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Tragedy and Our Moral End

In his article, “Stirred, But Not Shaken: A Reflection on the Japan Earthquake,” Shawn Boonstra, formerly with It is Written, writes in the Adventist Review to make sense of this tragedy. As one can see in the title, his operative metaphor for Adventists to understand the deaths of thousands of Japanese is the martini-making phrase “shaken, not stirred.” Repeating this 007-famous phrase many times, Mr. Boonstra explains that we Adventists know why the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear explosions happened.

. . .reports of a 9.0 earthquake do not rattle us. We know why it is happening. We’ve been expecting it. We are not shaken. But are we stirred?

Really? Who was not shaken as they watched buildings crumble, massive waves wash in, nuclear power plants explode? As a writer I could do a lot of things here—talk about Japanese relatives, friends, our connections to the tragedy. For instance, I wish that Shawn had acknowledged that the Adventist Japanese community is actually rattled and hurting right now. And they know Jesus. I considered embedding video footage of the proud-looking elderly northern Japanese farmer who was openly weeping in front of the NHK camera I looked through this morning—I think that he was shaken to his core, not because he didn’t have Jesus, but because he had just lost his home and perhaps his wife. But I don’t want Mr. Boonstra to feel bad for not thinking of this—there’s already enough pain in our world. We need more empathy. I’ve missed obvious things like this—we all grow.

The terrible thrust of this article reveals something much more serious than poor word choice and timing. And it’s bigger than the lack of editorial insight at the Adventist Review. In fact, in the middle of this sadness, I’d almost stop writing here just because to go on means that I’m evoking this horror in some way for my purposes. But I’ll press on. You judge. I think I see something morally wrong that lies behind this reflection.

The truth is that these sentiments could be heard from any number of evangelism-minded mouths in our community. It was published at the behest of our leadership precisely because this is mainstream Adventism. It is featured in the denomination’s flagship organ because it’s normal for our leadership to treat the death of thousands as a sign, as proof that we are right. Making these connections is how most folks, or their folks joined the Advent movement. Treating the tragedy of others, even in our own community always, already becomes a means to our end. We don’t officially read the Bible (and history) to learn empathy, we read it for the connections.

In reading this collection of words, as one peels back the layers of our language, everything appears naked: we really make the world all about us. That is the real subconscious attraction of our apocalyptic narrative. Join the group that knows, as Boonstra writes, “why it is happening.” The egomania that lies underneath our community is so huge that our flagship publication can print the following words because it seems so normal. No wonder people try to fire—or punch—those who raise questions about our ideology—we have to understand that some are literally belittled every time the scope of our theology changes. Note the focus of language in the article here:

But I am convinced that each successive catastrophe is also a clear message to God’s church. They are meant to stir us to action. They ought to remind us that our neighbors can’t explain what is happening—and that they are utterly lost without Jesus, hurtling down a path to final destruction.

Not only are we God’s church in this framework, but each catastrophe is “meant” for us. And furthermore, if one follows the logic, those who can’t theologize mass death in four days are utterly lost. Jesus is not the focus—the first thing the earthquake in Japan is meant to do is to remind us that we know more than our neighbors.

Adventist eschatology turns the world on us. But in exchange, we’re at the center of everything. With the second coming’s delay, our desperation to find that ultimate end only increases. But as is clear in the rhetoric in the article, that end justifies the means. Catastrophes. . .are meant. I have to stop to ponder the hubris each time I read that thought.

In this case, here’s a window into how our highest leaders think (if flagship means anything). They see opportunity in this calamity. After all, of course most members don’t really know what this horrible tragedy means, in fact, Boonstra’s language is very suggestive of the need to fill a gap. This “ought to remind us” to do something, in this case, to convert others before they die without knowing why they died. In our flagship’s reality, the end of others justifies our means. Or, to move from the moral to the theological, thousands of lives have just ended thereby allowing us to make meaning out of meaninglessness. After all, Mr. Boonstra writes, “Without the Bible’s prophetic road map, large-scale disasters become nothing more than unfortunate random events.” Think I’m reaching in this argument about cause? He writes on:

The prophetic hourglass is nearly out of sand, and we find ourselves in possession of a remarkable gift that could offer peace of mind to a troubled world: we have an explanation and we have hope. But if you and I are silent, what good is knowing? Is the good news really just for us? If the progressive collapse of a planet untethered from its Creator does not move us to action, what will? And if human suffering on such a massive scale does not stir our hearts to share what we know, what will it take?

What will it take? As if God is going to have to kill thousands upon thousands upon thousands until no Discover Bible tract goes unstamped. Here, in an actually unscriptural theodicy, the Adventist Review prints an article that finds the meaning of human suffering in a lack of evangelistic effort. I am reminded of Job’s friends rushing in to make meaning of his tragedy for him. Is our flagship periodical really a contemporary review of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar?

There are probably some good points to debate about the above critique. I’ll appreciate your thoughts. But there is a fact that Mr. Boonstra cites to under-gird his argument and it is demonstrably false. He writes:

The spiritual significance of these larger-than-life disasters—and the accelerating frequency with which they’re happening—is eluding most of the human race.

Mr. Boonstra is writing about earthquakes. And he argues that more and more are happening as we get closer to the end of time. Employing a textbook case of observer bias, he writes:

I quickly remembered Haiti, but it took a few moments for the doddering mechanisms of my long-term memory to start sending back the rest of the answers. In case you’re also struggling with recall, let me give you a head start: Haiti, China, Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand. In reality, there have been more than 30 earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater since the beginning of 2010.

