Acton Commentary

Blaming the Victims: An Ecumenical Disaster


While the death tolls are still mounting from last week's catastrophe in the Indian Ocean, some prominent religious leaders haven't wasted any time engaging in politicking and opportunism. Last Thursday, Rev. Sam Kobia, generalsecretary of the World Council of Churches, and Rev. Ishmael Noko, generalsecretary of the Lutheran World Federation, issued statements rebuking the United States, among other nations, for not signing on to theKyoto protocol.

Don't see the link between a massive earthquake and globalwarming? Kobia and Noko certainlydo. The results of the disasterare “a clear warning on what climate change could to do the world,” saidKobia. Noko agrees, finding theearthquake and resulting tsunami to be “a reminder that we would do well toheed, at a time when even the relatively inadequate efforts by theinternational community to address climate change continue to be subverted andundermined by some of those most responsible.”

If this is what passes for the prophetic witness of thechurch these days, then the ecumenical movement is in sorry shape indeed. Citing global warming as a cause of theearthquake and tsunami is too far-fetched, even for these religiousleaders. But Kobia and Noko areunflinchingly quick to use the scale of this disaster as an excuse to shiftfocus back to one of their pet ideological topics.

Such opportunism demonstrates a serious and disturbing lapsein leadership. Instead of attempting to honestly assess the problems exposed by the disaster and its aftermath, the ecumenical leaders exploit the tsunami and launch into radical environmentalist talking points reminiscent of the rhetorical tripe that characterized this year's disaster flick, “The Day after Tomorrow.”

Instead of chiding America (and implicitly the world's favorite villain, George W. Bush) for global warming and for the tsunam idamage, we should focus attention on solving genuine problems that contributed to the disaster. Lack of economic development, infrastructure, and communication systems made Southeast Asia's experience of the tsunami worse than it had to be.

Developed nations have much greater ability to take concrete actions which save lives, leading up to, in the midst of, and following natural disasters. The infrastructure and systems are in place to get out warnings, to enable evacuations, and to set up emergency medical facilities in the aftermath.

One of the nations affected, India, recognizes this fact. India has wisely resisted signing onto Kyoto, understanding that its people need economic progress more than environmental purity at this point intime.

In light of India's stand, the statement from Kobia and Noko, whose organizations represent 342 and 138 member churches respectively, reads more like a placement of blame for the disaster on its victims. Is this the kind of message the ecumenical movement really should be sending? In the wake of natural disaster, implying that India wouldbe better served by sacrificing development to environmental orthodoxy resembles Pharisaical arrogance more than the evangelical message of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the radical environmental agenda shared by Kobia and Noko is tied up withflawed economic theories that enslave rather than liberate those in the developing world. The WCC andother ecumenical groups are fond of decrying the global economic “empire” ofthe West. And in the meantime, the poor in developing nations languish in poverty, ripe targets for enormously destructive natural calamities.

Disasters like those of last week's earthquake and tsunami cannot be avoided, but their devastating effects can be minimized. And the key to minimizing such damage lies in economic prosperity and development, not in ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

If the ecumenical movement is truly serious about examining the causes and implications of the tsunami's huge toll of human life, its leaders should begin to reconsider their own role in bringing relief to the world's afflicted masses.

In doing so, they might discover that their opposition to the free market has helped keep poor nations in the bondage of poverty, making their citizens more vulnerable to the threat of natural catastrophes. And they might also realize the greater relevance of Jesus' question, “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4 NIV)