Just a day after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a prominent public figure had the reason for the tragedy all figured out, declaring it to be a “heavenly punishment” on the people of Japan. But the pronouncement didn’t emanate from Virginia Beach, Colorado Springs, Nashville or any other hotbed of American Christianity but rather from Tokyo, Japan, from the mouth of its controversial and colorful governor, Shintaro Ishihara.
Michael Kinsley once famously defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth,” and despite his subsequent apology, the fact that a nominally Buddhist politician based in a mostly secular but nominally Buddhist/Shinto majority nation is even thinking such thoughts speaks to something of the universal feeling that most human beings seem to have amidst such tragedies-- that God or the gods express their displeasure with us by sending calamities.
While I don’t want to make the same presumption that Ishihara has made and imagine that I can speak conclusively for God by saying that that’s not what He’s up to, smart men and women down through the ages have often reminded us that at the very least God may indeed allow suffering in order to make us better people and to remind us of who controls the universe and who doesn’t.
“Adversity makes men remember God,” declared Roman historian Titus Livius. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” noted British writer C.S. Lewis.
Some Japanese have already found meaning in the tragedy. One young Japanese man, a victim of hikikomori, a phenomenon which has caused millions of young Japanese to withdraw from society, eschew meaningful work and relationships, stay indoors and sink into a deep depression, reportedly found the strength to leave his room and pitch in to help those who were suffering in the wake of the tragedy.
The tragedy in Sendai is also likely to, temporarily anyway, reduce Japan's high suicide rate which has been averaging 100 per day or 30,000 plus per year, for it's often a tragic irony that those intent on taking their own lives often scramble to save themselves when they’re threatened from without.
Whatever ones views on what role God plays or doesn’t play in disasters like the one that has afflicted Japan, what will ultimately prove the most meaningful to the people of Japan are the deeds of those like David Garrison and Jill Davidson, a Red Cross employee from North Carolina and a nurse from Alaska respectively. The two showed their devotion to God by traveling to Japan and living out the Biblical admonition that “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress.”
And that's something all Americans should be able to agree on.
Mark Joseph is a producer, author and publisher of Bullypulpit.com. He was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan and travels there frequently.