Was anyone surprised that Glenn Beck blamed the Japanese for the earthquake and tsunami that have plunged the country into crisis?
Or that the Rev. David Yonggi Cho, senior pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church – the world’s largest church – called the quake and tsunami “God’s warning” in an interview published online? This kind of rhetoric has become standard from some right-wing Christian opinion mongers after natural disasters.
More unexpected was Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s declaration that “I think (the disaster) is tembatsu (divine punishment) although I feel sorry for the disaster victims.” This from a Buddhist in a country that is predominantly Buddhist and Shinto.
What could he mean? “Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism,” Ishihara went on. “We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”
The governor has since apologized for his remarks but it has led people to question what religion he was representing.
According to Buddhist scholar Matteo Pistono, the governor was misrepresenting his religion. “It is a complete error to read that our karma interacts with natural phenomena,” said Pistano. “From a Buddhist perspective, one’s personal karma is not affected by weather or ‘acts of God’. There is no divine retribution in Buddhism,” he said. “In Buddhism, there is no idea of sin, no punishing God.We reap what we sow. No outside force can affect that.”
Japan is not a traditionally religious culture as we understand it. Most Japanese practice a combination of Buddhism and Shinto. They do not worship regularly. For those who adhere to the Shinto philosophy, nature is sacred. Shiro Shintaku, a martial arts teacher who is studying to be a Shinto priest, went to Georgetown University yesterday to conduct Shinto prayers for the suffering of Japan. He tried to defuse the governor’s remarks.
“He doesn’t represent Shinto,” said Shintaku. “We don’t believe in punishment...He’s a politician. Politics are not following the natural way...He’s angry about the situation. He’s thinking about the way things are going politically.”
“This is a natural disaster,” he said. The governor “meant that there has been too much emphasis on material things. That we are losing our spirituality... From the Shinto point of view, this is like getting a lesson that we are meant to think about our lives. “
Whatever the governor meant, it sounds familiar. Remember that Jerry Falwell blamed gays, lesbians, feminists and others for 9/11 and Pat Robertson asserted that catastrophes in Haiti and Katrina were God’s punishment.
Then, this week, Glenn Beck opined about Japan that “I’m not saying that God, is, you know, causing earthquakes. I’m not not saying that either. ... Whether you call it Gaia, or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent and that is, “Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.” Beck chuckled the whole time.
Why is what Glenn Beck is saying different from what the governor of Tokyo is saying?
Hard to say. The Christian right is ascribing God’s wrath as random punishment for evil deeds, despite the fact that many of the victims are innocent. The governor seems to be blaming the loss of innocent life on egoism in government, although, let it be noted, he has compassion for the victims.
I lived in Japan for three years as a child. What struck me was the extraordinary acts of spirituality in their everyday life. The give and take of the sacred. At one point, while my father was fighting on the front lines in Korea, I was close to death in a hospital in Tokyo. Our houseman, who was Shinto, took my mother to his personal shrine (many Japanese have these instead of going to church). He was dressed in white robes. He held a dagger to his chest. He offered to kill himself and offer his soul up in exchange for mine. This, he said, would appease nature’s desire to have a new soul. It would be in the natural order of things.
What a contrast to the religious view that people must be punished for their sins! The Japanese will turn to their own philosophy and their own spirituality during this terrible time. They don’t need a governor injecting foreign concepts of retribution into the discourse.
There will be many funerals in Japan in the coming months. There will be much more evidence of a religious culture than we have seen because the Japanese turn to their faith at times of death. It is not a secular country. There wlll be prayers for recovery and purification.
As for Glenn Beck–you know that stuff he’s doing? Laughing about how God is punishing the Japanese? Maybe he should stop doing some of it. Maybe he should take a sabbatical from his radio show and go over to Japan and volunteer to help some of the victims. That would be the Christian thing to do.