Christian Heroes: God’s Witness – A Japanese Fool For Christ

November 27, 1994


A Japanese Fool for Christ

While the baseball boys of summer and the men who own the stadiums continue to quarrel over how to divvy up their pot of gold; while that great American statesman, Jesse Helms, recovers from his chronic affliction of hateful heart and loose tongue; and while Muslims and Christians in the former Yugoslavia kill each other’s children, I thought it might be a good time to remember once again three men who took seriously the call of God to live lives of kindness and compassion: an Oriental, a German, and an American — heroes of faith who from beyond the grave pass judgment on all of us who profess to be Christian.
One of the most painful voids in American life these days is the scarcity of genu-ine heroes…. celebrities by the hundreds, only a handful of heroes. We hear that last word too often to look in a dictionary to see what it means, but a a definition might be instructive: “Hero: a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.” We apply the word indiscriminately to a talk show host who spreads hate and slants the truth, to a convicted felon who almost became a United States senator, and to a famous football player who ran fast and dodged tacklers better than most but who is not likely to find a niche in history as a man of brave deeds and noble qualities. I think we have cheapened the word “hero” and in a trilogy of sermons before we get to Christmas I would like to suggest what the word might mean to those of us who begin each week by worshipping in the name of Christ. I shall introduce you this morning to a hereo my sermon title calls “a fool for Christ.”
One day in 1950, a famous Japanese Christian came to an American city to speak. He was met at the train by a group of distinguished clergymen who escorted him to the building where a large crowd was waiting. Just before going into the auditorium, the party of notables stopped in a washroom to freshen up. They washed their faces and hands, and threw their crumpled paper towels carelessly toward the wastebaslet. A few missed the mark, as usual, but they were in a hurry….the crowd was waiting. As they were about to enter the auditorium they noticed suddenly that their famous guest was missing. Had he been taken ill? Waylaid by autograph seekers? Not exact-ly! While thousands waited to hear him speak, this diminutive Oriental scholar was back in the restroom, picking up paper towels left on the floor, so some janitor he had never met would not have to do it.
The man’s name was Toyohiko Kagawa, and 40 years ago he was well-known among informed Christians in this country and around the world. What he did in the washroom was a perfectly natural outgrowth of his belief that even the smallest act, if motivated by concern for others, is never inconsequential. He was both a hard-headed realist who knew exactly what the world was like, and a devout mystic who wrote haunting poetry and who sacrificed his mind and body on the altar of his faith. I’d like you to meet him.
His mother was not his father’s legal wife, but a geisha girl whom the boy remembered as one of the gentlest and most beautiful human beings he ever knew. I could not help but think how strange it would be if this man had inadvertently founded a new religion, been called the Messiah, and then had to explain to a curious world just how it is that the Son of God could have been born to a geisha girl. But then, we already have an unwed peasant girl from Nazareth to keep us occupied. There may be a pattern in the mysteries of providence. Toyohiko’s father had left his legal wife behind in the country when he moved to Kobe to build an empire in poli-tics and business; the geisha girl, Kame, was accepted by almost everyone as his wife for 25 years, during which time she bore him several children.
For one of them, Toyohiko, the first of many tragedies struck when he was only four. His father died, which was hard for him even thought the two were not close, but then only two months later his beloved mother died just as suddenly, and he was left bewildered. He was sent back to the country place, which he had never known, to be put under the care of his father’s legal wife, whom he had never met. She did not welcome a boy who symbolized her husband’s disloyalty, and so she punished him often and locked him up frequently in dark buildings around the farm.
Fortunately, this small, sensitive boy found a way to escape. He discovered books and found a new world of freedom. When it became clear he would do well in school, he won permission to take the entrance exam for a fine institution in a nearby city. It was through friends at that school that he met a Christian missionary named Myers (wrong spelling and no relation!) who taught him English and talked about a strange new religion called Christioanity. Japanese people are not as reticent about tears as we are, and one day when Toyohiko heard the story of the crucifixion he began to cry. “Is this true?” he asked, and the missionary said, “Yesd.” The boy could not believe it. “Do you mean that he was killed , after all he had done for people?” The minister looked at him intently, wondering how the young boy would receive his words, and then he said: “He died because he loved them.”
