Japan, Pearl Harbor, and the Wrath of God

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?

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I definitely agree with your points — I had not seen or heard of those kinds of claims about the quakes/tsunamis as “justice” for Pearl Harbor and WWII atrocities. Has someone prominent said them, or has it mostly been lower-profile bloggers/Facebook/Twitter chatter?

  • 1LOVE

    Judge and you shall be judged.

    How PATHETIC any person who claims to have a relationship with GOD who is by definition unfathomable to the human brain, and then JUDGE someone with the pride of claiming to know GODs thoughts/judgments.

    GOD IS LOVE
    JUDGE OTHERS and you JUDGE YOURSELF.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brett: From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly been your random Facebook/Twitter/blogger fare. I haven’t seen any prominent voices make these types of statements. Glenn Beck has made some statements that the earthquakes might be some form of judgment, but he’s been really vague and imprecise as to the reasons for said judgment, or why Japan was its target.

  • http://losingsightofland.wordpress.com Carl

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I also think what is often lost in these discussions is that Creation itself is fallen as well and waiting for God’s redemption at the end of time (Romans 8:18-25). Perhaps these natural disasters are simply the fallen nature of Creation exercising its fallen tendencies, much as we humans do everyday. And if this is in fact God’s “judgement” we should approach speaking on the issue with the utmost caution because to declare God’s judgment upon a nation for it’s prior deeds or current wickedness without looking at ourselves and our wickedness is a grave mistake, at least in the way I see it.

    As a side note, I think it’s ludicrous for anyone to say that God is judging Japan for Pearl Harbor. If this is the case, I expect the entire United States to be split in half and to fall into the sea for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, not to mention the other atrocities we’ve committed around the globe in years past. God’s people are not Americans, we do not have the right to say that God is acting on our benefit with his judgments, if that is even what natural disasters are.

  • Alan Noble
  • Echoes

    Cool article. Oh btw, GOD DOES NOT EXIST. Open your f***ing eyes. Please!
    edited by CaPC for content

  • Kristi

    Thanks for writing this, Jason.

  • motown54

    I’m always amazed at how some only want to look only at the attribute of God that loves. Yes God is love, but he is also a God of wrath and punishment. Was what happened in Japan God’s wrath? This i do not know. But for those who think that God’s only involvement with mankind is that of love and peace…..

    “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob,
    And I hated Esau,..” Malachi 1:2, 3

    King James: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7

    New King James: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create calamity: I the LORD do all these things.” Isa 45:7 (NKJV)

    “For a fire will be kindled by My wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. Deuteronomy.” 32:22

    Isaiah 13:11
    “I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

    “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven…For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:25-29

    The humble and peace loving Jesus said this:
    “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.”
    Luke 12:51

    “Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”
    Luke 22:36: 37

  • motown54

    The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”‘ Psalm 14

  • Alan Noble

    Here are a few more examples of people mocking this situation: Glenn Beck and 50 Cents.

  • Kristi Israel

    @motown54 brings up some great scriptures. I think the Bible makes the case that God’s love and righteousness are why He must judge. I should support this with scripture, but it’s late and I’m typing from my phone.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Let me be clear: I am not at all saying that God is not a God of righteousness and justice. I strongly believe that He is (I say as much in the last paragraph). And I, too, believe that we tend to over-emphasize God’s love and grace and downplay His judgment and holiness. But my primary purpose in writing this article was to look at the claims we make, and the attitudes we take, regarding God’s judgment.

    Let me put it this way: if you do believe that the earthquakes, etc. were, indeed, God’s judgment on Japan, how should you respond?

  • Pingback: Making Sense of “Culture Making”, Part 8: Searching for “Traces of God” | Christ and Pop Culture


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