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Nagasaki Pilgrimage Story #3:  Killing Civilians and America’s Unfinished Business

December 9, 2014

In an earlier post from our Nagasaki pilgrimage I spoke of the Japanese war machine and the haunting image of Hishima Island.

But the picture here is the one image from Japan that still haunts me.  I encountered this photograph in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.  I turned a corner, and there it was.  The photograph was taken in Nagasaki by a U.S. Marine, a few days after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb.  As I read the description I realized the baby is not asleep, but dead, killed by the bomb.  Her brother strapped her to his back and took her to a cremation site.  There he waits.

I remembered our Tokyo visit a few days earlier.  With our friend Katsuki Hirano, Donna and I came across a peace memorial offered in the name of the 100,000 Tokyo civilians who were killed in March 1945 over one night of U.S. firebombing.  This firebombing was the most destructive in history, killing more civilians than any other such attack (including by Nazi Germany).

What is shocking is that Donna and I did not know this.  In all our years of U.S. schooling, history reading, how could we not know this?  Furthermore, nowhere did the memorial mention that it was the U.S. that did the bombing.  Said Katsuki, “As a U.S. ally, the Japanese government has tried to erase the name U.S. from the issue since the end of WW2.  That is one of the reasons why we can find only few historic sites.”

In an earlier post I mentioned that Nagasaki Archbishop Joseph Takami is a survivor of the atomic bomb, and that the U.S. bomb was dropped not only on a civilian population, but on the very geographic center of Christian life in Nagasaki, falling almost directly on Urakami Cathedral.

The image of the boy and his sister stayed with me as I wandered out of the museum.  There were many small memorials outside.  But I could find no memorial from any U.S. source.  Nothing said, “We are sorry.  We are sorry so many fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers were killed.  This killing was not necessary.  This was immoral.  We confess this sin, we ask for forgiveness, we commit to work for a future of no more such killing.”

(See editorial by an American in the Japan Times: “Tokyo Firebombing and Unfinished American Business.”)

Previous posts on the Nagasaki Pilgrimage:

Nagasaki Pilgrimage Story #2:  Contested Versions of Truth

December 9, 2014

Hashima Island: for some a story of progress and sacrifice, for others, of violence and death

The second image that sticks with me from our recent Nagasaki pilgrimage of pain and hope is this one.  This is not a movie set.  A short boat ride from Nagasaki is Hashima Island.  Here, Mitsubishi Industries established one of the most productive coal-mining operations in Japanese history.

During our tour, the guide placed Hashima within the story of Japan’s history of industrialization—a story of hard work and sacrifice.  Yet she did not focus on two realities: First, the relationship of Hashima’s coal to Japan’s manufacturing of munitions and war materials during World War II.  Second, the estimated 500 Koreans who were forced to work on Hashima.  A number drowned trying to escape.

One survivor has said:  “The Island was a living hell. You could not dare to escape it because of high breakwaters and huge waves. By the end of the war, Koreans were involved in dangerous work and they were often vulnerable to violence of mine supervisors.”

Like many contested stories in places of deep conflict, Hashima is a sign of pride and sacrifice to some, but of enormous pain, injustice, and forgetfulness to others.  As some in our group journeyed as Korean and Japanese, we were challenged to ask:  How do we learn to tell the same story, and share the same pain?

Previous posts on the Nagasaki Pilgrimage:

Nagasaki Pilgrimage Story #1: 7 Generations of Hidden Hope

December 5, 2014
Mural of discovery of hidden Christians at Oura Church

Mural of discovery of hidden Christians at Oura Church

Two critical question of missional discernment are: Where is God already at work? What does hope look like?

On our recent pilgrimage of pain and hope in Nagasaki, over dinner, we encountered a remarkable sign of hope: Joseph Takami, the Archbishop of Nagasaki. Takami is a direct descendent of Japan’s “hidden Christians.” In the contemporary imagination of immediacy and visible change, I was struck by how much this story has to teach the church about a theology of hope.

Christianity came to Japan via Nagasaki, amid intense persecution (Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence tells this story). We visited a martyrs hill where 26 Christians were crucified together after a 400-mile forced march from Kobe (to warn the public). Those crucified were a “new we”: not only Japanese, but also European, Mexican, both women and men, from a 12-year old boy to a 64-year old grandfather.

