Hiroshima: toward a Greater Light

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Thanks to executive producer Peter Wallace of Day1.org for featuring the podcast of “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” in advance of the August 8 Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Click HERE to sign up and listen on Day1.org.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama  (1929-2009)

This meditation, an excerpt from Be Still!, reflects on Hiroshima  in the greater light of the Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese peacemaking theologian to whom the collection of essays is dedicated.

Kosuke (pronounced ‘KO-soo-kay’) Koyama was 15 years old when it happened, and was baptized during the firebombing of Tokyo.

The horror of the bombings led him to see something else about us: the sin of exceptionalism that knows no limits.

nuclear-bombHis last published book — Theology and Violence: Towards A Theology of Nonviolent Love awaits translation into English from the original Japanese.  We wait on bended knee.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 5, 2017.

 

 

Five men in a living room

Funny how things come to consciousness slowly over time until, in a flash of light, what should have been obvious all along comes clearly into view.

Learning that “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” would not air as expected on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” because of its length, I went back to read it and hear it again over morning coffee.

Hearing the ending again –“three men in a living room — two Americans and on dead Japanese….” — I realized there were more than three. There were five.

Without the influence of the missing two, “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” would not have been written. It was as though the pen I had thought was in my hand had been in theirs. They had written the piece.

Who were the missing two?

My American father, the former World War II Army Air Force Chaplain on Saipan, and Kosuke Koyama, the teenage Japanese survivor of the American  firebombing of Tokyo.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!. RIP

A father casts a long shadow over a son’s life.

Except for a poem he had written on Saipan about the flames of war lighting the night skies of the South Pacific, Dad didn’t talk about the war. During his 18 years as pastor of the Marple Presbyterian Church in Broomall, Pennsylvania, Korean and Japanese students from Princeton Theological Seminary were frequent weekend guests in our home.

 

Kosuke Koyama – RIP

Kosuke Koyama, who had been a student at Princeton Seminary during my teenage years, came into my life decades later in 1996 when he moved to Minneapolis following his retirement as John D. Rockefeller, Jr Professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

Might Ko have been a guest in our home way back when?

That my father and Ko might have known each other is a happy thought.

But, whether they occupied the same physical space is not as important as the large space they opened in the inheritor of their influence. Two invisible men in a living room brought the other three together in the bonds of sacred silence and the hope of something better for us all.

Funny thing! If the recording had aired yesterday on “All Things Considered”, I might still be in the dark!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, in honor of Kenneth Campbell Stewart and Kosuke Koyama, May 30, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Change has no boundaries

kosuke-koyama-2

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009)

“Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today.

Mezzanine_924-2

James Baldwin (L)  MLK, Jr.

“’One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself,’ says James Baldwin. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.”

You will be like God

“There is only one sin,” suggested Kosuke Koyama, “Exceptionalism.”

Looking again at the Genesis stories of creation and fall (Gen.1-4) through these eyes seems to go to the heart of the story of humanity and the rest of nature.

The Garden of Eden is a natural paradise. All the creatures are living in harmony within the limits of nature itself.

Then, without explanation, a pernicious idea intrudes. The serpent suggests to the humans that they can become the exception to creaturely existence. “You will be like God! You will be the exception to the rest of us. You will know what no creature can know. You will be like the Creator. You will know good and evil.”

There has been no thought of evil in the Genesis paradise before the sin of exceptionalism breaks the unity of all creatures under the reign of the glad Creator who had declared it all ‘good”.

Only two chapters later, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” [Gen. 6:5-6].

In a similar vein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, declared, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”

With a wisdom and passion akin to the Genesis writer, Oppenheimer opined after watching the first nuclear explosion, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

One can hope and pray that the wisdom of Genesis, Oppenheimer, and Koyama will turn those with their fingers on the buttons of nuclear arsenals away from the power of the serpent’s deception, and make a sad Creator glad again.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 11, 2017.

