black sabbath Norm Habel
I was but a boy on Black Friday in 1939 when bushfires raced across the state of Victoria. I recall flames and clouds of smoke rising in all directions around our farm. A hot North wind swept the fires through the bush, the farms and many towns. We were enveloped in fear.
Seventy-one people burned to death in those fires. Thousands of homes were demolished. Thousands of sheep, horses and cattle were incinerated. Much of our farm property was rendered barren and black, but by some miracle our home was spared.
Now, 70 years later, we are faced with the fury of Black Saturday. There have been numerous notorious bushfires in the interim – Ash Wednesday in 1983 being a classic example. But with Black Saturday the paradigm has changed, the furore intensified and the classic bushfire scenario superseded.
Instead of a cluster of eucalyptus trees engulfed in flames, imagine a tsunami, a wall of fire crashing through towns and leaving nothing in its wake.
Instead of plumes of swirling smoke and burning leaves flying into the sky, imagine a tornado with massive balls of fire leaping over an entire valley and landing on houses on the opposite hillside.
Instead of ferocious flames fanned by a hot North wind, imagine a hurricane like Katrina, with temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, blasts of over 100 miles an hour and fierce fires, like open mouths, consuming all in their path.
Instead of watching the horizon a few miles away and preparing to defend your home within the hour, imagine that balls of flame fed by eucalyptus oil are suddenly landing on your house with virtually no time to escape.
Instead of packing your bags with a few precious belongings and driving to a safe place, imagine the panic as fleeing cars crash into each other, into fallen trees, into fire balls, into hell – with nothing left to do but turn the air conditioner on high and hope the burning leaves do not set the fuel tank on fire.
The bushfires of Black Friday, Ash Wednesday and the like were ferocious, but most of Victoria was prepared for similar days. Black Saturday was different. With climate change has come increased hot spells, decreased rainfalls and unfriendly weather patterns. The rise of C02 in the atmosphere has led to increased vegetation in the region, much of which was tinder dry on a day like Black Saturday.
The rainfall in all of Victoria from October 2001 to September 2008 has been well below overage. In much of Victoria it has been the lowest on record. The State is tinder dry and learning to live in such a state in the coming Greenhouse Age will not be easy.
We are no longer prepared for disasters like these. More than 200 people have been burned alive. More than 7000 people are homeless. Graham Mills, from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research is quoted in the Australian of Feb 10 as saying: “The conditions that lead to extreme fire weather are heat, low humidity, wind and drought. On Saturday the temperature set a new set of records. When you get these conditions, nobody has really had experience of them before.”
How do we respond to this bushfire hell? In the past we would cite the promises of God that for the faithful there would always be the needed rain and attendant prosperity, but for the unfaithful God would send the curse of drought. (Deut. 11.13-17)
But we must move beyond a simplistic blessing-curse theology of the Old Testament law and move to the message of our Gospel. The God we know in Christ is not concerned with retribution. Our God suffers with us in such disasters and calls us to face the future as a resurrection.
Black Saturday is a Black Sabbath, a radical reversal of the day of divine rest and blessing. And such a reversal ought to shock us into asking what is happening. Black Saturday is a wake-up call.
Our greedy habits have led to climate changes. Our relentless exploitation of the planet has brought us to the beginning of a Greenhouse Age. We are still pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, gases that will survive there for thousands of years. There is no escape. We now need to ask how God wants us to live, love and share in this Greenhouse Age.
Will the churches take the lead and call for change – the lifestyle change needed in a Greenhouse Age? Imagine Black Saturday in your town!
Amazing flames that scorch the sky,
Like hurricanes of fire,
Alive with eucalyptus oil,
Are soaring higher and higher.
These swirling balls of oil ablaze,
That leap o’er trees at will,
Descend on fields and flock and homes,
Explode and burn and kill.
Where’s God in all this swirling ash?
Where’s God in all this pain?
Awaiting somewhere in the sky
To one day send some rain?
The face of God is burnt and black;
The hands of God are red!
The God we know in Jesus Christ
Is bleeding with the dead.
Is this, O God, the shock we need
To face our life ahead,
Adjusting to a Greenhouse Age
When we must share our bread?
Christ, show us now your hands
The burns across your side
To show you suffer with the Earth,
By fires crucified!
• Tune: Amazing Grace
Norm Habel is a Lutheran pastor, stationed in Adelaide. His prime interests are in seeking justice for the Australian Aboriginals and environmental concerns. He is a leading proponent of the Earth Bible.