Hey, my memory doesn’t work so well either so I appreciate the litany of larger-than-life earthquake-caused disasters. He is practicing what he preaches, one can almost see the wheels spinning, he’s making meaning, connecting these big events into a narrative that could appear in an evangelistic sermon or what’s we’ll read in the Review. But according to the USGS data, he’s a little off on his statement—these tables show 22 earthquakes 7.0 or more in 2010, and 7 thus far this year. But even 29 is a lot, especially since we’re barely a quarter into this year. Will the earth unleash its fury and give us twenty-one more Big Ones by Christmas?

This evening, I spent some considerable time actually looking at the data, after all, as a young Adventist boy sitting through many a sermon, I learned to read around the texts that the preacher was citing. For instance, I learned in 2001 the world had seven 7.0 earthquakes before the month of March started, similar to this year. But then it only had 11 for the rest of the year—making for an average year. No, we won’t have twenty-one more quakes this year.

But beyond making it to Christmas, I wondered, is there a trend, an “accelerating frequency” as Mr. Boonstra put it? Thus, below I have listed the number of quakes 7.0 or above in the past 7 years, plus the 7 quakes this year. To make it at least start equally, I then began with the 7 similarly frequent quakes in the first three months of 2001 and worked back 7 years. Of course with all these perfect numbers, this experiment should work nicely. (I can hear Uncle Dan and Aunt Sue intoning 7 fat years and 7 lean years. . .)

The data is from the USGS:

’94 – 13  ’04 – 16

’95 – 20  ’05 – 11

’96 – 15  ’06 – 11

’97 – 16  ’07 – 18

’98 – 12  ’08 – 12

’99 – 18  ’09 – 17

’00 – 15 ’10 – 22

’01 – 7   ’11 – 7 (both to date)

It seems that Mr. Boonstra used an anomalous year, 2010, and attempted to pass off an anecdotal observation about the last 14.5 months without taking into account more data. In fact, as one can see, the farther one goes back, the more the frequency smooths. Of course I didn’t want any atheistic scientists making stuff up, so I looked up each and every year on my own and compiled this here using my own calculator.

’94-’01 = 116

’04-’11 = 114

In fact, the last seven years have not been all that bad. Not exactly a sign of the end. If one just looks at the data, the evidence suggests that contra Mr. Boonstra, there is no “accelerating frequency.” One could go farther back, as this writer does with 6.0 quakes and above and find that, and depending on the year, the data would tip various random selections of years in various trend lines, but there would be no significance. Same conclusion:

So, bottom line, the Earth isn’t becoming more active, more dangerous, or even “out of control.” Despite the fear mongering and what esteemed mainstream media networks would have you believe, the simple reality is that the numbers prove things are happening at an expected rate. Keep that in mind the next time a large earthquake happens and everyone is wondering why the Earth seems so active!

Also, keep that in mind the next time someone tries to suggest that earthquakes are increasing or that their occurrence means anything metaphysical. Even if we go back to 1900, certainly the frequency of earthquakes has increased during most of the history of the existence of God’s church, right? And here we’ll have to rely on the USGS, which says “According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year.”

According to Live Science:

Earthquakes with magnitudes in the upper 8s and 9s are rare; even magnitude-8 quakes occur, on average, just once a year. So the chance of having two big quakes in one year is statistically not that much different than having one in a year, Pollack said, just as raising your chances of winning the lottery from one in a million to two in a million is negligible.

The top six quakes ever recorded do seem to cluster into two time periods: a 12-year span between 1952 and 1964, when the first, second and fourth-largest quakes ever hit Chile, Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula, respectively; and the seven-year span between the 2004 Indian Ocean quake (number three on record) and last week’s Japanese quake, which bumped last year’s 8.8-magnitude Chile quake out of the top five. That clustering is very likely random chance, said Terry Tullis, a professor emeritus of geological sciences at Brown University. But it should provide a sense of relief to anyone worrying that the current spate of quakes has doomed us to a more unstable future: After all, Tullis said, things quieted down quite a bit after 1964, at least in terms of large quakes.

Just a little fact-checking could have saved the leaders who run the Adventist Review from leading its readers to believe otherwise about the reality of earthquakes. But why fact-check when our assumptions fit with our existing theology? Why measure our means when we already know the end? Why even worry about means when we know how things will turn out? After all, we are the end. Literally, we call ourselves end time people. Our means, our morality is literally justified by our existence. Here Mr. Boonstra closes us out with a call to attach meaning, for other people, to these kinds of events, literally:

People seem to have a nagging sense that it’s no longer business as usual, but without the ability to attach meaning to these kinds of events, most of them simply forget and move on with life. . . . People are shaken, but not stirred.

What can one say? Why compare people inside and outside Adventism to various ways of mixing a martini? Is meaning-making like making a very strong alcoholic drink? Do our leaders really think of it as an opiate? Is this all so we can forget our trouble, and the trouble of the world?

The author seems quite worried that folks will “move on with life” before they get attached to his meaning. It appears that this article argues that disasters are opportunities to use others’ suffering, their questions, and existential disorientation in order to help Adventism not end. Apparently, when you’ve got the truth, the rest of the world is merely the means to your end. And whatever it takes—a lack of empathy, misinformation, a theodicy that presents evangelism to fix suffering, or getting stirred to make meaning with the shaken—is justified. It’s as if those running the flagship worry that if we ever fail to make world events about our meaning, it will be the real sign of our end.

There’ll be time for reflecting on ourselves after the water drains.

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