Where is God in suffering?

God and Japan’s Suffering YOMIURI SHIMBUN AP Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara apologized Tuesday for earlier comments in which he explained … Continued

God and Japan’s Suffering



Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara apologized Tuesday for earlier comments in which he explained that “divine punishment” was the cause of both the earthquake and subsequent tsunami which have devastated Japan, caused the deaths of thousands and the suffering of an entire nation. Mr. Shintaro “took back” his comments because he said that in making them, he failed to take into account the “feeling of the victims.”

Not surprisingly, this kind of theological calculus is being used by members of many communities to explain the horrible events which have befallen the Japanese people. I have been treated to videos by Christians, sermons by Jews and many examples of “explanations” which assert that this was all a matter of sin and divine retribution.

Japan is a highly secular country to be sure, so it was somewhat more surprising to see that approach taken up by a leading Japanese politician, but given the circumstances, it’s not at all shocking. It may be deeply upsetting to many of us, but it should not be so shocking.

After all, it would be deeply comforting to imagine that we could draw immediately corresponding lines of connection between our actions and those of God. It would really helpful to know if we simply stopped doing certain things; we could assure ourselves that no such tragedies would befall people in Japan or anywhere else.

I wish that we lived in a world where a few already known alterations of belief or practice would guarantee the safety of all people. It would be worth doing pretty much anything to get that, wouldn’t it? So I appreciate that what sounds at first like a pretty weird, or even offensive, analysis of world events, can be enormously helpful to some people in returning order and hope to lives that feel stripped of both. But appreciating it doesn’t mean that I find it acceptable.

The fact that such theologies may comfort some people privately, in no way excuses those people from imposing their views on others who may find them the height of insensitivity. But it’s not simply bad manners or timing which is the problem; it is a fundamental disconnection from those who are suffering – a feeling of distance from their pain which actually renders the directing of such theologies at the lives of others, offensive.

Mr. Shintaro talked about his failure to account for the feelings of “the victims.” One wonders why he doesn’t count himself among them. While he may have lost no loved ones, his nation is suffering, and yet he sees his role as that of theology instructor, not as a leader who shares in the suffering of his community. Once someone approaches a tragedy from that perspective, it’s unlikely that they will ever have anything too helpful to say.

People may ask where God is at such moments, and whatever the answer is, if the one answering speaks as if God is with them, but not with those whose suffering they hope to explain, it’s time for them to stop talking. That is a lesson which neither Mr. Shinatro, nor anyone else using the suffering of others as a proof text for their own views, has yet to learn.

Finally, we should not miss either the irony or the insight contained in the sin which the Tokyo governor felt explained these disasters – “egoism.” If egoism is the sin, then the important question to ask, especially for a leader, is not where others went wrong, but where they went wrong. Anything less embodies the very sin which Shintaro sees as the cause of Japan’s suffering.

It would actually be quite powerful for leaders who believe that human behavior and divine response are both interrelated and interdependent, to stand before their followers and ask where they as leaders have gone wrong. It would have been moving and even potentially helpful for Mr. Shintaro to apply his theological musings to himself before turning them on others.

Of course, that is what we are called to do – apply that which we most deeply believe to ourselves. I have a feeling that if everybody did that, whatever the cause of Japan’s suffering may be, Japan, its people and all the rest of us would be much the better for it.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • Secular

    This notion that, this is some kind of (un)holy retribution is not only laughable, but is actually disgusting. What would this “DOG” (sorry my dyslexia get better of me), being if all the Japanese were good x’tian folk? Would he have prevented it? So to prevent natural disaster all we have to become is x’tian, or moslem, jewish, or hindu folk. But then Wouldn’t these disasters strike again and again becauel not all are going to be of the obly right kind. Do these disasters spare any faith in their wake? No they don’t. All these morons need a hole in their heads to get rid of the cobwebs. By the way the laws of nature can be violated at will, as long as everyone lives a pious x’tian life i guess.

  • loveandpeace

    Shintaro is a right-wing politician, just like what we have in US. Hence the comment….

  • YEAL9

    Is not the OT and Torah filled with such godly retributions i.e. the great flood, the Red Sea massacre, the “angelic” slaying of the Egyptian first born, the destruction of Jericho, to name a few? So Rabbi Hirschfield where is your condemnation of such biblical stupidity.?

  • davivman

    I know the press likes to jump all over comments like one mentioned above by Gov. Shintaro Ishihara or the one mentioned by Pat Robertson during the Haiti tragety, However, I think that very few people actually agree with these kinds of statements. I also wonder to what degree the media shares responsibility when the propogate these statements by giving coverage to offensive comments that are not really newsworthy.

