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In the aftermath of disasters, there is always an uproar of some sort when a public figure broaches the notion that what occurred was of spiritual origin -- a sign, a warning, or (if they really want controversy) a Divine "punishment."

It doesn't matter if it's a minister (Pat Robertson, after 9/11) or a political figure (the mayor of New Orleans, after "Katrina," which means purification) or a state legislator. Most recently it was the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara -- who suggested that the quake and tsunami were in the realm of spiritual chastisement (for that nation's "greed").

One can start by pointing out that disasters come as Divine response throughout the entire Old Testament (search the Bible for the word "tower," as just one example), and that in fact Japan is one of the world's very most secularized nations (right up their with England). Moreover, like the U.S., it is engaged in hyper-consumerism. And so came tembatsu -- the Japanese word for Divine punishment. Or is it simply our darkness causing a distance from God's protective Hands?

In fact, among Japan's greater transgressions has been its abuse of the environment. It had the most serious contamination ever recorded from mercury, back in mid part of the last century (at Minamata Bay, tainting fish that people then consumed) at least two thousand developed severe brain ailments known as "mad hatter's disease" (because it was once used as a New Jersey plant that made hats and saw employees develop identical brain abnormalities). Many died from this corporate waywardness.

Most egregious of all, of course, are birth-control and abortion practices that have led to zero and even negative human population growth. Abortion has been legal there since 1948. Japan is also famous for killing an estimated seventy million sharks each year solely for their fins, from which they make a delicacy soup (tossing back the rest of the now-dead animal). It consumes three-quarters of the endangered blue-fin tuna in the world, while Japan's population is only 1.8 percent of the global populace. It is infamous for slaughtering dolphins and whales.

Among the scares now: that radioactivity from the reactors may have contaminated its seafood.

A "coincidence," of course -- although those who propose otherwise can find strong comfort in a surprising new secular poll this week that showed forty percent of Americans believe or "mostly agree" that natural disasters have spiritual meaning -- are those vilified "signs"! That would extrapolate to 124 million in the U.S. -- so if you too believe in signs, or mostly believe, you are hardly alone.

Reported Fox News, tellingly: "The poll results revealed differences of opinion on the subject among various Christian denominations. Nearly six in ten (59 percent) of white Evangelicals said they believed natural disasters are a sign from God. But a much smaller minority -- just 31 percent of Catholics and 34 percent of non-evangelical Protestants -- agreed. The perceived increase in the number and severity of natural disasters is evidence to 44 percent of Americans of what the Bible calls the End Times, prophesied in the Old Testament's book of Daniel and the New Testament's book of Revelation."

Read into that what you might.

Meanwhile, Newsweek, of all publications, had a cover story last week called "Apocalypse Now" that, noted one commentator, could have been written by an evangelical, but for the final line or two. Wrote she: "They somehow managed to devote an entire double issue to the crazy gyrations of geological and political mayhem without giving a passing thought to the God of the Apocalypse. That’s not exactly all-things-considered. But something tells me that somewhere in the bowels of the magazine’s headquarters, a few overeducated writers are shaking in their Rockports and whistling in the dark."

What times indeed. It is a time, though, not for sneering but self-evaluation (call it "illumination"). The Light of the Spirit is penetrating us all. What is rotten will fall. On radiation: remember how it was learned that the Ukrainian word "Chernobyl" means a bitter herb we call "wormwood" (and how the Book of Revelation mentions it in 8:11: "The name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter." It is explained in Jeremiah 9:15: "thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, "behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink."

Raise your hand if you are a Catholic and think both Testaments lie. Is this to condemn a nation? Of course not. We're all in the same boat. And there are many good Japanese. We have seen examples of their politeness, patience, courage, and heroism during the ongoing crises.

No one can know the Mind of God and pin a particular transgression on a particular chastisement -- not with certainty. The events are occurring around the globe. But it is reasonable to see a trend of God simplifying and subduing us. We resist basic reform. What does that portend?

Finally, let's just go with Thursday's (March 31) Mass reading (Jeremiah 7:23-28):

"Thus says the Lord: This is what I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper. But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed. They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me. From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day, I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets. Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed; they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers. When you speak all these words to them, they will not listen to you either; when you call to them, they will not answer you. Say to them: This is the nation that does not listen to the voice of the Lord, its God, or take correction. Faithfulness has disappeared; the word itself is banished from their speech."

[resources: Tower of Light]

[see also: New poll, Country often cited for abuse of fishing now suffers fear of tainted seafood, Dead sea life continues to plague U.S., Tsunami decimates whaling town, and Newsweek ponders the apocalypse]

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[Or there is also today's 4/1/11 reading from Hosea 14:2-10: "Thus says the LORD: Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God; you have collapsed through your guilt. Take with you words, and return to the LORD; Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity, and receive what is good, that we may render as offerings the bullocks from our stalls. Assyria will not save us, nor shall we have horses to mount; We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands; for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD, I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them. I will be like the dew for Israel: he shall blossom like the lily; He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar, and put forth his shoots. His splendor shall be like the olive tree and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar. Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain; They shall blossom like the vine, and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim! What more has he to do with idols? I have humbled him, but I will prosper him. “I am like a verdant cypress tree”– Because of me you bear fruit! Let him who is wise understand these things; let him who is prudent know them. Straight are the paths of the LORD, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble in them.]

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