Two of my professors in seminary had been missionaries in Japan in the 1950's. In that period, following World War II, Japanese society underwent a great upheaval, a cultural transformation. There was a great openness to new ideas. My professors always lamented that western Christians did not make a more widespread effort during that period to reach Japan with the Gospel. Comparisons were frequently made to the growth of Christianity in South Korea during this same period.
One of my professors, Dr. T.V. Farris, had served in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido. After graduation, one of my classmates and his wife went to Japan as missionaries with OMF. Perhaps because of Dr. Farris' influence, they ended up going to Sapporo as well. Shortly after I joined the faculty at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, my friends came home. But, at the same time, a graduate from Trinity and his wife joined OMF and went to—you guessed it—Sapporo, Japan. They now live and work on the main island, Honshu, closer to Tokyo (and closer to the site of last week's earthquake). So, one way or another, I have been praying for and supporting missionaries in Japan ever since I graduated from seminary 32 years ago.
Now Japan has experienced a cascade of devastating disasters—an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by radiation leaks from damaged nuclear reactors. Many lives have been lost. Rebuilding the devastated areas will take years. How should Christians, both in Japan and around the world, respond to this crisis?
Japan's natural disaster has called attention to two less conspicuous disasters that have been brewing for a long time. The first is a crisis of leadership. As a nation, Japan has been cruising, as though on autopilot, for decades. Cruising on autopilot works as long as conditions are smooth. But when you encounter a storm, autopilot won't do. You have to change course, speed, altitude—human intervention is needed. In political terms, that means leadership; and leadership is one thing Japan has lacked for a long time.
The second problem is Japan's low birth rate. Japan currently has one of the world's lowest birth rates. The decline has been so severe that the Japanese even have a word for it: 'shoshika,' meaning a society without children. Someone once said "Having children is an act of faith that the world is going somewhere good." What does Japan's low birth rate say about the confidence, commitment, and priorities of the Japanese people?
Japan's leadership crisis and low birth rate both point to a spiritual malaise—a lack of purpose, identity, and direction—but chiefly a lack of trust that the One who creates and sustains the world anew in each moment of time has a plan that includes each of us and generations yet unborn. It has been said that the devastation hitting Japan is the worst since World War II. Could this crisis be an occasion for Japan to reexamine its foundations—to rebuild not merely buildings, but to rebuild its society with new vision and purpose? Could it be an occasion for Christians, who have faith in God's eternal purposes—who know that God gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, that through faith in him we might not only have life beyond the grave but a new reason for living here and now—to share that faith with those whose need is so great?
If we choose to share our faith, we can be sure that cynical secularists will say we are merely using this crisis to proselytize. But we who know the grace and love of Christ know also that we must share that grace and love with others.
Should we donate money to Japan? Reuters columnist Felix Salmon has written two recent columns advising people not to do so: 1, 2. As hard-hearted as Salmon's columns sound, he presents an interesting argument. For instance, he quotes both Japanese government and Japanese Red Cross spokespersons as saying they do not need the money that outsiders are raising for Japan. Salmon's advice (which I believe is good advice) is that we should always give to worthy charities that provide aid in such situations; but we should give undesignated or unrestricted gifts. This allows the organization to assess the need and send aid appropriately. It does not tie their hands from giving to more needy situations if (in this case) Japan already has adequate financial and material assistance.
Christians should consider one additional step: giving to organization that work among Christians in Japan. In doing so we can encourage our brothers and sisters there and make sure that they have the aid to share with their fellow Japanese and can provide a Christian witness at the same time. (If you want a recommendation, I will mention again OMF, which has a distinguished track record working in this part of of the world.)
Consider the Apostle Paul's admonition to the Church in Corinth:
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:12-15)