In the uttermost parts of the sea

02 November 2006

THE DAILY or even weekly updates might have dried up, but the victims of the tsunami that struck the countries bordering the Indian Ocean on 26 December have not been forgotten. The congregation at the memorial service at St Paul’s on Wednesday called to mind those who had been lost, not only from the families of those present, but also from the many countries that were affected. They were offered the ancient comfort of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble; Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Boxing Day tsunami, however, is the way in which the charitable response has attempted to match the scale of the disaster. Seemingly endless fund-raising activities have continued long after the victims dropped out of the news. Just in the past fortnight, events as diverse as a snooker tournament in the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and a martial-arts marathon in Reading have raised several thousand pounds for the restoration efforts.

In this context, it is worth repeating the reminder that the phrase “natural disaster” ought to be used with caution. A geological trauma such as the one that caused the tidal waves cannot be prevented, though it might one day be predictable. An improved early-warning system is now in place, and should prevent further loss of life on such a scale. Most significantly, the readiness of the world’s governments to respond to disasters can greatly improve the chances of survival of those affected. Quick action to prevent disease and provide accommodation and supplies in the tsunami-hit countries can be acknowledged as a triumph of human compassion. There have been the inevitable hitches about the distribution of aid in remote areas such as Aceh, in Indonesia; and political differences, such as those involving the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, have triggered wrangling over the use of charitable funds. Nevertheless, the world’s response to this unexpected disaster has been commendable. Particular reference was made during the memorial service in St Paul’s to the many contributions to the relief effort made by those who had been bereaved.

Dr Williams, in his sermon at the service, presented this to the bereaved family members as a potential source of comfort. “Love can continue to grow even on the soil of the worst pain and the deepest doubt.” We cannot know the workings of the earth’s forces; nor, indeed, the ways in which God might temper their impact. But we can take comfort from the fact that the sacrificial impulse to provide succour to those in need appears to be wired into humanity by God. As Dr Williams said: “The world is not safe, and love cannot guarantee success in the short term; but what love can do is never exhausted.”

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