A Leson in Dignity

Hokusai Kanagawa: The Great WaveNo looting, no shouting, no angry scenes: the dignity and self-restraint of the Japanese as they suffer the unimaginable horrors of earthquake and tsunami, and now the looming menace of nuclear disaster, is chastening. We in Britain sometimes seem to make a virtue of anger and complaint: proof that we are not to be done down or deprived of our rights. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to a culture of blame and a kind of organized selfishness. We invoke the spirit of the Blitz but our response to difficulty or disaster sometimes lacks the substance.

World War II is no longer a living memory except for the elderly. For those of us with no first-hand experience of it, talk of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remote, something that belongs to the past. Looking at the images of devastation in Japan, I couldn’t help feeling that it was very like a re-run of the destruction wreaked by war, but with this difference: here it was the power of nature at work, rather than the power of man. Hokusai’s depiction of a tsunami is powerfully evocative of the terror nature can inspire, yet it is, paradoxically, a calm terror. We see the magnificence of the Great Wave, we know it will destroy, yet there is also tranquillity, acceptance.

According to a Shinto understanding of the world, we inhabit the earth by gracious permission of the gods. They are not particularly interested in us or in what happens to us. Is that the secret of Japanese stoicism, our unimportance to the gods? I don’t know. A Christian understanding of God, one who has numbered every hair of our head, who regards us as the apple of his eye, doesn’t make the terror or the tragedy any less, but it does give hope that death is not the end of the story. As we continue to pray for the Japanese, for those caught up in the strife in Libya, we may need to draw on that hope more and more.

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Clenched Fist and Wicked Word

Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.

There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.

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