Praying for Japan?

Trigger warning for images and discussion of natural disasters.

Houses swallowed by tsunami waves burn in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, March 11. (Kyodo News/Associated Press; source)

In the wake of the largest earthquake in its recorded history, and subsequent tsunami and powerful aftershocks, Japan is in the middle of a huge effort to rescue survivors, and contain further damage like radiation leaks. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands; countless more are missing, stranded, or displaced, and millions are without food, water, and electricity. Infrastructure has been completely devastated in many areas and rescue workers have yet to reach many of the worst hit regions.

Aid and donations are urgently needed. Some good organizations to support in their rescue efforts include Doctors without Borders/Medicins San Frontieres, which has a local office in Japan and is already on the ground, and Global Giving, which distributes funds to the International Medical Corp, Save the Children, and other organizations.


I’ve been thinking about the issue of prayer a lot lately, and the news of the earthquake has brought it to mind again. I no longer believe prayer works in any traditional sense. Still, for many if not most people, I think it’s a natural response to such devastation. It’s a way of reasserting some measure of agency and control when we feel vulnerable, helpless, and out of control. It’s often psychologically reassuring for people being prayed for, if they’re aware of the prayers, but perhaps even more so for the ones doing the praying, especially if there’s little else they can do to help.

But more than that, praying for others – especially strangers or people far removed from us – can be an expression of identification and sympathy based on a recognition of shared humanity. At its best prayer is an affirmation of the dignity and worth of fellow humans – a statement that the people one prays for are worthy of concern and attention. Often, being unwilling as a religious or spiritual person to acknowledge and pray for suffering people is indicative of a belief that those people are less than fully human. Already some remarkably callous people have called the earthquake “payback” for Pearl Harbor, implying that the Japanese are undeserving of American sympathy, undeserving of basic human compassion. There’s a similar sentiment in the tendency of some Americans to be dismissive and even supportive of the oppression of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and around the world. Such beliefs are sustained by dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” or the enemy in some way.


(Evacuees stand around Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo Japan March 11, 2011.)

How someone prays also reveals a lot about how they see the subjects of their prayers. They can pray in a way that affirms others as full people with experiences, needs, rights, and feelings that are just as valid as their own. Or they can pray in a way that centers their own worldview and their own experiences, objectifying the people they are ostensibly praying “for” and making their prayers all about themselves.

Unfortunately, some evangelical leaders have responded to the earthquake in Japan in the latter vein, with opportunistic, patronizing, and self-centered prayers. Al Mohler, for example, tweeted that he is “Praying for the people of Japan in aftermath of huge earthquake and tsunami. May they seek Christ the Solid Rock.” In his Friday podcast he added:

When a natural disaster like this takes place, many questions immediately arise. But as you think about this, keep in mind the fact that Japan is a very secular nation in terms of its worldview. Even though ancestor worship and forms of Buddhism and Shintoism are still in the background beliefs of many Japanese, fewer than about five percent have much knowledge of Christianity at all, and the operational worldview of many Japanese when it comes to the events of everyday life is basically secular.

Mohler later managed to eke out a few words expressing concern for survivors and gesturing towards an obligation to help, but he’s otherwise focused on the theological and religious implications of the earthquake:

We must pray that this horrible disaster may be used to call the people of Japan to the Lord as their only hope and refuge. The nation is still shaped by its Shinto, Buddhist, and Animist roots….when the grieving turns to the hard work of recovery and rebuilding, the true test for American Christians will be whether our commitment to the Gospel of Christ will lead to a renewed effort to reach the nation of Japan with the message of Jesus Christ, the Solid Rock.

John Piper’s “prayer” for Japan is perhaps worse; he asks god to show mercy on Japan even though they don’t deserve it. In fact, none of us deserve it: “We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan…if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment.” Like Mohler, his main concern is that Japanese people would repent and convert to belief in his version of god:

Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion…Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.

Piper doesn’t spare a word of prayer for the rescue efforts, for efforts to provide the most basic necessities to homeless and displaced people, for the nuclear plants threatening meltdown. He doesn’t pray for the actual Japanese people who have been killed, injured, or traumatized. Neither he nor Mohler has made any public comment encouraging their followers to help Japan, or offering any information on how to do so.

