Once again, we are seeing human and environmental tragedy. In Japan, a natural disaster has destroyed all human attempts for control. Half a world away from the United States, a nation is in shock and the mourning has just begun. Japan and its people will never be the same. The world is seeing, once again, incredible stories of pain and loss, and, in the midst of all the suffering, other stories of hope and heroism. There is no satisfying theological explanation of why such things happen; the earth shifts and the oceans rage. Why here? Why now? Nobody really knows. In a very sad way, these catastrophes bring people together. Around the globe, people have been moved to help. It's often somebody else's pain and loss that reminds us of what is important and what is not -- and even what it means to be human.
Of course, there is a very human temptation to just turn off the TV, to shut off your heart and your mind, and say that it is all just too much to take in. Yet, the images that are hard to see and the stories that are hard to hear are often the ones that change us most, and indeed they should. As a Christian, I don't have easy answers to this kind of human suffering, but I believe it breaks the heart of God -- and that means it should break our hearts too. We should feel pain when we see others in pain.
This disaster has another dimension that is still unfolding -- a potential nuclear crisis. The size of the quake and the surge of the waters were more than the "completely safe" nuclear power plants could handle. "Completely safe," as they say, has just left the house. It's like the "completely safe" off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Or maybe "clean coal" or the "real doubts" about climate change. All of this goes out the window when the impossible happens. Yesterday, on a morning show, I heard a debate between going nuclear, which risks the deaths of thousands of people and the contamination of whole areas of the globe, versus the complete destruction of the planet due to global warming. Lovely choices. Are these really the only ones? We now need to discuss this at a much deeper level. What if we finally pushed all the huge special interests of the energy industries aside and decided to push for the best future options? What if we told them that their interests are simply not in line with the common good and their disasters are no longer acceptable to us? What would that look like? Could we build a safe energy future?
But the immediate challenge today is to allow the images and the stories from Japan to make us more connected with the world around us. When we see others suffer like this, the worst thing to do is to listen to public officials who tell us, "Don't worry, it couldn't happen here." Of course it could. To be human is to be vulnerable, and there is no way to take this away. A shared sense of vulnerability is what could change us all for the better.
Seeing the pain of others can help us to open up our hearts and our lives. Instead of just being spectators, we can always find a way to help. Christians are always called to pray and act. Our prayers are not in vain. As Lent has started, I am reminded that our fasting is not in vain either. Our Lenten practices are more than just personal, spiritual exercises; rather, prayer and fasting must lead to actions that change us and the world.
In the face of Japan's overwhelming tragedy, we should not turn away or simply become just gawking spectators. As Christians we always have the responsibility to respond in some way. May God's peace and healing be with the people of Japan, and may their suffering bring the church to prayer and action towards a more peaceful global future.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.