPAN and public radio junkie—in part because of long commute times. And I have been impressed at the deliberate shift, especially since 9/11, in how we Americans see other human beings. There were the statements by key administration officials that we would not be bound by the Geneva Conventions in this new war. There were the knowing winks as we reported on how many we had killed or detained. There was the suspension of legal norms for the expediency of dealing with people always presumed to be exactly what we feared, and therefore without protection or consideration. There were the ecstatic claims of how humane our bombing was, and little questioning of the "collateral damage." There were the prison abuses which too many still see as a public relations problem rather than a dark window into our changing soul. In confirmation hearings I still hear weasel talk of the necessity for what can only be torture. I hear loose talk, dignified by pseudo-law that we are above accountability because our cause is just. I hear the call-in comments of intolerance, hate and growing inhumanity. And I can almost see the dark line rearing up on our horizon.
What is manifestly missing from most of the public discourse since 9/11 is the set of assumptions best expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
We wanted to be free because we saw it the right of created beings. We recognized rights that all human beings have because there is a Creator God.
This magazine has argued long and hard that religious liberty is most secure in a secular state that stays out of the religion business—as mandated by the Constitution. But we never argue that this secular United States is without moral, indeed religious, assumptions. The Constitution does not express Darwinian assumptions! It is not a construct of expediency. Or a Bismarckian vision of the state. No! It rests solidly on a vision of us as moral beings owing to others what God has created us all with—inherent rights to dignity, respect and with spiritual needs that we must pursue unhindered by others.
We are forgetting that Geneva Conventions or other rights are "right" not because they may protect our own troops in a sort of "quid pro quo," but because they are an imperfect wartime reminder of the moral sanctity of all human life; no matter how debased by violence or hate. We are forgetting that the answer to declining public morality lies not in religious war—not in other's jihads or our homegrown heavy-handed political version—but in spiritual renewal. And in that direction, with its attendant concern for the welfare of all, lies the ultimate weapon against religious intolerance.
Lincoln E. Steed
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."