Spell check chuckle

Kosuke Koyama, Ph.D

Kosuke Koyama, Ph.D

Was the professor’s career distinguished or disguised?

Last night’s post stated that Kosuke Koyama had “a disguised career as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.”

The distinguished professor would get a chuckle.

Thanks to Carolyn Kidder (no pun intended) who had a disguised career as a music librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, for arresting the spell check error in the fourth paragraph.

  • Gordon, Chaska, MN, Ja. 26, 2016

On Hiroshima Day 2015 – Like a Child Piling Blocks

Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Towering poet.

Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.

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 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, there was a certain sullenness that would come over him whenever I would ask him for stories. Now, after my father’s passing, I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to the 15 year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.

The pastor who baptized him instructed him. “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your neighbors…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?

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.

Nine 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,he said to make his point to his American listeners, “dear friends, 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’.”

Today, Hiroshima Day, 2015 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:

Smiling East-West spirit,
You move with sun and Son,
Shining Peace on us.

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Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Towering poet.

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Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2015

Kosuke Koyama – Hiroshima Day

INTRODUCTION: Today is the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. It seems fitting for Views from the Edge to publish an address Japanese theologian and social critic Kosuke Koyama delivered at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis, MN at the very hour “Little Boy” turned Hiroshima into an inferno.  Dr. Koyama spoke these words on August 6, 2006 at the hour the bomb dropped on Hiroshima

Hiroshima Day Speech at the Peace Garden, Minneapolis – August 6, 2006. Kosuke (“Ko”) Koyama was living in downtown Minneapolis at the time.

It is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era,
war could be used as an instrument of justice (Pope John XXIII)

Dear Friends,

Sixty-one years ago, at 8:15 in the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was annihilated by a nuclear bomb. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy” exploded 570 meters above the ground creating a fireball 100 meters in diameter with a temperature at its center of 300.000 degrees Celsius. Instantly the city became a land of death and destruction. 140.000 people perished. Three days later, on August 9th, the city of Nagasaki suffered the same fate. 80.000 perished. The Japanese authority told us that this extremely powerful bomb was the atomic bomb and advised people to wear white shirts and carry ointment. When the war ended 66 major cities of Japan were desolate wildernesses through fire-bombing. During the night of March 10, 1945, five months before Hiroshima, 325 B29s burned 16 square miles of Tokyo killing 100.000 people. I narrowly survived that holocaust.

As we pause to remember Hiroshima day this morning we are deeply disturbed and concerned about the destruction going on in the Near East today. Any bombing is a demonstration of human depravity. It breeds nothing but despair and hatred. Above all, it kills innocent children! Injuring and killing children is an “absolute” evil. Bombing is an indefensible act of terrorism. It must be totally outlawed and abolished if humankind is to remain human. I am not afraid of God. God will never drop nuclear bombs upon the inhabited cities. I am afraid of humans, for they have actually done it and may do it again! Religious speeches about hell do not frighten me. Hell cannot be worse than what I saw and went through the night of March 10, 1945 in Tokyo. I do not think God can make a worse hell than the one made at the order of American Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay. (1906-1990).

What is it in the thinking of people that allows for the kind of violence and terror that we have created through the use of our modern weapons? Sadly we have to admit that too often violence is encouraged by fanatic religious language. Nothing can be more ignorant and violent than religious motivated fanaticism. “God is on our side!” To release the horrors of war in the name of God is the worst of heresies. War is “the failure of all true humanism.” “It [war] is always a defeat for humanity,” says Pope John Paul II. The sages of Asia, Buddha and Confucius, taught that “god-talk” makes humans irresponsible. People, they said, are responsible for what they do. “You make a mess. You clean it up” they say. This is an honest message. “You made a hideous mess in the Rape of Nanjing in 1937. You are responsible. You clean it up!” There is no conflict between this Asian message and the message of the religions of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Honest confrontation may activate “an enormous capacity for goodness and generosity” hidden in human spirits (The New York Times, July 31, 2006, from the Tikkun Advertisement, “STOP THE SLAUGHTER IN LEBANON, ISRAEL AND THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES!) As I reflect the litany of atrocities that has taken place during my life time I am led to say that it is honest human talk, not dishonest religious talk, that will give 21st century humanity the wisdom and courage to live by hope.