That night, Toyohiko knelt on a mat and made his first tentative prayer as a Christian. It was simple. He asked if he could be made like the man who had died. For a while he was torn between his Japanese heritage and the desire to profess the Christian faith, and like any young man he struggled with indecision. Myers asked him one day, “Do you say your prayers?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Under the bedclothes before I go to sleep.” “Shouldn’t you be baptized?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because my family would disown me.” Myers looked at him until he raised his eyes from the floor and said, “So you are a coward?” It was not a taunt, and Toyohiko took it as it was meant: a plain statement of fact, tinged with regret. He was baptized.
The uncle who was now supporting him shrugged it off as part of the price of progress Japan had to pay for relations with the West, and hoped it would make no practical difference. He had noticed that it made none for most of the Christian foreigners he had met. But unlike so many others who profess religious faith, it did make a difference to his nephew…. in almost everything he did. When Japan went to war with Russia, he refused to train with a fun on the school grounds, and threw it down. When he refused an order to pick it up, the instructor asked for an explana-tion. “Because Japan is wrong to go to war!” The infuriated teacher knocked him down and kicked him in the face and stomach. Kagawa did not know it, but it was to be the beginning of a way of life among people who could not tolerate the passion with which he made his life and his beliefs into one.
At the age of 17 he was offered, by his uncle, a chance to go the Imperial Uni-versity in Tokyo. Kagawa said, “I have no wish to go to the University. I intend to become a Christian minister.” This time the uncle had had enough; he expelled his nephew from the house, and disinherited him. Toyohiko went to stay with his old friend Myers who helped him enroll in a Presbyterian college in Tokyo. The profes-sors and fellow students found him odd, mainly because he was already such a strong individualist. He was beaten up one night by a group of boys for saying that his country was wrong to be at war, but his behavior toward them, and a word of for-giveness he spoke suddenly, shamed them and they left. One of them, much later, took part — as a Christian minister — in Kagawa’s ordination.
Early in his life as a believer Kagawa came to feel that church architecture was too showy and expensive to reflectd the realities of the religion of Jesus. But even this reformer had a touch of vanity in him….he coveted those neat new uniforms worn by the college students: dark blue with white piping around a stiff collar. So when Myers sent him money to buy a set of Plato he had seen in a bookshop, he used the money instead to buy a uniform. But his conscience huyrt. He wrote a long, miserable leteter to Myers, disappeared for a few days to think things out, and was never seen in the uniform again. From that time on, he wore the cheap, simple garments of poor people.
When his studies at the college were completed, he moved to Kobe to attend seminary, and there he discovered the infamous slums of Shinkawa, so full of murder-ers, thieves and pimps that no respectable citizen dared set foot in it. These people seemed to him to be the “lost” of whom Christ had spoken, and so at the age of 19 he went to stand at the crossway of two alleys to speak the good news of love and for-giveness. No one paid much attention, and no one cared much when at the end of a month he collapsed. Underfed and overworked, he had contracted tuberculosis, and those who cared for him thought he wouldn’t make it. To their surprise, he recovered, and once his strength was back he head straight for the slums again, where he promptly got sick and collapsed a second time. this time it meant four months in the hospital, and finally the acceptance of good advice: he went to a little fishing village for a year to recuperate.
Myers came to see him once, despite the contagious disease, an action which Kagawa never forgot. It seemed to him like the compassion of Jesus himself. On Christmas day of 1909, after telling Myers that he did not widsh to be ordained or become a minister, that he was going instead to live in the slums, he crossed the Bridge of the Singing Cicada and became a resident of Shinkawa. His house was a 6-by-9 foot box which had been bought cheaply because a murder had taken place there and people thought it was haunted. Kagawa had known luxury as a child, so the poverty ionto which he now came was revolting. A man with a repulsive skin disease came and asked to share the hut. Kagawa wanted privacy, but he did not know how to preach compassion without showing it, so he allowed the man to stay a night or so. It was to become a pattern. A murderer, haunted by his crime, asked to stay for a few days. An alcoholic sought refuge. An abused child stayed for a time.
