One of the fastest moving stories in the news and, in some ways, the story that has overshadowed the suffering in Japan is the news about its damaged reactors. This, in spite of the fact that only one person has died (in a non-nuclear) and several others made ill, whereas by comparison the earthquake and tsunami have claimed thousands of lives and wiped away whole communities. While it is unclear how the situation will finally be resolved, the measured, sane, scientific voices have pointed out that even the catastrophic failure of the reactor at Chernobyl claimed not many more than 59 lives and most of those were firefighters and others who courageously brought the plant under control.
Setting aside the question of energy resources for the moment, it is worth asking, why we are so absorbed with this one dimension of the story to the near exclusion of sustained attention to the larger tragedy?
There are a number of reasons — all four with spiritual dimensions.
One reason, of course, is simply the sensationalistic nature of the story. It will take years for Japan to rebuild and the effort will require sustained, long term attention. Some of the losses — particularly in human lives — cannot be addressed or fathomed at all. By contrast, the problem with the reactors is just the kind of news story that stirs passions and draws an audience.
The second spiritual problem is, sadly, that the reactor story is the sort of story that hooks those who do not live in Japan — because the prevailing winds might bring radiation our way, because there are nuclear power plants in our own countries. The news outlets know what we will not admit — that our sense of commitment to the well-being of others is so fragile that a story that impinges on us is intrinsically more interesting than a story that affects the lives of others.
The third reason for this story’s riveting nature is our desire for guaranteed safety. The outcry for eliminating nuclear power plants is, in part, a scientific, technical, and social issue which we can all debate and for which there are arguments to be made, pro and con. But beneath it all I can hear in what some have said the notion that if we eliminate nuclear power plants, we will have eliminated a serious threat to life and limb. Perhaps, but as the tragedy itself indicates, it would not eliminate all the threats. No one is discussing the elimination of all but concrete bunkers in our cities; the elimination of beach side cities and towns; the banning of all ocean-going vessels; and the evacuation of all fault lines.
The fourth reason is this: The fascination with the crisis arises out of a desire to define the end of life. Even a nihilistic or apocalyptic ending arises out of an all but instinctive need to name and visualize that end. A larger human need to define where we are going and where we will end as a species is evident in countless secular apocalyptic scenarios, including global warming and nuclear holocaust. Life is shaped by stories and no element of those stories informs the rest like the fate of the human race. The story of nukes in Japan has fed that need. Even non-Christian secularists are forever reading the present against a loose collection of apocalyptic scenarios all their own.
How does the Christian faith speak to the four impulses described above?
- One, needs worthy of our attention transcend the momentary interest born of controversy and novelty. We are obligated to care, because those in need are our neighbors.
- Two, we are obliged to care for others whether their needs impinge on our well being or not.
- Three, Christians know that there is nothing certain about life. Our confidence lies in God and sustains us.
- Four, Christians are deeply engaged in the whole of life because in it is played out the shaping of our souls and beyond it lies a new heaven and a new earth. Neither religious, nor secular apocalypse should deter us from courageous living.