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Equal Earthquakes with Unequal Results

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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Shared values and the social good.

Our television screens fail to convey the full horror of the recent earthquake in Iran that inflicted terrible deaths on over twenty thousand souls. America has once again led the international relief effort. It might seem callous to analyze this disaster even before all the victims have been buried, were it not for one timely parallel.

Only a few days earlier, a small town on the California coast also endured an earthquake. Even taking the logarithmic nature of the Richter scale into account, from an objective geological perspective, these two events were almost identical, yet the California quake killed only two people. Dispassionately examined, the evidence suggests a spiritual rather than a seismic explanation for the disparity.

One might leap to a seemingly obvious, although incorrect explanation for the difference in death toll between the two earthquakes: Bam is a very large city in Iran, while Paso Robles is but a seaside hamlet. However, calculating the discrepancy shows that the damage done in Bam was vastly disproportionate to that suffered in Paso Robles.

This is not the first time that similar meteorological phenomena in different parts of the world have caused immeasurably different consequences. For instance, China's Yellow River has repeatedly flooded, on one early twentieth century occasion, snuffing out the lives of millions of Chinese peasants. In a 1991 monsoon in Bangladesh, one hundred and thirty nine thousand people drowned.

However, hurricane Hugo, which battered our own east coast in 1997, was not significantly less severe a storm than the one that ended the lives of those pathetic Bangladeshis. Yet Hugo killed only about a dozen Americans. Sad to be sure, but nowhere near the scale of the Asian catastrophes.

The dreadful San Francisco earthquake in 1989 did kill about fifty motorists unfortunate enough to be in their cars beneath the stretch of East Bay highway that collapsed upon them. However, it is important to remember that San Francisco's high rise skyscrapers did not fall. In fact, other than the problematic highway, virtually all other buildings and bridges survived the shaker. Less than one year earlier, a similar quake had killed fifty five thousand victims in the eastern reaches of the old Soviet Union. Contrast this with a massive earthquake in 1994 that rocked, with few fatalities, one of the world's great cities-Los Angeles.

I have studied the world's twenty greatest natural disasters (measured by number of fatalities) of the past one hundred and three years. Of all twenty, only three have taken place in nations where Christianity has had a profound influence. Two were volcanic eruptions in Sicily and Italy that killed tens of thousands of people; the other was the flooding of part of Holland during a violent North Sea storm in 1953 drowning about two thousand people.

Am I suggesting that God dispatches natural disasters to punish those who have not embraced Christianity? Most of us would find this answer quite unacceptable. Yet the question does stand: Why are so many more people killed by comparable natural disasters in non-Christian countries? Phrasing it in just this way provides the clue.

Natural disasters occur randomly around the world regardless of the particular faith that has shaped each nation. What dramatically changes the consequences of natural events such as earthquakes or storms is how a particular society is organized. And this is where the religious culture of the people seems to make a huge difference.

When Holland was flooded by the North Sea breaking through its dikes, it was the last time it ever happened. By contrast, since 1953, Bangladesh alone has endured six major floods each drowning many thousands. But by 1958, the Dutch had embarked on the greatest flood control and land reclamation project in history. When they were done, the Zuider Zee and the rest of Dutch geography had changed for all time. Dutchmen invested their guilders together and built up the necessary war chest to defeat the North Sea. It was the magic of the capital market. The Dutch government, acting on behalf of all the people, offered twenty-year bonds. The Dutch eagerly handed in their savings in exchange for a promise to repay the sum with interest after twenty years.

It was Protestant faith that prompted the Dutch to hand over their precious savings in order to build the biggest and strongest dike ever. Their faith muscle was strong and, like any other muscle, once you have strengthened your faith muscle in one area, it is strong for other purposes too. You may have developed your biceps in the gym, but when you need them to lift the kitchen table they won't let you down. Similarly, those of us who have developed our faith muscle within the religious observance of Christianity or Judaism find that we can count on that faith muscle being ready and available whenever we require its services for more mundane purposes like investment. This helps to explain why the Judeo-Christian-based West is our epoch's epicenter of wealth creation.

