Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buildings Kill People

Yesterday, I spent some time catching up with my friends in D.C., to see if they were OK. The general report was that no one really knew what was going on at first, perhaps even feared a kind of terrorist attack but that overall everyone was OK, a few pictures shook off the walls, but everyone was OK. No one died as a result of a 5.8 earthquake in the nation’s capital; everyone was OK. Let me say that again, no one died. Seriously? A 5.8 earthquake. Everyone is OK? Are you kidding me?... Hallelujah.

In Farmer’s book, Evan Lyon writes a common saying of seismologists, "Earthquakes don't kill people. Buildings kill people." Lyon continues:

Earthquake illness is a disease of social construction, its severity determined more by the capability of buildings to withstand seismic activity than by the intensity of the tremor. The capability to respond as emergency and health care workers depends, as we’ve seen tragically in Haiti, almost entirely on how physical and human infrastructure fare on shaking ground.

On February 27, 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, one of the most powerful recorded in human history, occurred off the coast of Chile. It is dangerous to compare tragedies such as the earthquakes that occurred in Chile and Haiti, but a number of differences are striking. The earthquake in Chile was five hundred times more forceful than the disaster in Haiti, yet best estimates suggest that nearly 300,000 people died in Haiti while fewer than 600 died in Chile. Fewer buildings fell and fewer people died.

It is our responsibility as human beings and as those who care about the present and future of Haiti, not to forget that manmade conditions allowed this unnatural disaster to take such a devastating toll. These conditions took more than two hundred years to create; they could be reversed in much less time. But unless our historic memory is long enough and our analysis of the tragedy deep enough, efforts to respond-however generous-will be insufficient. If suffering from earthquakes is a disease of social determination, most meaningfully inflected by poverty, then to prevent the next January 12 we must change the social context in which people live.

Evan Lyon in Haiti: After the Earthquake, p. 314

I was struck with two thoughts in particular regarding infrastructure: 1) Americans live in an incredibly blessed place to have the kind of infrastructure and delivery systems of care we have- as the political season heats up as we soon enter an election year, do not forget that we live in an incredibly blessed society and 2) to truly care for the peoples of the world, Christians must engage questions of infrastructure, government and policy-making; such matters matter terribly to the Missio Dei.

I suppose this is a third thought, but it struck me that in the past we as evangelicals have been so quick to develop our own subcultures and only listen to music, read books and watch movies produced by Christians (and often poorly produced and written at that); yet, that I have never heard a Christian decrying the godlessness of a building or a bridge made by a nonChristian. Why is that so? Because the question at hand is never so much whether a Christian or a nonChristian has formed and shaped the substance and integrity of that bridge or building, rather whether it was in fact done well. I think Christians ought to pay attention to such worldview-related questions as perhaps the greatest question before the Church today is, “do we seek to live well in ALL of life?”

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