Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Christ in Japan: A Walk with Toyohiko Kagawa

To the Ecclesiast
Princeton, New Jersey
August 1914

My Dearest Ecclesiast,

As the hurricanes of war rumors reach the shores of America from the butterfly wings of the Balkans, I pray this correspondence finds you well.  There are, as always, plenty of matters between us to discuss. However, given the present climate, it seemed a potential word of encouragement to relate to you a most extraordinary encounter from a recent visit to my alma mater, Princeton University.

I was lost in contemplation of the stunning array of recently imported trees along Alexander St. when I quite by accident stumbled into a gentleman who, from the look of things, shared my desire for a quiet walk.  Such a blunder is surprise enough.  But I was more surprised to learn, upon helping him from the ground, that he was, in fact, Japanese.  Readjusting his spectacles, he introduced himself to me as Toyohiko Kagawa, and informed me he was just finishing up his studies at the theological seminary.  He invited me to join him on his walk, and in so doing, he unwittingly imparted to me the great gift of inspiration and witness.

Mr. Kagawa was born and orphaned in Kobe, where he was subsequently raised by American missionaries.  He studied at the Tokyo Presbyterian College and Kobe Theological Seminary, but it would be a grave injustice to his character to circumscribe his extraordinary story within the limits of formal education.  For, in 1909, disheartened by seminarians' endless propensity for doctrinal hair-splitting - what our own Lutheran theologian Augustus Vilmar has scathingly labeled a "theology of rhetoric" (they are Presbyterians, whether they be Japanese, American, or Martian!) - he endeavored to live his Christian vocation in a quite different fashion.

Mr. Kagawa related it thus: "I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about." So what did he do?  He moved into the very worst slum in all of Japan, right in his backyard in Kobe!  He continues to keep a residence there, in a three-walled hovel, no less, not even dignified enough to call a shack.  He related tales that, quite frankly, put the bourgoise self-satisfaction we call "charitable giving" to shame.

Any money he manages to make, he uses to buy food, medicine and other supplies for his neighbors.  He is regularly identified as an "easy mark" by roving groups of thugs, and like the Apostle Paul, has endured all manner of beatings and ridicule for the sake of the Gospel.  While attacking him, one such group noted that they had heard he was a Christian - at which point, like Blessed Francis of Assisi, he stripped himself naked and handed over his clothes to them!  He told me of how Christ became more real to him than any reading of Calvin or Luther when, each night for four years, he held the hand of a known murderer as the man struggled to fall into a fitful sleep.

All of this he related, not as one who boasts on glory, but as a man who, it is clear, wishes to know only Christ, and Christ crucified.  While living such, he also managed to make himself many municipal enemies as he organized shipyard and slum workers.  He is in fact at Princeton precisely to more closely study the conditions of social injustice and poverty that plague the poor, in the hopes of returning to more effectively organize them.  But mark my words: he is no socialist.  In fact, he denounces socialism, communism, and especially capitalism as all fragmentary reflections of the greater, holistic truth of the Gospel, which goes beyond their sum in its power to transform the world.

And, in all this, perhaps most pressing for us in our historic moment, Mr. Kagawa is an ardent pacifist.  You know from our correspondences that this makes him instantly my brother and friend.  He believes the resources of faith are better channeled towards alleviating the violence done to the poor, as well as to the earth (he has the most curious agricultural theories which, somehow, he's managed to develop on the side of his other pursuits here at Princeton).  He has high ambitions of returning to his homeland to begin the reform of society.  And if any man I have ever met possesses the ability, the vocation, and the compulsion of Christ in faithfulness, it is he, Toyohiko Kagawa.

Kagawa with his class at Princeton Theological Seminary
My only grief for Brother Kagawa is the pain and consternation caused him by the wranglings of a church enslaved to its glorying in its doctrine.  You know me, and you know my commitment to sound doctrine.  But that such a man as this should be ignored, ridiculed, and denounced as a dreamer (even before the racial and ethnic epithets begin to fly) by what are considered some of this nation's brightest and best future theologians and pastors - let us say merely that it bodes not well for the future of the church's witness.  For a true witness has walked among us, and here, he walks as one unknown.

And yet, even in this grief, Mr. Kagawa remains resolute.  When I asked him if he tried to argue with them, he sadly shook his head.  The way of the cross - the way of descent - has always been a scandal, he reminded me.  Your Luther spoke of this, and you above all should know this.  He reminded me of that other amazing youth I met in my travels, young Ludwig Wittgenstein, when, with sad but resolute eyes, he looked at me and whispered: "you don't need to say much when you're hanging on a cross."

There was not much more to say, and we parted ways at Nassau St.  I wondered what all this extravagance looked like through eyes that, in Kobe, wake each morning to the sweaty brow of a murderer whose quiet night was bought at the price of the witnesses' sleeplessness.  I wondered what all of this theologizing we do sounds like to ears filled with the cries of prostitutes, children sold to the upper classes for horrific acts of rape and intercourse, to thugs shouting out for bread.  I wonder if such a voice can be heard over the echoing of the batteries and the chattering of rifle fire.

But such a voice exists.  In Kobe, in the slums, in a place most people have never heard of, in a country most still consider to be savage and oriental.  But, by grace, that voice took on flesh, and walked beside me in the still beauty of Princeton, and reminded me that, in many ways, it is I, in my finery and comfort, that live in prison.  And that freedom can be found in the shadow of the cross.

May we continue in the spirit of Toyohiko Kagawa, turning our minds, our dreams, our bodies and our spirits to the path of discipleship and love.  Lord knows, even if we are but a smattering of the healing rain of peace that falls upon the iron backs of the implements of modern warfare, we will become a chorus to the voice that declares, in the midst of chaos and death: "behold, I am making all things new."

Yours in faith,

The Alpinist

PS: More on Mr. Kagawa's journeys can be found in this pamphlet.

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