Friday, March 25, 2011

God and the Japan Tsunami

I was horrified to hear the news of a Tsunami that had hit the east coast of Japan at Sendi. As of today, the estimated toll is about 12,000 confirmed dead and 17,000 missing.

I had been meaning to blog this issue since the tsunami hit on 11 March 2011, but it’s something that I approach with a great deal of fear and trembling. No matter what I think, or whatever “explanation” I might postulate, the fact remains that some 29,000 people have lost their lives. It’s a monumental tragedy, and I will not allow myself to treat it in any other way. Each one of those people who died was a valuable, meaningful person, not just some shock statistic on a banner headline. I imagine that in that population were men and women, young and old, saints and sinners.

This is a time for grieving, not explanation.

Yet, it is human nature to search for meaning in what goes on around us. To various degrees, everyone who is affected, or who can see this event will turn from grieving to explanation. That search for an explanation will include some impassioned questions; did they deserve to die?

I have to say that I been immensely impressed by the response of the Japanese people, as seen on the TV coverage. There are the images of the ordinary women, searching the wreckage of their homes for their lost families and neighbors with a public dignity that seems impossible to maintain. There’s the story of the chief fireman, who lost his entire crew as they battled, unsuccessfully, to close the flood gate. There’s the manager of the nuclear plant, who visited the refugees one by one to apologize to them personally for his plant’s contamination of their food and their homes.

The word that the press has used is “stoic”. It might be an appropriate word, but its possibly incongruous because its Greek and has more to do with the heritage of Europe than the Far East. It seems to have been exported from west to east. Is there a better Japanese word, that we can import into our language? I ask because I’m wary of imposing Western interpretations on how an Asian people are reacting to this.

Another imposition on the Japanese understanding of this event might also be the prevailing Western idea of God. I’m unsure if the Shinto and Buddhist people of Japan might frame the question in this way, but I know the small Christian community might; did God send the Tsunami?

If He did, what was His purpose in it?

If He didn’t, does He interact with our world at all?

There seems to be much less public interest in these questions than the debate that followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in December 2004. Maybe its because the casualty count is much lower. Maybe its because the predominantly Muslim people affected in 2004 would have been more inclined to process their reaction by questioning God.

I have not done any sustained research on the matter, but I only came across one article that attempted to answer these questions from a Theist perspective. It’s a podcast from the website PleaseConvinceMe.Com, run by Jim Wallis and his team of “one dollar apologists”. Even so, this was not an extended reflection on this one event, but rather Jim Wallis giving his initial reactions.

I listened to the podcast and, whereas I don’t disagree with anything Jim Wallis has to say on the specifics, one thing that struck me about his approach was that he seemed to be interpreting the tsunami, and all of life’s triumphs and tribulations, in terms of what benefits us. His conclusion seemed to be that God sent the tsunami because it would ultimately benefit us, including those who died.

If I were an atheist, I would easily dismiss this position as absurd. How can something possibly benefit you if you end up dead? Jim Wallis counters (and I paraphrase) by saying that our lives go beyond death, so even our journey through death has relevance to what happens to us thereafter.

I’m not entirely satisfied with Jim Wallis’ position here. Psalm 6:5 says, “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” The salvation that the Psalmist sings about is all about preserving this present life.

As for the atheist position, I would have to respond that the lives of those who died had no meaning at all because, to put it bluntly; who cares? I might care, and you might care, but when our days are over, and we have long since been forgotten, what possible meaning remains?

Maybe its because I have an austere soul that I tend to believe that I’m really insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I find it hard to believe that God would summon a tsunami for my sake.

However, Jim Wallis does make a point that I need to hear. The Christian Gospel states that, though it’s not about me, God is interested in my welfare. Romans 8:28 tells me that “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” By “all things”, I presume Paul includes tsunamis. God loves me, and He can order things for my benefit. Even so, I wonder what “benefit” God intended to those who died in the recent tsunami. I don’t have a satisfactory explanation.

Another part of my brain has been occupied with cosmology. In particular the Incarnation of the Word of God (as you might see in the song I wrote last week). The issue here is how God reveals Himself through his creation, of which I am but a miniscule part. I’ll conclude with a comment that I posted on FaceBook;
If we are looking for God in this tsunami, we should not look to the tsunami itself but to the lives of the people who were affected, and who are reacting to it. Why? Because God has chosen to create His image in people, not tsunamis.

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