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With Deep Affection: Honoring Japanese Christiantiy

Yesterday, for several hours, I wondered the streets of old Kyoto. I couldn’t read the street signs, so I got lost. That turned out to be a blessing.

For example, I discovered a Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1890 and pastored for many years by a future patriarch.

Church in Japan

I also happened upon an old Protestant church, which, to my surprise, was hosting a wedding. I stopped outside to watch and listen.  Suddenly, the congregation broke out in the most haunting redefinition I have ever heard of What a Friend We Have In Jesus. I stood there in front of that church wiping tears. I was deeply moved to hear that hymn, which I rarely hear now even in my own language.

Protestant Wedding in Japan

Christianity has been in Japan for many centuries. Some scholars believe Persian missionaries reached Japan as early as the fourth century and that one of the oldest Buddhist shrines in Kyoto was originally a Christian church.

We know for certain that Portuguese missionaries entered Japan in 1549 and that Francis Xavier, Catholicism’s most famous missionary, was among them.

Orthodox and Protestant Christians came several centuries later and soon established a presence in Japan as well.

Unlike Christian work in many other countries, missionaries to Japan encountered deeply embedded belief systems that were major obstacles for communicating the gospel to the Japanese.

Anyone who has ever read works by Zen Buddhists will agree that their philosophies are among some of the most powerful and creative intellectual systems on the planet. For example, Zen scholars developed insights into human psychology that secular Westerners would not rediscover before the nineteenth century.

Japan’s aesthetic development has been stunning as well. Its art often requires considerable intellectual preparation to fully appreciate.

All of this is to say that Japanese Christians have not had the luxury of indulging in intellectual sloth. Surrounded by a highly educated and cultured population, they have had to rely upon more than emotional experience to sustain their faith. Furthermore, the surrounding culture has not continually strengthened their spiritual values, as Western culture has done for believers in our part of the world.

Japanese culture has produced an expression of Christian faith that for me like the bonsai — undeniably small and vulnerable but nonetheless ancient and wise.

Consider some of the contributions of Japanese Christianity to the global church.

First, the martyrs.

Japanese-Martyrs

In 1597, the Japanese crucified twenty six Christians on the outskirts of Nagasaki.  This initiated two generations of active and brutal suppression of Christianity throughout the Japanese empire. 31,000 were killed in 1638 alone. Afterward, the Japanese government outlawed the church in all its forms for centuries, creating a secretive expression of the faith that reached into all levels Japanese society.

A blog does not allow me to tell much of the story. However, Japanese Christianity has made notable contributions in the world. One of the most touching contributions is the story of Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice consul to Lithuania in the late 1930’s. He saved 10,000 Jews by issuing visas to Japan. His government  had forbidden him to grant the visas but he did it anyway. He took a risk that could have resulted in his execution.

Sugihara, an Orthodox Christian, returned home to live out the rest for his life in obscurity and poverty. At one point, he was reduced to selling light bulbs door-to-door to make a living for his family. Shorty before he died, the Israeli ambassador to Japan visited his home to express the gratitude of the Jewish state for the forty thousand Jews now living because of his courage. Only then did the people of Japan know who Sugihara was and what he had done for humanity.

This is only one example among countless stories of courage, intellectual and artistic genius, and sheer goodness on the part of the Japanese Christian community.

These stories reminds us that Christianity does not require state support to survive. The church does not ever need state support in order to thrive. The stories also reminds us of the need for intelligent reasons to support our convictions. Christianity deserves more than “I just have a feeling in my heart,” or “it was good enough for Mama and its good enough for me.”

The scripture tells us to “have an answer for the faith that lies within us.” A defense for the faith begins with a testimony, to be sure. “I once was lost and now I’m found,” is at the heart of every testimony. However, if we live in among intelligent people who have well developed philosophies of their own, we need something a little more substantive than “God said, it, I believe it and that settles it.”

Such a mindless statement like that begs a question, “how do you know God said it?” And “Why should I take your word for it?”

American Christians tend to not do well with challenging questions about the faith. Many Christians are actively hostile to the intellectual quest. In fact, there may be no greater cross to bear at present among Christians than to be called ‘an intellectual.” It is rarely a complement.

Many American Christians are angry because they realize that we are in a very different era than what we knew in the past.  Some people insist that we should fight to regain our control of state and culture. They cannot envision how the faith will even survive without the familiar cultural scaffolding to sustain it.

The church in Japan offers us a solution for this new situation: grow deeper roots. Learn the scriptures. Decide whether the faith is true, or merely comforting. Persevere. Pray. Have courage. Love. Act from conviction and not out of anger.

Oh, the Japanese title for the song What A Friend We Have in Jesus is Deep Affection — that’s what I feel for the Japanese believers.

Nothing could express a greater tribute to the Christian people of Japan than this. They have proven their faith in Jesus with their lives and their work. They have done that for hundreds of years now, with an affection for our Lord and his church that is as deep as I have encountered among any people anywhere.

 

-Pastor Dan Scott

4 Comments (Add Yours)

  1. Wonderful, insightful and informative – as usual.

  2. Thank you Pastor. Very insightful.

  3. This is very interesting, Pastor Dan. I was amazed to learn the Japanese knew that wonderful old hymn. Thanks for sharing. Blessings!

  4. Hmmm…beginning to understand the acronymn – EPIC – strongly describes your experiences from Japan. Oh, what would happen if our churches could become EPIC: Experiential…Participatory…Image-driven…Community