Arriving at Peace in the Land of Silence or How to Drain a Mud Swamp

How I lost an original, though not fully worked out, notion of peace as a new Christian and then arrived, again, in middle age at an understanding of non-violence is not a process I can narrate in detail. I guess I lost my original notion of Christian peace simply through circumstance. My father explained his understanding of Jesus command to turn the other cheek through a story: “A preacher teaching on this passage is suddenly slapped by someone. The preacher immediately punches the offender but then explains – now I have turned the other cheek.” Being of a literal frame of mind and not attuned to the finer points of hermeneutics – I may have missed the intended facetiousness of the story. A “masculine,” anti-communist, right-wing, nationalistic Christianity was modeled – we lived in Texas. My sense that we should be at peace with the land and God’s created order, though we may need to kill off some of our fellow humans, somehow survived a bit longer. Ultimately, the nationalistic forms of American Christianity proved to be a corrosive sort of mud swamp to my first (naïve) understanding of Christianity.

During twenty years in Japan, circumstance allowed for an encounter with a different sort of Gospel. Japanese nationalism is anti-Christian and there is no pretense of a naturalized citizenship in the Church. Becoming a Christian seems to conflict with being completely true to one’s Japanese identity. Uchimura Kanzo has posed the dilemma that faces a Japanese Christian with a question: “Which do I love more – Japan or Jesus?” The question is itself a legacy of his experience of Christianity fused with American nationalism. The American Christian need not ask this question, as being Christian meant being a loyal American. In turn, this raises the question in the Japanese context of how one can be a loyal citizen and adopt a religious identity which entails being loyal to the United States. In Japan, Christianity is seen to function as a Trojan Horse, which is exactly why it was outlawed in the Tokugawa Period.

I wish I could say I took immediate cognizance of this changed circumstance but I had been trained in a modernist/enlightenment notion of Christianity which entailed a crusading mode of thought. I do not mean this as a criticism of the missionary enterprise but what I am describing is how a modernist form of Christianity is peculiarly unsuited to a peaceable mode of witness. The very means by which one goes about converting the other, employing western apologetics, is through rational proofs which are employed to “overpower” countervailing arguments. The obvious violence this entails is in turn connected to a subtle cultural imperialism.

This form of Christianity is suffused with a foundationalism which pictures truth as floating free of culture and circumstance. Think here of Descartes looking out his window in Paris and initiating a form of thought in which “these traditional foundations must be torn down.” The modernist revolution presumes to set itself against every particular culture and circumstance. The postmodern insight is that foundationalism is very much a particular development in the western world. It is only western culture which has achieved the enlightenment perspective of no longer being bound by culture. But of course, this is precisely the cultural presumption and arrogance with which the westerner is bound. So, a Christianity joined at the hip to modernity is instinctively imperialistic – the message and mode is one which stands over and against an “eastern culture” like Japan. What is often happening in the missionary enterprise to Japan is that the very imperialism which would posit the notion of an East/West difference is at work in the mission to “overcome” this difference. The same cultural imperialism that presumes culture is irrelevant to truth and the individual, is part of the package of an arrogant western Christianity that presumes this understanding must be fostered in the Japanese convert.

This brings me to Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Endo’s novel sets forth the thesis that Japan is like a mud swamp in which the seed of Christianity cannot take root. Endo seems to have drunk deeply from the well of Orientalism which would posit not only an absolute East/West divide but the notion that Christianity is a “western” form of thought which Japanese cannot accommodate.

The novel is set in 17th century Japan during one of the worst and most wide-spread persecutions of Christianity in world history. C. R. Boxer estimates that some 300,000 Japanese had become Christians in the preceding century. He maintains, “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find another highly civilized pagan county where Christianity had made such a mark, not merely in numbers but in influence.” He estimates that tens of thousands of Christians were martyred in the ensuing persecution and attempt to eradicate Christianity. These numbers and the intense belief and willingness to be martyred seem to clash with Endo’s thesis and the ethos of apostasy portrayed in the novel.

I would suggest, Endo’s mud swamp thesis is an anachronistic projection of modern identity onto a century in which “being Japanese” had not yet been clearly constituted. In the 16th century identity was bound up in local clans and religion to such an extent that it would have been hard to make any sort of universal claim about the native character of Japanese. It is only with the rise of a unified Japan in the Meiji period (1868-1912) that a universal identity is forged for the Japanese people. This would obviously take the form of warding of the west by warding off western religion (utilizing State Shinto), but it would also entail reinforcing a unified culture. The irony is that the means of warding off western culture and religion is accomplished by creating a mirror image of both. State Shinto would serve the religious purposes of state religion and would at the same time provide a vehicle to create a cohesive national identity. The common people could no longer be merely objects of rule, but had to see themselves as subjects. Their identity could no longer be centered in the clan and local folk religion but, in order to bring about a cohesive nationalism, identity would have to be centered in the national polity and religion. That is, Japan would ward off the nation states of the west by becoming a nation state.

