Divine Retribution? Japan Quake, Tsunami Resurface God Debate

Tokyo governor, U.S. commentators say God punished humans with disaster.

March 18, 2011, 2:14 PM

March 18, 2011— -- The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week has renewed an age-old debate over God's role in a natural disaster.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said Monday that the calamity that hit his country was "tenbatsu," or divine punishment, for the wickedness of the Japanese people.

"We need a tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time," he said. "I think the disaster is a kind of divine punishment, although I feel sorry for disaster victims." He later apologized.

U.S. political commentator Glenn Beck said the same day that the natural disaster was God's work, imbued with a "message."

"I'm not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes," he said on his radio show. But he added that he's "not not saying that either."

On Tuesday, fellow conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh went further, suggesting Japanese environmentalism may have backfired.

"The Japanese have done so much to save the planet," Limbaugh said. "Even now, refugees are still recycling their garbage, and yet Gaia [Greek for Mother Nature] levels them, just wipes them out. Wipes out their nuclear plants, all kinds of radiation. What kind of payback is this?"

And in some right-wing religious circles, leaders have called the disaster a prophecy about the need for more Japanese to turn to God.

"Because the Japanese people shun God in terms of their faith and follow idol worship, atheism, and materialism, it makes me wonder if this was not God's warning to them," Rev. David Yonggi Cho of South Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church, considered to be the world's largest single congregation, told the online newspaper News Mission.

Religious experts say that while the comments blaming humans for natural disasters are not unusual, they reflect a misplaced desire by some leaders to promote adherence to certain beliefs and behaviors.

"Personal or communal suffering often elicits questions -- why me, why us? That's understandable," said University of Virginia religious studies professor James F. Childress. "Religious perspectives offer ways to help explain or give meaning to such suffering."

"However, it is one thing to use suffering as the occasion for self reflection on personal or communal relations to the divine; it is another to blame the victims of an earthquake, for example, for provoking divine wrath," he said.

"It's mean spirited," said Dartmouth College religion professor Ronald Green. "These 'prophets' contend they know God's will, and that's just arrogant. It's a way of putting others down and elevating yourself."

God's Wrath in Natural Disasters?

No prominent U.S. religious figure has opined on divine or supernatural causes of the Japanese quake, but the comments from Ishihara, Beck, Limbaugh and others are reminders of what has been said about a divine role in disasters of the past.

U.S. Christian televangelist Pat Robertson said the 2009 earthquake which rocked Haiti and claimed more than 200,000 lives was because the country was "cursed" after making a "pact to the devil."

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, Texas mega-church pastor John Hagee said the storm, which left 1,400 dead, was the "judgment of God" for the sins that took place on its streets.

And in 2001, just two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Rev. Jerry Falwell said the U.S. shared blame for the crisis which had befallen it.

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,'" Falwell said on the "700 Club" program. Pat Robertson, the host, agreed.

Childress said despite the high-profile statements, most religious traditions acknowledge that no one can speak authoritatively about divine will in natural disasters.

"Even as religious communities struggle to find larger meanings in suffering, they usually concede, in the final analysis, that questions about why some suffer more or die earlier than others remain impenetrable mysteries," he said.

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