The Japan Disaster Spells Grave Danger
As I write this week’s commentary we are coming up on the third anniversary of Japan’s triple disaster in March 2011. The colossal earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster are unparalleled in human history. The worst and most troubling part is the leakage of many hundreds of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific ocean off Japan’s eastern coast. This has been done repeatedly over the last two years, creating a huge “dead zone” in the North Pacific ocean that stretches from Japan to the Aleutian Islands on the north to Hawaii on the south, and surrounding the island of Guam and its US military base in the north central Pacific. This radioactivity will remain in the water for many decades, killing most – if not all – of the sea life that lived there.
Being the long-time student of the Bible that I am, I searched the Scriptures to see if I could find a connection between Japan’s disaster and Biblical prophecy. There is a strikingly similar disaster predicted in the book of Revelation in chapter six, verses 7-8. I quote: “When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come’!” I looked, and before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following closely behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” “Hades” is an old word for hell that is seldom heard any more. The context of this brief quote is that the 7 Seals were being opened. ‘Plague’ represents the radioactivity of the sea water, and ‘famine’ represents the death of all the ocean life that used to be a part of a soon-to-be-broken food chain. ‘Pale horse’ is a reference to death. Given the vastness of the Pacific ocean, the North Pacific, where the water has become radioactive to the point of being lethal, comprises about one fourth of all the world’s oceans. If all the fish in the North Atlantic died off from radiation sickness, which is already occurring, then the remainder of the food chain that feeds off those fish will become sick and die as well. That same food chain ends with us, the whole of humanity. About one quarter of the world’s population lives on either of the coasts of the Pacific, from Korea and Japan to the Alaskan and west coasts of North America. It is no exaggeration to say this entire population is at very high risk.
People have questioned me about why God would allow such a disaster to take place. In times like these, many people find comfort in their faith. But disasters can also challenge long-held beliefs. Whenever a disaster like this occurs, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of Moses. “And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake. Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God cares about the well-being of good people. Nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer.
Where is God in Japan today? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. He is in the courage of people to carry on their lives after the tragedy, in the resilience of those whose lives have been destroyed, families swept away and homes lost. But, they resolve to rebuild their lives. God is in the goodness and generosity of people all over the world to reach out and help strangers who live far from them, to contribute aid, to pray for them. Most of all, God is in the hearts of those who run to Him for comfort in times of tribulation. Those who have lost everything can take heart in the fact that God is giving them a chance to reboot their lives, or to start over again on a clean sheet of paper.
For the believer, there is no satisfactory answer for why we suffer. It’s simply a fact of life, and each person has to come to grips with that. It’s not as if some magic answer can be found. But the idea of God suffering along with us can be very helpful. The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone.
Oftentimes people become more religious in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet God in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open. This disaster is not the result of any sins of these people; we need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, we should see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. Muslims and Christians believe that God tests those he loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need.
These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time. We are trained by our faith that every suffering, whether big or small, brings us closer to God’s mercy and forgiveness, to the extent that the Prophet Mohammad said, “If you are walking and feel a thorn pierce your foot, you should know that even this little bit of pain brings you divine blessing and God’s forgiveness. These times of suffering give us an opportunity to demonstrate patience and faith, and therefore, become closer to God.” Every natural phenomenon challenges us as God’s trustees on this Earth, showing us that we should continue to study and explore ways of safeguarding humankind and all creatures from being subjected to this kind of devastation. It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources in this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way.
As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died. The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body. An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died. We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.
The best way to make sense of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion. Religiosity, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this. There is no weakness to be found in hearts that break for others.
World War II was another disaster (though not a natural one) for the Japanese and left great psychological scars. I expect to see an increased need for spiritual strengthening and sustenance in the aftermath of the quake/tsunami, which in some ways is greater than WWII. The Japanese have always been very vulnerable to frequent earthquakes and typhoons, tsunami, and other extreme weather. So throughout their history they have known the ferocity and unpredictability of nature and thus have a strong relationship, often one of fear and respect, to God. Though, perhaps this tells you something of how their geology and climate affect their religious convictions and expressions rather than how religion will relate to the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-meltdown disasters.
Personally, I don’t believe God ever wanted this to happen. I don’t think it was ever God’s intention, not in the human sense as mankind understands it. We know that there are going to be storms in life. No matter what happens we need to keep our faith and trust in almighty God. And I want the people of Japan to know that God hasn’t forgotten them, that God does care for them and that he loves them. I care and God cares, and we’re standing by them.