Often, I’d rather talk about geology than current events, and that’s even more true these days. So, a geology story to begin with, which begins in January of the year 1700. Near the end of the month, on the eastern coast of Japan, large waves began to make their way ashore. The flooding damaged buildings, washed out rice paddies, started fires and swamped boats. Now, because Japan is in a seismically active area, people were well aware of earthquakes and the waves that often followed. Even the word we use to identify these waves is a Japanese word: a compound of the words for harbor—tsu—and the word for waves—nami.
The issue in late January of 1700 was that there had been no earthquake. The waves acted like tsunami, but without an accompanying shake, officials were at a loss as to what to call the flooding. Some referred to it as a strange high tide—an ōshio. Others called it abiki—unusual seas. The fact that Japanese officials were so careful in their written records led geologist Brian Atwater to investigate their experience. Atwater had been working in the estuaries and salt flats of the Pacific Northwest, examining deposits left by great waves. The most recent deposit, which seemed to coincide with a massive subsidence of some shoreline forests (creating a ghost of a forest as the trees were killed by the salt water), had attracted his attention. It was clear there had been a massive quake, but when exactly?
It turns out that there had been a huge rupture along the ocean trench where the Juan de Fuca plate was subducting under the North American plate. The evidence that Atwater collected suggested that the 1000 mile fault all released at once, producing a quake magnitude somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2—more than enough to be able to send a tsunami all 5000 miles to Japan. Piecing together the Japanese records even allowed Atwater to put a date and a time on the quake—about 9 in the evening on January 26, 1700. He had been able to precisely date an earthquake that until that time was only known in Native American legend. For the people in Japan—in the villages of Kuwagasaki and Tsugaruishi and others—that information was about 320 years too late. Not that there was much they could have done.
I’ve been thinking about this wave—Atwater called it an “orphan tsunami”—and how it came up on Japan without any notice. It feels like we’re being hit by societal waves of a similar nature. For my own part, I’m shocked and saddened by the violence and anger that’s being manifest in our cities and streets. George Floyd’s death was certainly tragic, but the rage displayed in response is still overwhelming—particularly for somebody in small-town Idaho. But tsunamis don’t happen without earthquakes. There are some seismic faults running through our society, with enormous pressure and tension behind them, and it should not surprise us that there is an eventual rupture. Add to this the unrest that has developed from the way we’ve tried to grapple with this pandemic, and it should not really surprise us that our cities have erupted.
While it is perhaps not surprising, the violence is deeply heartbreaking, particularly since nothing good comes from the violence. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr emphatically encouraged the use of nonviolent methods to move the needle on injustice. In a 1957 article in the Christian Century, King wrote: “…nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” He observed that while the nonviolent methods of resistance may “awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent,” the goal was not to simply shame one’s opponent: “The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Violence begets violence. This may have been what Jesus was concerned about in the garden when He admonished Peter to put away his sword when confronted by the Temple guards. “Put your sword back into its place” Jesus said, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Both Peter and Paul reminded their listeners to not repay “evil for evil,” but instead to break the cycle of violence by exchanging evil for blessings. But evil comes in many forms, and violence isn’t limited to smashing windows and tear gas. The words we use can contribute to the healing of our relationships, or can add fuel to an already burning fire.
Because there is so much in our society that unsettles us, we as Christians may be tempted to live in something of a protective bubble. Aside from those few on the front lines combating injustice, we are often caught unaware when societal earthquakes create tsunamis of violence. And we might be tempted to repay in kind—to respond with a form of verbal violence that minimizes and marginalizes the depth of pain and loss some are feeling in our nation. What many of us see is filtered through a media lens that distorts reality, and rather than compassion, we react with judgement. But as followers of Jesus, we need to commit ourselves to viewing the world through the lens of our faith—a faith that values the little and the least, the marginalized and the outcast. As with all situations, we need to speak to this situation with compassion, and an understanding that all people are created in the image of God, are deeply loved by God, and that Jesus gave His life for each of us—the officer in riot gear, the protester with hands raised in a cloud of smoke, the looter carrying a TV out of a broken window, the reporter who foregrounds the burning cars instead of the passive protests, the politicians and the celebrities who all have opinions, even the confused and uncertain folks in small-town America who wonder where that wave came from. Jesus loves us all. And because Jesus loves us all, that will be our response—to love all. We may not be able to stop the wave, or even really understand where it comes from. But let’s not make the situation worse with divisive words. Let’s help heal instead.