One day, in public, a drunk tried to stab him, and he ran. The crowd jeered him as a coward, but the next day he came back. A bully broke out four of his teeth. A brothel owner threatened him with a pistol because he preached against prostitution. Beggars kept asking for what he had, and they got it, until he was left finally with only a red kimono thrown into his hut by a neighbor woman. He kept a notebook, and in it he wrote: “Penniless and without food, I can live. Penniless, I can share my rags. But I cannot bear to hear hungry children cry.” He counted 7 murder in his own alley the first year. He saw wives rented out to bring back money. He saw an idiot girl with vile pictures tattooed on her back used for profit in ways she could not even compre-hend. He saw children driven out at 9 years of age, naked and cold, to beg in the streets. He was driven almost mad by the contrast between what he saw , every day, ssssssand the people up on the hill who had more than they needed, yet did not even seem to know that the slums were there.
Slowly his persistence began to impress people. Awed by what he did, people sent money. An American began contributing $50 per month. Kagawa wrote novels about what he saw, and the books sold, and the money went into food and clothing and medical supplies. A young woman saw him several times from a distance, met him, fell in love, and they were married. One can imagine how her parents felt. Kagawa came to believe it was the whole structure of society that needed changing. He came to America to study at Princeton, and earned a PhD. He now believed that labor needed legislation, and realized that being against poverty is not nearly so dangerous as suggesting that economic systems have to be changed to address the problem. When he backed the idea of labor unions, his fellow minister said, “Live in the slums if you like, lift those people by the gospel, but stay out of politics.” He found that advice impossible.
In 1920 he wrote a book called Across the Death Line, describing his life, and it created a sensation in Japan. He was arrested and beaten several times before it dawned on the Japanese industrialists that they were faced with a choice: either nego-tiate with labor under the leadership of Kagawa, or face the prospect of a Communist takeover among the desperate working classes. The trade unions were born, but Kagawa went on to say: “Unions are necessary, but labor problems can only be solved by a change in the heart.” He tried to stop Japan from going to war with China, and was arrested a a traitor. When he wrote the Chinese and asked that Japan be forgiven for her sin, Americans hailed him as a true Christian hero.
Then, on the 8th day of December, 1941, a cold grey day in Japan, Kagawa and his family heard the news of Pearl Harbor. He said later, “I felt that all the lights of the world had gone out. My heart was broken.” Later on, when he felt that American bombing had become excessive and inhumane, he said so just as firmly as he had rebuked his own people, and for a while both countries saw him as a traitor….but he was simply following the logic of his faith. MacArthur asked his advice when the war was over, and on a visit to see the Emperor, who wished to learn more about Chris-tianity, Kagawa pulled out a ragged Bible he had kept through the war, and read to Hirohito the word that had governed his own life: “Whosoever would be great among you must be the servant of all.”
He was honored in this country in 1950, and in 1959, in Tokyo, by hundreds of Christian leaders from all over the world who came to celebrate his 70th birthday. He was deeply moved and spoke so quietly through tears that he could hardly be heard. He communicated much more effectively through the written word, and so I will leave you with a paragraph that sums up this remarkable witness to the power of love, a Christian hero to think about sometime if celebrities on TV begin to bore you:
“There is nothing more exhilarating than to walk through the world unencum-bered. If possessions abound, there is a haunting fear that they may be stolen. If you are beautifully gowned, you worry lest your garments be soiled. If you are high of rank, you are anxious lest you be thrown down. If you pride yourself on being erudite, you are cut to the quick if someone makes light of you. Stripped to the skin! Stripped to the skin! That is the way to walk.”
If you feel that in such a passionate faith, he was extreme, at least let him pass some needed judgment on our fiercely acquisitive society because, after all, he was hearing, all those years, Someone else: Those who concentrate on hoarding their life will lose life, those who give it away for my sake find it, for what profit will it be for any of them if they gain the whole world and , in the process, lose their own souls? It’s a disturbing question, but now and again we have to consider it. Next Sunday, “The Man Who Saw The Statue” — second in this short series. Please come back.
If we cannot be, Almighty God, what others have been, help us to take new strength from theirs, and be more than we were. Amen.