The recent disasters in Australia seem to have brought out the best in many Australians— and the worst in some.
In Queensland, flooding in January and February affected some 60 per cent of the state, leaving communities cut off for weeks. Supplies had to be flown in. While flooding in these areas is a perennial phenomenon, this season's floods were particularly bad, with some areas receiving more than a metre of rain in just seven days. The damage bill is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars. But the sparselypopulated region didn't received quite the attention the more spectacular and deadly Victorian bushfires did, and some flood victims in Queensland felt forgotten.
The lethal bushfires in Victoria in February claimed some 170 lives, destroyed some 2000 homes and more than 400,000 hectares of bushland.
Twelve years of drought left much of the south-eastern corner of Australia particularly vulnerable. Add to the record-breaking drought a sequence of record-breaking, searing temperatures along with high winds and bushfires were almost inevitable.
But soon after the fires, real estate agents in the affected districts reported having received calls from people seeking to capitalise on the misfortunes of others, asking if they could pick up a bargain piece of land from fire-affected people who just wanted to get out.
In the face of such calamity, such thoughtlessness, greed and self-interest is repulsive. Fortunately, these have been outweighed by an outpouring of support, both moral and practical, for those affected. During the bushfire crisis, help poured in from other states and countries, as fire-fighters and police volunteered to help their colleagues overwhelmed by the intensity and duration of the fire storms.
Despite the financial crisis that has cut nearly everyone's budget, governments, banks and businesses, artists, churches and charities, and tens of thousands of citizens dug into their pockets to build a fund from which those affected can begin to rebuild their lives, homes and businesses.
A mass of volunteers, connected to various charities such as the Red Cross and the Salvos, or even just freelance, turned up to help organise the relief effort, distributing everything from knitted teddy bears for children to food, clothing and pet-tracing services.
In Queensland, the Red Cross assisted around 9000 people in Ingham and Townsville, doorknocked more than 2500 homes and gave shelter to about 100 people. Charity concerts staged across Australia raised funds simultaneously for fire and flood victims. Federal and state government agencies acted to support victims through schemes such as financial payments to cover the cost of emergency food, clothing and accommodation, and rescheduling tax payments. Over the next three years, the Australian Government will spend more than $A80 million in relief and restoration work.
Such a generous response from both government and individuals is not unusual.
After the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami devastated the Aceh region of Indonesia and coastlines elsewhere in Asia, Australians and New Zealanders raised funds for relief work. The result was a huge amount of money raised.
The impact of the Western relief workers was great: many Acehnese from this devoutly Muslim region lost their suspicion of the West and felt much better about their nominally Christian neighbours.
So what is it in us that makes us give generously to people in need, even if perhaps we are suffering hard times too, or if the needy are seen as ideologically opposed to our values?
To this point, many people argue that this shows human nature is fundamentally good; that evil is not inherent in our hearts. Yet so many of our other behaviours are selfish, cruel and uncharitable. Consider the greed that has helped cause the current financial crisis, or the great evils that have been behind the most monstrous human behaviour of the past 100 years, such as the Nazi death camps, Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide and the mindless cycle of violence that characterises the Arab–Israel impasse. While evil people have initiated such actions, they were often carried out by ordinary, otherwise decent people.
Environment and upbringing only account for part of our poor behaviour.
Watching children grow suggests that evil is an inherent part of our nature.
Parents go to a lot of trouble to teach children to behave well. No apparent effort needs to go into teaching them how to be selfish, throw a tantrum and ignore responsibilities. Even adults display a tendency to do the wrong thing.
A disaster can bring out the best in us, but it is sad that it often takes one to do so. Ideally we would be as thoughtful, charitable and kind every day, not just when something major goes wrong. Why does it take an extraordinary event to draw the best out of us?
Christianity speaks of there being two forces at work within each of us: a force for good and a force for evil. It considers us to have dual motivation and that self-interest forms part of even the good things we do.
In the case of charitable work, many corporations get involved and are happy to advertise their altruism, because it is good for their public image. Similarly with musicians and sports stars.
Many charities fundraise by appealing to selfishness, through lotteries, raffles and the like, where there is a chance we could do very well for ourselves if we donate. As one volunteer noted after the Victorian bushfires, the altruism of giving is tempered by the fact that the work is often satisfying personally. In other words, we often do good things because we get something good out of it.
That is what makes Christianity so appealing as a faith. It sees us as having been made in God's image, with every tendency to goodness, but then having been bent out of shape by evil.
The good traits in us are still recognisable; but often they are twisted to selfish ends.
Christianity acknowledges the problems we face in doing the right thing.
But instead of offering advice, exhortation or even condemnation, it gives us the grace of God, which covers our failures, and then inspires, motivates and changes us from the inside, as God strains out the evil that has so thwarted our attempts to live right. And, so, through the power of God, we are able to realise the potential we have to achieve our most noble goals.