Natural Disasters: The Great Disrespecter of Nations and Persons

Natural Disasters: The Great Disrespecter of Nations and Persons


It has been said that “Death is no respecter of persons. Natural disasters are no respecter of nations.” Both statements have been demonstrated, yet again, in the aftermath of events that recently took place in Turkey and northwest Syria. A catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck that region on February 6, 2023. The death toll has surpassed forty-six thousand lives, as of this writing, and the number is expected to continue climbing (as of February 19, 2023: 40,642 in Turkey and 5,880 in Syria; Al Jazeera). We live in a generation where such phenomena regularly occur and where reporting is virtually instantaneous.
The sheer magnitude of human death and injury staggers the mind. Average death tolls from natural disasters worldwide claim the lives of 45,000 people annually. The moral concern attached to such calamities stems from the sudden harmful impact upon human life and well-being. Recent catastrophes in Thailand (2004 tsunami/220,000 lives lost), Central Europe (2007 Heat waves/70,000 lives lost), Myanmar (2008 storm surge from cyclone/140,000 lives lost), and Haiti (2010 earthquake/159,000 lives lost) provide gripping opportunities to observe the terrifying force of nature.
What is a natural disaster?
A natural disaster (e.g., floods, storms, and earthquakes; distinguished from a military or terrorist disaster) is defined as “an event (or series of events) that harms or kills a significant number of people or otherwise severely impairs or interrupts their daily lives in civil society.” Disasters always create surprise and shock, and are unwanted by those affected by them—although they are not always unpredictable (e.g., hurricanes).
Historical response to such cataclysmic events
Focus on natural disaster preparedness and response first began in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake (1755) where more than 90,000 people were killed. Soon thereafter, a natural disaster readiness model emerged from military triage which included “the medical screening of patients to determine their priority for treatment.” Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief (1797-1815) developed an egalitarian model, a principle of treating the dangerously wounded first, regardless of rank or distinction. Such practice remains typical in contemporary emergency and intensive medical care. The advent of technologies, like kidney dialysis (1962) and the necessity for resource allocation, however, has led to the emergence of a utilitarian model (also, “efficiency model”). This approach seeks to maximize the results of medical triage in terms of a preferred value (e.g., utilizing limited resources such as hospital beds and ventilators during a flu pandemic to treat those patients with best long-term prognoses).
Some disaster responses utilize a combined approach that includes both egalitarian and utilitarian features. All of these models hold ethical implications. Globally, “rapid population growth, unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change, have all caused an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters.” The loss of life from this phenomenon is expected only to grow as population densities rise in disaster-prone areas. The likelihood of greater losses of life in future disasters demands that we examine carefully both the methods used to prepare for, and our responses to, such events.

What Duties are Inherent in Natural Disasters?

The protection of citizens from harm and the promotion of well-being represents a basic moral duty of governments and institutions (e.g., medicine). Nevertheless, natural disasters like the one in Turkey and Syria exert great stress upon such responsibility, thus creating a key ethical intersection with justice. First, such tragedies expose existing policy, preparation, and response failures in pre-disaster human social conditions (e.g., Hurricane Katrina exposed the urban injustices in New Orleans; esp. the lower Ninth Ward).
Secondly, beyond governmental and institutional duties, catastrophic disasters exacerbate a visceral human awareness of core moral principles for human well-being. People show enhanced appreciation for the intrinsic worth of human life (sanctity), the equal value of each human life (justice), freedom from harm by others (non-maleficence and justice), and the protection from harm by nonhuman forces (justice). Therefore, wise disaster readiness policy-making should include an examination of the moral principles that guide both the preparation for and the response to a catastrophe.
Periods of calm prior to a natural disaster, for example, provide occasions to address key societal injustices (e.g., urban planning, population densities, and zoning policies). By way of application, Turkish citizens, after the earthquake, have begun to question the non-enforcement of building code requirements that may have contributed to the severe destruction and the loss of human life.
The use of both egalitarian and utilitarian triage models in natural disasters also raises further ethical implications for the welfare of individuals, since preparation plans often utilize a “save the greatest number” rationale as a medical response to a natural disaster. [1] Even though egalitarian triage models are typically employed in normal periods, a utilitarian model is more likely to be used for actual disaster responses (cf. American Red Cross). One reason for such a shift is the actual scarcity of resources created by overwhelming triage situations.
Thus, a failure to address the shortage of resources in normal times, or a failure to augment such resources where possible prior to a disaster, is morally blameworthy, even though common sense dictates that some resource allocation will be needed to prepare for disasters that cannot be adequately predicted or rehearsed. Such wisdom is understandable but should not be allowed to trump communal guiding moral principles for human well-being. The principle of justice applied both to preparatory and response disaster planning requires a consistent structure of fairness. Utilitarian reasoning fails at this key value because it often requires that the justice claims of a few (e.g., elderly or infirm) be overridden to satisfy similar claims from a larger group. A utilitarian assessment of “social usefulness” opens the way for less-than-just social policy and disaster relief. Let’s get practical with ways that individuals and groups of citizens may respond to natural disasters.

