taking the words of Jesus seriously


I was born on the island of Okinawa, Japan, on the East China Sea, when my dad was serving as a captain in the US army. In our postcolonial hybrid world, I guess you could say, I’m Japanese-American.

As I paused to remember all the saints yesterday, my spirit was drawn especially to the martyrs of Japan. Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence introduced the Kakure Kirishitan–“hidden Christians”–in Japan who were driven underground after the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion in the 17th century. The narrator, a Jesuit missionary, describes the brutal martyrdom of two Japanese Christians, Mokichi and Ichizo. As they were being burned at the stake Mokichi sang:

We’re on our way, we’re on our way,

We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,

To the temple of Paradise. . . .

To the great Temple. . . .


Writes Endo: “I have heard from the people of Tomogi that many Christians, when dragged off to the place of execution, sang this hymn—a melody filled with dark sadness. Life in this world is too painful for these Japanese peasants. Only by relying on ‘the temple of Paradise’ have they been able to go on living. Such is the sadness which fills this song.


“What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sounds of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God. . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices so in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent, ” says the missionary who was sent later to evaluate the Jesuit mission there.


The martyrs Mokichi and Ichizo were burned at the stake and have gone on to heaven, but a feeling of profound grief remains in the hearts of those left behind. The melancholy of the martyrs is compared to “the dark sea gnawing at the shore.” As the silence of the sea, God, too, is silent.


The silence of God in light of human suffering remains an open question for Christians today. Where is God amid the suffering and oppressed who are crying out for help?


Japanese American artist Mako Fujimura says that American culture does not allow time for us to grieve the loss of tragedies and traumas in our own lives, as well as in our collective life. Since unprocessed mourning can metastasize into melancholia, Fujimura encourages us to care for each other’s souls through being attentive to the broken beauty unveiled in the arts. Music, poetry and art can help heal our sin-sick souls, if we are attentive to its comforting spirit and deeper truth. In his book Culture Care, Fujimura writes, “Culture is not a territory to win, but a garden to tend to, an ecosystem to steward.”


As a diligent farmer tends to the soil in the field to insure a healthy havest, we are called to tend the cultural soil that nourishes the creative Spirit and human flourishing. When we care for the artists, actors, musicians, dancers and creative catalysts as pollinators of the good, true and beautiful, we ensure the possibility of healing and hope during our difficult days. As a shepherd guides his flock to the “springs of the water of life, ” so too does God bring water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17; 21:4).


As we prepare to vote, let’s remember the martyrs who died in the Civil Rights movement so we could have the right to vote. Having grown up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I also remember the three civil rights workers who were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi during the summer of 1964: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner. We are grateful for their sacrifice through lives of heroic courage in struggle for justice. In moments of solitude and silence, let us commit ourselves to continue the struggle for justice, for culture care and expectantly pray for a baptism by a sea of grace, restoring shalom to the community of creation, so there is no more destruction, no more tears.


About The Author


Rev. Peter Heltzel, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is the Director of the Micah Institute and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at New York Theological Seminary. He also serves as Assistant Pastor of Evangelism at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. Rev. Heltzel holds a B.A. from Wheaton College, a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. He also completed course work at the University of Mississippi in Southern fiction and creative writing. These courses, combined with his childhood years in Mississippi, inform his work with a deep commitment to the power of words and music, to social justice and to a global movement of radical change and collective activism. A gifted writer, Rev. Heltzel has contributed to seven books as author or editor. He has published numerous articles in journals, such as Books & Culture, Science & Theology News, Sojourners, Political Theology, Princeton Theological Review and the Scottish Journal of Theology. An Auburn Senior Fellow, Heltzel is a founding member of the Red Letter Christian movement.

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