All too often newspaper commentary is banal, predictable and light on originality, so when I find a column that is none of those things I think it is worth some attention. Investigative reporter and journalism teacher Max McCoy (whose picture looks remarkably like that of Star Trek’s Bones McCoy to me) has written such a column about the aftermath of the historic Joplin tornado.
The topic McCoy raises is the perennial one raised about natural disasters, i.e., why? Why did it happen, why here, why now, why me? To question in this way is, in my opinion and as I have posted before, a function of self awareness, the persistent human meme that everything should have a meaning. The more traumatic the event, the more we think it should have a meaning. But, as McCoy says, “Very bad things sometimes happen.” Walter Cronkite , “the most trusted man in America”, would have agreed by repeating his usual sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” Even the bible, that is, one part of it, agrees:
That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. – Matthew 5:45
Natural disasters always bring out religious fervor and I was struck by the degree to which the tornado did that in Joplin. The presentation held a week after the disaster and attended by all the leaders and politicians, from president Obama down to the Joplin city council, was more of a religious service than a town meeting, and as I recall, it was in fact called just that, a service. It was a paean to the meme that the deity was somehow involved with the event. Thanks were given for those who were spared, surely an appropriate expression for believers but, to me, and I suspect to McCoy, irrational in the context of Matthew 5:45. Both Matthew and the tornado have the same message: what happens on earth is a function of natural, random phenomena and purely human decisions. No heavenly finger reaches down to guide a tornado’s path one way or another. One hospital is ravaged, another spared. One church demolished, others go untouched.
But I must say this about the upwelling of faith in the tornado’s wake. Religion has brought the people of this bible-belt community together in an impressive way. Our sense of community and unselfish actions has never been stronger and there is every reason to expect that to continue. The disaster could have been viewed as a calamity too difficult to be dealt with, but instead, thanks to excellent leadership by officials and a broad upwelling of religious faith, it is seen as a challenge with a bright future.
Religion is ubiquitous in human history, and likely well before any records were kept. It makes people humble, it brings them together as one tribe. It is a survival trait. Little wonder then that the tendency to religious belief would be deeply embedded in our genes. What is happening in Joplin is prime evidence of that.
Now if we could only expand our definition of “tribe” to include all of humanity and not just the disaster zone, humankind might have a chance of equaling the dinosaurs’ reign. They lasted some 60 million years. So far, Homo Sapiens has been around three tenths of one percent of that. Kinda makes you feel humble, doesn’t it?
Thanks, Max McCoy, for putting things in rational perspective for us.