Shaking…And What We’ve Failed to Learn

shouldn't someone question this?

When I turned on the radio Saturday morning and heard about the earthquake, I only heard the second half of a sentence, “…it was one of the worst earthquakes in history, as if it was something that happened decades ago.  Not until I saw the New York Times front page did a realize that this was now…and not so very far away.

The recent earthquakes in undeveloped parts of China, and then in Haiti, were tragic because their poverty meant that low-grade construction left them vulnerable to the shaking.  Implied in that thinking was, “If only they were rich, like us…they’d have suffered, but not as much.”  Tell that to the Japanese, whose building codes and architectural values were designed around the inevitability of an earthquake catastrophe.

The Times writes:  In the wake of Friday’s natural disaster in northern Japan, and the growing nuclear catastrophe that it touched off, residents here are fast learning that many things they have taken for granted — fully stocked supermarkets, precisely punctual trains, power for their electronics and cars — can readily slip beyond their reach.  It seems that the way we get our food, water, and power for our mobility has created its own environment of vast vulnerability.

We’re still moving into the future based on the presupposition that a little tweaking here and there, some double-pained windows, better gas mileage, and riding our bikes to work a bit, will ensure that the growth of industrialization will continue.  People will keep moving into the cities, worldwide.  Farms will continue to get larger and big agriculture will continue to supplement the soil with oil-based products, requiring more and more petrol per calorie produced  (from 2.3 calories of food produced for every calorie of fuel consumed in 1940, to 10 calories of fossil energy required to produce a single calorie of food today!).  We need to do this, of course, because the way we farm, though it brings great yields, robs the soil, so much so that organic matter has moved from 9% of northeast China’s soil during the days of small farms, to less than 2% organic matter today.  The yield is only sustainable by pouring more and more oil into the soil.  Most of the people who leave their farms and move to the city, if they’re to prosper, will need to produce stuff—toasters, prizes you win at carnivals, computers like this one I’m using just now, trash cans, shoes—everything.  And of course, we’ll all need to continue to buy—more and more.   This is the way of global capitalism, and as long as buyers keep buying, small farmers keep quitting because it’s been made so difficult to continue, and consumers keep consuming and throwing away, all will be well.

The wheels of the global economy are humming along at max speed, maybe higher, greased with so much oil that Japan must supplement with nuclear power.  It all works…sort of.  Until there’s an earthquake of Biblical proportions.  And now instead of an earthquake and tsunami, both epic tragedies by themselves, it appears the a third tragedy is possible—a threefold meltdown!

I wonder if we’ll stop and think this time—collectively:

1. Even if global warming is a myth, the evidence that there’s a limited amount of oil is nearly universally accepted. Even if the overwhelming evidence is somehow rendered null by a vast discovery, shouldn’t we be rethinking the demise of community, the demise of the soil, the demise of simplicity, and the dependence on greed that are all inherent elements in our existing economic model?

2. Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that “too big to fail” is too big?   If 15,000 people are sickened by chicken pot pies, as happened in 2007 but investigators could never find the source, shouldn’t we change things?  When we realize that big banks failed at a much a higher rate than small banks, shouldn’t we learn something from that?  We we realize that micro-farms actually produce more food and use less oil than big industrial farms, shouldn’t we be asking questions about how big is too big?

3. Shouldn’t we consider the possibility that there’s something inherently wrong with an economic system that is founded on the need to get people to buy things they don’t need, and didn’t even know they wanted until the advertisers entered their psyche?

We’re busy but not content.  Buying but not connected.  Comfortable but not healthy.  Consuming but not celebrating.  In debt, but not free.  Questioning our system doesn’t change the tragedy in Japan, for which we mourn, pray, and give to address crisis needs. But I hope that at some point, people will begin to question the global economic model—because the cracks aren’t just metaphor; they’re threatening lives.

I don’t have precise answers, and know full well that I’m part of the problem just like everyone else.  But when disasters happen these days, whether they’re nuclear, environmental, or economic, it seems that the conversation is always centered around getting back to some sort of “normal” is if our “normal” is healthy.