Piper and Mohler are living in some ass-backward world where “helping” in a time of national crisis and devastation involves prayers for conversion, and criticisms of the religious affiliations of the Japanese pass for compassionate and relevant commentary. Of course, they’ll claim that the souls of Japanese people matter more than their bodies or minds or property, and as was frequently repeated in my church, “their greatest problem is that they are sinners in need of a savior.”

These aren’t prayers for Japan. In a sense they’re not prayers at all. They have little to do with the actual victims of the quake, or really with anyone who isn’t a conservative evangelical. Rather, Piper and Mohler have seized upon this disaster as an opportunity to  reassert the superiority of their beliefs, of their god, and their status as god’s chosen elite.*  They’re effectively saying they know what Japan’s “real” problem is, and it’s not that the nation has been devastated, or that people are in pain and shock and need. The real problem is that the Japanese don’t know enough about Mohler and Piper’s god and religion. And as this problem is effectively unresolvable – since they believe as a matter of dogma that prayers for mass conversion won’t (or can’t) be answered – the real message is that they will be saved, while most of Japan and the rest of the world is basically fucked.

They completely erase the voices and experiences of the Japanese people. They completely erase their actual material and psychological needs. They refuse to see them as real human beings, even in a moment like this. They are props.

What’s truly frightening about this is that people like Piper and Mohler don’t have to be evil to believe such evil things. Their view of faith as being in a special in-group chosen by god makes it impossible to see others as full and equal human beings. They can only see people in terms of what religious team they’re on; their dogma obligates them to refuse to take different beliefs and experiences seriously. They can’t stand with the Japanese as fellow human beings. They have to assess where they stand in some imaginary cosmic war, and in so doing they lose sight of them as people. Viewing everything and everyone through that lens alone is inherently dehumanizing. It’s a worldview that strips non-Christians of their humanity so completely that it leads some to see this horrific disaster as “day of opportunity” for Christians and a tool intended by god to “[pierce] the darkness of Japan with His light.”

A truly loving prayer would identify with the suffering of the Japanese people and acknowledge it as unjust and undeserved. It would be accompanied by whatever concrete help those praying could offer. A loving prayer would ask for Japan’s needs to be met on its own terms, not that its people live up to external and arbitrary expectations of who they should be. A loving prayer would show survivors the same respect and concern anyone would want for themselves, even though they aren’t “like us” in ways we might deem profoundly meaningful, because they are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not as pawns in some perverse cosmic game.

15 Comments

  1. I was thinking about prayer yesterday. Thinking that there is nothing I can do for Japan right now, and that prayer gives a sense (an illusion?) of being able to help.

    I’ve seen other christian pronouncements on Japan, some extremely hateful. I’m gonna focus on the majority (i hope?) who have compassion.

    Though I don’t know why, I’m not a christian any more anyway. ;)

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan!

      I’ve been thinking about the question of focus for this blog. I do think it’s important to debunk this kind of theology, because it does have serious negative consequences. But at the same time I think it’s important to offer an alternative, especially an alternative way to be a Christian. I think a lot of people continue to cling to traditions like this despite serious misgivings because they have been convinced, as I was, that it’s the only way to be a “real Christian.”

  2. “What’s truly frightening about this is that people like Piper and Mohler don’t have to be evil to believe such evil things. ”

    Steven Weinberger was right.

    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    It’s an affront to human dignity, and to humanity itself, that people are using this tragedy to extol the supposed virtues of their chosen religious lifestyles. It truly sickens me.

    • It’s an affront to human dignity, and to humanity itself, that people are using this tragedy to extol the supposed virtues of their chosen religious lifestyles.

      That’s a far more concise statement of what I was trying to say! :p

      I think Weinberg is right that religion often leads people to do or believe evil that they wouldn’t in the absence of religion. But I don’t agree that without religion we would have good people doing good and evil people doing evil. Cultural values that have nothing to do with religion can also lead good people to fail to recognize evil for what it is. Pretty much any kind of group mentality or identity can. So can simple human fallibility and self-centeredness. Good people of no faith do bad things all the time. And a faith identity can also lead people to believe and do good things that they might not have otherwise.

  3. Ouch, I’m one of the “religious people” being objectified here.

    As one of these “others” let me suggest that a rant to castigate my particular group for not measuring up to your standards (exactly how were we supposed to pray again?) is exactly what you accuse us of doing.