James Baldwin says: “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own; in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.” This is an honest observation not unlike Newton’s law of motion that to every action there is an equal reaction. We cannot demonize others without demonizing ourselves. We cannot bomb others without bombing ourselves. We cannot kill other children without killing our own children. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” says Jesus. This is honest human talk. To think that one can deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own is pornographic. To suggest that by taking the sword we can prosper by the sword is deceitful. The children in Hiroshima or in Baghdad are as precious as the children in San Francisco. Any religion, any political power, or any ideology that despises this universal preciousness of the lives of children and all human beings must be publicly condemned for the sake of the sanity of human spirit.

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 war-time “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, 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.

Today eight nations (the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and Israel) are in possession of nuclear arsenals. The bomb confers the power that I may characterize as “absolute.” Something that is “absolute” should not be trusted to unreliable human hands. The sanity of being human is to recognize human limitation. The idea of unlimitedness is demonic. Indefensible Weapons (Robert J. Lifton / Richard Falk) are “glorified” for their ability to pose an ultimate threat to an enemy. Albert Einstein saw that “war cannot be humanized. It must be abolished.” That is not an utopian dream. Let me quote from the recent New York Times Tikkun Advertisement: “The paranoid and allegedly ‘realistic’ version of global politics asserts that we live in a world in which our safety can only be achieved through domination, or others will seek to dominate us first. Of course, when we act on this assumption, it becomes self-fulfilling.” Martin Luther King Jr. said that “if we want to survive upon the earth, for our own self-interest, we better learn to love our enemies.”

In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological, our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with the nuclear arsenal 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.”

Remember that fireball! It is a human copy of the great fireball called the Sun. Humanity is now in possession of the unimaginable possibility of cosmic super-violence. We, the species called human on the third planet of the solar system, are now capable to obliterate all living beings upon the earth. When Hiroshima/ Nagasaki was nuclear bombed, symbolically the whole world was bombed. Every bomb used against others is ultimately a bomb exploded upon ourselves. How dedicated we are to destroy ourselves! Since Hiroshima, war is no longer about this nation against that nation. It is we, all of humanity, who are against our own good.

We must hold on to the vision of the “enormous capacity for good and generosity” of the billions of people upon the earth! At this moment it is fitting for the world to remember the gift the American people made to Japanese people in 1945 which was enshrined in the Article Nine of the Post War Constitution of Japan:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Boundary Breaking God

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama – RIP

Today I am remembering with tearful thanksgiving Japanese theologian Kosuke (“Ko”) Koyama, who blessed me late in his life with friendship. Dr. Koyama, who was baptized during the American bombing raid on Tokyo, preached this sermon at The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota on Sunday, June 6, 2006.

Texts: Ps. 139: 7-10; Luke 14: 1-6

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ,

The text from the Book of Leviticus:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

This is a challenging suggestion for the immigration and naturalization policy of any nation. God does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. The God of the Bible is more concerned about the welfare of the aliens, the weak, than of citizens, the strong. Remember your own experience in Egypt! “Love the alien as yourself!” Jesus is even more emphatic when he says, “Love your enemies!” We think of aliens and enemies as potential threats to our community. They must be kept outside of our boundaries.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observes the New England poet, with sharp insight. Something there is in the gospel of Christ that dismantles walls. Jesus “has broken down the dividing walls,” we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (2:14)
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“In the beginning was the Word”  (John 1:1) – This Word, the truthful Word, “breaks down the dividing walls” by making honest dialogue possible. When communication breaks down peace breaks down. It takes a great deal of dialogue to come to mutual understanding between peoples of different language, religions, racial and cultural practice. Often the choice is between dialogue and mutual destruction, between diplomacy and war. The alternative to dialogue is taking the sword. Jesus says; “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). Our “sword” today is incredibly destructive! Our fear, today, is of nuclear proliferation. We fear it because we started it! “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”! (Dt.30:19)
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The brief gospel text for this morning is a record of a profound dialogue. The story is honest and transparent. We can understand it very well. The dumfounded lawyers and Pharisees only reveal the sincere quality of the story. In conversation with Jesus, the man of total honesty, human hypocrisy is exposed and expelled.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” but they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

