Tragedy and Crisis Outside the Christian Context

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 15, 2011 — 45 Comments

With the world’s focus turned to Japan as it deals with the aftermath of a cascade of earthquakes, a massive tsunami, and dangerously damaged nuclear reactors, press and commentators are starting to touch on the question of religion, and how belief is informing Japanese reaction to these events. However, this approach as been somewhat tentative so far, partly because we’ve been riveted by the immediate disaster response, and partly because Japan’s religious makeup is so very different from that of the United States and other Western nations. In Japan, Christianity is a tiny minority, while religions like Shinto and Buddhism dominate, and several smaller syncretic faiths thrive. In addition, Japan is highly secular, with few of the culture war issues that seem to constantly haunt us.

Rescue workers in front of a Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Rescue workers in front of Shinto shrine. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

CNN was one of the first mainstream news outlets to foray into how religion interacts with these current events, with Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff exploring how Japanese faiths confront tragedy.

“Japanese are not religious in the way that people in North America are religious,” says John Nelson, chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. “They’ll move back and forth between two or more religious traditions, seeing them as tools that are appropriate for certain situations. For things connected to life-affirming events, they’ll turn to Shinto-style rituals or understandings,” Nelson says. “But in connection to tragedy or suffering, it’s Buddhism.”

Next to weigh in is USA Today, with religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman focusing on the role of tradition, and how Japanese Buddhism isn’t necessarily the Buddhism many Americans would be familiar with.

“Such talk of gods and hell kings doesn’t sound like the meditative Buddhism better known in the West, cultural anthropologist John Nelson said. He’s an expert on Shinto and Buddhist shrines and chairman of the department of theology and religious studies at University of San Francisco […] “Japanese Buddhism is similar to Western religions with deities that can be petitioned and can intervene in worldly affairs, and there are many mechanisms to appeal to them, to pray for miracles,” he said.”

Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic points to a short essay by former Anglican priest and journalist Mark Vernon, who meditates on the difference between the Shinto and Christian responses to natural disasters.

“In Christianity, human beings are at the centre of nature: creation is for humanity, along with other creatures, and it’s humanity’s task to care for it. Hence, in part, the offence we feel when nature turns against us. In Shintoism, nature is recognised as infinitely more powerful than humankind – as in the wave – and that humankind is in nature with the permission of the gods but with no particular concern from the gods. Shinto rituals show respect for the gods of nature, befriending the enormity of the forces, if you like.”

From there we have many smaller nods and mentions, the Telegraph explores the “tradition of rebuilding the great Shinto shrines,” the Washington Post evokes the image of a woman praying at “a small Shinto-inspired shrine to her ancestors,” while ABC News noted that local funeral homes “volunteered to provide traditional Shinto rites to the dead, donating white shrouds and cremating the bodies,” before becoming overwhelmed by the demand. Disappointingly, the Religion News Service’s coverage has so far been disproportionately focused on Christian reactions to the tragedy. One hopes that more robust reports on Shinto and Buddhist perspectives are forthcoming.

As things progress, we can hope that a larger sense of the importance of ancestor worship, tradition, the divine within nature, and the multiplicity of spiritual beings within Japanese culture will shine through in future aftermath coverage. In this disaster there is a rare opportunity to understand how a culture outside the Christian context grapples with universal questions and problems. Religion journalists should rise to this occasion, and minority faiths in the West should ask for the true diversity of faith in our world be accurately and fairly covered.

In one final related note, I also want to point to an article up now at PNC-Minnesota, where Hawaiian Pagan Lamyka, a former resident of Japan, is interviewed about how Hawaii’s experience with the tsunami triggered by the Japanese earthquake was, in her opinion, ignored in favor of California by the media.

“Hawai’i is seen as ‘foreign’ by many Americans, as evident by people’s reactions to the President coming here for holidays.  We’re never included in national dialogue, probably because it’s incredibly obvious that we shouldn’t be part of the USA to begin with.  Hawaiians have been protesting since being illegally usurped, fighting for our rights since statehood, and continue to fight for sovereignty rights denied to us.  We’ve had protests here numbering from 50,000-60,000 but never once made national news like in Wisconsin.”

Yet another perspective that should likely get more attention by the mainstream media. Do check out the entire article, and share your perspective.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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