Six days ago, I woke up and after some reading, did my standard early morning web-browsing–sports, stocks, NOAA gauges showing flood conditions on the Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Jeff Masters’s weather blog, etc. I was just ending the ritual when something caught my eye in the comments section of the blog.
An 8.9 earthquake? No way.
In Japan? Too bad to be true.
With a tsunami? Of course, but they’re used to those.
Ten metres? Oh s***.
Within a couple minutes, I was watching the videos that have been haunting our airwaves ever since–an inexorable tide of black water devouring all in its path. I pulled up Google Earth and scanned the coastline of northeastern Japan–city after city, all under ten metres elevation. I knew then that this was no ordinary disaster, that this time, the deaths would be measured not in the hundreds or in the thousands, but in the tens and scores of thousands. And yet as the days have passed since, with image after image of incomprensible destruction, statistic after statistic of the incalculable human and financial cost, hysterical headline after hysterical headline forecasting nuclear doom from the stricken Fukushima reactors, it has become harder, not easier, to grasp the enormity of it.
Sure, we’ve been here before. Last year, anywhere from 75,000-300,000 Haitians (the absurd uncertainty of the figure testifies to the meaninglessness of human life in this most pitiful of nations) perished in the Port-au-Prince quake. Two years before that, the sea swallowed up at least 140,000 in Burma’s Cyclone Nargis, and the earth swallowed up half that many in China’s Sichuan earthquake. Scarcely more than six years ago, the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 300,000. But somehow, none of these had quite the same shock value. In Haiti, for instance, the devastation unleashed seemed almost fated, the fitting capstone to decades of misery and poverty; we shook our heads and said sadly, “Yes, that would happen to Haiti…” In the Boxing Day Tsunami, as overwhelming as it all seemed, it made sense, really, when you thought about it. Here was an ocean ringed with poor and primitive fisher-folk, dwelling in huts by the sea-side, the source of their livelihood. They had no warning, and no defence against the sea. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later–and let’s face it, how much would they really be missed? How many people knew or cared of the existence of these villages before they became non-existent?
But this time, things are different somehow. This time, the most technologically-advanced nation on earth, the nation that with all its resources and preparation, seemed almost impregnable against natural disasters, was brought to its knees. Here was a country with buildings that would wobble about a bit, but ultimately stay standing, in the midst of the world’s sixth-largest recorded earthquake. Here was a country with state-of-the-art tsunami warning systems, with seawalls twenty feet wide and hundreds of feet thick. And yet it didn’t seem to matter. The all-consuming wave poured over these seawalls as effortlessly as the tide washes over a sand castle. Whole cities vanished, and the survivors were left shivering without food and water for days. Nuclear reactors spiralled out of control, almost as if driven by some fiendish spirit gleefully thwarting every human effort to cool them. The Japanese stock market, despite hundreds of billions of government dollars pumped in to prop it up, plunged 16% in two days, worse than in any two-day span of the 2008 financial crisis.
There has been a moment or two each day, it seems, where I found myself seriously thinking that it must all be a dream–this couldn’t really be happening now, in 2011. This was the stuff of a disaster movie, not a real-life disaster. Numbed by the horror and pain of it, I have tried to pray, but with faltering lips. What can one pray at a time like this? With millions in need, where does one begin? “Lord, please help the Japanese people,” is about as far as I can get. When praying on my own account, for my own daily needs and struggles, I’ve found myself tempted to think that God couldn’t possibly be listening–with such a deafening outcry of voices lifted up to him in anger and grief on the other side of the world, he couldn’t possibly have time for us ordinary folk anymore.
And then comes the more troubling thought: what’s the point of praying to God to fix this if he’s the one who did it? I’ve come to think that if theodicy isn’t a problem that tears at your insides every now and again, then you aren’t really paying attention. And now is one of those times. Six years ago, in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami, David Bentley Hart wrote and eloquent and deeply moving though ultimately misguided book called The Doors of the Sea, in which he vented at heartless Calvinists who declared that it was all part of the plan and for God’s greater glory, and gestured vaguely at the free-will defence for the existence of evil. But this just won’t do. The free-will defence might just about manage to get God off the hook for Auschwitz, but not for depopulating Banda Aceh or Minamisanriku. There simply was no human agent involved, and if we are going to say that God is not responsible even for the movement of the earth and the sea, then what do we say he’s responsible for? No, there is no getting round it–God must have caused that earthquake, God must have caused that tsunami.
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?” (Job 38:4-8)
The free-will defence might still have a role to play, if we wanted to argue that all this death and distortion in the creation is God’s judgment against sin, man’s sin for which man is freely responsible. But does that then mean that we’re saying that the tsunami was God’s judgment on sin, a judgment on the Japanese people, sort of like how Pat Robertson said the Haiti earthquake was a divine punishment for their “pact with the devil”? I certainly don’t think we want to say that, and while some might claim Biblical predecent for making such assertions, there is at least as much Biblical precedent rebuking any such attempt (Jesus regarding the tower of Siloam, or the whole book of Job, to cite two memorable ones). What can we say, then? Anything? Is there any way we can give meaning to such episodes? It is worth remembering we are not the first to be tormented by this lack of answers, which embittered so many Europeans against the inscrutable providence of God in the wake of a similar disaster centuries ago, the Lisbon quake of 1755 that leveled the center of one of the world’s great empires, killing 100,000.
Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two, not so much about God, who remains maddeningly inscrutable, but about us. First, before we get carried away shaking our fist at God, we ought to take a look at ourselves. When was the last time Japan suffered a disaster of this magnitude? 1945. Two American warplanes dropped two nuclear explosives on two Japanese cities, killing 200,000, far more than this quake, and poisoning far more with radiation than anything that happens at Fukushima is likely to do. Someone once said, “I don’t dare to ask God why there’s all this evil and suffering in the world, because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same question” (that was the gist, though the original quote was more pithy and eloquent). And that was just one small portion of the horror unleashed in that war, by “the good guys” as much as by “the bad guys.” All of the natural disasters of the twentieth century have killed a tenth as many people as all of the disasters that humans have chosen to inflict on one another, and generally with much less cruelty. As we grieve for the victims of the waves, let us not forget to grieve for our own victims and seek to make right all that we have made wrong.
Second, a disaster such as this serves as a fitting, a shocking, rebuke to human pride–to the pride that imagines it can shut out the sea with walls, that it can contain the elemental force that binds together the atoms of the universe within steel rods, that it can predict and protect itself against the movements of the earth itself. A nation that can make computer chips that can store a lifetime of memories on something the size of a pinhead, that can harness the power of superconductors to propel trains at 360 mph, suddenly can’t even get food or heat or water to hundreds of thousands of its citizens, can’t even supply itself with the electricity that is its lifeblood. All around us today are amazing monuments of human ingenuity, in which we put our faith and pride with shocking ease, even as we are bombarded over and over with reminders of our relative impotence–snowstorms that shut down almost the whole United Kingdom, an invisible volcanic ash cloud that grounds grounds a whole continent’s air fleets, tides that drown our cities.
As one of my favorite passages reminds us:
“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.” (Is. 40:22-24)
But we are not simply to grovel before a great and inscrutable God, stoically taking whatever punishment he dishes out. This passage also reminds us that hard as it may be sometimes, he is the only one we can trust for comfort and salvation from the terrors that overwhelm us, and he will not fail of that trust:
“Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Is. 40:28-31)