Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hard Biblical Truths and Japan

One thing has been taking a big chunk of my cortex processing power over the last few days.  I find it hard not to be drawn into the unspeakable scope of the massive quake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan.  It is, in the annals of human catastrophe, an unusual thing.  Unlike the horrific quake in Haiti, the events in Japan occurred in a technologically sophisticated and globally connected society.  Unlike Katrina, where wind and storm obscured the depth of the horror, the sky was clear.  And the cameras were on.

That means that into our collective subconscious is poured not just the tragic aftermath of an immense disaster, but the realtime event itself, seen through hundreds of different lenses.   We see, from the air, whole towns swept completely from existence.  Towns full of human beings, engulfed in fire and water.   From the ground, we now have video from survivors that shows the tsunami from a human perspective, reinforcing the scope and terrible power of the event.  The reality of it is inescapable.

In the face of that reality, I find my pastor-self listening to the global chatter for something else, something that has so far remained blessedly negligible.

Japan is one of the most secular cultures in the world.  In defense of it's own culture and hold over it's people against outside influence, Japanese imperial leadership vigorously and violently resisted Christian missionary efforts, the essence of which was brilliantly portrayed in Shusaku Endo's taut novel "Silence".  By the mid-20th century, that meant there was only one significant Christian community in Japan.  It was located in the city of Hiroshima, a fact which Christian America clearly didn't take into consideration in it's mid-20th century decisionmaking.

What I have not yet heard, thank the Maker, is the Christian "leader" fool enough to claim that somehow this terrible event is something that the Japanese brought upon themselves for being secular and not following Jesus, or for resisting the spread of the church.  This time around, there's nothing from the 700 Club and Pat Robertson but appeals for prayer and material support for the Japanese people.   I'm sure the Queer Christian Performance Activists over at Westboro Baptist would be saying something, if all of their websites weren't under permanent DDOS attack from the anarchic hacktivist collective Anonymous.   Glenn Beck seemed to imply something like that, but for all his weepy emo yearning for prophet status, no-one takes him for a spiritual leader.  An adolescent atheist attention-troll may have pitched it out there on YouTube, but she's 1) not actually Christian and 2) no longer on YouTube, as the hue and cry got too much for her.    Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame sees it as a sign of the end times, but then again, everything is a sign of the end times for Tim LaHaye, up to and including the contents of his bowel movement this morning.   Undigested corn kernels!  The fifth seal has been opened!   Whatever you think of LaHaye's theology, he's not graceless enough to blame the Japanese people for this tragedy.

No one, and certainly no-one with the audacity to claim themselves as a true follower of Christ, would have any business doing anything other than desiring to help and feeling a powerful compassion for the people of Japan.

In the context of recent chatter about universalism in the Jesus world, though, I find myself wondering something.

How does fundamentalist Christianity now express the Gospel to the people of Miyagi Prefecture?   How can what passes for Bible-believing faith be good news for Japan?

I know why the Gospel is good.  It's ethics are transformative in the way the world needs.   Being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth and letting his teachings and Spirit govern your life changes the world for the better.  More than that, I know how potent the emmanuel meme and the old, old story of the cross can be for those crying out in the face of suffering.   That theology was the point of Endo's novel, and it has purchase in even the most terrible corners of the human experience.  God knows and hears and feels the suffering of the people of Japan. 

But if you believe in your heart of hearts that all unbelievers are damned, and this is a front-and-center linchpin of your theology, how do you share that "hard biblical truth" and make it seem like good news to those who have lost non-Christian loved ones?   Just how does that conversation go, when the door-to-door evangelist stops by the temporary shelter in Sendai?
"Hi!  Did you know that if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you and your family can be saved?  What?  They are?  Gosh, that's too bad.  Pity about God killing your mom and your dad and half of the people you knew.  Tough luck, that.  But heaven must have needed a couple thousand new angels.  What?  Oh my.  They weren't Christian?  Well, they're damned forever.  What?  What does that mean?  Oh, that they'll burn in a lake of fire, eternally in torment.  See this verse right here?  Sorry, but that's just the hard biblical truth.  Pity I didn't come along sooner.  So as I was saying, if you'll just say the Jesus prayer with me right now, you can be sure that at least you...ow!  Why'd you...OW!  Stop that!  I...really...OUCH...you don't have to...AAAAAH...BY DOZE!  I tink you boke by doze!"
This is not serving the Truth with a capital T.  As with all of God's truths, the truth of Gospel is self-evidently good.   Is Gospel Truth hard?  Yes.  Letting go of power and being utterly transformed by the love of God we know in Jesus Christ is immensely difficult.  I struggle with it myself.

But it is also clearly, obviously, visibly good.  If we're proclaiming it in ways that aren't, and that ring brittle, cold and hateful in the ears of the suffering and the broken, then we can't possibly claim to be doing what Jesus asked us to do.