Japan’s Situation Tugs at Our Hearts

Japan’s Situation Tugs at Our Hearts

When a country gets hit by a 9.0 earthquake, then a tsunami, followed by the meltdown of some of their nuclear reactors—and then three weeks later, experiences another earthquake (7.1 this time)—we cannot help but wonder who declared Japan this year’s “least favored” nation.

One thing most people now realize is that it’s not God. A new poll, cited by the Odyssey Network’s website (see “Odyssey members at work” box on the right), says that most Americans (56 percent) believe in a personal God who is in control of everything that happens in the world. But only 29 percent believe that God sends natural disasters as a punishment for a nation’s “sins.” This poll was conducted in March by the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with Religion News Service (RNS).

This website includes “Prayers for Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Victims” offered by many of the denominations with which Odyssey is associated. The prayer from Catholic Relief Services is asking God to keep safe and embrace the suffering people of Japan—not endorsing their suffering as something good. Because they are working with Caritas (the Vatican’s relief agency), CRS’s help can go further, especially in building temporary shelters. If you prefer to channel your donations through the Franciscans, please do so at www.Franciscan.org or www.stanthony.org, and specify Japan as your intended recipient.

Does Generosity Have Limits?

Does the developed, rich country of Japan have any claim on the generosity of Americans? And specifically of the generosity of American Catholics? After all, few of the Japanese are Catholics or even Christians.

I would argue yes, definitely.

  1. First, there’s the argument advanced by Anglican clergyman and poet John Donne, “[S]end not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/It tolls for thee.” He contended that each person’s death—and, by extension, every life and all suffering—affects everyone. In a world growing increasingly smaller from instant communications, we hear the bells tolling across the globe.
  2. Second, Japan’s suffering is also our own. The radioactivity escaping from their failed nuclear reactors, seeping into their water, will affect produce we import from Japan. Although experts are now trying to reassure us, we know that what goes into the air and the Sea of Japan has the potential to harm us all.
  3. Third, there’s Jesus’ preaching of the Beatitudes, the obligation he presents us to comfort the sorrowing and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. I’ve seen enough pictures in news magazines, on TV and on the Web to know that many Japanese people are sorrowing, hungry, ragged and homeless; this suffering will not end soon.

Their Eyes Compel Help

Gerard Thomas Straub wrote a wonderful book, When Did I See You Hungry? He talked with and photographed people struggling to survive severe poverty and desolation around the world. He wrote this book after a deep conversion experience, when he decided that, instead of working in Hollywood, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. A DVD of this book is also available.

He shot the 200 photographs in this book over several months living among the desperately poor of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, Toronto, Rome, Nairobi, Brazil, India, the Philippines and Jamaica. Straub says of his pictures, “To look into their eyes, eyes that are profoundly human and tragically sad, compels the observer to want to do something to relieve the pain, to end the misery.”

While the people of Japan may not be suffering from the abject poverty of the people whom Straub photographed, their eyes too show that pain. The Japanese have a claim on our conscience.

Generosity should have no limits—apart from hurting ourselves or our families. I remember being very touched by other countries’ offers of help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It showed the solidarity of the world and reassured me of the goodness of most people. Now let us reassure Japan.

Featured photo: CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters: A woman whose house was destroyed by the earthquake/tsunami in Kessenuma, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, pours out her woes on a cell phone March 28, 2011.


About the Author

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of "St. Anthony Messenger" magazine. A graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, she is a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and former vice president of the International Catholic Union of the Press.