How boldly Jesus simplifies and zeroes-in on the central issue! “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” This is the question that distinguishes the gospel from religion. This story is only one of a number of “Sabbath controversies” told in the gospels. The gospel breaks boundaries. Religion often insists on boundaries. The gospel opens windows in hope. Religion may shut windows in fear. The gospel is “scandalously” inclusive. Religion often is piously exclusive. “You shall love the alien as yourself” expresses the spirit of the gospel. Religion tends to question whether everyone deserves to be loved.

The Sabbath is a holy institution commemorating the holy rest God has taken after creating “heaven and earth.” Sabbath is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex.20: 8-11).

“On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered” (Lk. 6:6) “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10,11).

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, … Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy” (the disease of the swelling from abnormal fluid retention ). A man of withered hand, a woman who is bent over, and a man with dropsy appear “on the Sabbath in front of him.”

Jesus cures them. Jesus “works” on the Sabbath! Some for whom it is important to “keep” the sabbath complain, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Lk.13:14). Jesus, for whom the persons with need are more important than the rule, responds, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus comes to heal the broken human community. He is the embodiment of direct love-action and action-love. He cures sick people publicly on the Sabbath with unassailable authority and freedom. The people are amazed – ecstatic – and praise God. Representing the God of compassion, Jesus breaks the boundary attached to the sacred Sabbath tradition. In his “boundary breaking” he restores the authentic purpose of the sabbath – that is, to bring health to human community. The Sabbath is for healing. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” says Jesus (Mk.2:27). What a freedom he exhibits!

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is “scandalous” says the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1: 18-25) for he is “the man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer, (Jesus, chap. 2). Creeds, doctrine, theology, or tradition cannot domesticate Jesus. No one can confine Jesus within walls. Let me quote from a Swiss New Testament scholar:

“…teaching in itself does not convey the living God. It may even hinder his coming, though it (the teaching) may be totally correct. It is exactly the most correct and orthodox teaching that would suggest that we had got hold of God. Then he can no longer come in his surprising ways” (Eduard Schweizer, Luke: A Challenge to Present Theology p.58)

We feel uneasy when Jesus breaks the boundaries we make, because boundaries are a part of our accepted culture. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yet, fences can never be the final word. Tragically in our real lives fences work more in the direction of mutual alienation than mutual embrace. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” – says the poet. That is a good question!

When I was in my early teens, Japan followed her gods who were rather poorly educated in international relations. They were parochial. They spoke only Japanese. They did not criticize Japanese militarism. They endorsed the inflated idea that Japan is a righteous empire. Trusting these parochial gods, the people recited, to paraphrase: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, behold the glory of the divine emperor of Japan is there!” Japan broke international boundaries in pursuit of self-glorification and aggrandizement. Without any threat from her Asian neighbors, Japan attacked and invaded them. The Japanese gods approved and Japan ruined herself. Blessed are nations that have a God who criticize what they do! The God of Israel said to God’s own people: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

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The infant Jesus “was placed in a manger – “for there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)  Being thus edged out even from a human birth place, Jesus breaks a boundary. When he “eats with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk.2:16) he breaks a boundary. Crucified, nailed to the cross, – completely immobilized – he breaks a boundary. Dying between two criminals, becoming a member of this community of three crosses, he breaks a boundary. Being “numbered with the transgressors”, to quote from the Book of Isaiah (53:12), he breaks boundaries. This is an amazing story. The one who is totally vulnerable, disarmed, non-violent, and immobilized and humiliated has broken all the boundaries, which threaten the health of human community.

