On Friday, March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by the biggest earthquake in the country’s recorded history, followed by a series of tsunamis. As I type this, the country is still experiencing aftershocks, dealing with potential meltdowns at nuclear power plants that were damaged by the earthquake, and facing the possibility of another large earthquake. Thankfully, it appears as if Japan’s earthquake preparedness strategies — e.g., strict building codes, sea walls, school drills — may have spared the country even greater damage and loss of life, but there’s no doubt that it will take months, if not years, for Japan to recover from this disaster.
Sadly, in what has become nothing short of a pathetic cliché, people have begun claiming that this disaster is God’s judgment on Japan. As shocking as it may be, it’s not exactly surprising. Every time disaster strikes, people are quick to attribute it to God’s judgment. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, it was attributed to God’s wrath for gambling, New Orleans’ French Quarter, and America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality. Some claimed that the earthquake that laid waste to Haiti in 2010 was punishment for a pact with the devil that the country had made.
There is, of course, precedent in the Bible for God pouring His wrath out onto cities and nations, e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho. God is a God of justice, and as much as I don’t like to think it the case, it is entirely possible that God could use natural disasters to serve as a “wake up call”, to cause a nation to reassess, turn away from sin, and repent. (Though I think the Biblical precedent is that God would leave little room for doubt were He to exercise His judgment in such a manner.)
However, God’s (potential) use of natural disasters is not what I wish to write about today. Rather, I’d like to raise some questions about the tone of those who see God’s wrath in earthquakes and hurricanes. All too often, such pronouncements seem to be said in a spirit of joy, smugness, condescension, even giddiness. In other words, these people are happy that God has poured out His judgment on a nation. But in the case of Japan, these pronouncements have an extra layer of vindictiveness: some claim that the earthquake, tsunamis, and whatnot are God’s judgment on Japan for having attacked Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years ago. I find this incredibly troubling, for several reasons.
First, we should simply never rush to assumptions regarding God’s judgment. God’s judgment is good, but it is also a fearsome thing. Any time we believe God’s judgment to be at work should be a sobering time of humility, prayer, and self-examination (Matthew 7:3). God is a righteous judge, and He will deal with all sin in due time, not just the sin that exists over there in some other country. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Whenever I see the inevitable claims that God’s judgment is at work in some seemingly random occurence, I’m reminded of the Biblical story of the Tower of Siloam, which had collapsed and killed eighteen people (Luke 13:4-5). Jesus asks those around Him whether those eighteen died because they were more sinful than everyone else, and then immediately answers His own question: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
When we see something terrible happen, particularly to someone with whom we might have a grievance, we sense justice, that a sort of divine comeuppance has just occurred. And, being the self-righteous creatures that we are, we are tempted to rejoice and/or think that we are immune to such calamity. Such was the line of thinking in Job’s day, in Jesus’ day, and it’s still just as prevalent in our day. However, Jesus turns this thinking on its head by pointing out that such a time should not be relished, but rather, should cause us to reflect on our own mortality, sinfulness, and need for repentance and God’s saving grace.
Second, we must never assume that God’s judgment somehow lines up with our particular nation/tribe/community’s interests, history, and goals. There has only been one nation in the world’s history that was truly the nation of God, and that was historic Israel. No other nation can make that claim, including the United States.
Therefore, it is dangerous to say that God’s plans are necessarily in alignment with America’s plans, that God’s blessings are primarily for us, and that God’s curses are primarily for someone else, i.e., another country that harmed us in the past. To do so is arrogant and presumptuous. (And besides, not even Israel, God’s chosen people, were immune to His wrath and judgment.)
Third, such pronouncements may hinder and harm the advance of God’s Kingdom in Japan. This lays especially heavy on my heart because I have long had a special affection for Japan. Two years ago, my family and I spent a month visiting the cities of Shizuoka, Tokyo, and Kyoto, as well as friends serving there as missionaries. Several of our friends work in college ministries, and we got to meet a number of the students with whom they work.
Those young men and women were incredibly bright, gracious, and eager to share their lives with us. And based on our friends’ account, the students also possessed a genuine curiosity regarding Christianity. No doubt they are now wrestling with the same questions that I would ask were a tornado to suddenly touch down in Lincoln, Nebraska, and destroy my neighborhood. Why did God let this happen? Where is God in this calamity? What did I do to deserve this?
What, then, does it say to them to see Americans claiming that the earthquake and subsequent damage were God’s judgment on them for an event that happened 70 years ago — an event that happened decades before they were born and that had already been “punished” with the firebombing of Tokyo and two atomic bombs (among other things)? What sort of witness is that for God’s Kingdom? How many people might turn away from God and harden their hearts were they to become aware of such hateful, idiotic, and petty thoughts? On the other hand, what would it mean if they saw Americans putting aside past grievances — not forgetting them, mind you, but putting them aside — and instead, reaching out with prayers, words of encouragement, and perhaps even more importantly (at first, anyway), material and financial support?
As a Christian, I must be keenly aware that my concepts of justice and God’s concepts of justice are not one in the same, if only because my sinful nature makes me incapable of discerning true justice. That becomes all the moreso when the matter of my own particular nation/tribe/community’s history and honor enters into the discussion. But I left Japan two years ago with a renewed sense that the Church can and should never be limited to my own particular nation, that all nations have something unique to bring to God’s glory, and that my allegiance is ultimately not to the United States, but rather, to a Kingdom that draws from all nations.
I believe in a God who executes judgment. I also believe in a kind, gracious, merciful, and loving God who seeks the good of all people, all of whom were created in His image. Additionally, I know that some of the people affected by this horrible tragedy are brothers and sisters in Christ, and as such, that American Christians have a kinship with them that is deeper than any national identity. Add all of that together, and how could anyone, but especially anyone who claims to be a Christian, ever think to take any joy or satisfaction in Japan’s current situation? Japan’s foundations have literally been rocked to their core over the last few days, and the Japanese people will face a very long, hard road to recovery. How could I ever take pleasure in that difficult path, and how can I not but seek to help them on their way?