Tony and I lived in the same village, we went to the same church, we travelled to London daily on the same train – but there we split up to go to our own jobs. But there was another thing we did together. We preached. Each Friday lunchtime we left our offices and walked to a small church close to The Strand, where we collected a lectern mounted on a box. We set up that up as a preaching platform on the corner beside Embankment Station [i]. There we met with two or three more of Tony’s friends and took turns to get up on the box and preach the Gospel.
We often drew a crowd at that busy corner. On one occasion a TV crew arrived unexpectedly to film us (that attracted an audience!) But the thing that usually drew crowds was a noisy heckler, especially one man who became a regular and vocal opponent. He was short. He was determined. And he was often angry. On 21st October 1966 we set up in the usual place, but with an uncharacteristically sombre attitude. News was coming through of an unthinkable disaster in a Welsh mining village. Like most deep coal mines, it had several large heaps of mining waste (called “slag heaps”). Over time, they tended to blend in to the landscape as vegetation slowly re-natured the damaged scenery. But, behind Aberfan village, one slag heap partially covered a couple of springs and, after four weeks of almost continuous rain, it was thoroughly saturated. There were reports that the tip had moved a little in recent days, but nobody followed up on those worries.
Just after 9 o’clock clock on that Friday morning the heap moved again, gradually gaining speed, behaving more like a liquid, pouring downhill with an ominous roar. It was heading straight for the local primary school, and nothing could stop it. It quickly engulfed the school, suffocating almost everyone in it. A small number were dug out alive from the wreckage, but 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives that morning.
I don’t remember who was first up on our preaching platform that lunchtime, but I was on the box by the time our heckler arrived. He was furious – loudly blaming God for allowing such a disaster. (By what reasoning can an atheist blame God?) But I was angry too – angry because of the overwhelming tragedy, and angry at the foolish arguments shouted by our heckler. It was obvious to me that the disaster was caused by human negligence and carelessness. Many weeks later, an official enquiry apportioned laid the blame on the National Coal Board. As I write this blog, another anniversary of that tragedy is approaching. I was a young man back then, and now I am old – but I’m still angry.
Why do tragedies happen? Some can be directly blamed on human malice, neglect, or ignorance, and our laws are designed to discover such failings, because people demand compensation. But insurance policies describe some events as “Acts of God” and refuse to pay out. What did God do wrong? In the case of the Aberfan disaster we could say that God sent the rain, but do we expect a custom-made drought to focus on one small area to save it from human carelessness? Events like floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes are part of the natural functioning of a living planet. They become disasters when mankind inhabits the same spaces or enhances the risks by damaging the environment. Populations often choose to inhabit those places because they are also areas of abundance. So, we deliberately gamble prosperity against risk.
The Aberfan tragedy was a result of corporate negligence. But it’s not enough to blame that corporation and ignore our own failings. We each have freedom of choice – freedom to drop a bottle on the ground and leave it there to cause a deadly wildfire – freedom to discard a plastic bag that will end up as a sea-borne hazard to wildlife – freedom to live just for ourselves and overlook the needs of others. Corporate negligence is different from individual carelessness only in scale. When people blame God for disasters, they are using him as a scapegoat to avoid uncomfortable truths. We are responsible for the planet we inhabit.
To those who don’t believe in God these arguments are pointless, but there are others do who believe there’s a God but think that he’s malicious. He isn’t. But he took a risk and gave us freewill, which is both an immense privilege and a dangerous curse. If we didn’t have freewill, we would never know love – but love imposes responsibilities. It’s down to us to take care of God’s world.
© Derrick Phillips 2022
[i] In those days that station was called “Charing Cross underground”