Saturday, March 19, 2011

Requiem

By Rita Nakashima Brock

All week as I struggled to finish this sermon, I could not tear myself away from the news from Japan. I have been haunted by images of whole towns and vast farms being erased in just a few agonizing minutes by the massive destructive forces of creation. The earthquake shifted the earth's axis 6.5 inches, moved northern Japan 13 inches closer to the U.S., and pushed the earth's surface closer to the core, which shortened the day by 2 milliseconds. It also lowered 250 miles of the Japanese coastline by 2 feet.

Though my own family and friends are safe, I do not think anyone in Japan will be all right for a very long time. With a destroyed infrastructure, half a million people were made homeless in the cold winter, and many indoor shelters have no heat, water, or food. Rescuers have had trouble coming to search for the thousands of missing loved ones. Some people are sleeping in cars because they fear the aftershocks. And now workers are facing down a nuclear disaster. I live in California, and the tsunami was so powerful that, the next day, the fishing community in Crescent City lost 50 boats and all their underwater traps.

Though I left Japan at the age of six and am an American citizen, I have visited enough Asian countries to know there is often little love for Japan because of its history of colonizing other Asian countries. Yet, I know that a pastor in Seoul is organizing a fundraiser to help Japan, and many, many people all over the world are doing the same and praying for the people there.

Yesterday, I received a message of comfort from a young man named Tyler Boudreau who served 12 years in the U.S. Marine corps and commanded a rifle battalion in Iraq. He is someone well acquainted with death, moral ambiguity, and the agonies of grief. He sent me the song called “Requiem,” by Eliza Gilkyson:

Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken
--all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken,
taken by the sea.
Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy
--drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy.
hear our mournful plea.

our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
--in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all.

O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
--Mary, fill the glass to overflowing.
illuminate the path where we are going

have mercy on us all
in fun’ral fires burning
each flame to your mystry returning
in the dark night of the soul

your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
O Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place

in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, Mary


You may wonder why I was so deeply moved by a prayer to Mother Mary when I’m a Protestant and 99% of the people of Japan are Buddhist and Shinto.

The Japanese writer Shusako Endo, born in 1923, grew up in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and, when his divorced mother returned him to Japan, he was baptized a Catholic. His novels describe the stigma of being an outsider, the experience of being a foreigner, and the complex moral dilemmas that produce mixed or tragic results.

He wrote a novel called Silence which takes place during the Tokugawa Shogunate, a time when scholars estimate one fifth of the Japanese were Catholic Christians. The novel begins right after a large group of Christian peasants in Shimabara rose up in 1637 against a new non-Christian local shogun, whose behavior must have made them think of King Herod. After defeating the Christian uprising, the shogun’s forces beheaded 37,000 Christian families and burned them and their castle stronghold to the ground. The rulers in Tokyo expelled all Christian priests, forced everyone living in Japan to register with a Buddhist Temple, and closed the country to foreigners for 250 years. The persecution of Christians did not end until 1850.

Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy

The remaining Christians in Japan went underground. To continue their practices, they took Buddhist objects like prayer beads and used them for Christian prayers. They created crosses with Buddhas on the back, so they could be rapidly turned around if inspectors arrived. They took the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon (Quan Yin in China), put a baby in her arms like a madonna, and prayed to her secretly as Mary.

When missionaries entered Japan in the nineteenth century, they discovered these Kakure Kirishitan, "hidden Christians" in the Shimabara area. They found people who mumbled quasi Latin sounding prayers without understanding the words, people who baptized their babies without priests; people who used Buddhist prayer beads, and who prayed to Kannon statues that were unlike any others in Japan.

A Requiem prayed to Mother Mary has a place in this Japanese legacy of people whose lives were hidden by a horrible tragedy. But the Shimabara Christians were not the last people in Japan to live in secret.

Hibakusha, literally “explosion-affected people,” is the term for the survivors of the Atomic bomb attacks and their children. Today, there are around a quarter of a million Hibakusha, and perhaps one in seven is a Korean from a conscript family brought to Japan as forced labor during the war. Many Hibakusha do not want their identities public because of the history of shame and discrimination against them. When the bombs fell, radiation sickness was not understood, and people feared it was contagious. Marriage was impossible because of birth defects, and people would not employ them. After living through the nightmare of the worst horror the world has ever known, they were punished by isolation and oppression. And now, after a terrifying earthquake and a devastatingly destructive tsunami, Japan faces a new nuclear nightmare.

Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy.
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced

We have just entered the season of Lent. It feels, this week, that we were shaken and thrown prematurely into the sorrow and lamentation of “Good” Friday. The next five weeks may be a prolonged Holy Week, but there is much in our world to grieve right now, not just in Japan, but also in Libya and in our own cities. Without a capacity to grieve the massive suffering of our own times, we may miss the most important meaning of the crucifixion.

