The Japanese media and Internet is all aflutter at the moment about something which has become known as the 神社油かけ事件 (“incident of throwing oil on temples and shrines.”) If you’re working in Japan, you need to know about this, because you will probably hear about it.
The facts are basically these: an arrest warrant has been issued for a 52 year old US-resident Japanese man on suspicion of damaging property. He has been accused of attacking cultural properties, in particular shrines and temples in Chiba and other areas, by pouring oil on them. He has apparently explained that, as a Christian, he was purifying those shrines and temples from the evil spirits that are enslaving Japan.
It’s hard to defend someone who’s basically been caught defacing cultural property, but the media have been as merciless and cruel as usual. Memories of Aum Shinrikyo are still strong; when religion hits the news, the vitriol gets turned up to 11. The man’s public ministry has been scoured for anything salacious, anything that could be twisted and reinterpreted to label him a fundamentalist or cultist. Because of this I’m in two minds about naming him—I wouldn’t want a mistake to lead to my name all over the Internet—but the vicious nature of the Japanese blogosphere means that that particular ship has well and truly sailed, and the best thing we can do is try to say some nice things about him instead. He has been named as Dr Masahide Kanayama, who heads up an outreach called International Marketplace Ministry.
As far as I can tell, IMM Japan seems to be a pretty normal, orthodox ministry, although perhaps a little bit of a one-man-band affair with not too much oversight and accountability. It’s connected with the Back To Jerusalem movement; people who have no idea what that means have apparently decided that it must be a fundamentalist apocalyptic cult similar to ISIS. (I did say that the Japanese media gets merciless about religion in the news.) The aim of IMM is to train, equip, and send Christians as missionaries in their workplaces throughout Japan and across the world. It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese Church ought to be doing. More power to them!
Dr Kanayama is also (pretty obviously) on the more Pentecostal side of things, so we can unfortunately look forward to a chorus of Japanese Evangelicals distancing themselves from him and the incident. And I can understand the temptation. The public image of Christianity is being dragged through the mud right now, and we don’t want to get dragged down there with it. We want to defend the faith, defend ourselves, and keep out of the fray, so it’s an easy way out to say to people “No, he’s not like us”.
But actually, he is. He’s just like us. We may not be so daft as to literally anoint places with oil but I’ve worked with teams and with missionaries who have gone to temples and shrines to pray for the same things, for the same reason, with the same beliefs. One of the articles that I read about the incident argued that this is basically what you get from a monotheistic religion—they don’t respect other gods. And it’s true; we don’t. Dr Kanayama’s attitude to the spiritual realm is fairly mainstream amongst Christians.
We do, I hope, want to see this country become spiritually purified and turned towards God. Yes, that is a deeply offensive concept in a highly pluralistic society like Japan, and that’s why people are going nuts about Dr Kanayama right now. Yes, we need to be very careful and respectful in how we express what we want to see, and yes, (needless to say) Dr Kanayama got that badly wrong. But the worst thing we could do is pretend that he’s some complete oddball, that we’re not like him and that this isn’t what we want to see. Because that is precisely how Japanese society applies pressure to us to water down our faith and make it acceptable to the mainstream—acceptable, and totally ineffective.Subject tags: theologyjapanmission
Have you ever attended a foot-washing ceremony? It’s one of those things that happens at Christian gatherings; it’s sometimes carried out by the leadership of a group, as an symbolic expression of their willingness to serve those that they lead. And it makes me really, really uncomfortable.
What makes me uncomfortable isn’t just that someone is fiddling with my feet. OK, I admit: that does make me a bit uncomfortable. My feet are not always in great condition and I don’t enjoy feeling obligated to bare them in front of others. In my case, and I’m sure in the case of others as well, an act of foot-washing serves more to evoke feelings of embarrassment and shame than blessing and service.
But that’s incidental; my real discomfort comes from what the act of foot-washing means, and what it has come to mean.
The first problem I have is that these foot-washing ceremonies can actually have very much the opposite effect to their overt intention. I think in many cases their job is not so much to represent servanthood as leadership. Foucault was right: power is everywhere.
To see what I mean, ask yourself the question: who is allowed to wash whose feet? Sometimes anyone can wash anyone else’s feet, which is great, but more often, the action of foot-washing will actually serve to reinforce a divide between leader and led. I’m not arguing here that there shouldn’t be a divide between leader and led, but I am arguing that this is absolutely not what Jesus was talking about when he commanded his disciples to wash each others’ feet in John 13. What he had in mind was the same mutuality as the command to “love one another”, which appears later in the same passage. So in a way we have taken a practice that Jesus initiated and turned it into its exact opposite.
The second problem I have is that the world has changed quite dramatically.
In Jesus’s day, people wore sandals, and the roads were dirty, dusty, and, well, animals passed by. By the time you got to someone’s house, your feet would be covered in poo. “Washing feet” would really mean cleaning off animal faeces and whatever other unpleasantness was picked up from the streets. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a crap job.
In that sense, my context of modern, industrialised Japan is about as far from the Biblical context as you can possibly get. There is strict sociological distinction between inside and outside space; different areas of physical space and different footwear have different levels of (ritual) cleanliness. Someone moves from the outside (wearing shoes) to inside (wearing slippers) to tatami-matted rooms (wearing just socks or bare feet). The upshot is that, compared to the Biblical Middle East, Japanese feet are—culturally speaking—clean.
And in most other countries too, even if we don’t have those cultural dynamics, let’s face it, our feet aren’t actually covered in mud and dust and poo any more. So what is the meaning of washing feet that are already clean? Something that originally was an act of service has now turned into something that is symbolic of an act of service—without actually being one!
It’s true that Jesus gave us an example to follow. We should do “just as I have done for you.” But as J Ramsey Michaels puts it in his commentary on John:
Just as there is no one way in which disciples “lay down their lives” for each other, so there is no one way in which they wash one another’s feet. Mutual love is the key, but this love may express itself in material help, deeds of kindness, forgiveness of wrongs committed, protection from persecution, even death in another’s place–all the things that God himself provides for his children.Subject tags: theologyleadership