Saturday, March 26, 2011

Finding Faith In Fickle Fortune

I thought it’d be appropriate to wait a few weeks before talking on the events that rival the tsunami that hit India a few years back, which I only vaguely remember. The death toll and destruction are unprecedented, especially considering the historical destruction America wreaked on Japan in the final struggles of World War 2. While those attacks had military targets in mind, the earthquake and resulting tsunami had no such intentions as they progressed in a pattern that has no doubt gone on long before Japan was even widely populated. The earthquake was around a 9 on the Richter scale, one of the top 5 strongest earthquakes since that technology has existed. There are those that suggested this was a message from God, either explicitly or implicitly in terms of supposed end times prophecies or simply the proverbial Demiurge exacting its wrath upon impenitent unbelievers, even though Japan does have some Christian population. But that never stopped God before, did it? People have either blamed or even given credit to God for many disasters through history, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Louisiana.

Before I rant on that touchy subject, I think it’s pertinent to contemplate how Japan in particular has been persisting in spite of the tens of thousands of lives lost and the wiping away of some villages off the prefectures. This is very much related to two major religious cultures in Japan: the native Shinto religion and Buddhism, transmitted from China. The Shinto tradition can be said to reinforce a communal mindset of the Japanese people as a country of individuals that are also a group. Also, there is an affirmation in Shinto of respecting nature, so in a sense, the Japanese aren’t completely bewildered by the earthquake or the tsunami, since Japan has been a historic site of earthquakes and tsunami. Buddhism is especially relevant to the mourning process still going on for many. Buddhism is said to be the funeral religion in Japan, while Shinto is involved with ritual festivals that occur at various points in life, such as births of children, New Years and cherry blossom viewings. Buddhist shrines will be visited in high numbers as people pay their respects to their family members. There is a strong sense of reverence for one’s ancestors and family, reinforced not only by Buddhism to an extent, but Shinto in another affirmation of the importance of family and the Confucian tradition as it spread to Japan, emphasizing the importance of relationships. One could say that Japan doesn’t consider the ontology of the catastrophes as important, since they are more than willing to admit that it is a purely natural phenomena, plate tectonics and subsequent effects on tides. There is not the concern of why God would do this, or even why the kami, natural spirits of Shinto, would cause this, since the kami are part of nature and so they are not so much inflicting any judgment so much as simply doing what is natural to them, causing great upheavals in nature as nature flows in its flux of increase and decrease, such as with the tectonic plates in the earth’s crust or the shifting of the tides of the ocean. The important thing for the Japanese is one’s response to the catastrophe. With Buddhism in particular there is an emphasis on the impermanence of all things, however constant they may be in the general sense. The acceptance in some sense that the people we love might not be here tomorrow, that we might lose our house, our belongings, are all part of a Buddhist perspective. And the Japanese have reportedly not even had instances of rioting, attesting to this strong influence of Buddhist teaching on transience in the face of great tragedy and suffering from natural disasters such as Japan has had on and off for years (in fact, at least one earthquake every year since 2004 by one record). While Americans might see this general mindset as somehow missing the point, it logically resonates with us, regardless of if we share the Japanese Buddhist faith in any sense or not. People were naturally compelled to send aid to Japan in one form or another, not because they were Buddhist or Christian, but because they were humans seeing fellow human beings suffering from something they had no control over. In this way, the last part of this article will confront the other positions on this, including one from a minority Japanese perspective.

The governor of Tokyo was reported to have said that the tsunami was punishment for Japan’s egoism, but quickly retracted and apologized for that statement. I, for one, don’t see how Japan has been egoistic in the last 60+ years since they suffered great defeat in the end of the 2nd World War at the hands of America’s atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the most part, they’ve been relatively tame, from at least my perspective. China, North Korea and the like have been more aggressive towards their neighbors, particularly Taiwan and South Korea respectively. But enough about international politics; a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that about a third of Americans believe that God punishes people for the sins of their country, relevant of course to the recent natural calamity in Japan. The survey found that most people did not believe that natural disasters were either a sign from God or punishment/judgment from God of the sins of countries. Almost 40% believed that catastrophes were signs from God, while 29% believed that God sometimes punished countries with natural disasters. And this is a survey of America. Concerning white evangelicals, the poll found that over half of them believed both that God uses natural disasters for signs and for punishment, which is only reflective of a general problem many Christians find in that position, explaining why there is some drift from this extreme position in its varied forms. The poll found people were more than willing to believe God was in control of all things, but they were less than certain about ascribing responsibility to God for everything, such as floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or even something more human in nature, like terrorist attacks. At best, most Christians would either ascribe these to the sinful nature of the world we live in or Satan respectively (since Muslims could be demon possessed according to some Christians, I imagine). This kind of theodicy, explaining the suffering and evil in the world as it relates to an all powerful and benevolent God, is at least better in comparison to believing God actually consciously judges Japan as undeserving of its protection, as if Japan and many Asian countries haven’t been suffering earthquakes and tsunamis for decades and it’s less likely people gave God credit for those. When you start saying God is both in control of and responsible for every event, you start contradicting what I’ve understood to be a crucial part of Christian belief: that every human has freewill to choose good or evil. If you start saying, like the Westboro Baptist Church for the most heinous example, that God is just mad all the time at people for not doing everything the way it wants, then it may very well be affecting your general regard towards people as little more than pawns in a cosmic game of chess, to use a cliché trope. As much as people might be doing charity in the name of God, I would prefer if we started emphasizing that we do charity because we are humans, because we’d like people to do the same for us in return, as Jesus even spoke of in the Gospels. Until next time, Namaste, aloha and Ganbare (Don’t give up!) Japan.

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