Fulfilled in Jesus

Our pilgrimage with our Beloved in Japan -- Yoko & Ramone on the journey with Jesus!

Monday, November 03, 2008

On Freedom of Religion

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
- Jesus of Nazareth (Mt.7:12)
After a long conversation about politics with my father on the phone today, I began to think about something which I think it is important for Americans to recognize, particularly Christian Americans. I wrote this note to my father.

Tonight as I remembered something you said earlier on the phone today, I got to thinking about it more and more, and an understanding became surprisingly clearer to me. And I think I can share this in a way that is hopefully not combative, but rather that shares a bit of myself, as well as some perspectives that will be new to you.

You'd said on the phone that the sessions of congress open with prayer... I'm not sure how that came up, possibly in response to me citing what Colin Powell had said ("What's wrong with a Muslim-American child thinking that one day he or she could become President?"). Also, you'd mentioned how prayer in public schools being banned was negative. The basic reasoning was that because the founders of the nation were Christian (mostly) and allowed certain practices/monuments (such as congressional prayer), then it should be more allowable than it currently is.

Living in Japan I get to be a minority, not only ethnically, but also religiously. Christians comprise perhaps about 1% of the population. I'm not sure how constant that figure has been in history, particularly before the war. In the late 1800s, the Christian population was growing in Japan, but it began to be curbed in the early 1900s and especially in the years leading up to the war. Most people in the United States are unaware of how the war in Japan came about. If you listen to the NRA's explanation, they'll tell you that it was because the government took guns out of the hands of civilians. But that actually factors very little into things at all.

Japan had subcurrents of nationalism and isolation which simply did not change when it became "modern" under the Meiji government. When Christian (Protestant) missions began to show a lot of success (and began or supported a lot of social work services) in the late 1800s, the traditional/nationalistic element in the Japanese government began to rise up to put a stop to it. The Japanese government made its appeal by saying that the health of families and the nation's sense of morality depended on Japan maintaining traditional Japanese beliefs (based on Confucian ethics in part, but more steeply founded on Shintoism and the Imperial system). To become distanced from traditional Japanese beliefs, they argued, would lead to immorality in the nation and the breakdown of the family unit.

They began by issuing the Imperial Rescript on Education in 1890, which had to be read at every school and educational institution. This involved a certain kind of ceremony in which staff and students lined up to acknolwedge the Rescript by bowing down to it and to a picture of the Meiji Emperor.

Christian reaction was mixed and didn't cause controversy until a minister named Kanzo Uchimura refused to bow down to the Rescript and Emperor's portrait on the grounds that it violated his beliefs. Then the issue of Christian reaction came to national attention, with a lot of anger at Christians for being so "un-Japanese" or "anti-Japanese". Uchimura had to leave his job, and for awhile he stayed at lodges and hotels under a false name because the outcry was so great against him.

But by and large, Christians obeyed the Imperial Rescript. In fact, many of Uchimura's harshest critics were actually Christians who saw no problem with bowing to the Rescript and Emperor. Christian children learned from the Bible not to bow down to other gods, but at school they bowed down to the Emperor (who claimed divine lineage) and to his words (the education rescript). These children would later grow up to become leaders in churches, and as the nationalistic fever increased, they were already pre-prepared to think nothing wrong with it.

Over time, the government's religious requirements increased. It began with bowing to the Rescript and Portrait, but these ceremonies soon became intensely religious. Schools were then told to take trips to Shinto shrines where they would bow down to the Emperor (via bowing down to the shrine). Government officials did the same. When major decisions were made, they were reported at the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture (about two hours from where I live). Even Christian denominational leaders participated in this. When the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan (National Church of Japan) formed, a top official carried the news of this new church's founding to the Ise Grand Shrine to report it to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami (from whom the Emperor is said to be a direct descendant).

All of these things, the government argued, were "not religious" but were cultural or patriotic. They were part of every Japanese person's national duty as a citizen of the country, not "religious". In 1900, the government accentuated this distinction by dividing the Bureau of Home Affairs into two new bureaus, the Bureau of Religions and the Bureau of State Shrines. Christianity (and other "religions") were handled by the Bureau of Religions. But Shinto was "not religious", and neither were its shrines, so they could be in a separate bureau. (Mind you, Shintoism has millions of "gods", has priests, has shrines, has sacred legends [in texts such as the Nihon-shiki], and involves purification rituals and more.) Shintoism was officially and adamently recognized as "not religious" and instead became a matter of national identity, of patriotism, and of showing loyalty to the nation & its founders.

