Meaning and Meaninglessness in the December 26 Tsunami

Two and a half centuries ago a colossal earthquake probably measuring 8.7 to 9.0 on the Richter scale, centered 200 miles off the Iberian Peninsula in the Atlantic, shook Lisbon, Portugal. The tremor lasted a few minutes, immediately followed by a tidal wave. The water of Lisbon harbor was momentarily, mysteriously sucked back, revealing the carcasses of ill-fated ships. Then the ocean surged forward through the downtown area. Historians disagree about the casualty figure of this double blow, most estimates ranging from 30,000 to 90,000 (one-third the city’s population). One-third of the city’s buildings were destroyed.

Southwest Spain and western Morocco were also hit by great waves; in Morocco, 10,000 perished. There was moderate damage as far west as Algiers. Tidal waves hit the coasts of France, Holland, Belgium, Britain, and Ireland, then raced across the Atlantic Ocean, doing damage in Madeira and the Azores, and within hours even raising the surf in the Antilles, Antigua, Martinique, and Barbados.

A disaster of exceptional magnitude, the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1, 1755 was not unique in its destructiveness. Half the population of Port Royal in Jamaica had been wiped out by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1692; maybe 3000 had died. The city of Callao in Peru had been destroyed by a tidal wave following an earthquake in 1724; 6000 had died. In 1737, a tidal wave over 200 feet, the largest ever recorded, had swept over lightly populated Cape Lopatka on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. In 1703 the most destructive tidal wave on record had struck the country that gives us our word tsunami (“harbor wave”): it had hit the port of Awa in Japan, killing up to 100,000 people. But few in Europe knew of these remote events. Lisbon in contrast was not some New World or East Asian backwater, but the fourth largest city in Europe, and maybe its richest. It was the resplendent capital of an empire extending from Brazil to Angola to Goa to Macao and Timor, a citadel of Roman Catholicism and the ongoing Inquisition.

So when Lisbon, in minutes, saw its monuments and cathedrals either crumbled by the quake, gutted by the tsunami, or in some places consumed in flames, Europeans naturally asked, “How could this have happened?” For some the answer was obvious: this was God’s punishment meted out upon the Portuguese. The Jesuits faulted the leniency the Portuguese authorities had shown the large resident Protestant community, while Protestants attributed the calamity to the sins of the Portuguese Catholics. In England, John Wesley, founder of Methodism (to which, by the way, both George Bush and Dick Cheney adhere) suggested that “the late accounts from Portugal” showed that there was “indeed a God that judges the world.” In his view, the Catholics were being punished for the bloody Inquisition. Wesley wrote hymns inspired by the disaster.

Awake, ye guilty Souls, awake, Nor sleep, till Tophet [Hell] takes you in! The Lord of Hosts is ris’n to shake, The Earth polluted with your Sin!

Philosophically irreligious intellectuals had a different take on the disaster. They were living in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment, when thinkers argued that (as Immanuel Kant put it) intelligence combined with courage could progressively transform the world. Deism (the belief in an impersonal God ordering a rational universe ever more comprehensible to the human mind) was a product of this period (it influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States far more than Christian theology). Some thinkers, notably the French philosophe Voltaire, saw in the magnitude of the tragedy evidence that we do not live in “the best of all possible worlds,” rationally organized by a Deity, but in a world where colossal destruction happens randomly, irrationally, without any transcendent meaning. Weeks after the tragedy Voltaire wrote a friend:

This is indeed a cruel sort of physics. People will really find it difficult to divine how the laws of motion bring about such frightful disasters in the “best of possible worlds.” A hundred thousand ants, our neighbors, suddenly crushed on our ant-hill and half of them probably perishing in inexpressible anguish amidst debris from which they cannot be extricatedWhat a sad game of chance the game of human life is! What will the preachers say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition remains standing? I flatter myself at least that the Reverend Fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed like the others. That ought to teach men not to persecute men, for while some holy scoundrels burn a few fanatics the earth swallows up the whole lot of them.

In 1759 Voltaire published his brilliant satirical novel, Candide, or Optimism, in which the innocent Candide and his perennially optimistic tutor Pangloss arrive in Lisbon Harbor just as the tsunami strikes. Narrowly surviving a shipwreck, the pair assist in relief efforts until Pangloss, attempting to philosophically explain the disaster, is overheard by a Jesuit and punished for heresy. The Jesuits, whose founder (St.) Ignatius Loyola had established the Portuguese Inquisition in the early sixteenth century, now celebrate “a fine inquisitionto prevent earthquakes.” In fact the order was expelled from Portugal in 1759, having alienated the regime by its efforts to use the disaster to promote its own religious and political agenda.