With our geopolitical realities, we may think that the way of Christ is romantic and not realistic. Then we must know that the alternative is the historical fact of 5000 years of human civilization replete with constant warfare. Should we continue this state of endless destruction for another 5000 years? Gandhi’s practice of non-violence has done more to increase the welfare of humanity upon the earth than many wars put together. Martin Luther King Jr. says: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival”! (Strength to Love, p.47) “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God‘s weakness is stronger than human strength” cries the apostle Paul (1 Cor.1:25).

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“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26). The birds of the air and the Father who feeds them are free from all boundaries. Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989.  The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Check Point Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today. “One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself” says James Baldwin. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God. 

Divine Folly and Human Wisdom

A sermon at the Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, March, 2003.

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

Author Frederick Buechner reminds us that as the curtain falls on the final tragic scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the final words are uttered: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

We cannot help but speak what we feel and if what I say this morning misses the mark of preaching the gospel, perhaps by God’s grace you will hear nonetheless a Word for your life and the world’s. For the Spirit takes our words and uses them in the hearing of the listener at least as much as in the speaking of the speaker.

I speak to you this morning – in the weight of this sad time of war – as a child of wartime. I was born 1942. When I was a year old my father enlisted as an Army chaplain. When I was one-and-a-half I waved goodbye from a dock in Los Angeles as the tears streamed down my mother’s face. Although too young to understand the reason for the tears, I was not too young to inhabit the sorrow, the dread and the grief. I grew up with air raid sirens ringing in my ears. Several years after my father returned safely from the South Pacific – from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, the island from which the “Enola Gay” made its run at Hiroshima – the sound of the fire siren would wake me with the horror of impending death.

Though the bombs never fell near my house or on my city, I grew up as a child of Baghdad, and I will be forevermore.

And so these days I awaken very early. I can’t sleep. I get up, make the coffee, turn on the reading lamp in the living room and read to still the storm. In the dark of night I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I plummet down one rabbit hole after another, trying to get my bearings in a world that seems to have lost its sanity – no north or south, no east or west, only a whirring gyroscope of confusion and nonsense. I feel sick over the bombs, sick over the lies and disinformation. Sick with a sense of impending doom.

But I also know that the Christian should not be surprised by this. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’”

The cross of Jesus refutes all human wisdom that confuses might with right. The cross – the Roman means of State execution, the first century equivalent of an electric chair – stands empty. In the light of Easter, the might of the mighty is powerless. The cleverness of the clever is thwarted. The wisdom of the wise is destroyed. The cross exposes the vanity of power. It judges every act of ethnic cleansing, every assassination, every torture, every death committed in the name of national security. It exposes the untruth of every clever piece of propaganda and disinformation that twists the truth to shiver our knees in fear. The cross of Jesus exposes the foolishness of the wise, the powerlessness of the powerful, the folly of the clever.

As I sit in the pre-dawn darkness with my morning paper and a cup of coffee, the dawn slowly lights the horizon ‘til the sun lights the eastern sky and floods the porch with morning light. With the rising of the sun on the far horizon there rises within me the psalmist’s psalm of joyful praise, an awareness of a larger providence:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork…
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit
to the end of them. (Ps. 19:1-1,4b-5)

I am suddenly keenly aware that the sun rises on my neighbor, as well as on me, and that it rises every morning on Iraq and North Korea, on Afghanistan and China, on Venezuela and Timbuktu…without discrimination. It rises on Muslims and Christians and Jews, on Sikhs and Buddhists, on atheists and agnostics, capitalists, communists and anarchists. “The foolishness of God” – this expansive, inclusive providence and generosity of God – is wiser than human wisdom.” It is in that spirit that our Lord said to all would-be disciples:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your neighbors, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:43-48)

God’s care is like that. To be perfected in God’s image is to love like that – ubiquitously! If it were up to us, there would be sunshine fences everywhere. “Send a little sun over here, God, and ominous clouds over there! Send a few spring showers over here, God, and torrents of rain over there! A little warmth over here, a blizzard over there.” God’s providence does not create sunshine fences. God plays no favorites. There is no such division in God’s care.

