Interpreting prayer for the Japanese earthquake

By Katja Neumann
24 Mar 2011

After the catastrophic events in Japan, the language of secular politics and news reports on the economic and political impact on food supplies, the stock market, rising flight fares and evacuation of Western nationals, tactically evade the humanitarian horror scenarios, which meanwhile haunt our imagination, and touch base with our own privatised existences.

The traditional response, in a Christian context, is the appeal to prayer. And yet, our modern minds have little if anything to go by when 'prayer' is invoked – an emotional safety-blanket for some, a futile appeal to God, whom we fail to recognise in the continuous flow of “bad news” that reach us from Japan and elsewhere, for others. A clearer conception of what is meant by Christian prayer is needed if we, who may still hold to some form of Christian faith, are to find in it an adequate, that is, a sensible yet sensitive response to the situation.

The German theologian Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), who until recently did not receive much critical attention from the academy, has been popularly known in Germany for her political activism, her engagement with the German peace movement throughout the Cold War, and her poetry. What fascinates me about this writer is the way that she engages religious sources – both the biblical text and the Christian tradition – to render her political context meaningful to personal faith without abandoning rational thought or analytical discourse, yet supplementing it with a poetic vision that reconfigures the divine after the 'death of God'.

What this means is, that there is no place for romantic notions of God as one who directs the world and is ultimately responsible for the workings-out of history (relieving the political subject of lasting ethical obligations, tying these to the temporality of sin). On the premise that with the Holocaust there can be no God that intervenes and directs each individual fate according to a divine, predetermined plan, Christianity is called again to uncover what the metaphor of 'God' as the signifier of the Unnameable One means in the concrete reality of this world.

This forces Sölle to consider prayer for this world and in this world as a means, not to gain magical favours from a metaphysical otherworld, but for enabling divine revelation in the concrete realities by which we are confronted.

Sölle, within the climate of the arms race and the bloc building between East and West, can serve as a model for genuine prayer today, particularly in light of the potential nuclear disaster we are witnessing in the aftermath to the Tsunami that hit Japan. Sölle structured prayer meetings concerning political events and social problems along a threefold organisation: information, meditation and collective action. Deprivatised prayer(Sölle, 1971) was not to be public vanity as one exposes oneself as a believer to the world, but the conscious articulation of one’s faith in relation to the world and a preparation for realising an alternative vision by concrete (political) action.

Rather than denominational boundaries or institutional dogmas, this process would rehearse and reveal mutual concerns that would mobilise people into recognising their role and potentials for changing the status quo. This aim for prayer, the self-articulation and engagement with the world that recognises the believer’s own, 'private' spiritual need (for salvation in whatever shape or form to be envisioned) as bound up with the 'fate' of the world, places faith firmly in the public sphere, and is the first step in manifesting compassion.

What the press describes in the ordeal of the so-called “Fukushima 50” is the human responsiveness to catastrophe. In the concrete threat of nuclear melt-down and high levels of radiation, the presence of the “Fukushima 50”, as a human symbol of self-sacrifice, draws attention to a concrete formulation of compassion, borne out of the urgency of the situation: ‘in the words of Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, “retreat is unthinkable.”’ (18 March 2011). It is an intercession, a bid for time for those who these workers are seeking to protect and keep alive. Their struggle to contain the direct consequences of the damages caused by the earthquake and subsequent flood is paradigmatic of 'deprivatised prayer'. Their work is public protest against suffering nuclear holocaust.

The “Fukushima 50” have offered the world their petition – extending the time and space to reach out to the world. They remind us that we are not only responsible, to ourselves, and to those who come after us, but that we owe it to those that have gone before us, too, to join in their prayer. Terrifying as the ever-unfolding reports of the disaster from Japan appear, they cannot be overlooked. How then do we relate, how do we respond to the suffering these workers bring to focus? A prayer set in context of Japan published on the website of the World Council of Churches (www.oikoumene.org/) reads as follows:

Lord Jesus,
the storm is life and life is the storm
and there is no escaping it;
but what matters is that you are in the storm with us,
a beacon and a presence that is sure. Amen

What this prayer articulates is not only the inevitability of being faced with difficulties and dangers, but the assertion that 'what matters' is assured solidarity. If we want to be able to turn the prayer of petition of the “Fukushima 50” into a prayer of thanksgiving, we need to substantiate our presence with these workers, with Japan.

Only when we use the time that they have given to us to respond – in practical terms – to the suffering we all need to recognise, can we validate their sacrifice and call ourselves responsible. Sin is social denial of the suffering of the afflicted. Prayer is transformative contextualisation.

-----------

© Kat Neumann is completing a PhD at the University of Stirling. The topic of her thesis centres on the poetic work of the German theologian Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003).


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the University of Stirling Critical Religion group blog. CR is a research project bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StirCritRel

Critical Religion articles and news on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/criticalreligion

Moderated comments can be left on: http://www.criticalreligion.stir.ac.uk/blog/

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.