Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
On Friday, March 11, 2011, an earthquake so powerful that it altered the axis of the earth struck in the Pacific Ocean 40 miles from the coast of Japan. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.03, triggered massive tsunami waves of ocean water that struck the Oshika Peninsula with devastating force. When it was over, at least 16,000 people had lost their lives, millions were forced to leave their homes, and property damages were estimated to reach $235 billion.
But the aftershocks of the earthquake and tsunami were felt in other ways as well. Damage from the flooding, combined with human errors, led to level seven meltdowns at three nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which led to still more deaths, the forced evacuation of thousands of additional residents and great uncertainty about the long-term impact of radioactive exposure to humans and the environment.
The catastrophic events at Fukushima have prompted an intense conversation among Mennonites in Japan about the future use of nuclear power—and deeper ethical questions about energy consumption, standard of living and environmental responsibility.
The Mennonite presence in Japan has never been large. The majority of the 75 congregations, mostly affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches, are concentrated in Kyushu, Yamaguchi, Osaka, Tokyo and Hokkaido. Although some Japanese Mennonites—especially the nationally known poet Yorifumi Yaguchi (see his poem at right)—have been actively engaged in various forms of peace witness, most have traditionally not expressed themselves vocally in the public arena.
But the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear catastrophe have prompted some Japanese Mennonites to new forms of action. Already in the spring of 2011, the “tsunami response committee” of the Japanese Mennonite Fellowship was linking Mennonite congregations with individual victims of the Fukushima disaster who needed financial, emotional and spiritual support.
More recently, Japanese Mennonites have begun to broaden their witness. For example, in February 2012, Tojo Takanobu, Oshikiri Keisuke and Ishido Mitsuru, all members of the Tokyo Anabaptist Fellowship of Churches, formed the Japan Anabaptist Peace Research Institute—Fukushima Focus (JAPRI FF) to foster theological conversations about the ethics of nuclear power from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective.
With painful memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still very much alive in Japan, the human and ecological devastation at Fukushima has brought new urgency to such questions. According to Ishido Mitsuru, JAPRI FF is committed to “sharing the tragic experiences in Japan with the global church in order to develop a new form of peace building”—one that can envision a society “that does not depend on nuclear power.” The conversations promoted by JAPRI FF are spreading.
Last September, the Mennonite congregation in Hiroshima hosted a seminar on nuclear power. Last November, 30 people representing nine Mennonite congregations attended a similar gathering at the Obhihiro church in Hokkaido that brought together scientific research and theological insights with a call for greater political engagement to work for a nuclear-free society.
In these and other settings Japanese Mennonites are consciously wrestling with theological understandings of technology and the related questions of corporate profits, personal energy consumption and the Christian’s relationship to the natural world.
These conversations are taking place within a much broader, sometimes divisive, national debate in Japanese society: Is it thinkable that a country with limited natural resources could wean itself from a dependence on nuclear energy? What changes in lifestyle would such a decision entail? The deeper issues extend far beyond Japan.
Throughout the ages, Christians have wrestled with the mystery of God’s role in earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters. But in questions regarding energy production and consumption, we all are making choices every day, with consequences that are truly global in scope.
In a recent email, Mitsuko Yaguchi, wife of the poet Yorifumi, spoke on behalf of other Japanese Mennonites when she wrote: “We would like to know what the Mennonites in North America think about nuclear power or alternative sources of energy.”
How would you or your congregation respond to that question? Do we know the source of the electrical power that supplies our homes and churches? What responsibility do we bear for the long-term energy policies of our country? Could we imagine a future without nuclear power?
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.
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