Kagawa’s Legacy by R. Armstrong
Mr. R. Armstrong had held a symposium named ‘Kagawa Revisited’ at Glasgow University on 5th June, inviting those who had relations with Dr. Toyohiko Kagawa. This is a keynote speech by Mr. Armstrong.
The main purpose of today’s revisiting of Kagawa is to consider his legacy and discern lessons for contemporary Christian life and witness. It is not enough to marvel at the impact of a remarkable visit in 1950, or even before that. We need to think again of who he was and what he did as a quite remarkable Christian and how that might impinge on our Christian consciousness and in what ways it might affect our approach to Christian witness and service today?
Let me begin by suggesting that we consider this under the overarching theme of the Power of Profound Simplicity. The Christian phenomenon that was Toyohiko Kagawa, began when he prayed the simple prayer: “O God make me like Christ” The prelude to this was that in his quest as a young man to learn English he was introduced to American Presbyterian missionaries who as one of his texts for reading, gave him an English version of Luke’s Gospel which had such a profound effect on him that he uttered that prayer. It could be said that everything that he did and became thereafter was as a consequence or a fulfilment of that short six word prayer.
The imperative of learning more about this Christ whom he wished to emulate and imitate, took him to a Presbyterian seminary, the desire to share what he learned with others took him to the open air to preach, especially to the slums of Kobe, the realisation that the love of God about which he preached needed to be demonstrated caused him to take what Axling graphically describes as a ‘Header into the Slums’ All of these were simple logical steps but what a profound effect this had on the young theological student, the slums of Shinkawa and ultimately the whole of Japan and as the earlier talk demonstrated many other parts of the world.
I am not suggesting a simplistic naive approach to Christian understanding and living, but rather a recognition that there is a need to get to the heart of the matter of things, to discern the essence. I would want to reiterate here something I have contended many times before in different contexts. A crying need to concentrate on the Gospel 0/Jesus rather than a Gospel about Jesus. And it is clear from the scripture that He came to proclaim the immanence of the Kingdom of God.
At the meeting in Northampton to which I referred earlier this was said by way of introduction: “In Dr Kagawa, reader and interpreter of the Gospels, we see the Gospel. Read the story of the Good Samaritan and meet Kagawa and you meet the Good Samaritan.”. If we grasp, as I believe Kagawa did, that the essence of the faith has to do with love of God and our neighbour, as Jesus taught, then everything else should flow from that.
My use of the phrase profound simplicity was quite deliberate not just because it had a profound effect on him but also because it points to something else which I believe is part of Kagawa’s legacy his ability to see beyond the surface of things. There was nothing superficial about his simple approach. He was always probing beneath the surface to understand things. He was very aware of the poverty and squalor of Shinkawa’s slums and knew only too well there were similar areas around other cities. The love of God which he preached and which motivated his identification with the people in their wretchedness and need drove him to ask why such conditions came about and what needed to be done to change things?
For this reason while he went to the United States for further theological studies at Princeton from which he got his Doctorate, during his time there he pursued studies in economics and psychology. Using these tools of understanding he began to examine and write about not only the conditions of the slums but also of working people in general and society at large. The fact that he prepared a detailed report for the authorities was important but not nearly as effective as the novel he wrote based on his understanding, entitled Across the Death Line. Becoming a best seller and requiring many reprints its effect was decisive in persuading the Government to make money available to remove the Shinkawa slums and those of five other cities beside.
His involvement in the formation of Trades Unions, Peasant Unions, Co-operatives of various kinds, as well as the Japan Labour party was not just because he was a radical social reformer but because he saw the inter-relatedness of all these concerns on the conditions of the poor and of society at large. This capacity to see beneath the surface of things to look beyond the problems for solutions arose from his experience in the slums where as well as being moved by the plight of his fellow human beings, he saw himself, as he once put it, as examining life in its pathological condition. Like a good pathologist he was seeing not only what was diseased and mordant but what brought this about and beyond that what might be learned to prevent such conditions recurring.
I am in no doubt that this combination of compassion and understanding made him so effective as a Christian preacher and radical social reformer. It was these qualities which meant that when Japan encountered severe economic difficulties in the 1920s he was asked to head the Bureau for Economic
Recovery and when an earthquake devastated Tokyo in 1931 and had knock on effects on the rest of the country the Authorities turned to Kagawa for guidance and leadership, as they did also following the second world war. Incidentally he took no salary for any of this work, and eschewed some of the perks that could have gone with these posts, preferring to support himself and much of his ongoing projects from royalties from his prolific writings which he managed to fit in in his spare time.
It seems to me that this raises issues for us as to how we do theology, how it is taught? What we consider suitable subjects for postgraduate research? Is our theology still too dependent on the traditional tools of understanding the human condition such as language, philosophy and history? when so much of our understanding now is affected by the insights gained from Sociology, Psychology and Economics.
While as a Christian preacher Kagawa tried to persuade individuals to follow the Way of Christ and that the more of them who did the greater would be the impact and influence on society as a whole, he was very aware of social, industrial, and commercial ills that needed to be challenged’-and corrected if people were to discover and realise their true dignity and fulfilment not just as human beings but as children of God or citizens of the Kingdom of God. It was this conviction which led him into the kind of radical social involvement for which, rightly, he became renowned.
