Japan is a nation that is built of wood. The Horyuji Temple complex is considered the oldest existing wooden building, with some of the structures dating back to the late seventh century. Japanese carpenters learned techniques that allowed them to construct buildings with a certain flexibility—a necessity in an earthquake-prone region in which more brittle masonry structures would be regularly damaged. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, wood was also the primary source of fuel for cooking and heat. Currently, Japan uses over 42 billion board-feet of lumber each year.
Even though Japan has been historically forested (Japan has about 67 percent of its country covered by forest, compared to a world average of only 29 percent), its limited landmass and dense population have always put a strain on its forests. As early as the Tokugawa period in the 17th century, the Japanese have engaged in forestry management—in 1665, rigid management and protection measures were instituted in the Kiso District, one of three timber producing regions that supported the major cities of Edo and Osaka. According to Junichi Iwamoto, these measures included strict protection of seedlings and restrictions on harvest. While the 1665 restrictions were rolled back as the income of the Tokugawa Shoguns declined, reforms instituted in 1724 were more successful, allowing Kiso’s forests to rejuvenate.
So, Japan has a long history of forestry management, with strict limits on harvest. But Japan has an insatiable appetite for wood. In 1950, almost all Japan’s wood was produced domestically. In a little over 50 years, domestic production had declined to 20 percent. Almost 34 billion board-feet of wood products are imported into Japan each year. In June of 2020, Japan imported over a billion dollars worth of Indonesian wood products, over 70 percent of which was harvested illegally and run through intermediary companies in Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. Indonesia, which once was over 80 percent forested, is now suffering from some of the highest deforestation rates in the world.
Japan, as a nation, isn’t doing anything different than what we all do. It is outsourcing the problem. Rather than addressing the core issue, which is its own consumption rates, Japan has simply shuttled the negative impacts of that consumption off over the horizon, into someone else’s country. This tendency to ignore or relocate the real problem is a human tendency. We often find it difficult to confront the hard work of dealing with what is really going on, and instead prefer to tinker with secondary issues in hopes of buying ourselves a little more time, and getting a little more of what we want.
When Paul talks about ethics in his letters (we looked at the vice and virtue lists in Colossians 3 this last Sunday), he’s encouraging his readers to do the hard work and address the real issues. When he says we should take off anger and harsh language, and that we should put on compassion and forgiveness, he’s pointing out the fact that the interpersonal relationships we have—relationships that are either malformed by anger and hostility or nurtured by compassion and gentleness—are at the core of what it means to be human. Human beings thrive in conditions of compassion, and wither in an environment of hostility. If we think we can simulate an environment that leads to thriving by arranging the secondary factors in a way that seems to benefit us, ignoring the absolute need for compassion and embracing anger instead, then we’re only outsourcing the problem. We may buy a little time, and obscure the problem for a while, but eventually the price will be paid.
The words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30 still reverberate today. We have before us a choice—between blessings and curses, between life and death. We can choose to follow the word of God, and take off the anger and the wrath, and we can live; or we can choose to remain clothed in those vices, and we can die. One path gives life, one takes it from us. But if we are going to choose life, we have to stop trying to avoid the central issues. We’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road, stop getting hung up in the peripheral distractions. We don’t get to have it both ways: we cannot keep treating our fellow Christians—our brothers and sisters—with the anger and harsh language of the old way of living and still claim to be a new creation.
The life that Jesus lays before His disciples is centered on love. It is marked by compassion and forgiveness. It is gentle and kind. If we are not living that life, then we should ask ourselves why. Is it because we want all the lumber we can get our hands on, and we want our forests, too? Do we take the destructive, life-taking conflicts of our hearts and shove them out of sight because we’re not willing to do the work, to make the hard choices that demand that we give up all for the sake of Jesus? In the culture of contention that we find ourselves living in, it’s easy to think that being on the “right” side of an issue is what it takes to live a whole, complete life. But if that divisive contention is contaminated with anger and malice, and we fail to live out the Christ-mandated command to love each other, then we’ve chosen death over life.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul explicitly says that love is the only thing that makes anything worthwhile. And love is hard work, sometimes. But we need to do the hard work, and keep our attention on the real issues. We can avoid the fact that we’re called to be loving and forgiving above all else, and we can focus instead on those peripheral issues (whatever they might be). If we get our way in the short term—like Japan getting both their lumber and their forests—we may feel good about it today. But because we may have fractured relationships in the process, we’re not going to feel good about it later. Those wounds can take a long time to heal. Bearing with each other in love isn’t ever easy, but it is what we are called to—it is the central issue we face. But when we put our effort into this central thing, we may find more life than we ever hoped for.