I’m wondering if the church shouldn’t be at the forefront of defining a new normal by working hard to overcoming consumerism, individualism, and by challenging the uncritical contributions we all make to the status quo.  We might offer alternatives that move is into more interdependency, simplicity, generosity, and movements towards justice.

But Ceasar’s values run deep—and I’m not sure people want to change THAT much.

Should anybody be asking these questions?  Should the church?  I welcome your thoughts.

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  • Ken

    You’ve raised such an interesting conundrum. In the justice issues considered over the past year in our church and small group many have pointed out the global impacts of true believers over the centuries. The William Wilberforce sort of examples. But here we are in the 21st century facing a world perhaps more divided than ever between the haves (and want mores!) and the have-nots. Does adopting the way of the Amish in shunning modern technology have the ability to change the way mankind is headed on a global scale? Do we end up losing the ability that technology affords us to reach the have-nots in new ways. Yes petroleum saturated farming has its faults, but the advancement in farming techniques also feeds a growing world population not otherwise sustainable. Do we let countless lives die from lack of food to find a point of equalization between good farming ecology and gluttony? I’m really curious to hear someone with a real plan of action that can reverse “advancement” as we call it and return us to simpler ways. Here we sit in a nation facing obvious decisions that must be made to economically survive. We have reached a place where we are paying ourselves money we’re borrowing from ourselves. Yet none of our leaders is willing to step up to the obvious that we simply can’t continue to do this. We want and want and want. It will be fascinating to see how the Japanese rebuild in response to this event. Certainly their seawalls have proven inadequate. Nuclear power will now once again become a terrifying prospect. Do they keep living near sea level? How do they power their lives? We will see.

  • (I apologize if this is too much or comes off antagonistic, simply sharing my thoughts after a good read =D )

    Well, I read it through and while I hardly think the track we’re on globally (absurdly broad concept, but in the interest of saving time…) is ideal, I would contest the idea that humanity was doing better in the prior to modern styles of economics. Capitalism even in it’s most idealized sense may in fact run on greed, or at least on the desire to consume (is it inherently evil? consumption is necessity, after all, even biologically) but nearly every other man made economics/governmental construct has as well.

    At least where capitalism is concerned, there is freedom of choice. If you dislike a business which is “too big to fail” then you have the freedom not to give them your money. But, of course, it is not the people who decided that large collapsing banks were too big to fail, but the government. The fact is that we still have forces in motion which are stifling the ability of the individual to choose and these freedoms have yet to truly spread their wings to their maximum extent. There are still those who seek power or feel that others need choices to be made on their behalf and so the average person is written off as incompetent by the earthly powers that be. What we’ve come to call special interests seek absolute power in order to bend the public to their whim and of course, the state accomplishes it’s goals by threat of violence, so litigation and government interference is their weapon of choice.

    Didn’t God understand this, so many lifetimes ago? He handed Hebrews divine laws and erected persons of authority (judges) to enforce them. Beyond this, the Hebrew culture flourished within the limitations of their moral laws without interference from what was then a typical nation state system. If I understand correctly, God was very resistant to establishing a King for the Hebrews and when he finally gave in to their demands for one, he did so with warnings against the hardships an authoritarian state would bring on his people.

    It perverts the course of free culture and stupid and/or dangerous institutions are put in place. What I’d like to see happen in order for the world to move forward is more freedom in more places. Then, beyond this, making the world a better place becomes a matter of the individual’s heart. If the poor need care, the people need to take care of the poor of their own volition, not at the demand of the state. If nuclear power is considered to dangerous, the people should have the freedom to pursue alternatives without being forced to deal with tax systems designed to foster growth of industries which the state deems most important.

    Certainly nature itself is something mankind can only hope to contend with. This has been the case throughout history and will most likely always be the case. We will build taller towers, they will be broken down and then we will try to find a way to build it over again, better than before. But has modern society made us more vulnerable to nature? I wonder how many lives were saved in Japan that would not have been had their nation not had so many precautions set in place.

    Ultimately though, I have no hope in humanity as far as establishing some sort of perfect equilibrium on it’s own. The Lord himself is going to have to fix these messes we make for one another. Until then, let’s just keep praying about it all.