Pilgrim group with Archbishop Takami

Pilgrim group with Archbishop Takami

This severe persecution appeared to crush out Christianity. Indeed, for 250 years it was believed Christianity had disappeared. Yet 7 generations after the persecution, Christians re-emerged from hiding. Without clergy or public worship, in complete hiding, they kept the faith alive. Archbishop Takami is a direct descendent of these “hidden Christians.”

Here is what most of us Americans do not know: when the atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. military on Nagasaki in 1945, it hit almost directly on the Catholic cathedral and the area where most of Nagasaki’s Christians lived, the descendants of the hidden Christians. Eight thousand of the 12,000 Christians died.

Takami was in his pregnant mother’s womb that August day when his mother was almost killed. The faith of his ancestors survived persecution, his mother survived the bomb, and today Takami is a leading voice for peace, including an annual gathering of Catholic bishops from Japan and South Korea.

2015 marks not only the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb but the 150th year since the discovery of the hidden Christians.

(The churches and Christian sites of Nagasaki are a candidate for a World Heritage Site, and there is a beautiful pamphlet of photos and stories on this web site.)

Previous post on the Nagasaki Pilgrimage:

On Pilgrimage and Beginning with the Right Questions

November 30, 2014
Pilgrim group at Oura Church, where "hidden Christians" were discovered 150 years ago

Our pilgrim group at Oura Church, where “hidden Christians” were discovered 150 years ago

As I begin a new work with MCC and Duke based in Korea, I’ve been thinking:  What are the right questions to begin with?

I am sure the right question is not the question of modernity:  What do we do?  This is to begin in presumption.  A very different starting point is embodied in questions like:  What is going on?  What is the story of where I am entering?  What are the stories of pain?  Where are the poor and the oppressed?  Where is God already at work? Where are the signs of hope already breaking in?

This is to begin not from a posture of action but of paying attention.  One might call it a posture of pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage is a journey onto strange and even uncomfortable ground of pain and hope.  It is a journey where strange ground becomes holy ground.  Pilgrimage is also a journey of strangers becoming companions.  Much is at stake for faithful mission in the formation of a pilgrim identity.

What is now called the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia began with a visioning consultation at Duke University in December 2012.  One compelling call from the group of 25 (gathered at Duke from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and U.S.) was for journeying together into the context of pain and hope in the region.  “This meeting is a beginning,” it was said.  “Yet we greatly need to journey together as divided people into the context of pain and hope itself.  Otherwise our divided stories as nations will never become our story as Christians.”

Nagasaki, Japan will be the site of our second Forum in April 2015.  Indeed, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bomb drop on the city.  Last month eight core Forum leaders journeyed together to Nagasaki for a time of planning and pilgrimage.  Over these days we encountered the significance of Nagasaki for Christian history and witness, and deepened in friendship and common vision.  My companions represented a “new we” of Northeast Asians: Katsuki Hirano, Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, and Yuko Fukushima of Japan; Jongho Kim of InterVarsity and Hae Yong Choi of Korea; Wance Kwon of Hong Kong; and my wife Donna.

In my next blog posts I will share four powerful images and stories images from our Nagasaki pilgrimage.

Next post on the Nagasaki Pilgrimage:

6 Bags Full of Madness and Miracles

November 10, 2014

November 10, 2014, on flight between Seoul and Tokyo

You know you’re a missionary when you have a photo card for friends’ refrigerators, sent from “the field.”  After Donna’s and my first two weeks in Chuncheon, South Korea in our new five-year term with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), finally, a little breathing space to reflect.  Beginning with those 6 bags.

After 14 years in Durham, we left with our life packed in only six bags.  Behind were good jobs.  Our three children on U.S. soil.  Our beloved home, emptied and rented.  Goodbye to beloved friends and our church.  Rich farewells with friends, church, and Duke Divinity School.  Ten years of Center for Reconciliation work, with a U.S. and international ministry extending far beyond what I ever imagined.  Waiting on the Korean side, so many huge unknowns:  Setting up a new Korea office and base for MCC’s Northeast Asia work.  Not knowing where we would live, who our colleagues would be.  For me, yes, a return “home” after growing up in Korea.  But for Donna? A wild array of more unknowns.