    In fact an unbiased observer might be able to make the case that this blog is using the suffering of the people of Japan as a prop for its own agenda.

    Funny how that works isn’t it?

    I appreciate the offer of help with my mote, but if you remove your log we would probably both end up feeling better about it.

    • Sigh. Let me tell you a few stories.
      – When the 2004 tsunami happened, I was still very much an evangelical. I begged my parents for days to donate to a disaster relief organization. My dad flat out refused, and was even angry at me for asking (and no, it was not at all an issue of finances). About a week later, our church took up a collection for the tsunami. Of course my dad wrote a check on the spot. The problem? The collection was for a network of churches affiliated with SGM. They weren’t a disaster relief org and had no particular experience with relief work, and they were in one of the countries that wasn’t as badly hit by the tsunami.
      – Nine months later Katrina hit. Again, my parents were resistant to donating until our church took up a collection. Again, the collection wasn’t for a disaster relief organization, but for another SGM church in the suburbs of New Orleans, with wealthy, mostly white members – i.e., not one of the communities as badly hit by the hurricane.

      You might be able to see why I found it disappointing and infuriating that my family and our church would only give money to Christians they knew in times of crisis. That’s not charity.

      This is a pattern. It’s not a coincidence that Mohler and Piper haven’t said anything concrete about supporting relief work in Japan. It’s not a coincidence that Mark Driscoll’s church is only soliciting donations for a “charity” organization that was founded by Driscoll himself and only partners with other Christian organizations. There’s a consistent pattern in many evangelical communities of not supporting established disaster relief groups who actually know what they’re doing, and instead funneling money to people just because they are just like them in terms of religion. That’s not loving. That’s not charitable.

      This is what I thought when I was still a Christian. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to say these things because you and other Christians should be the ones speaking out against this kind of blinkered self-centeredness in your own community. Your offense is seriously misplaced. (commenting further below).

    • As one of these “others” let me suggest that a rant to castigate my particular group for not measuring up to your standards (exactly how were we supposed to pray again?) is exactly what you accuse us of doing.

      In fact an unbiased observer might be able to make the case that this blog is using the suffering of the people of Japan as a prop for its own agenda.

      First off, there isn’t any such thing as an “unbiased observer.” We all bring our biases to how we see the world. The trick is simply to recognize that.

      Secondly – did you read this (also shared in the post above)?: “Over the years I’ve often described our mission in Japan as praying and preparing toward the day of opportunity in Japan. In the back of my mind I’ve often thought of the possibility of great suffering being a part of the opening of the heart of the great nation of Japan. A massive earthquake or a nuclear missile from North Korea topped the list of possible devastating ways the Lord might awaken that nation that I love. This, perhaps, could be one of the ways the Lord pierces the darkness of Japan with His light. Would you join us in praying toward that end for the largest unreached nation of the world?

      Please explain to me how that isn’t making the Japanese people and their suffering into a prop, while my talking about the real, pressing, needs Japan faces and how these “prayers” minimize that is turning Japanese people into props for my agenda.

      My entire point is that Mohler and Piper are praying for what THEY want and not what the Japanese might need or want. If I were in Japan, I would want people praying for rescue efforts, for adequate food, water, shelter, and electricity to be provided, for nuclear disaster to be averted. Do you honestly think that most Japanese people will be grateful for prayers that say nothing about their physical and psychological suffering, and are concerned only with how they worship and asking God to convert them? Really? If you do, we don’t really have anything further to discuss.

      This isn’t about anyone failing to measure up to my standards. This is about the logical implications and consequences of what people believe. Mohler and Piper believe the vast majority of people will be condemned to hell. They both believe in predestination, and if I remember correctly Piper actually believes in double predestination. What use are their prayers for conversion when they believe their god will just save or damn whomever he pleases, anyway? By definition they can’t be effective. They are simply theological statements – very ill-timed and inconsiderate ones, at that.

      This kind of theology hurts both people who believe it and people who don’t. It’s damaging to one’s soul to believe that this kind of suffering is an “opportunity” and to not be able to see or grapple with the real human costs of disasters like this – loss of life, physical pain and deprivation, psychological trauma, all of which people will live with the repercussions of for decades to come. I truly believe it wounds the soul and our humanity to see people like this.

      I appreciate the offer of help with my mote, but if you remove your log we would probably both end up feeling better about it.