  • Meeps

    I think people of faith need to be heard at all levels of government about these issues to the extent our government policies are part of the problem. Too often we hide behind “separation of church and state” or fear of controversy within our church communities, or giving up due to the extreme partisanship that will eventually swing back to bipartisanship. I suggest we pray and learn together about how government policies help or interfere with the USA and global food systems for example. Then let our legislators know what we each believe is right and just.

  • We have and will always be beset with potential attack from others and all forms natural phenomena. Through it all, we try to govern ourselves as best as we know how.

    Thank God,in the end, “all is transitory and the only thing eternal is our relationship with Him.”

  • Renee

    Pastor Richard,

    Great post! “Should the church [be asking these questions]?” I believe that the Church should foremost 1) love God and 2) love our neighbor. But after that? Yes! I think this is a “utopia” we should strive for and, while secondary, will enable us to better love God and our neighbor ( I’m realizing more and more how much I’d rather tithe fully than buy “that pair of shoes” (though, I don’t think that’s all bad, either). I think the picture you paint of dedicated, fulfilled work and simple living is the picture of Eden’s renewal.


    Isaiah 65

    22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
    or plant and others eat.
    For as the days of a tree,
    so will be the days of my people;
    my chosen ones will long enjoy
    the work of their hands.
    23 They will not labor in vain,
    nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
    for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
    they and their descendants with them.

  • Teben,
    What exactly do you mean by freedom? You seem to buy into the notion that a purely free market system will result in some sort of ideal if government just stays out of it. The problem is, that sort of laissez faire notion is deeply flawed. It assumes that all businesses have the same access to the market, all actors have the same information, and everyone behaves appropriately. It assumes that a seller will sell to a buyer at the same price no matter the buyer’s race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It doesn’t account for any of various ways we have of sinning. It externalizes costs like environmental damage.
    But getting back to the whole “freedom” issue. Do we not, as a self governing society, have the freedom to regulate our behavior? Do we not have the freedom to define the commons and regulate those activities that we determine have an effect on said commons? There’s a tendency among certain constituencies to try to separate “We the people” from our government. The fact is that We the people established our country and have every right to make laws, including laws about what standards govern our economic behavior.
    So what about Christians? We need to have our voice heard in government. Now, this is a bit tricky, because our nation has a separation of church and state, and rightly so. I don’t want the government telling me that I have to subscribe to Pat Robertson’s theology anymore that I would subject myself or my family to Sharia law. So in makeing our voices heard, we need to do so in a way that is not imposing our faith on others using government power. I’m against the death penalty in all cases for scriptural reasons. That’s not an argument I can take into a government context. I can however point out that our justice system is flawed, that you can’t correct an erroneous execution, that capitol punishment doesn’t impact crime rate and is more expensive than life imprisonment, and that there is no reason a truly dangerous criminal can’t be safely put away in a supermax prison. It’s a tough balance, but it’s important that we all try to engage our government, even in the knowlegde that it, like any other human exercise is flawed. In fact, to say that humanity is flawed, so we should never try to change is making the perfect the enemy of the good. Perfection will elude us, but that doen’t mean we shouldn’t seek it.

  • R

    >>>”I’m wondering if the church shouldn’t be at the forefront of defining a new normal by working hard to overcoming consumerism, individualism, and by challenging the uncritical contributions we all make to the status quo. We might offer alternatives that move is into more interdependency, simplicity, generosity, and movements towards justice.”

    Absolutely the Church should be at the forefront of such a movement! The reality is that there are *already* practical alternatives and people who are passionately working to get their communities on board. The fact that we don’t talk about it much at Bethany is unfortunate. We talk about community, and it’s a vision similar to that of the Transition movement, but we don’t use the same language, and we don’t approach it with the same urgency – an urgency that is required when you look at the harsh facts around climate change and peak oil. It seems that the unraveling of our globalized, industrialized way of life is imminent, and it would be great to look back and know that the Church *proactively* did its part to find a way forward in Love. I guess it’s as simple as practicing what we preach – we just need the wisdom to know what that looks like, and the courage to follow through. Maybe I’ll get someone to start a community group about Transition..

  • raincitypastor

    agreed… let’s chat