  • jonswitzer

    Community suffers when spirituality is merely personal as opposed to collective…and that includes both guilt, love and hope.

  • Sajanas

    Do the people that don’t die from a disaster think that they are somehow spared from death? Do they think that some sort of divine protection will follow them around forever? Everyone’s gotta go sometime, and I find it insulting that people claim that those lost in a disaster like this were somehow not worthy because they kept some arbitrary set of rules. As if those who follow Christianity, Buddhism, or whatever are somehow exempt from the grave.
    Frankly the world is cruel enough without everyone being gigantic jerks to one another.

  • jonswitzer

    The Biblical perspective is that God punishes nations collectively for their refusal to do what is right (i.e. not care for the poor and outcast, worship false gods, sexual immorality etc.). As such, everyone has a responsibility to speak up. If the “prophet” is rejected then the Lord protects the prophet and allows punishment to come to the nation, which likely will hit some people worse than others. The goal is to rebuke humanity for doing wrong (i.e. not care for the poor, orphan and widow, greed, etc.). The idea is that those who admit they have acted based on greed or selfishness are granted forgiveness. Those who refuse to admit that they have done anything wrong. They are given what they also wanted, an eternity without God. So, the question is who is the jerk? The one who refuses to admit his selfish behavior, or the one who tells him he needs to change (i.e. stop destroying the planet due to greed and power). For example, who will have the courage to tell the leaders of Haiti to stop being so corrupt? Someone should say something…if we don’t have the courage, should we be upset if God chooses to act?

  • jonswitzer

    Don’t you also argue that a good God should not allow evil? How then would recorded instances of God NOT allowing evil (i.e. the Israelites being oppressed injustly) not simply answer your question of whether or not God would act? On the one hand you don’t want a God who acts? On the other hand you blame Him for not acting? In both cases you see this as proof that God is not good and does not exist. All roads lead to atheism in your world. I’m not sure if you call this rational or not.

  • jonswitzer

    Your disgust is heard loud and clear by the 90% of the world that disagrees with you. Thank you for registering it. Please understand that for most of us, the question of what God is actually like (Buddhist conceptions of nirvana, Moslem conceptions of “submission”, Judao-Christian conceptions of a God interested in mutual relationship based on integrity and faithfulness…) these discussions are very nuanced and as such make easy straw men for those inclined to have a “knock-down” session. So, have at it. Let us know if you show an inclination to nuanced discussion of what a just God would loook like.

  • lepidopteryx

    So when God punishes a group of people for not taking care of the poor, he kills the poor along with the folks who refused to help them?
    Using that logic, if a person goes to prison as punishment for a rape, then the victim ought to have to serve the same sentence.

  • Sajanas

    Ah jonswitzer, this is exactly the sort of attitude that I find to be so jerky.

    How many children died in Hati and Japan, that didn’t cause anyone any harm? How is selfishness and greed related to an earthquake that sweeps away huge sections of the coast? Why would we not see Stock Exchange specific earthquakes?

    All people like you do is make the victims feel bad, and obligated to so some sort of spiritual rigmarole that has never, ever helped anyone from dying. Christchurch in New Zealand was demolished by an earthquake, its cathedral demolished, with people inside of it. I know you’d rather have a world with cause and effect based on a person’s righteousness, but surely you must see how ridiculous it is to explain the deaths of those who disagree with you as punishment or warnings and the deaths of those you agree with as a test of faith.

  • YEAL9

    If there were a god, he/she/it and/or spirit would not tolerate the stupidity of Beck thereby proving there is no god. Ditto for all others who consider natural disasters as being the work of some god.

    Think infinity and recycling with the Big Bang expansion followed by the shrinking reversal called the Gib Gnab and recycling back to the Big Bang repeating the process on and on forever. Human life and Earth are simply a minute part of this chaotic, stochastic, expanding, shrinking process disappearing in five billion years with the burn out of the Sun and maybe returning in another five billion years with different life forms but still subject to the vagaries of its local star.

  • walter-in-fallschurch

    where’s god in suffering?

    that’s a trick question. it implies things about god for which we have no evidence. for reasons of personal preference/desire, most define god as all-powerful, and all-loving, but given tsunamis, birth defects, and disco music, an evil and/or impotent god is more likely. and an even more likely reason we have to make excuses for god in the face of disasters/tragedy is because man is the creator of god. all the vexing questions about “god’s mysterious ways” and so forth instantly vanish if you look at it that way.