(This is a continuation of sorts to an earlier posting.)
Many of the elements of the Tales of the Otori are drawn from the real-life history of Japan, and the persecution of the Hidden (a small religious sect based on real-life Christianity) is no exception. Christians' mission to and persecution in Japan are a chapter in the history of Christianity that's rarely discussed in the American church. The first recorded Christian missionary in Japan was Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary who landed in Japan in August of 1549. He and other missionaries met with significant success, and by the end of the 16th century, there were an estimated 300,000 baptized believers in Japan, making Japan one of the largest Christian communities outside of Europe.
This changed at the beginning of the 17th century, first under the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who issued an (initially laxly enforced) edict of expulsion against European missionaries, and then under Hideyoshi's successors Tokugawa Ieyasu and Tokugawa Iemitsu, who started persecuting Christians in earnest. Many missionaries were forced to leave, and several who tried to stay were beheaded. The persecution was absolutely brutal:
Every kind of cruelty was practised on the pitiable victims of the persecution. Crucifixion was the method usually employed in the case of Japanese Christians; on one occasion seventy Japanese at Yedo were crucified upside down at low water, and were drowned as the tide came in. For Europeans the penalty was generally burning alive… As the persecution moved forward, what the authorities wanted was not death but apostasy. The torments were carried to the point at which resistance was almost impossible; again and again victims were brought back from the point of death, and then again put to the torture. Apostasies among the Japanese were very numerous, and we have the records of seven missionaries, all as it appears Jesuits, who gave way and apostatized… Most of these almost immediately afterwards recalled their apostasy and died… The number of those put to death was about 1,900 in twenty-four years, of whom sixty-two were European missionaries. To these must be added the far larger number of those who died from the hardships of imprisonment and malnutrition. There were, no doubt, cases of timidity and too ready repudiation of the faith. But the great Japanese persecution has added a memorable chapter to the long record of Christian endurance and faithfulness unto death. (A History of Christian Missions, Stephen Neill, p. 137-138)
One common form of persecution was the fumie, a bronze or stone image of Jesus or Mary. Japanese soldiers would order suspected Christians to trample on the fumie; anyone who did was considered an apostate or unbeliever, while anyone who refused was tortured or killed.
The horrible persecutions almost wiped out Christianity in Japan. Those Christians who survived went into hiding, passing along their beliefs by word of mouth. They became known as Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”). Over the centuries following the persecutions, their beliefs became garbled and mixed with the beliefs of those around them:
Worship without benefit of a Bible or book of liturgy had taken a toll, however: their faith survived as a curious amalgam of Catholicism, Buddhism, animism, and Shintoism. Over the years the Latin words of the mass had devolved into a kind of pidgin language. Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum benedicta became Ame Maria karassa binno domisu terikobintsu, and no one had the slightest idea what these sounds meant. Believers revered the “closet god,” bundles of cloth wrapped around Christian medallions and status, which were concealed in a closet disguised as a Buddhist temple. (Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey, p. 275-276)
American evangelical Christians have an odd relationship with persecution. Within the States, we demonstrate a persecution complex. We're sometimes quick to label anything – from zoning disputes, to overzealous school administrators' attempts to regulate prayer, to public opposition of the sort we should expect in a democracy, to legitimate opposition to pseudo-Christian hate speech – as religious persecution. We talk as though we're a threatened minority, under constant assault from secularists; in taking this attitude, we're seemingly oblivious to our substantial numbers (over one third of Americans, by some estimates) and political clout (which is demonstrated every election season, as politicians court the evangelical vote). (Ironically, I've seen Internet forums where secularists talk as though they're a threatened minority, under constant assault from evangelicals.) We get defensive and combative in the face of slights real and imagined.
While we demonstrate a persecution complex inside the U.S., we almost romanticize persecution outside of the U.S. 1,800 years ago, Tertullian said, “The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,” and we continue to believe this. We talk about how the church spread throughout the Roman empire, in spite of the persecution there, and then lost its vitality once it became state-sanctioned. We talk about the growth of house churches in China, in spite of the Chinese government's hostility, and the discussions that I've heard about this have an almost wistful air, as if we wish that the soft, lukewarm American church could experience a bit of purifying hardship so that it could get some of that vitality too.
There are just two problems with this approach. First is that persecution – the crucified-and-left-to-drown, whipped-and-tormented, firebombed-your-church sort that people overseas have experienced, not the received-some-unpleasant-speech sort that we usually experience in the U.S. – is bad. The second problem is that, as the Kakure Kirishitan in Japan illustrates, sometimes persecution works. Sometimes the church isn't strengthened by purifying hardships; sometimes it barely survives.
I don't like stories like this. I want to see the church always triumphing over its opposition. I want to see the evangelical agenda sweeping Congress and the White House. I want to see the church always growing in numbers and influence. I want my beliefs validated by knowing that numerous other people agree with me. I don't want to have to put up with ridicule or scorn or blind hostility.
I don't like stories of post-Christian Europe or the faith of the Kakure Kirishitan hanging by a thread in Japan or the declining number of Protestants in America. Jesus promised that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” his church (Mt 16:18), but it's hard to reconcile this with the church fading to irrelevance in postmodern Europe or barely surviving in 17th century Japan.
However, although Jesus promised that the church would be victorious in its assault on the gates of Hades, he never promised that this victory would be in our time frame and on our terms. And Jesus also repeatedly promised persecution and opposition (Mt 5:13, Mt 24:9, Mk 10:30, Mk 13:9-11, Lk 21:12, Jn 15:19-21, 2 Tim 3:12).
I keep wanting to see the church succeed in human terms: numbers, respect, political and cultural clout, being powerful enough to avoid hardship. But Jesus' promise is that we will overcome on God's terms: lives transformed from within, blessedness in persecution, God's “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Further reading: Cal Thomas's 1996 column, “Christians shouldn't gripe about persecution,” is still the best commentary I've read on how American Christians view opposition and how we should view it.