So, when Paul writes to the Corinthians about the divine folly being wiser than human wisdom – when he says that “to those who are being saved (notice that Paul does not say “To those who are saved, but to those who are being saved”), “it (the cross) is the power of God” – it cannot be a division between the saved and the damned. No war of the children of light against the children of darkness. No sunshine fences. All such constructs are of human origin. Salvation (healing) is a work in progress. And it’s a work of God, not us. It’s not a done deal. It’s a daily process of transformation day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. There can be no boasting except to boast of the man on the cross, no definition of human perfection other than this extravagant love of God.

Several years ago I was blessed by the friendship of Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, former John D. Rockefeller Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Union Theology Seminary in the City of New York, who now lives here in the Twin Cities with his American wife, Lois.

Dr. Koyama vividly remembers being baptized as a teenager. He was baptized during the bombing of Tokyo. As the bombs rained down on his city, Kosuke’s pastor told him that those who are baptized in Christ must love their enemies. “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” The planes that were bombing Kosuke’s city were sent off from my father’s airstrips!

Dr. Koyama recalls being startled by the God of the Bible, as he read the Book of Isaiah. What struck him was that the God of the Bible stands not only for but also against his own people. God takes the people to task. The God of Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah is saddened and offended by their behavior. In stark contrast, says Koyama, the Japanese god – the god of the emperor and the imperial cult, never criticized the emperor or the people. “You want to invade Manchuria? Sure. Go ahead. Good boy, good boy. Japanese. Good boy! You want to bomb Pearl Harbor? Go ahead. Good boy, good boy! Japanese. Good boy!”

At that early age, Kosuke Koyama decided that he would never again follow a god that spoke only one language. And that he would never again worship an uneducated god. The God of the Bible, he says, speaks more than one language. The God of the universe speaks many languages. The God of the Bible is a spacious God. Not the god of an imperial cult. The God of the Bible is an educated God. Not the god of the nation.
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In the early morning hours, even as my soul rises in praise of the sun’s rising, I feel sad and just a bit angry. I can feel something of that tremendous feeling of loneliness and anger that Jesus must have felt as he watched the commerce of the temple and sat there in silence, braiding a whip out of the chords they had used to tie the animals. I can see him and hear him cracking his whip to chase out the traders and the money-changers: “You shall not make of my Father’s house a house of trade!”

There is a place in the Christian faith for indignation. There is a place for anger when wrong is done, when falsehood parades as truth, when arrogance takes the place of diplomacy, when religion blesses bombs. And for the sake of the nation, if not for ourselves, we need to recover our ability to feel things deeply. All around us and within us there is fear and acquiescence. Only the power of God’s kingdom can revive in us the capacity for outrage when children anywhere shiver in fear in air raid shelters.

Terrorism is a real threat. But the greater threat to America is that we will lose our capacity to mourn unnecessary death, that we will lose our capacity for anger when a child dies or is psychologically damaged by American bullets and bombs, that we will lose our souls by placing them on the altar of what President Eisenhower chillingly described as a military-industrial complex which, one day, would be out of control, turned loose to do its job.

And when Jesus had driven out those who sold and those who bought, he taught them, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers. And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him, for they feared him.” (Mk. 17-18b)

And so Paul writes that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’”

Why is the word of the cross the power of God?

Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a visit to Rwanda after the genocide of 1994. In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Bishop Tutu tells of visiting a church in the capitol of Rwanda where Tutsis had been mowed down and where the bodies continued to lie as they had fallen the year before during the massacre. He describes the church as a disturbing monument to the viciousness of which we as human beings are capable.

