I surprised myself yesterday bursting into tears as I came across a picture online of Kenji Goto. Just the day previous I had been looking at a web magazine on the Christian history of Nagasaki [link here] and was jolted by the name ‘Goto’, a group of islands off Nagasaki well-known, I learned, for its history of the utterly remarkable hidden Christians. This underground culture of believers came to be following an edict banning Christianity from the land, a ban that was made public by the 600 mile march from Kyoto to Nagasaki of the men (and children) who were to be murdered as examples, by the Powers.
Among the merchants and missionaries crowding the shores of the southern-most island in the mid sixteenth century there was a dangerous entanglement with politics which led, in the early seventeenth century, to the launch of what Diarmaid MacCulloch in The History of Christianity describes as
‘one of the most savage persecutions in Christian history . . . The Church in Japan, despite the heroism of its native faithful, was reduced to a tiny and half-instructed remnant. It struggled to maintain even a secret existence for more than two centuries until Europeans used military force to secure free access to the country after the 1850s, and rediscovered it with astonishment . . .’.
One of the three named saints of the 26 martyrs of 1597 was John So-an Goto. He was 19 when he was killed. Kenji’s name and the name of the islands have no relation in meaning, only in sound (and in Roman script), I know, but Kenji was, among all the other things he was (son, husband, father, journalist, Japanese), a Christian, and in a sense heir to the martyrs whose witness the Church commemorates today.
The word ‘martyr’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘witness’. The early Christian converts in Japan were mainly from the elite and influential warrior class known as the samurai. Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan might help to lay out some foundations for the claim that there is a great deal of convergence in the virtue ethics of the samurai and the Christian. And it is no surprise to read of St. Francis Xavier’s love for the Japanese who he found to be ‘more ready to be implanted with our holy faith than all the nations of the world.’
But I admit that I have never been able to wrap my mind around the extreme concept of martyrdom. I have equal difficulty with related ideas of war and its evil (modern?) corollary, terror. There is at least one point on which they share territory: each seems to be a spectacularly ghastly form of political theatre, a stage on which we invest with truth the poem by Robert Burns:
Man was made to mourn: a Dirge
Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frames!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousand mourn.
While victims of terrorism are not always (or even usually) martyrs, martyrs are always victims of terrorism.
So while I sit with the story of Kenji and I remember the martyrs, I think of their passion, conviction and courage. Were it not for St. Paul Miki and his companions, I would not be, via strange and benevolent twists and turns, in Japan and teaching at a Catholic school. G.K.Chesterton remarked that courage was a quality that ‘has ever addled the brains and tangled the definition of merely rational sages’:
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. . . This paradox is the whole principle of courage. [One] must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; [one] must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
(From Orthodoxy, Chapter VI ‘The Paradoxes of Christianity)
And in my prayers I reflect on this poetic description of the martyr archetype and wonder about passion:
Our lives are our contribution to the universe.
We can give this gift freely and lovingly, or we can hold back,
as if it were possible by refusing life to avoid death.
But no one can.
How much worse to die, never having lived!
The . . . lesson of the martyr [archetype] is to choose to give the gift of one’s life for the giving’s sake, knowing that life itself is its own reward and remembering that all little deaths, the losses in our lives always have brought with them transformation and new life, that actual deaths are not final but . . . a more dramatic passage through into the unknown.
(Carol Pearson, 115)