      I didn’t offer anything to you. You came to my blog and read it. If you don’t like it, that’s your right, but it doesn’t change the truth of what I’m saying.

      Also that’s not exactly how that passage works, is it? The whole point is not to tell another person what their problems are before you’ve dealt with your own, yes? I’m not the one claiming to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, and personally I think there are plenty of situations where it would be very inadvisable to follow that verse strictly. In any case, expecting me to follow that principle is a bit unrealistic when you’re not doing so yourself.

  4. Grace,

    “You might be able to see why I found it disappointing and infuriating that my family and our church would only give money to Christians they knew in times of crisis. That’s not charity.”

    Hmm, I suspect it was tax deductible as a charitable contribution so it was someone’s idea of charity.

    “Frankly, I shouldn’t have to say these things because you and other Christians should be the ones speaking out against this kind of blinkered self-centeredness in your own community. Your offense is seriously misplaced.”

    I believe we differ on this which may be why I’m not “speaking out”. How I choose to address my relief gifts are my business. Not that it is particularly relevant to this discussion but in 2004 they were driven by my employer’s match policy for the Tsunami, Katrina by my own preference for people with “ground knowledge”.

    To clarify I was not offended, I was I was trying to point out how we often do the very thing we find offensive in others ;-) Maybe I could have been gentler.

    To answer you question about making the “Japanese people into props for my agenda”. – Talking about your outrage rather than the real pressing needs of Japan makes the suffering a backdrop for your indignation. Try being positive and think about what can be done instead.

    WRT your last point go and read my latest post. I am trying to do something about my log. This post makes assertions and invites comment. I am trying to suggest your anger clouds your perspective, that the mote you wish to remove from those “heartless” Christians may be distorted by your own. I hope we agree that exposure to other perspectives is part of the value idea exchange.

    • Talking about your outrage rather than the real pressing needs of Japan makes the suffering a backdrop for your indignation. Try being positive and think about what can be done instead.

      Did you actually read the whole post? Because I started with the real pressing needs of Japan and what needs to be done to help. And then the rest of the post is about what it means to pray in a way that helps people. Just because you disagree about what constitutes helpful prayer doesn’t mean my post is making the suffering of Japan a backdrop for my indignation.

      I’m not going to debate technical definitions of charity. I think you probably understand what I meant in context.

      You’re making assumptions about my emotions while I was writing this post, which happen to be wrong. I’m not angry, but I am disappointed and disgusted by Mohler and Piper’s responses to the earthquake. And again, the post wasn’t actually about my feelings, nor was it a rant, it was about what Mohler and Piper said, and what it means. You can disagree with my reading of it, or with the fact that I used strong language, but your disagreement doesn’t make it a post about my feelings – no more than any post here is about my feelings, at least. As I explained above, some of what I’ve argued here are things I believed even when I agreed with Mohler and Piper on issues of theology. Never mind that even if I were angry, it wouldn’t have any bearing on whether I’m right or not.

      I don’t particularly care how you spend your money. I do care about a pattern I see in evangelical churches of giving money to organizations with no record or expertise in disaster relief, simply because they are affiliated Christian organizations, and yes, I do think Christians have an obligation to speak out against this as self-absorbed and a conflict of interesting. Again, you don’t have to agree.

      I don’t think Piper and Mohler are heartless. I believe they’re sincere in what they say. But I do believe their positions are callous, and crass, even if they can’t see it. I don’t consider being focused on people’s religious beliefs in the middle of a material crisis to be a “mote.” I consider it to be a huge failing that seriously hurts people.

  5. Yes I read the whole post. Right after the photo of the evacuees it stopped being about the tragedy in Japan and started being about your view of evangelical Christianity. Just calling it like I see it.

    The point is that “technical” definitions of charity are inclusive, yours are not.

    I think you have a lopsided view of what they said and what it may mean (or you are picking your examples, I do not know the men). If you believe as many evangelical Christians do that God comforts through his Holy Spirit in a way that mere mortals or blankets cannot then their statements are compassionate. If you don’t happen to believe that then it might not seem so. The point is as you mentioned above there is no individual unbiased view. The best we can do is evaluate many views and find the common threads.

    If you are angry it may be an indicator of the probability you are right even if anger and correctness do not have a dependency relationship.