The Question of Why?
A Biblical Perspective on Natural Disasters

Timothy Keller writes, in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it” (p. 3). Dr. Keller, the pastor and author, certainly may appear to be calloused, but his motive intends to help. If youi ar elike me, then you wonder when it might be a good time to raise spiritual concerns when walking through tragedy on the scale of what happened in Turkey and Syria. Let's ask the Lord!
Jesus Cares for Us and Shares the Truth with Us
Look at Luke 13:1-5 where Jesus’ own response to well-known catastrophes may appear to be unfeeling, but which is definitely not the case! Notice that he addresses both the good and the bad with his response to questions about well-known news events of his day. We cannot be sure to what specific incident His questioners refer, because the Galileans were notorious for inciting rebellion and receiving retribution. Pilate’s position as a governor hung by a thread with Rome, so he was known to take extreme measures to quiet rebellion.

Regardless, even before there was anything like a “just war theory,” this was an unjust assault on worshipers. It screams the question, “Why?!” We may learn, ourselves, to exercise important evaluative restraint when these things happen, for Jesus does not condemn those people who suffered tragedies.

He also refused to draw a straight line between the tragedy (13:2) or accident, such as when a tower fell on people (13:4), to some likely sin, as the Jews often did (13:2; John 9:1-3; NAC). In other words, we must be careful to avoid assigning some hidden sin to the lives of those people that causes God to punish.
Truth alert: Jesus did not explain why those things happened to those people at that time, nor did He assign greater blame to their moral accounts. What He did was to offer hope! We do well—very well—to follow His example (cf. Romans 2:1).

The Lord shifts the focus of His listeners to the broader context that I mention above—human crisis and a consideration of judgment. The tragic events in Jesus' day created quite a crisis, no doubt, but He warns His disciples to avert an even greater crisis, which is the coming judgment. His words appear to be out of place in the midst of such human tragedy, but his listeners knew that context in which he spoke.

Whether then or now, the mind twist of pondering terrible tragedy in the same thought with a coming judgment is akin to squeezing a sponge to remove the water inside. Jesus teaches us that we truly must look beyond the ultimate distraction—that temporal life is forever—and elevate our thinking to the spiritual before it is too late (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3). I know! We wonder how such a view is possible considering the painful images we view on the nightly news.

This is difficult to do in horrifically painful circumstances, but we need Jesus, who embodies "God so loved the world," and who was widely known as the caring miracle worker, to warn us to escape spiritual death by making doubly sure that we are well prepared for the coming judgment (John 3:16-17, esp. verse 17!).

Please keep in mind that I am writing from a Christian vantage point with the deep biblical and theological conviction that God’s love for His creation, as the Creator, causes Him to forewarn about the eternal realities that humankind so often overlooks or delays to address (see above for the lack of pre-crisis preparation on the part of government, institutions, and individuals!).

A Way Forward for Christians

The noblest virtue in pluralistic society is justice. Christian conceptions and applications of this virtue, however, extend further to include sacrificial and transformational love (2 Corinthians 5: 16-21). Therefore, Christian planning for natural disasters should be holistic—heart, mind, emotion, and body. Christ followers at every level must become active at both the policy and social levels in order to address social injustice that exists in normal times, as well as in times of tragedy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Psalm 146:9; Proverbs 14:31; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; James 1: 26-27).
Practically, Christian denominations, churches, and individuals can prepare for natural disasters by crafting and coordinating readiness plans with national, state, and local agencies, as well as with international missionaries abroad. Churches may set aside budgeted funds in advance of a natural disaster in order to have rapid-response capabilities. Actual disaster response provides an extraordinary opportunity for Christians to partner with other groups and agencies across faith-lines to allay human tragedy and suffering (cf. Texas Baptist Men Disaster Response teams). [2]
Current large-scale (utilitarian) disaster response triage protocols provide a critical blanket of care for the many. Additionally, Christians will also seek to demonstrate a just distribution of resources by employing strict fairness (egalitarian) regarding the underprivileged (e.g., elderly, already ill, disabled) as well as the privileged (e.g., a public-policy expert or government official). Christians do well when they seek to prepare and respond holistically to support human well-being, not only during personal and global tragedies, but every day they live.


I literally cheer along with the Turkish rescue first responders each time they rescue a person trapped beneath the earthquake rubble. I cannot help but believe that Christian individuals and churches should adopt, as a common practice, a cheer for a person who comes to know Jesus Christ as Savior as well as for human lives that are rescued from horrible natural calamities like earthquakes. Holistic love of this kind greatly enhances our Christian impact in a crisis.

Larry C. Ashlock
1. Cf., for example, a SOFA protocol for ventilator allocation during flu pandemic.

2. Individual natural disaster response readiness includes: Three-days worth of supplies for survival items like at least one-gallon of water and 1600 calories of food that does not require cooking per person. Disaster readiness items should be stored inside easily accessible containers. Include money, flashlights, a battery-operated radio, prescription medicines, and an emergency first-aid kit. Furthermore, have a plan in place as to who you will contact and where you will go. It also helps to have been certified in CPR.