Two “Ms” have driven this move, the first being madness.  Many days it took steely determination to put one foot in front of the other.  What … are … we … doing.  Yet another “M” kept us moving forward, somehow.

A friend who teaches political science has said that Chris Rice retreats more than the French army.  Well, it’s the only way I know of being “re-fit” into God’s strange rationality.  In September Donna and I tore ourselves away from the piles of endless details for a night at a North Carolina retreat center.  There in the stillness and grass and fall warmth, eventually, I found myself in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, thinking about God’s new creation in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation, a text shaping so much of my life and work.

But my attention was drawn to the words a few verses earlier:  “For the love of Christ compels us.”  Not our love for Christ.  Not our love for Christ or our action for the world.  Christ’s action.  Christ’s love for us.  That is what compels us, what “fits” us, to receive the madness of God’s new creation. Getting Christ’s love deep into our bones.

I became overwhelmed with gratitude for the love God poured out on us over 14 years in Durham and at Duke.  Poured out in unexpected companions from Durham to across the world.  The madness of our decision was met by a deep sense of a second “M”:  miracles.  Returning to the land of my upbringing!  A formal partnership being put in place between Duke and the MCC, with Duke’s emerging Northeast Asia reconciliation initiative integral to my work with MCC, and with a continuing affiliation with Duke as Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia.  As co-founder (better yet, “co-beginner”) of the Center for Reconciliation, receiving deep peace with the founder’s responsibility to know when to let go, to give our place to others, and seek the next song for our lives.  Being in New York City with Donna in August, calling on all skills possible over an hour with North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN, introducing ourselves.  Above all, sharing this with my new daily ministry companion—my wife!  She moved from the first call with MCC in December (“North Korea?  Are you kidding me?  Of course my husband would want to have a job that takes us to North Korea!”) to a faith that still astounds me.  After 27 years of marriage she remains a mystery to me!  Both madness and miracles have driven this decision. Yet the miracles have transcended the madness, and in them Donna and I have received a profound anointing for this new chapter.

If we left treasures in Durham, we have tasted the gifts of Chuncheon:  A livable city of 300,000 surrounded by mountains and lakes only an hour high-speed train from Seoul.  A couple who welcomed us into their home for our first 10 days, anointing us with new Korean names.  Celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Korean Anabaptist Center, a key hosting partner here.  Invited to offer the sermon in our first Sunday at church, Donna and me side-by-side, speaking together for the first time.  And finding an apartment after everything seemed to have fallen through, with space for hospitality and only a ten-minute walk from our office and the train station.  And now we head to Japan for a week to join colleagues from the region to plan our second Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia, 2015 in Nagasaki.

We arrived with only 6 bags.  But there is already the sound of a new song to sing.  One of my favorite poems gets to the heart of it.

Once Only

by Denise Levertov

All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don’t
expect now to return for more.  Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.


Go to the People

September 25, 2014
With John and Vera Mae Perkins.

With John and Vera Mae Perkins.

The 26th annual CCDA conference opened last night just down the road in Raleigh. The highlight for Donna and me was a brief but rich visit with our beloved mentors John and Vera Mae Perkins. Being with them ignited wisdom they taught us in Mississippi about the true nature of deep leadership and change.  At Voice of Calvary we claimed a poem which embodied this wisdom, written in 6th century B.C. by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:

“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”  

These words inspire us as we think ahead to being with new companions in Northeast Asia with the Mennonite Central Committee. If I were to humbly suggest one addition, it would be “… Love them.  Be loved by them.”

Be Busy and Know that I am God?

September 13, 2014
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Francis and bird sculpture

A friend who teaches political science once joked, “Chris Rice retreats more than the French army.”  For me, at least, getting God’s love deep into my bones requires learning, as Mary Oliver writes, to “never hurry through the world, but walk slowly, and bow often.” Donna and I took a day at St. Francis Springs prayer center in northern NC to pray and prepare for our new call to Northeast Asia.  Dedicated to St. Francis, the center is full of art which inspired us to remember as we begin this work, that the psalmist did not say “Be busy and know that I am God.”

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Carving: Francis and leper

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Tapestry: “Go rebuild my church”

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Wood carving

St. Francis Springs

St. Francis Springs


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