The mud swamp is the effect of modern Japan attempting to establish a cultural identity to ward off the west and specifically western Christianity. (In the 17th century the solution was much more straightforward – Christians were simply slaughtered or made to recant their faith.) For modern Japan to offer its subjects an identity which would not be subsumed by the west it had to take up a new (western) form of constituting the individual as part of a corporate body (the State). All of this unfolded in a concentrated period in Japan so that the contradictions of the west were made immediately evident in Japan. Notions of individual subjectivity had to be simultaneously fostered and yet tied to the historical reality of the nation. The prewar text, the Kokutai no Hongi, captures the problem of modernizing Japan: “The free individual is one who has forgotten loyalty and filial piety which bind him to the emperor, and so he is by definition sick. The healthy individual bases his life not on the individual ego but on the concrete historical nation.” The problem was to engineer this new individualism so that it did not become an abstraction which imagined it could constitute itself apart from the contingencies of culture (precisely the western point of failure).

Japanese novelists were the first to explore the depths of this new individualism. The Shishosetsu or the “I novel” incorporates western notions of individualism and specifically Catholic notions of confession – minus the religious element. What develops as part of the Japanese “confessional” novel is the notion that suffering is itself redemptive and somehow meaningful. Silence is unique only in its historical setting and open Christian connection. Though the novel takes its name from the silence of God in the midst of suffering, the true climax of the novel is the voice of the divine urging on apostasy in the face of suffering.

Move the scene to the modern setting and it becomes clear that the choice poised is once again that of Uchimura Kanzo: the only way to love Japan and Jesus at the same time is to subordinate the Christ to the cultural demands of the nation state. Isn’t that, after all, what a western imperialist Christianity has done? The very point at which the mud swamp (a cultural ethos that will not accommodate Christianity) seems to be the case – it is only an imitation of a perverse western Christianity. The open denial of Christ in the name of cultural hegemony only brings to the surface the point of failure in western Christianity.

Draining the mud swamp in Japan and the United States involves the same process. The Church cannot be tied to the nation state, to cultural imperialism, or to notions of the individual or reason derived implicitly or explicitly from a position of cultural superiority. Violence takes many forms but that which has done the greatest damage to the Church in Japan is not the physical violence of the 17th century but the ideological violence of the 19th and 20th century directly borrowed from western “Christianity.” There is no individual or true subjectivity free of the specific historical circumstance of the re-founding of subjectivity of Christ. The modern nation state – fused with individualism – is only a weak imitation of the alternative culture and subjectivity founded in and through the body of Christ.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

5 thoughts on “Arriving at Peace in the Land of Silence or How to Drain a Mud Swamp”

  1. Have really been convicted within this last year of the marriage that the American Church has with the state. Nationalism runs very deep within our church culture. I do work in Liberia and also see that the church there has some of the same issues.(primarily from its American identity) Much of this is fairly new to me as God has been convicting me of this in the past few years. I know this is a vague question but how do we as a church begin to change this?

    1. Hi David,

      I don’t know how to answer your question given its immensity. However, I personally find the idea of generating new churches that are comprised by new Christians (converts) whom are inclined toward peaceableness, love of enemy and loyalty to Jesus’ global church–as opposed to national churches. In other words grow a new generation with new DNA.

      1. I meant to say that I think a good way and much less frustrating way to “change’ the church is to change the future of the church by starting anew with new converts.

  2. At the time I didn’t have the words to explain it, but after spending 18 years in the Christian community in Japan coming to America and being exposed to the Christian community here was disappointing and disconcerting. In Japan, for committed Christians it did seem like they were making the choice to reject many aspects of Japanese culture. It always felt like such a caring and loving community and I never imagined not wanting to be a part of it. Here I would say much of my experience has been the opposite. And I believe most of that is because of the link between Christianity and Nationalism. Of course my experience in Japan was my perspective as a child and teenager so I’m sure there was a lot going on that I was missing. Just some thoughts 🙂

  3. Erin, for some reason (my technology gap) I did not see your comment here. You were a perceptive 18 year old and absolutely correct. Japanese Christians understand they cannot fly the flag of nationalism or even unthinkingly accept all aspects of their culture. The confusion of Endo is the confusion of Uchimura Kanzo, brought on by the strange mix of nationalistic pride and mindless American patriotism.

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