The challenge then he poses to us today is to consider the aspects of our modern society whose impact on our fellow human beings is malign, demeaning and degrading. Which of the prevailing currents should we be engaging with and applying the critique of the Gospel?
There is surely the great scandal that while there are parts of the world where there is affluence and a a general sense of well being, there are other parts where there is grinding poverty, squalor, and general wretchedness every bit as offensive as Shinkawa’s slums. And even in the more affluent countries there are huge discrepancies between the haves and the have nots. This in turn raises issues relating to the dominating economic force of market driven global capitalism, which I believe is a particular challenge to Christian efforts at championing the cause of the poor and disadvantaged.
In the earlier part of the 20th Century great hope was invested in the possibility of some kind of Socialist approach to economics and social organisation. Hence Kagawa’s involvement with founding the Japan Labour party his championing of the cause of Co-operatives of various kinds and of course the hopes raised in this country particularly after the second world war with the election of a Labour Government and the introduction of the Welfare State and similar socio-economic changes elsewhere in Europe notably in the Scandinavian countries. I have no doubt that such hopes are still entertained and nurtured by groups such as the Christian Socialist Movement.
But, is that not just a kind of economic Canutism? Do we not have to recognise that Capitalist Globalisation is the only show in town? Which is not the same as saying that there is nothing that can be done.
In an interesting article on this subject by Mikhail Gorbachev, printed in the Herald in April, he makes this statement ..Globalisation, like all other economic regimes, is a political choice. In suggesting that there is an alternative he asserted that history is not predetermined, and went on to cite the elaboration of a sustainable development program for the world back in 1992, which led to the adoption by the UN of Agenda 21 whereby, for the first time in history, the world community managed to map out and agree on a strategic plan designed to address the twin problems of poverty and ecological disruption. This has not been universally welcomed and he speaks of the forces at work to discredit the sustainable development paradigm, but also refers to the many groups determined to pursue this aim.
In suggesting what needs to be done to make a difference he starts with the need to bridge the gap between our moral consciousness and the challenges of our time. He speaks of a need for turnaround from the prevailing consumerism and national egocentrism which threaten sustainable development and says that must begin with changes in the human spirit through a reprioritisation of our value systems. Aligning ourselves with that kind of thinking would, I believe, reflect the spirit of Kagawa. Akin to that would be the efforts of the Jubilee Campaign for debt relief supported by many Christians and which has had some small but significant effect. Again I was much taken by an article in the Herald’s Big Ideas series which argued for a fundamental appraisal of how the debt of the developing countries is calculated suggesting that a profound and beneficial change would come about if the lending agencies did not use compound interest methods of computing.
Perhaps one of the ways of influencing global trends in social and economic terms would be to encourage those in power to listen and pay heed to the voice of the NGOs and aid agencies working with many of the marginalised groups in the world. In much the same way as Kagawa did.
There are of course any other daunting problems that threaten mankind such as the effects of drugs, the Aids pandemic and the seemingly never ending spread of armaments around the world, which however intractable they seem are nonetheless the kind of issues that Christians need to address.
I want to conclude this consideration of Kagawa’s legacy by focusing again on the person who achieved so much and left so many in his debt and was such an inspiration to countless numbers across the globe. Doing so raises fundamental questions about we mean by wholeness. The classical approach is along the lines of the Latin phrase ‘Mens sana, in corpore sano’ a healthy mind in a healthy body. The Judeo/Christian approach is affected by the concept of Shalom with ideas of personal wholeness set in a context of justice and social wellbeing.
Kagawa’s life in many respects challenges and calls in question these assumptions. The circumstances of his birth, how we was brought up were to use a modern expressions, dysfunctional to quite a marked degree.
His physical health could never be described as robust and his eyesight was permanently impaired by a disease he contracted in Shinkawa. For much of his life he was vilified and opposed, often suspected and misunderstood.
I believe that if we are to understand this paradox we need to see that as well as applying the gospel as he understood it, and responding in love to the plight of his fellow human beings he drew from very deep wells of spirituality by means of meditative reflection, and prayer. One of the chapters in Axling’s biography is entitled ‘A Modern Mystic’ In it he says this From his earliest Christian experience he leaped right into the midstream of the mystic’s conception and experience of God. In this skeptical, cynical, materialistic age he moves through life to the music of the unseen and duplicates in his own soul the experience of those of old who walked and talked with God face to face.
The fruit of this mystic meditation is reflected in the concluding part of Axling’s book which consists of a series of Kagawagraphs to which to which I frequently referred to make up for my own deficiencies in that aspect of Christian living and as a source in trying to help others to share meaningfully in meditation.
This perhaps encapsulated in this quote. “Reflection is practising the art of listening to the voice of God. When this becomes a lost art, religion loses its reality and is doomed.”
Kagawa’s religion was so real because he listened so much for the voice of God and acted upon it.
June 2004, Robert M Armstrong