“Those who had turned against each other in this gory fashion had often lived amicably in the same villages and spoken the same language. They had frequently intermarried and most of them had espoused the same faith – most were Christians. The colonial overlords had sought to maintain their European hegemony by favoring the main ethnic group, the Tutsis, over the other, the Hutu, thus planting the seeds of what would in the end be one of the bloodiest episodes in modern African history.”

Asked to preach at the main stadium in Kigali, the capitol, the Bishop said that the history of Rwanda “was typical of a history of ‘top dog’ and ‘underdog’. The top dog wanted to cling to its privileged position and the underdog strove to topple the top dog. When that happened, the new top dog engaged in an orgy of retribution to pay back the new underdog for all the pain and suffering it had inflicted when it was top dog.

He said that the extremists among the Hutus had proven that they were quite capable of waiting thirty years for the day when they could exact revenge, and that the same could be expected of the Tutsis – unless the cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal was broken. He told the crowd that “the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice, to move on to forgiveness, because without it there was no future.”

Human wisdom is “top dog” wisdom. Divine wisdom is the wisdom of the cross. Human wisdom is cyclical and vicious. Divine wisdom is a breakthrough – from cross to empty tomb.

Why is the word of the cross the power of God?

At the center of our crucifying behavior is fear. “The chief priests and the scribes sought a way to destroy him, because they feared him.” So do we. For the sake of this fear, we have been given a spirit of courage and boldness. We “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but … have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if, in fact, we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:15-17).

A client in deep distress, grief and sorrow, after struggling alone in anonymity with what Chaim Potok has called “the four-o’clock-in- the-morning-questions” and battening down the hatches of his psyche finally goes to a therapist for help. When he arrives, the therapist asks how it feels to be there. “Good,” says the man. “Good. If feels good to be in a safe place.” To his surprise, the therapist asks, “What makes you think this is a safe place? This isn’t a safe place. This is a very dangerous place! You didn’t come looking for safety. The only really safe place is six feet under. You didn’t come looking for safety. You came here looking for life.”

Isn’t it the same with you? We come here looking for life, not safety, not death. We come looking for wisdom, not folly. For straight talk, not double-talk. We come listening for the genuine good news of the gospel. We come because we’re tired of falling down rabbit holes. We come for truth and straight talk about a gospel that lays bare every lie and every pretense, every fleeting power – a gospel that lays us bare before God.

In our nakedness, standing before the Mercy Seat of God’s judgment, exposed in our vain substitute of safety for life, may the Spirit that cries out with our spirits for life in its fullness silence every voice but its own, free us from fear and from the tyranny of security, and grant us to enter boldly through the foolishness of the cross to the fullness and joy of life itself.

And let us remember that this world is no cheap five and dime house of trade in which life is bought and sold for nickels and dimes. This world is the House of our Father who is in Heaven! And now to the One who is able to keep us from falling, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The President and Kosuke Koyama

“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Conclusion of President Obama’s Sept. 10 national address on Syria.

Kosuke Koyama

Kosuke Koyama

By the end of his life in 2009, Kosuke Koyama had concluded that there is only one sin: exceptionalism.

I wish President Obama had been able to consult with Kosuke Koyama (1929 – 2009) before delivering this speech. He might have chosen his words more carefully. Koyama was a world-renowned Japanese Christian theologian and leader in inter-religious dialogue, author of Waterbuffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: a Critique of Idols, among other books.

Koyama first heard the claim of national exceptionalism in the Japan of his childhood. Japan was exceptional. The best. Number one. The Empire of the Rising Sun. The Emperor, supported by the religion of the imperial cult, could do no wrong. He was divine. So was Japan.

Dr. Koyama and his wife Lois moved to Minneapolis following his retirement. He shared with his friends his deep sadness that the old Japanese imperial claim had become the American claim.