Like the Lisbon episode, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 struck a broad swathe of the world’s surface and exacted a huge human toll. Tsunamis are part of the natural amoral order of things, and have a long dignified history of slaughter for absolutely no reason. There are records of tsunamis hitting the Syrian coast around 2000 BCE, Crete around 1450 BCE, and Alexandria, Egypt in 365 CE. But this one this week was the mother of tsunamis, drowning whole islands, uniting in horror coasts separated by 3000 miles, wiping out by current estimate over 130,000 people. That’s more than all the U.S. military fatalities since 1945, more than all the Iraqis slaughtered by U.S. aggression in the last two years. It will naturally produce the same range of religious, philosophical and political responses as those generated by the 1755 tidal wave.

Christian religious fundamentalists will interpret it as divine retribution. They will likely note that those smitten are overwhelmingly the Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Somalia. Perhaps they will exploit the ever-serviceable Book of Revelation, replete with its catalogue of divine scourges. It describes how in the End Times, after the second angel has blown his trumpet, it will be “as though a great mountain, all on fire, has been dropped into the sea; a third of the sea turned into blood, a third of all living things in the sea [will be] killed, and a third of all shipsdestroyed” (Revelation 8:8). I know some think this describes an asteroid striking the earth, but the language is vague enough to apply to December 26. In the Old Testament, Zechariah 9:4 describes the fall of the city of Tyre; God will “take possession of her; he will topple her power into the sea; she will be consumed by fire.” Surely this is a combination earthquake, tsunami and conflagration. This punishment of Tyre precedes the great battle in Jerusalem (14:1-21) when God will “strike all the nations who have fought against Jerusalem; their flesh will moulder while they are still standing on their feet; their eyes will rot in their sockets; their tongues will rot in their mouths,” and so on. What the pompously knowledgeable “Associates for Spiritual Knowledge” call “the Damascus Phase of End-Time Prophecy” will “start abruptly with a great tsunami (sometimes wrongly referred to as a ‘tidal wave’) that will destroy the entire coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean Sea from just south of Turkey all the way to and including Gaza. This will be the single event that will begin a countdown of prophetic teachings leading to the Second Advent.”

So there you have it. The Bible says nothing about Sumatra and Sri Lanka and the Maldives, but it tells us that God in the End Times will send unprecedented calamities to punish His enemies. Notice how Indonesia hasn’t recognized Israel, and that Sri Lanka, having just done so a few years ago, has refused to accept an Israeli rescue team. Surely, the apocalypse groupies will inform us, they are among His foes!

The irreligious neocons meanwhile will ask: “How can we use this opportunity to better control this creatively chaotic world, exploiting as we always do the Christian right’s nutty beliefs in prophecy?” But the most level-headed people will of course simply explain the disaster in terms of plate tectonics, noting how the plates grind against one another to produce earthquakes, and how earthquakes sometimes produce tsunamis. Consciousness, human or supernatural, has nothing to do with the process, although the human mind ever rebels against the suffering nature causes, just randomly, punishing without discrimination and with only such meaning as we humans choose to attach to it. For Voltaire, the Lisbon earthquake showed the folly of philosophical optimism. Our generation, however, isn’t much burdened by Enlightenment naïveté. We know and announce on our bumper stickers that “Shit Happens,” which I always read as shorthand for the matter-of-fact Buddhistic observation: Life is suffering. Secular humanists don’t really expect otherwise. But we do demand, like Kant, that human intelligence be applied to better the world. So when we read of the communications failures, the lack of preparation for such an oceanic horror, the absence of effective warning systems, the paltry initial assistance offered by the world’s richest nation, the inability of local infrastructures to cope even with collection of and disposal of the dead, we impute the suffering not to God but to mindless forces as well as to some of our fellow humans.

This is reasonable. Voltaire advocated that we humans “cultivate our own garden.” But how can we do that when the Eden we inhabit is owned by a tiny fraction of our species that does not care about its cultivation except insofar as it reaps its unholy profits? A fraction which happens to, as a matter of policy, cleverly exploit religion to argue the poor will always, no matter what progress humanity makes, be with us? (See for example Matthew 26:11.)

Tens of thousands of mostly poor super-vulnerable people, drowned by mere meandering water, the origin and stuff of life. I hear that onlookers found the waves beautiful. The beauteous shit that happens on the global level comes and goes as naturally as it does in your bathroom or fertilized garden. We manage and contain the stench in those locales. But the planet-wide stench of decomposition and disease, and the bootless cries of the victims, now rise to deaf heaven. Enlightened humanity should respond with reason and compassion, demanding that human institutions (the best we’ve got) do what deaf heaven cannot do: place people over profits in our best, worst and only world.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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