What started the Maui wildfires?

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What started the Maui wildfires? A reflection on the future of our democracy

August 22, 2023 -

A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

President Biden visited Maui yesterday, where he praised the “remarkable resiliency” of the residents after wildfires killed more than 114 people two weeks ago and destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. While the cause of the tragedy remains under investigation, a security camera at the Maui Bird Conservation Center captured a bright flash in the woods at 10:47 p.m. on August 7. A senior official said, “I think that is when a tree is falling on a power line. The power goes out, our generator kicks in, the camera comes back online, and then the forest is on fire.”

According to the Washington Post, the video adds to evidence that Hawaii’s main utility equipment sparked multiple fires that were then blown by powerful winds through drought-stricken grasslands. The article is sobering proof that seemingly insignificant events can quickly turn tragic.

As another example, officials report that an improperly cleaned ice cream machine led to the deaths of three people from Listeria infection in Tacoma, Washington. A California man contracted Legionnaire’s Disease after sitting in a hot tub for five minutes and died a few days later from the infection. And a total of eight people in Florida, New York, and Connecticut have died from a rare flesh-eating bacteria.

“We must live through all time, or die by suicide”

What can happen to our physical bodies can happen to our body politic as well.

In one of his earliest published speeches, twenty-eight-year-old Abraham Lincoln asked a group in Springfield, Illinois: “At what point then is the approach of danger [to America] to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Twenty years later, he observed: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

Mr. Lincoln was right, of course. In an autocracy like North Korea, the whims of the dictator determine the direction of the nation. In a Communist system like China, it is the dictates of the ruling party and its leader. In a kingdom like Saudi Arabia, it is the ruling family.

But in a democracy, the moral condition of the people determines their destiny. Is this good news for America?

“We are estranged from the Ground of our Being”

In his sermon “You Are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich described (PDF) the fallen human condition: “The state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being. This three-fold separation constitutes the state of everything that exists; it is a universal fact; it is the fate of every life. . . .

“The state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our Being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth, but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditional is demanded of us, but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise.”

This is why our greatest challenges lie beyond our greatest abilities.

Like people drowning in a swirling vortex, we need a rescuer who is compassionate enough to jump into our river but who is strong enough to pull us to safety. Only one Person in all of human history qualifies. Only one Person entered fully into our fallen humanity, died on our cross, was buried in our tomb, and rose from our grave. Only one Person now stands ready to transform our broken condition into his holy character.

“That you may be blameless and innocent”

St. Pacian (c. AD 310–91) reminds us that in Jesus’ incarnation he merged eternal spirit and temporal flesh as one. When we trust him as Lord, he does the same with us and in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). We literally become the “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:27) so we can continue and extend his earthly ministry today.

This is one sense in which Jesus’ followers do “greater works” than his (John 14:12) because we do what he did—preach, teach, pray, evangelize—but in two billion bodies rather than in one.

If you believe the miracle of his incarnation in his body, you should believe the miracle of his incarnation in yours. This is his purpose for us: “That you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15–16). Jesus intends to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

The prophet could “greatly rejoice in the Lᴏʀᴅ” and “exult in my God” because “he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). If Jesus is your Lord, he has done the same for you.

“You are the needle and I am the thread”

The future of our democracy depends on the moral transformation of our people. As the only light in a dark world (Matthew 5:14–16), this process starts with us. But we must be changed to be the change we need to see. We must settle for nothing less than holistic holiness and then ask the Spirit to make us more like Christ than we have ever been as we submit daily to his lordship and obey his word and will.

A convert from Islam to Christianity prayed: “O God, I am Mustafah, the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled up and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me.”

Who or what is the “needle” in your life today?

NOTE: In tandem with the release of our latest volume of Biblical Insight to Tough Questions, you may also request the full 12-volume set for a donation of $175 or more. You’ll receive a box set of Vols. 1–10 and standalone editions of Vols. 11 and 12. Consider completing your own collection or gifting this useful set to a loved one.

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