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Natural disasters are often attributed to divine intervention and retribution by conservative Christians in the media. Professor Beverley McGuire said the responses are often mistakenly categorized and unrepresentative of most religious groups.
McGuire, an associate professor in religion and philosophy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, spoke at the Marriott Library on Wednesday about the differing responses of Christians and Buddhists to natural disasters and how responses to disasters are portrayed in the media.
The responses to Hurricane Sandy represented in the media displayed conservative Christian leaders blaming the storm on divine retribution for sins, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“This is not the first time that individuals have claimed that a hurricane was divine retribution,” she said.
Hurricane Katrina was the scapegoat for different causes, such as the sins of New Orleans and the upholding of the legality of abortion.
McGuire said 56 percent of Americans believe God is in charge of everything, but only 38 percent believe natural disasters are a sign from God.
“There are alternative [responses] that focus on the human and the humanistic,” she said.
She called the response of religious groups to disasters “remarkable.” The relief efforts of religious groups are covered by the media, but the theology behind them is often left uncovered. She said this could be because often their theologies do not provide a simplified and basic answer.
She gave several examples of how Christian scholars view disasters and appropriate responses. One example was “encountering suffering without trying to explain it away.” People should stand in solidarity and help those affected by the disaster without assigning blame.
Another was to recognize the other elements that had a part in the disaster, such as the inadequate levy system in New Orleans or the alleged racism in the slow reconstruction of the city, and turn those passions into actions for change, she said.
After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the governor of Tokyo said, “The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami to wash away their selfish greed.”
McGuire said in the Buddhist tradition, craving and desire need to be eliminated because they take away from achieving happiness.
“It does have the connotation of righteous punishment of the wicked,” she said.
The governor later apologized for his statement.
After the tsunami in Japan, Buddhist temples were used as shelters and distribution centers, and monks performed memorial rituals, last rites for the dead and provided humanitarian aid, she said.
“The Buddhist monastic involvement was striking,” she said.
A study in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, after the tsunami in 2004 found a different response.
“[The study] found the religious interpretations did not dominate. In fact, the primary concern was how to deal with the practical concerns,” she said.
Another possible explanation is collective karma. She said karma is not divine retribution but is a cycle in which people reap the fruit of their actions, whether good or bad. Some said their survival was based in part on their religious traditions.
“They also gave accounts of miracles,” she said.
According to McGuire, a monk said children in his temple were saved because they were doing religious rites outside. She also said there were reports of the miraculous survival of Buddhist objects. After a time, the people on the island decided the reason for the tsunami was not collective karma but the earthquake. Buddhist tradition allows for disasters caused by nature and the changing seasons.
Another monk advised the best thing to do is move forward in a positive way, love each other and treasure human relationships.
“This is the best we can do for those we have died,” he said.