Western societies originally shaped by Judeo-Christian values enjoy an enormous advantage in this area. Unlike most of the world's other religions, many of which stress fatalism over faith, both Judaism and Christianity, each with its utterly distinctive theology, impart a framework of faith to its adherents. Other cultures believe they please their god by submissively accepting his wishes. But societies sculpted by Biblical ideas have faith that tomorrow can, and must be improved, and that it is morally worthy to bring about that improvement. That is why non-Christian countries endure repeated earthquakes and repeated storms yet do little to reduce the successive impact while countries rooted in Christianity invest massively in seawalls, dykes, and other protective infrastructures and preventive measures.

In Bangladesh and Bam it is a forlorn hope to get millions of peasants to act in unison and entrust their gold to a capital market. Their religion has produced a culture that encourages greater trust in mattresses than in banks. Theirs is also a culture of fatalism rather than of faith. Thus when the monsoon or earthquake strikes, it is each man alone against the forces of nature. Individuals, not surprisingly, emerge as the losers. In America, and other countries with Judeo-Christian roots, individuals entrust their resources to the group. They have faith that that those funds will help build defenses and, eventually, will be repaid with interest.

Judaism and Christianity teach that with faith and action we can change tomorrow. Furthermore, if doing so can save even one life, we are indeed obligated to denounce fatalism and act decisively. Uniquely, Biblical civilization teaches a distinctive emphasis on the value of even one human life. Ancient Jewish tradition teaches that all of humanity is descended from only one man, Adam, in order to stress that saving even one life is equivalent to saving the entire world's population. Abraham's ill-fated attempt to save the city of Sodom by arguing with God is another example of this oft-repeated sentiment exceedingly rare in other religions. Not surprisingly, suicide murderers are found more frequently in non-Biblical civilizations that profess less value in human life. Not surprisingly, the countries with embedded Judeo-Christian foundations cope more successfully with natural disaster.

Another reason we are not surprised to see such different fatality figures is because both Judaism and Christianity, in spite of vastly different theologies, tend to unify people into collaborating entities. They are both community-building religions rather than merely tribe-building religions. However, other religions tend to stress tribal and family affiliation as we see even today in the Saudi ruling classes. Judeo-Christian teachings implant in Western countries not only the importance of family but the productive allegiances that can be formed by those who share common faith. This is why so many Jewish and Christian Americans regard their synagogue and church affiliations to be as enriching as their family relationships.

Common agreement to abide by zoning laws and building standards, rare in most non-Christian societies, yields yet more evidence of how Judaism and Christianity specialize in bonding people. The early development of the corporation as a wealth building device took place only in the West, within Christendom. Even our insurance companies are directly attributable to Judeo-Christian religious faith. When non-related people share a common outlook on the transcendent questions of life, they are more likely to care for one another. The insurance company is the formalized outcome of that mutual concern.

Through the materialistic lens so prevalent today, we see a distorted image misleading us into believing that religion is an utterly private and largely irrelevant matter. Thus we block out reality and misperceive the spiritual and material as two parallel universes that never intersect. In this way I can comfortably believe that my neighbor's faith brings me no benefit and my secularism bring him no harm. An honest examination of these disasters suggests precisely the opposite. We ought to acknowledge that each day, every American derives enormous benefit from the faith of our Founders and of their heirs. We ought to acknowledge that our welfare is jeopardized by secular fundamentalism. Those many tragic and largely unnecessary disasters around the world bring out the goodness of Americans in the form of mountains of humanitarian relief. They should also remind us of the source of that goodness.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, a Seattle-based, bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation's survival.

Copyright 2003 Toward Tradition. Read this article on the Toward Tradition website. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 12/30/03



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