Earth-shattering

Sometimes worldview is most evident when tragedy strikes

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

Kevin, a seventh-grader from Oklahoma, e-mailed me last week with a perplexing question: "Why," he said, "do the biggest earthquakes and typhoons and volcanoes mostly happen in other countries? Why doesn't it ever happen that 13,000 people die in the United States like they did in India's terrible earthquake?"

It's a question almost all of us are fearful to ask. We're afraid because we're fully aware that while we're still putting the dot at the bottom of the question mark, the ground around us might start shaking. God owes us nothing special at all.

But in the meantime, it's a legitimate matter to ponder. Just for comparison, keep in mind that India's earthquake, at 7.9 on the Richter scale, apparently took at least 13,000 lives, while death estimates from the famous 1906 San Francisco trembler, an 8.3 granddaddy of earthquakes, are under 3,000.

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There are straightforward reasons for those differences. And without getting either cocky or overconfident, we might even say that the more you explore such differences, the more you discover how much they have to do with worldview issues.

Some may not seem that connected at first. For example, it is easy to see that part of the difference has to do quite directly with economic issues. Poor areas tend to suffer more from earthquakes than do wealthy areas. Adobe shacks collapse more easily than do structures built of steel-reinforced concrete. Beyond that, population density is usually higher in poor areas than in wealthy ones; when disaster hits, more people are affected. These are sober but relatively simple facts of life.

One step removed from such direct cause-and-effect issues is the whole matter of infrastructure. A primitive civilization differs dramatically from one that is more advanced in its inability to think in advance and to plan for the evil day, whatever shape it might take. Building codes, inspectors, evacuation plans, first aid courses, and standards for construction materials may at first all seem like boring and arcane topics-but only until the earth begins to shake and you're suddenly glad that somebody thought about all those things years ago. And even before they did, somebody else thought of the need for engineering schools and competent mathematics teachers and architects who understand what stress loads are all about. Meanwhile, well over half the world's population lives day by day with almost none of these foresights so commonplace to the rest of us. When the day of reckoning comes, they turn out to have been life-and-death foresights.

Still another step removed is another kind of infrastructure-one that has more to do with issues of morality and ethics. As cynical as we may be of government and all its permutations in our own country, we have little idea how pervasively corrupt governments tend to be in many other places. Much of the continent of Africa is in perpetual war because of the inability of national and regional governments to curtail bribery, embezzlement, and similar corruption. So what does that have to do with an earthquake's toll? You'll know the sad answer to that question when an office building collapses on your family's heads just because a building inspector was bought off 10 years ago in a quiet streetside transaction. Rot in a nation's moral fabric gets exposed in the evil day.

And then there's a matter rarely mentioned in the world's capitals because we want to be ever so careful not to give offense. It has to do with the fact that much of the world's population continues to live by standards-no, let's be blunt and call them religious worldviews-that just don't work. India's silly reverence for cows, for example, and sometimes even for rats, totally skews that society's outlook on sanitation, health, diet, food supply, and related matters. When a country that's poor to begin with diverts its scarce resources in the wrong direction, it has just that much less for real issues. Such mistaken priorities look pretty big when tragedy strikes.

It may be politically incorrect to say so, but all these issues have a cumulative impact on the death toll when an earthquake hits any particular part of the world. You can argue, as many do, that a nation's wealth shouldn't be allowed as a part of this discussion. But as Michael Novak pointed out nearly a quarter century ago in his persuasive book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, even a society's financial well-being can be demonstrated to be geared amazingly closely to its theological worldview.

So, Kevin, don't ever think it can't happen here. We've stuck our thumb in God's eye often enough to deserve any earthquake, big or little, He may choose to send our way. But don't ignore the fact either, Kevin, that in God's order of things, there are some typically predictable causes and effects. You may not be able to predict where the earth will shake next time. But you can predict, with at least a little certainty, how ready different societies might be to respond to such a terrifying event.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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