America’s “leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used” is at stake.

Fact: the worse weapons ever used (nuclear and chemical) have already been used. We used them. We are the only nation on the planet to have dropped the atomic bomb. We dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. We used chemical weapons in Vietnam. Agent Orange is a chemical weapon. Napalm is a chemical weapon.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.

We have thought of ourselves as the world’s policeman and we still do. A policeman insures that the law of the land is enforced. The law that causes such resentment in the Middle East is the law of American exceptionalism and prerogatives. For the Arab world, this is what makes America different: the presumption of American exceptionalism expressed by re-arranging the economic-political-cultural landscape to advance Western interests, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, or by imposing and disposing, as in the CIA assassination of the legitimate President of Iran and the installation of the Shah, or our support for Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War.

Very clearly, the U.S. has not sought to right every wrong. Nor should we. But our language is hollow at best and jingoistic at worst when one surveys the history of American intervention into the internal affairs of other sovereign states as the heir of British colonialism. The arrangements in the Middle East have their genesis in deals made by wealthy British and American elites with elite Arab Sheiks and strong men like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi until they no longer were useful.

“But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”

International scenes of human suffering and terror abound. In some cases we have chosen to act. In others, like Darfur, we chose not to act based largely on the principle of American self-interest. If American national interests were not threatened or affected, we did not act militarily. We acted humanely with humanitarian aid, but we did not act militarily to stop the horror of genocide in Darfur.

The principle of American national security and self-interest is clear in the President’s speech where he ties together the long-term safety of American children here at home with the short-term safety of children being gassed in Syria. That is, arguably, the way it should be. The use of chemical weapons and the threat of them in the hands of those who hate us is an ominous prospect.

Whether we should act is not, however, the question. The question is how America should act? Furthermore, how we decide to act should be informed and guided by the lessons of our own historic use of weapons of mass destruction and our own involvement in the supply of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, used in the Iraq-Iran War and allegedly used against his own people in Iraq.

It is an essentially moral position to condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, nuclear, or biological. It is immoral to use them –an offense against humanity, and offense against all nature, and, for religious people, an offense against God.

Unfortunately there is not an equivalent of confession for nation states when they themselves have acted against their own declared moral principles. President Obama did not drop the bombs on Japan. Nor did he or his Administration supply the chemical weapons that did in Iraq what has happened to the mothers and children in Damascus. He might wish he could wash the blood from America’s hands or erase these chapters of American history, but he cannot. He cannot because the facts are facts, and the rest of the world remembers.

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em>“That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

“There is only one sin,” said Kosuke Koyama,.“Exceptionalism.”

The myth of American exceptionalism dates back to a great hope as the new nation was about to be born. It was spoken in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop on the Arbella sailing the high seas from the Old World of England to the New World of America. The biblical text of John Winthrop’s sermon was the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew applied to the adventure of establishing an exceptional nation, “the city set upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14) to give light to the world.

Although the word ‘exceptionalism’ is foreign to most Americans except those in academia or those who are especially attuned to American politics, it is the controlling myth of American life and the ground to which succeeding American Administrations and Congresses have turned to justify American ventures – economic, spiritual, political, cultural, and military.

In some way or another it falls to each Administration to uphold the myth, even and perhaps especially, when the myth appears to be false. The aspiration of a city set upon a hill was etched in mind of the Church, not a nation-state. It was and is a call to a different way, and its original spokesman saw that city quite differently from the American military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. This Jesus, a Jewish rabbi living under the Roman occupation of the First Century C.E., was not a warrior or a policeman. He saw to the heart of the human condition and the tragedy of high moral claims that justify all forms of violence.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Gospel of Matthew 7:3-5, NRSV).

There is only one sin.

Koyama’s last work was Theology and Violence: Towards a Theology of Nonviolent Love, published in Japanese in 2009 in Tokyo. There is, as yet, no American translation.