Sharing the Message of Jesus with Japanese Stoics - Part I

Sharing the Message of Jesus with Japanese Stoics - Part I

As Peter and I continue to minister as missionaries in Japan, we are learning a variety of lessons on sharing the good news of Jesus with people of different cultures. Sometimes the Bible verses that we take for granted in North America—verses like John 3:16—aren’t the most appropriate to use when introducing people of a different culture to Jesus. 

In Japan, Bible dust jackets do not commonly display John 3:16. Instead they use a verse from Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” [1] That’s because the Japanese often struggle with intense feelings of hopelessness. When a Japanese person sees sentiments of meaninglessness on the cover of a Bible, his or her first reaction is: “This book understands me. I want to read more!”

A few years ago, I discovered that the Japanese mentality is closely aligned with the Stoics of Acts 17. At that time, I realized that Paul preached the Mars Hill sermon to the Stoics. So I examined its content for clues for how I should approach first-pass witnessing to the Japanese. (See here for a summary of that study.) Over the ensuing years, these thoughts continued to marinate in my brain, but I always felt there was something more…

Last year, when reading "The Problem of Pain", by CS Lewis, I was struck by a statement that left me startled and intrigued:

"Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.” [2]

I couldn't help feeling that I'd stumbled across some sort of key which would enable me to unlock more of the passage in Acts 17.

The first thing I noticed was that, in Lewis' mind, stoicism is inexorably linked with suicide. Given the enormous problem that the Japanese are currently facing—with masses of people who kill themselves every year—this link, though initially surprising, seemed reasonable to me.

My next impulse was to think about the difference between martyrdom and suicide.

 

Suicide (in the Japanese context):

– Dying for one's own actions (e.g., to remove shame one has caused, or because one can’t face the shame)

Martyrdom:

– Dying for the sake of someone else, or for the sake of a belief

 

There are three major attributes of Japanese suicide that come to mind:

– Suicide is lonely

– Suicide is self-sufficient — "I" can remove the shame I've caused

– Suicide does not fear the pain of the moment, but fixes its eyes on a longer goal

 

Following these observations, I turned to the Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17 and read it through again. When I was finished, I realized that this time I'd read it more from the perspective of a Japanese person (i.e., keeping those three observations on suicide in mind), rather than from the perspective of an outsider looking in, as I'd done before. 

In my analysis a few years before, I’d come up with a list—a prescription, if you will—of how to witness to a Japanese person. Now, however, I was looking at an over-arching set of principles that would have broader application. Here are my observations:

 

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (vv24-25)

God made us; He does not need us to serve Him.

– addresses ideas of self-sufficiency (we are not needed by God)

 

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (v26)

God made all mankind from one, having pre-arranged everything.

– addresses loneliness (we are all part of a global family; this principle is something that I have heard Okinawan people reiterate many times)

– addresses self-sufficiency (God already has pre-ordained our lives)

 

“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” (v27)

The purpose of life is to search for God; He is not far from us.

– addresses loneliness (we have a Companion who wants to be found)

 

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” (vv28-29)

Back to the idea that we were created by God; He is not created by us.

– addresses idolatry, which is at its core self-sufficiency (i.e., I make my own god)

 

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (v30)

God calls the people to repentance for not adequately living up to the purpose of life.

– repenting of self-sufficiency, which has essentially blocked people from living up to their purpose

 

“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (v31)

Paul informs his listeners of a day when they will be judged for their insufficiency (i.e., not living up to the purpose of life) through an appointed Man.

– Jesus' resurrection is not mentioned as a means to salvation; instead, it is mentioned only as proof of His God-given authority to judge (this hints at the idea of a longer goal would resonate with Stoic-minded people)

 

A Stoic does not fear pain. He embraces it as a part of life. In a Stoic's viewpoint, if a person has not been living up to his or her purpose, then he or she deserves to be punished. In modern North America, preaching about coming judgement would be off-putting to most recipients of the message. However, I think that a judgment-inclusive message could be very effective in a shame-based Stoic culture. To a Stoic's mindset, it's the logical end of someone not living up to their purpose.

In Japan, the Stoic mind tends towards community-based thinking rather than individuality. So if someone is not living up to their purpose, a Japanese person might reason, they are probably also preventing others from living up to their purpose. Adverse consequences are deserved.

So the next message in a potential series of introducing people to Jesus becomes—how do we seek God? How has He come near to us?

The message of Christ becomes a message of God coming to us to make a way for us to live up to our purpose. It's less about a "free gift" (which the Japanese find difficult to accept because the burden to reciprocate is too great), and more about walking the path that He has made for us.

With its inclusion of judgement, this approach has echoes of old-school Christian evangelism. However, I'm starting starting to wonder if maybe that's the reason that the first Christian missionaries to Japan were so successful—because their messages included this ingredient. When Japan’s doors to the outside world were reopened after centuries of isolation, the salvation message that Christian missionaries brought with them had changed to be mainly one of love with less of an emphasis on responsibility.

I should note here that a portion of the younger generation is moving away from completely embracing all forms of stoicism. They still have been steeped in Stoic culture, so they should still understand many of these concepts, but it remains to be seen how this message might need to be modified for a partially-Stoic younger generation.

 

NOTES

[1] Ecclesiastes 12:8, NIV.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Toronto: HarperCollins,1940), p113.

(Picture Source)

 

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Sharing the Message of Jesus in Japan - Part II

Sharing About Jesus in the East

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