Among the depressing daily stories about the chaotic efforts to clean up the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the one on the front page of the New York Times last Sunday disturbed me even more than usual. The story was about the farm animals abandoned in the nuclear evacuation zone, and effectively left to starve to death--since their meat is no longer suitable for sale, and since there is no one left in the zone to take care of them. It was also about one farmer, who upon his return to his farm for a permitted brief visit to check on things, encountered a newborn calf, bawling hysterically next to its mother who had collapsed of starvation immediately after its birth. Something in that farmer snapped at that moment, and he decided to defy the authorities, move back onto his land, and do the best he could to feed the remaining radioactive animals left on his farm and on his former neighbors' farms.
There are many legitimate and important way one could think about this incident – – whether the farmer's action were really motivated by compassion, or represented some sort of instrumental political gesture; what responsibilities humans should have to nonhumans in cases of humanly caused environmental disasters, and much more.
Yet I wonder if in addition to all these, there is room for another kind of question, one we might tentatively call theological: as that image of the bawling calf beside its dead mother, the wonder of birth alongside the tragedy of death by abandonment, turns over and over in my mind this week, I begin to wonder if thinking about the Fukushima disaster as a result of vested interests, or the failures of expertise, or even the stupidity or selfishness of individual politicians is just not enough. Do we need another word, maybe even an old-fashioned theological work like Evil?
I think about this farmer, too. He evidently has come under heavy criticism from the authorities for selfishly putting himself at risk, and forcing them to spend scarce public resources on him. He has come under equally heavy criticism from the political machinery for political grandstanding – – for making a global case out of a bawling calf--and even from some veterinarians who maintain that the overcrowding of animals on his farm is now inhumane. But what I think really moves some and disturbs others about what he has done is the incontrovertible fact of his personal sacrifice and his empathy for another set of living beings. As he tells it, his decision to save these animals just came in a flash, on seeing that calf, as if it was the most straightforward and simple decision in the world. This act is political, but it is powerfully political because it is also a straightforward and uncomplicated act of love.