Martyrs of Japan Sermon 2011

Clergy Gathering, Diocese of Arizona
February 5, 2011

It is striking to have the feast of the Martyrs of Japan falls in the midst of this gathering with the Diocese of Arizona. You have had your own episode of death and destruction that undoubtedly feels like martyrdom to some.

There are traditionally two kinds of martyrs – white martyrs and red ones, the latter being those who shed blood in the defense of their faith, or because of the challenge they’ve offered to the principalities and powers of this world – people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. White martyrs are remarkable witnesses to the way of Jesus, who give their lives sacrificially, but more often die in their beds – people like Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu (and may he live many more years!). The Celts saw white martyrs as those who left home and family behind to follow Jesus on the road – like Colomba, the founder of Iona, or the monks who wandered the seas in little leather boats, or the ones who went to Scandinavia. There’s also an old Irish tradition about glasmartres (translated either as green or blue martyrs), who live radically ascetic lives focused on repentance. The color may have something to do with the skin tone of one who fasts all the time, or the sense that the ascetic went out into the green and wild lands, in the same way that the early monastics in Egypt took the desert as their home.

The Japanese martyrs we remember today were the red sort, persecuted, tortured, and executed for being Christians. The known history of evangelization in Japan began with Francis Xavier in 1549, the same year the first English Prayer Book was published. He only stayed three years, but left a Jesuit team in place and probably two thousand Christians. The Portuguese Jesuit mission continued to gain converts, as well as support from the ruling shogun, up into the 1580s. The next shogun, under pressure from Buddhist clergy, ordered the Jesuits to leave, but he didn’t enforce his ruling completely. Things got worse when a group of Spanish Franciscans showed up in the early 1590s and began to compete for converts, and charge the Jesuits with being the first wave of Portugal’s intended territorial conquest. The shogun executed the 26 Christians we remember today and ordered all the Jesuits out. That shogun soon died, but his successor didn’t completely enforce the expulsion order either.

In 1600 a Dutch ship limped into a Japanese port with one William Adams, on whose story the James Clavell’s historical novel Shogun is based. He stayed 20 years, and explained the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity to the shogun, which eventually led to expelling all the Roman Catholics. The persecutions, tortures, and executions finally culminated in 1637, which is the last public trace of Christianity until Japan reopened to the West in the 1850s. Yet when that happened, thousands of underground Christians emerged, having passed down their faith from generation to generation without benefit of clergy or missionaries.

That inherited Christianity might be seen as the result of the quiet witness of ten generations and the memory of those red martyrs. It’s an example of another kind of martyrdom – the patient endurance of people of faith, caring quietly for their neighbors, proclaiming the good news of God’s love in deed when the explicit word is not possible.

Something similar happened in China during the Cultural Revolution. It was a much shorter period, but the work of missionaries which started in the late 1800s grew and flourished during the intense and violent persecutions under Chairman Mao. An Anglican, Roland Allen, went to China at the end of the 19th century with the sense that he should convey the scriptures and the sacraments, and then get out of the way. He insisted that it was Paul’s way of witnessing, and that the good news needs some freedom to take root in new soil and emerge as a vine able to thrive in that new soil.

In many places we live with the painful consequences of a form of witness that was culturally bound – among Native Americans as well as in other parts of the globe. Japan lives with that struggle to this day. Christians represent less than one percent of the population. Archbishop Nathaniel Uematsu spoke with me about those challenges recently. As in many contexts here, people who have received the witness of earlier Christians in one particular form often assume that that is the only possible or correct way of expressing their faith. The Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Japanese Anglican Church) is much tied to traditional ways of worship – ways that do not easily communicate across the chasm between the church and society. We live with the same challenges here – hymns that don’t connect with popular cultural idioms, tendencies in some places to overly directive ways of governing, or an insistence that Sunday morning worship is the only proper witness of the church.

Every one present here this morning has promised repeatedly to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” That’s being and making a witness – it’s martyrdom. But what sort of martyrdom are we being invited into? What kind of life are we supposed to lose, what self-denial, what cross are we to pick up?

The answer depends on our context, and there is an urgent claim on the whole community here, and in some ways it’s the same claim on much of this nation. The division that’s erupted between right and left, between Anglos and Latinos, between “birthers” and “Obamacare advocates” should be evidence. It’s the same cross that the Jesuits and Franciscans faced in Japan in the late 16th century – and it led to immense bloodshed. God managed some resurrection even in the face of that needless death, yet how much more fruit might have been borne by other forms of martyrdom?

All those divisions and positions are maintained by the subtle siren song of self-congratulation: I’m right, and therefore, you are wrong.

When the bishops were here in September, those of us who went to the border had the powerful experience of hearing a panel speak about their varied yet direct involvement in issues of border-crossing. The participants included a sheriff, a border-patrol commander, an emergency room physician, a rancher, a community activist, and a pastor who works on both sides of the border. They all agreed that our immigration system is broken, but it was the pastor who built a bridge across the divisions that nailed every one of us.

He told a story about meeting with a group of teenagers and their parents in preparation for a foray into Mexico. One teen’s mother challenged him, “do you support illegal immigration?” He thought and then turned the question around. “Well, I certainly participate in it. I eat lettuce, and I live in a house that was built in the last 20 years, and I like to buy food that isn’t terribly expensive… Ma’am, do you support illegal immigration?”

Almost all of us participate in the divisions that characterize this society. We may not do it through violent language or shouting demonstrations, but most of us have something of an attitude about the people who use words like birther, or call themselves members of the Tea Party, or insist that people on the other side of an issue simply don’t understand (because they don’t agree with us).

Martyrdom in this context looks like letting go of our self-righteousness. As long as those divisions continue there will be red martyrs, like those in Tucson, whose fate horrifies us simply because their deaths happened in such an ordinary context. There may be some white martyrs, who leave the safety and comfort of home to go in search of the other, the ones on the far end of whatever position or stance is confronting us. And there may be some blue martyrs who call us all to prayer and repentance for our hardness of heart. And it will take the quiet, careful, and methodical witness of those who will begin or continue to love the other in small and great ways. What sort of martyr will you be?