Crucifixion was a horror that was almost impossible to take in. It was Rome’s most humiliating form of punishment. Roman soldiers erected crosses in public places, often at the site of the crime, to terrorize subject peoples. Victims were tortured, and then they died in slow agony, sometimes over days. A quick death was a mercy. Bodies were burned with the crosses or left hanging to rot and to be eaten as carrion; broken or scattered fragments were usually all that remained of a person’s identity. There were no burials or ways to create memorials to remember the dead.

Crucifixion was used against non-citizens and slaves and was regarded as so shameful even families of victims would not speak of the victims again. They were like Hibakusha who tried to hide a shameful past or hidden Christians whose very existence was forbidden. Crucifixion tore the fabric of even the strongest bonds of family connection and friendship.

Knowing this historical truth about crucifixions, we should be surprised that the gospels speak so explicitly about Jesus’ death. The passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. They created a literature of disclosure and wove the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice. In placing Psalm 22 on Jesus lips, they evoked the bitter lamentation and struggle that runs through the whole Psalm:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? . .
a company of evildoers encircles me.
They stare and gloat over me . . .
and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22: 1-2, 14-18)

To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, passion, love, and remembrance.

Kathleen Corley in a her book Maranatha suggests that women composed the stories as an act of lamentation. From ancient times, women have tended the bodies of the dead, and they have carried the public role of grieving. “Call for the mourning women to come . . . let them raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears,” Jeremiah cried. (Jeremiah 9:17-18) As professional mourners, women also composed the poetry of lamentation. The long history of women’s lament-poetry expressed sorrow, outrage, and resistance, and the poems told stories of the life of the deceased.

Rooted in ancient practices of keening, the women who mourned Jesus preserved the memory of who he was and how he died. Out of respect, perhaps, for the victim of horrible torture and execution, the narratives look away from the horror, refuse to describe its details, and tell of a dignified end and burial. The gospels reflect women’s roles in public lamentation, in the construction of literatures of lament, in the careful, loving attention to the one who died, and in the elegiac emotional quality of those who hold to life against all odds and every power arrayed against them. Perhaps we can imagine Mother Mary leading the women in Jesus community in their profound grief.

O Mother Mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place

in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, Mary

The stories of Jesus’ crucifixion answer abusive power and tragedy with the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said “you have no power over me,” the passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement, the responsibility to tell his story and say his name out loud. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of difficult choices, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life.

This life-affirming faith enabled Christians to resist the many forces of sin and death in their world. They believed in healing pain; they did not believe suffering was sacred or a good thing; they sought to alleviate it by taking care of each other—they depicted and valued Jesus’ work as healer, as miracle-worker, and as teacher. They knew that all violence, even shedding pagan blood was a mortal sin and harmed their community. They saw, in the courage of martyrs, models of steadfast faith that benefited them spiritually even from beyond the grave. Joy and wonder seeped into a world afflicted with violence and sorrow.

Every spring, I take a pilgrimage to a place near Hollister CA called the Pinnacles. They are a unique mountain formation that sits between the coastal mountains and the mountains that separate the central valley from the Bay Area. They are volcanic formations with sharp peaks, deep caves, and hundreds of microclimates that range from lush, moist streams and forests to desert cactus. In spring, it is possible to see virtually every wildflower that blooms in California on the five hour hike up and down the peaks. After climbing the rugged three hours to the top, where all seems dry, rocky, and barren, I have turned a corner of the trail and found a miniature fern and moss garden hugging a cleft of rock where water seeps to the surface. When I hike there I feel the world transfigured by surprising miracles.

The Pinnacles are also a sharp reminder of the earth’s instabilities and enormous and invisible power. One reason they are so unusual is that one side of the peaks are sharp walls. It looks as if a giant took a chain saw and cut half of them away. In fact, this is true. The Pinnacles are only half of a volcanic eruption from millions of years ago. The sit on the San Andreas earthquake fault line. The other half is 300 miles south near Bakersfield. They continue to drift apart every year.

Human beings, since our beginnings, have had to mourn the forces of earth that take life too soon and too much. Death is part of the cycles of life and of creation. Mourning is how we acknowledge these losses without giving up on love.

But we also experience other forms of disaster, brought by human misuses of power. The slaughter at Shimabara, A-Bomb attacks, the broken levees in New Orleans, and the struggle to stop the impending disaster at Fukushima are not natural disasters. Most natural disasters in our world are now compounded by our systems of technology that have allowed industrialized nations to live far beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain our lives. Desperate to maintain consumption levels and increase wealth, our governments and corporations take enormous risks with human lives and the environment.

Rather than respecting the earth’s limits,
we have done our best to overcome them,
as if the earth were an object of conquest rather than our home,
as if the limits of physical life were the enemy of human thriving,
as if we could remain untouched by the suffering of the world.

Life’s surprising miracles remind us that the only life we know for certain is here and now. Let us guard and protect it, and love it fiercely in our grief. The transfiguration of the world is in our hands.

O Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
--Mary, fill the glass to overflowing.
illuminate the path where we are going
and
have mercy on us all.

* A sermon preached at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on March 17, 2011.

**Rita Nakashima Brock, a Japanese American theologian, is the founder and director of Faith Voices for the Common Good and coauthor of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Beacon, 2008).

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