God and Japan’s Suffering
Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara apologized Tuesday for earlier comments in which he explained that “divine punishment” was the cause of both the earthquake and subsequent tsunami which have devastated Japan, caused the deaths of thousands and the suffering of an entire nation. Mr. Shintaro “took back” his comments because he said that in making them, he failed to take into account the “feeling of the victims.”
Not surprisingly, this kind of theological calculus is being used by members of many communities to explain the horrible events which have befallen the Japanese people. I have been treated to videos by Christians, sermons by Jews and many examples of “explanations” which assert that this was all a matter of sin and divine retribution.
Japan is a highly secular country to be sure, so it was somewhat more surprising to see that approach taken up by a leading Japanese politician, but given the circumstances, it’s not at all shocking. It may be deeply upsetting to many of us, but it should not be so shocking.
After all, it would be deeply comforting to imagine that we could draw immediately corresponding lines of connection between our actions and those of God. It would really helpful to know if we simply stopped doing certain things; we could assure ourselves that no such tragedies would befall people in Japan or anywhere else.
I wish that we lived in a world where a few already known alterations of belief or practice would guarantee the safety of all people. It would be worth doing pretty much anything to get that, wouldn’t it? So I appreciate that what sounds at first like a pretty weird, or even offensive, analysis of world events, can be enormously helpful to some people in returning order and hope to lives that feel stripped of both. But appreciating it doesn’t mean that I find it acceptable.
The fact that such theologies may comfort some people privately, in no way excuses those people from imposing their views on others who may find them the height of insensitivity. But it’s not simply bad manners or timing which is the problem; it is a fundamental disconnection from those who are suffering – a feeling of distance from their pain which actually renders the directing of such theologies at the lives of others, offensive.
Mr. Shintaro talked about his failure to account for the feelings of “the victims.” One wonders why he doesn’t count himself among them. While he may have lost no loved ones, his nation is suffering, and yet he sees his role as that of theology instructor, not as a leader who shares in the suffering of his community. Once someone approaches a tragedy from that perspective, it’s unlikely that they will ever have anything too helpful to say.
People may ask where God is at such moments, and whatever the answer is, if the one answering speaks as if God is with them, but not with those whose suffering they hope to explain, it’s time for them to stop talking. That is a lesson which neither Mr. Shinatro, nor anyone else using the suffering of others as a proof text for their own views, has yet to learn.
Finally, we should not miss either the irony or the insight contained in the sin which the Tokyo governor felt explained these disasters – “egoism.” If egoism is the sin, then the important question to ask, especially for a leader, is not where others went wrong, but where they went wrong. Anything less embodies the very sin which Shintaro sees as the cause of Japan’s suffering.
It would actually be quite powerful for leaders who believe that human behavior and divine response are both interrelated and interdependent, to stand before their followers and ask where they as leaders have gone wrong. It would have been moving and even potentially helpful for Mr. Shintaro to apply his theological musings to himself before turning them on others.
Of course, that is what we are called to do – apply that which we most deeply believe to ourselves. I have a feeling that if everybody did that, whatever the cause of Japan’s suffering may be, Japan, its people and all the rest of us would be much the better for it.