Praying for Japan?Posted: March 14, 2011 | |
Trigger warning for images and discussion of natural disasters.
Houses swallowed by tsunami waves burn in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, March 11. (Kyodo News/Associated Press; source)
In the wake of the largest earthquake in its recorded history, and subsequent tsunami and powerful aftershocks, Japan is in the middle of a huge effort to rescue survivors, and contain further damage like radiation leaks. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands; countless more are missing, stranded, or displaced, and millions are without food, water, and electricity. Infrastructure has been completely devastated in many areas and rescue workers have yet to reach many of the worst hit regions.
Aid and donations are urgently needed. Some good organizations to support in their rescue efforts include Doctors without Borders/Medicins San Frontieres, which has a local office in Japan and is already on the ground, and Global Giving, which distributes funds to the International Medical Corp, Save the Children, and other organizations.
I’ve been thinking about the issue of prayer a lot lately, and the news of the earthquake has brought it to mind again. I no longer believe prayer works in any traditional sense. Still, for many if not most people, I think it’s a natural to such devastation. It’s a way of reasserting some measure of agency and control when we feel vulnerable, helpless, and out of control. It’s often psychologically reassuring for people being prayed for, if they’re aware of the prayers, but perhaps even more so for the ones doing the praying, especially if there’s little else they can do to help.
But more than that, praying for others – especially strangers or people far removed from us – can be an expression of identification and sympathy based on a recognition of shared humanity. At its best prayer is an affirmation of the dignity and worth of fellow humans – a statement that the people one prays for are worthy of concern and attention. Often, being unwilling as a religious or spiritual person to acknowledge and pray for suffering people is indicative of a belief that those people are less than fully human. Already some remarkably callous people have called the earthquake “payback” for Pearl Harbor, implying that the Japanese are undeserving of American sympathy, undeserving of basic human compassion. There’s a similar sentiment in the tendency of some Americans to be dismissive and even supportive of the oppression of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and around the world. Such beliefs are sustained by dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” or the enemy in some way.
(Evacuees stand around Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo Japan March 11, 2011.)
How someone prays also reveals a lot about how they see the subjects of their prayers. They can pray in a way that affirms others as full people with experiences, needs, rights, and feelings that are just as valid as their own. Or they can pray in a way that centers their own worldview and their own experiences, objectifying the people they are ostensibly praying “for” and making their prayers all about themselves.
Unfortunately, some evangelical leaders have responded to the earthquake in Japan in the latter vein, with opportunistic, patronizing, and self-centered prayers. Al Mohler, for example, tweeted that he is “Praying for the people of Japan in aftermath of huge earthquake and tsunami. May they seek Christ the Solid Rock.” In his Friday podcast he added:
When a natural disaster like this takes place, many questions immediately arise. But as you think about this, keep in mind the fact that Japan is a very secular nation in terms of its worldview. Even though ancestor worship and forms of Buddhism and Shintoism are still in the background beliefs of many Japanese, fewer than about five percent have much knowledge of Christianity at all, and the operational worldview of many Japanese when it comes to the events of everyday life is basically secular.
Mohler later managed to eke out a few words expressing concern for survivors and gesturing towards an obligation to help, but he’s otherwise focused on the theological and religious implications of the earthquake:
We must pray that this horrible disaster may be used to call the people of Japan to the Lord as their only hope and refuge. The nation is still shaped by its Shinto, Buddhist, and Animist roots….when the grieving turns to the hard work of recovery and rebuilding, the true test for American Christians will be whether our commitment to the Gospel of Christ will lead to a renewed effort to reach the nation of Japan with the message of Jesus Christ, the Solid Rock.
John Piper’s “prayer” for Japan is perhaps worse; he asks god to show mercy on Japan even though they don’t deserve it. In fact, none of us deserve it: “We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan…if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment.” Like Mohler, his main concern is that Japanese people would repent and convert to belief in his version of god:
Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion…Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.
Piper doesn’t spare a word of prayer for the rescue efforts, for efforts to provide the most basic necessities to homeless and displaced people, for the nuclear plants threatening meltdown. He doesn’t pray for the actual Japanese people who have been killed, injured, or traumatized. Neither he nor Mohler has made any public comment encouraging their followers to help Japan, or offering any information on how to do so.
Piper and Mohler are living in some ass-backward world where “helping” in a time of national crisis and devastation involves prayers for conversion, and criticisms of the religious affiliations of the Japanese pass for compassionate and relevant commentary. Of course, they’ll claim that the souls of Japanese people matter more than their bodies or minds or property, and as was frequently repeated in my church, “their greatest problem is that they are sinners in need of a savior.”
These aren’t prayers for Japan. In a sense they’re not prayers at all. They have little to do with the actual victims of the quake, or really with anyone who isn’t a conservative evangelical. Rather, Piper and Mohler have seized upon this disaster as an opportunity to reassert the superiority of their beliefs, of their god, and their status as god’s chosen elite.* They’re effectively saying they know what Japan’s “real” problem is, and it’s not that the nation has been devastated, or that people are in pain and shock and need. The real problem is that the Japanese don’t know enough about Mohler and Piper’s god and religion. And as this problem is effectively unresolvable – since they believe as a matter of dogma that prayers for mass conversion won’t (or can’t) be answered – the real message is that they will be saved, while most of Japan and the rest of the world is basically fucked.
They completely erase the voices and experiences of the Japanese people. They completely erase their actual material and psychological needs. They refuse to see them as real human beings, even in a moment like this. They are props.
What’s truly frightening about this is that people like Piper and Mohler don’t have to be evil to believe such evil things. Their view of faith as being in a special in-group chosen by god makes it impossible to see others as full and equal human beings. They can only see people in terms of what religious team they’re on; their dogma obligates them to refuse to take different beliefs and experiences seriously. They can’t stand with the Japanese as fellow human beings. They have to assess where they stand in some imaginary cosmic war, and in so doing they lose sight of them as people. Viewing everything and everyone through that lens alone is inherently dehumanizing. It’s a worldview that strips non-Christians of their humanity so completely that it leads some to see this horrific disaster as “day of opportunity” for Christians and a tool intended by god to “[pierce] the darkness of Japan with His light.”
A truly loving prayer would identify with the suffering of the Japanese people and acknowledge it as unjust and undeserved. It would be accompanied by whatever concrete help those praying could offer. A loving prayer would ask for Japan’s needs to be met on its own terms, not that its people live up to external and arbitrary expectations of who they should be. A loving prayer would show survivors the same respect and concern anyone would want for themselves, even though they aren’t “like us” in ways we might deem profoundly meaningful, because they are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not as pawns in some perverse cosmic game.