Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Cloud of Witnesses

The Christian Martyrs of Japan

Monument to the Martyrs of Japan, Nagasaki

The Martyrs of Japan were Christians who were persecuted for their faith in Japan, mostly during the 17th century.

The shoguns and the imperial government at first supported the Catholic mission and the missionaries, as a way of reducing the power of the Buddhist monks, and to encourage trade with Spain and Portugal. Nevertheless they were also wary of colonialism. The Spanish had assumed power in the Philippines after converting the population. Roman Catholicism represented a clear threat. Thus, organized persecutions of Christians began. Christianity was outlawed and any Japanese who refused to abandon their faith were killed.

Twenty-six Christians, six Spanish Franciscans, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese lay people, including three young boys who served as acolytes, were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. They were raised on crosses, then had spears driven into them.

Further persecutions, between 1613-1630, continued. The "Great Genna Martyrdom" occurred in Nagasaki on September 10, 1632, when 55 Christians were martyred. Amazingly, without clergy, theological teaching, or the sacraments (except for baptism), public Christianity disappeared, though thousands who'd gone underground preserved the faith for some 200 years, until Western missionaries arrived again in the mid-19th century.

While there were many more martyrs, probably over 200,000, the first martyrs came to be especially revered, the most celebrated of which was Paul Miki. The Martyrs of Japan were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1862 by Pius IX.

The prospect of witnessing to my faith by suffering torture and death through martyrdom has never been something I like to think about. Yet, during the years of the Bosnian tragedy from 1992 to 1995, especially the Srebrenica and Markale massacres, when we could see, live on TV, hordes of displaced people, many of whom had lost loved ones or had seen horrendous abuse of them, it hit me like a ton of bricks that this was happening now, in our time. It made it starkly clear that it was possible for something like that to happen in the U.S.: our us! How would I cope with something like that? Could I endure it? My thoughts go to Luke 12:11-12: "...when they bring you before...the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say..."

My mind tells me that I believe this and that it's meant to encourage and console me. Nevertheless...I struggle with it.

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