I'm sharing this history because it's changed the way I hear a lot of the voices in the USA who are saying there should be no separation of church and state (or who deny that there was ever a separation in the first place). It's very strange to hear similar arguments put forth in the United States. The only thing that seems to be different is the religion. In the United States, people argue that the founders were Christian, that the country is Christian, that congress begins with Christian prayers, that Christian things are written on monuments, etc. But the same can be said here in Japan -- the founders were Shintoist, the country is Shintoist, and leaders often go to Shinto shrines (Former Prime Minister Koizumi's contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine come to mind, but he has definitely not been alone).

The last decade has also seen the re-institution of Japan's pre-war national anthem ("Kimigayo"), which reverences the Emperor. Several Christian teachers in the Tokyo area have been censored, fined or had their pay deducted because they refused to stand up and sing Kimigayo. They refused to as a matter of religious conscience, feeling that the old anthem with its religious overtones conflicted with their own faith. And they've suffered for refusing to go along with this 'patriotic duty'.

I think of how I would feel if I were in the Japanese parliament, being a Christian, and if I was then urged to go on a group outing to a Shinto Shrine. It's a religious ceremony. In the same way, starting sessions of congress with Christian prayers is a religious ceremony. Perhaps the tradition has been allowed for two hundred years, but if someone who is not Christian complains about it, I would have to agree that such a religious ceremony should not be conducted in an official capacity, nor should members of congress have to sit through it.

The founders of the nation were not perfect. They wrote great things in the founding documents, but they weren't prepared to cash the check they'd written (to use Martin Luther King Jr.'s metaphor). Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and he later spoke of how the country was founded with a separation of church and state. Freedom of religion, in other words. I think it's a good idea.

If I send my son to public schools in Japan, I worry that the tide of nationalism might come back in Japan, and I don't want him to end up being pressured to participate in Shinto Shrine visits, rituals or prayers.

In the same way, what if you lived in Iran? What if the session of your parliament opened with "Allah akbar..."?? Would you be comfortable with that? But then again, Iran is not a country that tolerates complete religious freedom. It has been an Islamic state based on Shariah law since 1979. Yet doesn't it seem that many Americans are propogating a similar vision of America being "a Christian state"? It's an embarassing double-standard: Japan and Iran should not have religious ceremonies in their public/official capacities, but it is okay for us to do that in America, in our congress and in our public schools.

The idea of Freedom of Religion is an awesome idea. It's a higher standard than our traditions and feelings have been willing to admit. We haven't been fully willing to completely "cash this check", because it would break some traditions we've happily overlooked -- such as Christian prayers in congress. But we need to cash that check. Especially if we hope to establish and support non-religious governments around the world (such as in Iraq). We can't preach "freedom of religion" and not practice it at home, you know?


Christianity is based on personal choice. We serve a Savior who chose not to be born in the "national seat", not born "in office", so to speak, but who chose to be born in a stable for animals, and be raised up by a blue-collar family in the north with lots of non-Jewish people ("Galilee of the Gentiles", as it was called). Instead of leading the nation in prayer, He went to one person at a time. He wasn't after peoples' profession of faith nearly as much as He was after their hearts. He did not assume the nation's throne and then institute a national plan for everyone to listen to His prayers. But instead He prayed with those who came to Him. His kingdom is one that is not of this world.

Putting Christianity into politics and into goverment tends to cloud what Christ made clear. It makes His kingdom "of this world". Instead of focusing our attention on peoples' hearts, we end up fighting in order to have Christian prayers permissible in government and schools, and we end up fighting to make sure the right public declarations are made, monumental inscriptions preserved, and the name of God put in public places and acknowledged by all American citizens --- whether they believe in Him or not. In short, we've taken our focus away from hearts almost completely. We've not followed Christ's example, and indeed are often working against His example by forcing people to acknowledge Him. He is trying to capture their hearts, but we are trying to capture their submission to acknowledging His name and submission to Christian rituals (prayers).

In short, by fighting these battles to make Christ's kingdom "of this world", we're losing our Christian soul. We're losing the heart of His message. And while He is seeking hearts, we are seeking something different; unwittingly we are fighting against Him and making His job more difficult.

Time for bed over here.