Smiling East-West spirit,
You move with sun and Son,
Shining Peace on us.
Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.
— In memory of Kosuke Koyama, Peggy Shriver, NY, NY
Meeting Kosuke Koyama
One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.
Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Firebombing of Tokyo
The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.
During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, a sullenness came over him when I would ask him for stories. All these years later I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to him, the 15-year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.
Neighbor-Love — “Even the Americans”
The pastor who baptized him took Ko’s face in his hands to instruct him: “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies…even the Americans.”
For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?
The Sin of American Exceptionalism
At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.
In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.
Hiroshima Day in Minneapolis 2006
Fourteen years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself.
“Then, dear friends,”” he said to make his point to his American listeners, “do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”
Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:
“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006). Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”
This Hiroshima Day I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times.
“You stand — and I bow.”
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2015