All week, I could not tear myself away from the news from Japan. Though my own family and friends there are safe, I do not think anyone in Japan will be all right for a very long time.
Though I left Japan at the age of six and am an American citizen, I have visited enough Asian countries to know there is often little love for Japan because of its history of colonizing other Asian countries. Yet, I know a pastor in Seoul who is organizing a fundraiser to help Japan, and I was just meeting with Korean graduate students at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, who collected a special offering and are praying for the people in Japan. Many, many people all over the world are doing the same.
Yesterday, I received a message of comfort from a young man named Tyler Boudreau who served 12 years in the U.S. Marine corps and commanded a rifle battalion in Iraq. He is someone well acquainted with death, moral ambiguity, and the agony of grief. He sent me the song called "Requiem," by Eliza Gilkyson, which appeals to Mother Mary to awaken and hear the mournful plea of those whose homes and loved ones were taken by the sea. "Our world," she sings, "has been shaken." Mary, have mercy, she prays, help us face our sorrows and be made whole again. Though he admitted he is not usually religious, he found the song spoke to him and sent it to me.
You may wonder why I was so deeply moved by a prayer to Mother Mary when I'm a Protestant and 99 percent of the people of Japan are Buddhist and Shinto.
The Japanese writer Shusako Endo, born in 1923, grew up in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and, when his divorced mother returned him to Japan, he was baptized a Catholic. His novels describe the stigma of being an outsider, the experience of being a foreigner, and the complex moral dilemmas that produce mixed or tragic results.
He wrote a novel called Silence which takes place during the Tokugawa Shogunate, a time when scholars estimate one fifth of the Japanese were Catholic Christians. The novel begins right after a large group of Christian peasants in Shimabara rose up in 1637 against a new non-Christian local shogun, whose behavior must have made them think of the biblical King Herod. After defeating the Christian uprising, the shogun's forces beheaded 37,000 Christian families and burned them and their castle stronghold to the ground. Then the rulers in Tokyo expelled all Christian priests, forced everyone living in Japan to register with a Buddhist Temple, and closed the country to foreigners for 250 years. The persecution of Christians did not end until 1850.
The remaining Christians in Japan went underground. To continue their practices, they created crosses with a Buddha-looking Jesus in the center. They took the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon (Quan Yin in China), put a baby in her arms like a madonna, and prayed to her secretly as Mary. When Christian missionaries entered Japan in the nineteenth century, they discovered these Kakure Kirishitan, "hidden Christians" in the Shimabara area. They found people who mumbled quasi Latin sounding prayers without understanding the words, people who baptized their babies without priests; people who used Buddhist prayer beads, and who prayed to Kannon statues that were unlike any others in Japan.
A Requiem prayed to Mother Mary has a place in this Japanese legacy of people whose lives were hidden by a horrible tragedy. But the Shimabara Christians were not the last people in Japan to live in secret.
Hibakusha, literally "explosion-affected people," is the term for the survivors of the Atomic bomb attacks and their children. Today, there are around a quarter of a million Hibakusha, and perhaps one in seven is a Korean from a conscript family brought to Japan as forced labor during the war. Many Hibakusha do not want their identities public because of the history of shame and discrimination against them. When the bombs fell, radiation sickness was not understood, and people feared it was contagious. Marriage was impossible because of birth defects, and people would not employ them. After living through the nightmare of the worst horror the world has ever known, they were punished by isolation and oppression. And now, after a terrifying earthquake and a devastatingly destructive tsunami, Japan faces a new nuclear nightmare.
"Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy."
Christians have just entered the season of Lent, traditionally a time when people prepared to be baptized on the night before Easter. It is also preparation to face into the catastrophe of Jesus' crucifixion. There is much in our world to grieve right now, not just in Japan, but also in Libya and in our own cities. Without a capacity to grieve the massive suffering of our own times, we may miss the most important meaning of the crucifixion.
Crucifixion was a horror that was almost impossible to take in. It was Rome's most humiliating form of punishment. Crucifixion was used against the oppressed and was regarded as so shameful even families of victims would not speak of the victims again. They were like Hibakusha, who tried to hide a shameful past or hidden Christians whose very existence was forbidden. Crucifixion tore the fabric of even the strongest bonds of family connection and friendship.
Knowing this historical truth about crucifixions, we should be surprised that the gospels speak so explicitly about Jesus' death. They reject the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. They weave the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice by placing a Psalm of lamentation about the Babylonian exile on Jesus' lips.
To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, passion, love, and remembrance.
Kathleen Corley in her book Maranatha suggests that women composed the stories as an act of lamentation. From ancient times, women have tended the bodies of the dead, and they have carried the public role of grieving. The women who mourned Jesus preserved the memory of who he was and how he died. Out of respect, for the victim of torture and execution, the narratives mute the horror, neglect its details, and tell of a dignified end and burial. Perhaps we can imagine Mother Mary leading the women in Jesus community in their profound grief. "Let us see your gentle face, Mary."
Just as Jesus, in John's Gospel, stood before Pilate and said "you have no power over me," the passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus' movement. In doing so, they placed before his people the responsibility to tell his story and say his name out loud. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of difficult choices, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life.
Every spring, I take a pilgrimage to a place near Hollister, California, called the Pinnacles. They are a unique mountain formation that sits on the east side of the coastal mountains about 40 miles from the sea. They are volcanic formations with sharp peaks, deep caves, and hundreds of microclimates that range from lush, moist streams to desert cactus. In spring, it is possible to see virtually every wildflower that blooms in California on the five hour hike up and down the peaks. After climbing the rugged three hours to the top, where all seems dry, rocky, and barren, I have turned a corner of the trail and found a minature fern and moss garden hugging a cleft of rock where water seeps to the surface. I've seen golden eagles soar the azure sky. When I'm there I feel the world transfigured by surprising miracles.
The Pinnacles are also a sharp reminder of the earth's instabilities and enormous, invisible power. One reason they are so unusual is that they look as if a giant took a chain saw and cut half of them away. In fact, this is true. The Pinnacles are only half of a volcanic eruption from millions of years ago. They sit near the San Andreas earthquake fault line. The other half is 200 miles south near Lancaster, California. They continue to drift apart every year.
Human beings, since our beginnings, have had to mourn the forces of earth that steal life from us before we are ready, much too soon. Death is part of the cycles of life and of creation. Mourning is how we acknowledge these losses without giving up on love.
But we also experience other disaster brought by human misuses of power. The slaughter at Shimabara, A-Bomb attacks, the broken levees in New Orleans, and the struggle to stop the impending disaster at Fukushima are not natural disasters. Most natural disasters in our world are now compounded by our systems of technology that have allowed industrialized nations to live far beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain our lives. Desperate to maintain consumption levels and to increase wealth, our governments and corporations take enormous risks with human lives and the environment. Rather than respecting the earth's limits, we have done our best to overcome them.
Life's surprising miracles remind us that the only life we know for certain is here and now. Let us guard and protect it, and love it fiercely in our grief. The transfiguration of the world is in our hands.
"Mary, fill the glass to overflowing,
illuminate the path where we are going
and have mercy on us all."