One missionary’s ‘swamp’ is another’s ‘religion allergy’ challenge

by Michael Hoffman

“For 20 years I labored in the mission. The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.”

The speaker is a tragic figure. In 1632 the Portuguese Jesuit Christovao Ferreira, after 6 hours of torture in the pit (see main story), became the first foreign missionary in Japan to apostatize. He appears as a background character in the 1967 novel “Silence” by Shusaku Endo, Japan’s foremost Christian writer. Endo’s story unfolds in 1643, five years after the Shimabara uprising frightened the authorities into closing the country to almost all foreigners, writes Michael Hoffman.

Defying the ban, two young Portuguese missionaries (fictional characters based on historical models) hire a Chinese ship in Macau and slip into Kyushu, bent on discovering what had become of their beloved teacher, Ferreira. They are the last two priests in Japan. One drowns himself in despair. The other, hunted like a wild animal, is at last arrested and taken to Nagasaki, where he is brought face to face with the man he sought. Having apostatized, Ferreira has been given a Japanese name, a Japanese wife and a Japanese official position. His defeat is total.

It was, he explains, the “swamp” of Japan that had defeated him. “This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

And the Japanese faithful? the indignant disciple demands. The martyrs — what of them?

Ferreira shakes his head. “They did not believe in the Christian God. The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human. The Japanese imagine a beautiful, exalted man — and this they call God. They call by the name of God something which has the same kind of existence as man. But that is not the Church’s God.”

Ferreira’s conclusion, the bitter fruit of long experience and much suffering, is not unanswerable.

“It is true in the same way,” said Pastor Jonathan Wilson of the non-denominational Tokyo-based Grace Christian Fellowship, “that Americans, Europeans and every other culture have also twisted God to their own way of thinking. The beauty of the revelation that we have received is that although Christ came to a specific culture at a specific time in history, there is something about His message that both transcends and is deeply relevant to every time and culture.”

Still, the question arises: Does Japan need Christianity? Would a Christian Japan be a better Japan?

The Japanese themselves seem to have said no. Fewer than 1 percent are practicing Christians. Missionaries in the field persistently lament the difficulties of evangelizing the Japanese. Lawrence Spalink, Japan Field Director of the Christian Reformed World Missions, speaks of a “religion allergy among many Japanese” — an instinctive recoil from organized religion in general, born of the 17th-century persecutions and heightened in our time by the ghastly Aum Shinrikyo cult terrorism of the 1990s.

These are no doubt factors; still, might it simply be that most Japanese, nurtured on a native culture with very different core assumptions, find the Christian religion an unsatisfactory vehicle to ultimate truth?

The “religion allergy” argument seems undercut, to some extent, by the “Christian” wedding phenomenon. An astonishing 60 percent and more of Japanese weddings follow the Christian format, complete with foreign “pastors” performing the ceremonies. The quotation marks are appropriate because more often than not the officiating “clergyman” is an imposter whose only religious qualification is that of hailing from a country where Christianity is the dominant faith. For the average bride and groom, the Christian trappings are a charming exoticism and nothing more. Still, those trappings seem hardly consistent with an ingrained horror of organized religion.

Those who maintain the universal truth of Christianity discern a despair underlying Japan’s economic miracle which proves, they say, that Christ is necessary to human fulfillment. The despair is real and measurable: There are more than 30,000 suicides a year in Japan; 85 percent of Japanese teens, reports, are said to “wonder why they exist,” as opposed to 22 percent of U.S. teens; 11 percent of Japanese, according to a recent Gallup poll, “wish they had never been born.”

It’s a grim picture, certainly — but whether to attribute it to the often intolerable stresses and strains of modern life or to the national failure to embrace a particular religion must remain an open question.

“The underlying spiritual needs of the human race are deeper than any cultural, socio-economic or gender issues that might divide us,” says Wilson. “We are all the same after all; human beings. In the end Japan will surely find its own way. But like other human beings all over the world, there are many Japanese who are seeking after truth, beauty, forgiveness and purpose who will only find what they are longing for in Jesus Christ.”

And many who won’t.