There is a very famous book about the 17th century Christian persecutions in Japan called "Silence", written by Shusaku Endo. One of my professors gave it to me to read while I was thinking about whether or not I would go to Japan. The characters in the book are being tortured for their faith, and the book centers around the complicated issues about how they will respond to the pain inflicted on them. Also threaded throughout is the theme of the silence of God and the struggle of the suffering Christians as that silence makes them feel abandoned.
Understanding the current spiritual climate in Japan requires understanding the history.
The tactic of the shogunate for determining whether people were Christian or not during the persecutions was very simple. They made whole villages come to the temples and then they brought out a round disk they called a "fumie". It had an image of either Jesus or Mary on it, and the people were forced to stamp on the image. If a person refused to tread on it, they were killed. Through this and other persecutions, the church became invisible very quickly.
Japanese Christians became very adept at hiding. There is a museum in Tokyo that is a whole collection of artifacts made by these Christians. There are many items with cleverly hidden crosses, images of Mary made to look like Buddhist images, and other ways that the Christians found ways to represent their faith so that they could practice without anyone knowing what they were doing. There's a fairly detailed website here with a picture presentation if you are interested in more about the Japanese hidden Christians.
The bans on Christianity lifted in the 19th century, and some hidden Christians came out of hiding and rejoined the Catholic church.
But there's an aspect of the Japanese church that is still hidden. You see it in the Christians who go to church on Sunday, but don't let their coworkers know they are Christian. Or it's in the many Japanese people who are waiting for a family member to die before they will get baptized.
Today, I had lunch with a young guy who recently became a Christian while he was studying abroad in Illinois. He's been back in Japan for a little more than a year now, and the adjustment has been difficult for him at times.
For awhile, I've been in something of an intense discussion with him. He decided several months ago that evangelism of any sort wasn't people's work, but God's work. He had decided it was just fine to let people be. Recently that view of his was developing even further, and he had decided from the tower of Babel story that diversity was something that needed to be defended. I am a fan of diversity, except when it goes so far as to say that all religions are equally true and should be "tolerated" in the sense of never saying "I think you're wrong" to another person. The center of our discussion has been that I believe that some things are True. And when something is True, it is worth defending to other people--especially when the Truth in question is Jesus, and a treasure of a Kingdom of God that is worth trading our entire life for.
For a couple months, we have been going around in circles with this discussion. And I couldn't quite figure out why. For whatever reason, my argument of, "This is worth standing up for because it is True", just doesn't seem to hold water when I pull it out here.
Last night I had a conversation with a friend until nearly 5am. We finished by saying, "Well...maybe we didn't solve any of Japan or the world's problems, but we discussed them all!" But there was an immediate fruit to our conversation, because we had been talking about the problem of hiding and isolation in Japan. So, this time when I came back to the discussion with this guy, that was fresh in my mind, and I explained to him that I saw Japan as a country of hiding Christians, and that it wasn't what God intended for us here.
The response was instantaneous. I was shocked at how quickly it framed his entire situation...not from my perspective, but from his. He was instantly able to summarize it as him pulling back. And then we had a super productive conversation about why he feels like hiding, how one fights the desire to hide, how one deals with reaching out when Satan is throwing condemnation after condemnation. It's amazing how changing a lens changes everything...we've been struggling all these weeks with questions of "If God doesn't need me, why should I do anything?" and "Is there even really just one truth in the first place?"...I would have thought those were central issues. Apparently they were not the core.
It's something I've been realizing more and more...sometimes the greatest faith is in leaving action alone and offering up a prayer. But very often, our prayers are weak because we are praying for God to do things that we could do ourselves, but are not willing to. "God...please heal this person, but don't ask me to spend time with them." "God...please reveal yourself to my unsaved friend, but don't make me ruin our relationship by speaking Your truth to them!" "God...please save our country...but don't give me an active role in Your work!" "God...please take care of hungry people...but don't make me give more than 10% of my income!" Our actions make our prayers hypocritical. We should pray with all our heart...we must offer the situations around us up in prayer...but if we believe that God will answer, that should create freedom and love that will propel us to act.
More on this later. I have several thousand ramifications I'm still thinking through.