In the spring of 2005, my attention was curiously piqued by two major train wrecks in Asia. The first occurred during rush-hour in Tokyo on Monday, April 25, when an intercity train derailed with such force that it became embedded in the ground floor garage of an apartment complex. Investigators concluded that the crash occurred when the driver attempted to manoeuver a curve at 100km/h at a point on the track when the maximum speed was 70km/h.
Apparently, in this society that values precision, the driver, Ryujiro Takami, was one minute behind schedule after making a time consuming mistake at his previous stop. If the fault of the tragedy does indeed rest with Takami, it is unfortunate that his frantic attempt to correct his own past failing resulted in the loss of over one hundred lives and the injury of hundreds more.
The second major accident took place on the morning of Wednesday, April 27, when another train crashed in Yagalmodere, Polgahawelain northwest Sri Lanka. This is also alleged to have been caused by a driver error. However, this time it was not the driver of the train who is blamed for the tragedy, but the driver of a bus who was competing against a colleague in another bus to see who would be first to arrive at the final destination of Colombo. As a result of this man’s quest to win, more than sixty families have lost a relative and the number of injured has surpassed forty.
Although living in the same hemisphere, both drivers practiced their occupations in two completely different societies. Tokyo is a thriving metropolis supported by state of the art technology and multibillion dollar companies, while Colombo is a struggling city in a developing nation where more than 90% of the people still do not possess a telephone.
The 23 year old Ryujiro Takami was probably earning a comfortable salary close to the US$50,000 annual average in Tokyo, which is more than twenty times the amount that the unnamed bus driver would have made in a year. If “typical” of their national peers, Takami was years away from marriage and children, while the anonymous Sri Lankan was probably providing financial support for his wife, children and extended family.
Two countries, two economies, two men, but they were driven by the same motivation. They wanted to win. They wanted to save face. They wanted to guard their honor. Unfortunately, their motivation for self-justification resulted in devastation without their desired satisfaction.
Those weren’t the only two train wrecks that occurred that particular week–there were at least two more in Japan and plausibly scores of others around the globe. No, let me correct myself. There were thousands more in Japan and millions of others around the globe.
The additional train wrecks to which I refer cannot be attributed to those at the helm of multi-ton mechanized transportation units, but were caused by the devious engineers of schemes designed to protect image with no regard to consequent casualties. I’m not merely referring to the actions of those at the helm of companies fashioned after the mold of Enron, Worldcom, or the insurance giant, American International Group, Inc. (AIG), whose ousted president and CEO, Maurice Greenberg, had the audacity to gift company stock valued at $2.2 billion to his wife (and you wonder why your insurance premiums are so high?).
These megalomaniac moguls are joined by countless others on a self-righteous quest to create or maintain an image. They are beguiled by the illusion that their value is intricately linked to what others think about them, their accomplishments and their status. Unfortunately, in their selfish quest to save face, others have been defaced. In their failure to acknowledge they are wrong, others have been wronged. In their desire to avoid negative press, others have been oppressed. The truth is, on the human level as people push for positions of privilege with paltry pity for those who are pained in the process, train wrecks take place at epidemic proportions.
Is it Worth It?
I’m sure the two drivers must have rationalized their actions. Having made a couple of serious errors in the past eleven months, Takami would not have wanted a third strike to go against his record and face the risk of losing his valuable job. Similarly, the Sri Lankan bus driver knew that a second place arrival would deprive him of the opportunity to be first to replenish his unloaded bus with the potential paying passengers who waited at the bus depot in Colombo.
Nevertheless, if the post-mortem pair could be provided with the opportunity of hindsight, they would probably agree that the loss of a job or a passenger load paled in comparison to the tragic loss of innocent lives. They would probably agree that their true worth was not dependent on their ability to outperform the competition or impress superficial superiors. They would probably agree that true success is not measured by the accomplishment of self-imposed goals. They would probably agree that the desire to save face at any cost is just not worth it.
The desire to save face is human. Nobody likes to be embarrassed, ridiculed or shamed. However, we need to remember that our very hope resides in One who was publically derided and slandered. Our very existence is grounded in One who stood in the path of a runaway train being driven by the suicidal Satan, and absorbed the deadly blow with his efficacious sacrifice (Is 53); thus transforming eternity’s greatest potential casualty into the universe’s grandest blessing. Now none of us has to be intimidated by the worldly desire to save face, for we are all recipients of His saving grace.
As saved people, we reject our morally deficient wagon-less trains that have a frequent tendency to derail to the detriment of self and others, and we embark on the carriage of God’s mercies that is anchored on the broad track of his love (Eph 2:8). As you pledge today to place your trust in Him, always remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton is Coordinator of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University where he also teaches in the School of Religion.