    Your reply to my original comment raised the issue of correctness in giving as a corollary to correctness in compassion. I was merely “clearing the air” because I agree you should not care how I spend my money and by extension how anyone else spends their money. Remember the Spikenard?

    Your last comment ends with what I consider to be the root of the issue (one we have discussed before). Some people focus on material issues to the exclusion of the spiritual, some on the spiritual to the exclusion of the material. Both are important even if you don’t agree.

    • I’m arguing that failing to acknowledge the material realities is a spiritual failing. It’s an artificial separation of body and spirit that fails to see that bodily/mental pain and deprivation (and pleasure and comfort as well) are spiritual as well as material experiences. Hence my points in the post about the psychological as well as physical toll in this crisis.

      I won’t speculate as to the reason for this, but you’re reading into these prayers things that aren’t there. Neither Mohler nor Piper say a word about the Holy Spirit comforting anyone. If you want to stretch things you could say Mohler’s words that we should pray for grieving families are a prayer for the HS’s comfort, but that’s it.

      Technical definitions of charity are “inclusive?” What are you talking about? I’m talking about helping people, not organizations that qualify for tax deductions. It’s a bit concerning to me that you’d turn a point about how to help people (on which you can disagree) into a debate about an organization’s tax status, which is derailing and immaterial.

      If you think prayers that say nothing about comfort – spiritual or physical – for suffering people aren’t driven by a self-centered agenda, while a post about how to help and what empathy should be is, your perspective is extremely skewed. I’m proud to claim an “agenda” of believing people should be able to see each other as full, complete people equally worthy of dignity and consideration.

  6. Grace,

    You defined a behavior (self centered prayer) then accused a couple of evangelicals of this behavior. You presuppose these men are self serving because they don’t have the same priorities you do. That is the “spiritual failing” you identify. How do you know that these men do not care about the material suffering, from those quotes? I believe your interpretation of their intent is based on the supposition they only care about one thing.

    But that is another matter. Your post does not point to the psychological/physical toll, it points to the alleged spiritual failure of evangelicals in general and these two men in particular. They don’t pray the right way and it says a lot about them.

    I’m not reading anything into the prayers other than the intention to bring Christ to the people of Japan. If you believe as these men ostensibly do that this will bring comfort then they are compassionate (if you don’t believe that can bring comfort then you must conclude they are misguided at best).

    When people disagree about what constitutes charity (as we apparently do) then appealing to a technical definition should provide some arbitration on legitimacy. The technical definitions have the characteristic that they are a secular attempt at impartiality. Seems like a reasonable approach to settle a difference of opinion.

    Prayers say a lot about people, as I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out eloquently in The Screwtape Letters. I just don’t think your interpretations are correct.

    • I said their prayers are self-serving, not that they are. Similarly, I said their prayers say nothing about material suffering, not that they don’t care about material suffering. I know nothing about their personal lives or secret thoughts; this is a post about their public commentary. That’s a distinction you don’t seem to be following.

      In your comments here you’ve consistently shown a tendency to be an apologist for the ideas I’m arguing against, which, again, is your right. But this blog is about the ways in which christian doctrine dehumanizes different groups of people, and that’s not going to change. It’s a waste of my time for me to have to repeatedly explain that to you in different ways on different posts, so I won’t be responding any further if you continue to comment in this vein.

  7. Dear Grace,
    I am amazed, astounded and challenged by your diligent patience in addressing dshollands complaints. People in the institutionalized evangelical tradition are kept in line and blinded to the very valid short comings in the church by deflecting their concerns into issues of their bad attitudes.

    The factual rational and coherent presentation, of a self-serving faith is not the issue, no the issue basically is you. This sophist deflects from dealing with the actual issues you present, in effect always trying to make you the issue. It is difficult to address such an accusation without looking like YOU are the shmuck. But you did it.

    I think far from disproving the validity of your difficulties he proves them by the deaf diligence of his critique of your beliefs. He seems set to defend the virtue of two men he has not read nor knows, against you, who he is actually dialoging with encountering and reading. Even though your compassion and identification with suffering of others is crystalline s. He repeatedly chooses to discount the person you apparently are, to bolster the religious traditions he believes in.

    • Hi ringtales, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog :) I agree with you. It’s a common tendency for people to ignore problematic behavior from people they agree or identify with and instead attack people who point out that behavior. It’s not surprising, but it is pretty tiresome to deal with :p