Friday, December 15, 2017

A Disastrous Rebellion

December 17, 1637, was the beginning of a terrible time for Christianity in Japan. Even though it was 380 years ago, a rebellion of some Christians that started then had repercussions that lasted for centuries—and there’s some similarity of erroneous beliefs then to those of some Christians now.
The Christian Century in Japan
The introduction of Christianity into Japan began with the arrival of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier on the shores of southern Kyushu (the southernmost major island) in August 1549. As a result of his remarkable influence, and that of other missionaries who came later, a sizeable number of Japanese people in southern Japan became Christians.
The number and influence of Japanese Christians in the decades following 1549 led to the designation of that period as “the Christian century in Japan.” (The British historian C.R. Boxer published a book with that title in 1951.)
By the 1630s, some estimates say that there were as many as 750,000 Christians in Japan—or about half as many as now and, of course, a much larger percentage than now.
The growth in the number of Christian believers did not last for a century, though. The disastrous rebellion of 1637-38 reduced the number of openly professed Christians to almost zero—and it also resulted in Japan being completely closed to Christianity, and to most of the Western world, for some 220 years.
The Shimabara Rebellion
A British historian's 2016 book
Shimabara is the name of a peninsula in Nagasaki Prefecture, and the historical events that began there on Dec. 17, 1637, and lasted until April 15, 1638, are usually called the Shimabara Rebellion. 
That disastrous rebellion was primarily by Christians. It was largely due not to religious motives as much as to widespread dissatisfaction with overtaxation and the suffering caused by famine conditions in the area.
Amakusa Shirō, a charismatic 16-year-old youth was chosen as the rebellion’s leader. He was considered by local Christians as “heaven’s messenger,” and miraculous powers were attributed to him.
As the shogunate troops began to gather in Shimabara in a concerted effort to put down the rebellion, the rebels holed up in Hara Castle—and the troop’s siege of the castle lasted until April, when the resistance was finally broken and destroyed.
(The ruins of Hara Castle are about 40 miles east of Nagasaki City.)
It is said that some 37,000 rebels (men, women, and children) were beheaded at the end of that disastrous rebellion.
This was in spite of the hope/belief of Amakusa and some of his followers that this was going to be a Japanese “battle of Armageddon”—the time for the intervention of God and the beginning of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Apocalyptic Fervor Then and Now
The German Peasants’ War of 1524-25 and the Münster Rebellion (also in Germany) of 1534-35 were earlier “Christian” rebellions that shared similar characteristics to the Shimabara Rebellion. There were apocalyptic overtones, or underpinnings, to each of those rebellions also.
The leaders of both of those earlier rebellions believed that violence was sanctioned by God and was necessary to establish God’s new world order. But the rebels in both Germany and Japan learned by sad experience that those who take the sword die by the sword.
Now, there are those who see DJT’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in apocalyptic terms. For example, consider this Dec. 11 article: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem excites apocalyptic fervor.”
DJT’s “spiritual adviser” Paula White says that “evangelicals are ecstatic” at the decision to move Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, for that means Jesus’ Second Coming is nearer.
But might this be the beginning of another disaster similar to but far, far worse than the Shimabara Rebellion?


  1. The knee-jerk response to what I have seen and still see, is that those who rollover and also die in huge numbers. (We could take the religious high road and just call them martyrs.) This is especially true of communism, but also other fascist groups. Tyrants are tyrants. I prefer Teddy Roosevelt’s doctrine - Walk softly, but carry a big stick.

  2. I was delighted to receive these comments from Thinking Friend George Takashima, who is a pastor in Canada:

    "Both my parents were born in southern Kyushu--on Amakusa Island. If you were to visit Amakusa today, you will find at least 5 Roman Catholic churches from long time ago. (I imagine there may be more but I could only find 5 buildings) Today there are some evangelical Christian churches on Amakusa Island as well."

    1. Amakasu Island is just across a narrow waterway from Shimabara and Hara Castle. Many of the Christians who rebelled, including Amakusa Shirō who became the leader of the rebellion, were from Amakusa.

      Amakusa became one of the main regions where the Christians went underground after the Shimabara Rebellion--and where, as George indicated, Catholics built back after Japan was opened to Christianity again in the late 19th century.

  3. Here are brief comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Thanks for sharing some history few Americans, including me, knew about, Leroy. I pray that we don’t have another of these over fundamentalist expectations."

  4. I suspect there is more parallel to the Japanese and German experiences than indicated above. What is the connection between economic issues in Japan and apocalyptic issues in Germany? I wonder if they were essentially the same thing. Christianity has dealt for centuries with tension between popular desires and imperial ambitions. In our Western world, these conflicts have been mostly between Christians, so there is a deeply theological nature to the conflicts. In Japan, the empire was pagan, and the uprising was Christian, something not seen in any significant way for a thousand years. Yet, at the base, it was about the abject suffering of the peasants, and the violent reaction of the elites. Black slaves in America were not the first people to be inflamed by the burning bush that sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh, or the preaching of the Kingdom by Jesus.

    My Sunday School class recently read "Was Jesus a Muslim?" by Robert Shedinger. He looks at ways the Islamic understanding of unified religion, politics and economics was actually much more in line with the teachings of Jesus than are modern understandings of the almost total separation of church and state. Part of the reason Christianity thrived and spread was that it was tamed by imperialism, and made use of by it. From time to time the deep roots of social justice have re-emerged, and that has at times been violent. Why did much of the radical reformation become pacifistic? Was it not because the imperial powers violently suppressed it, until its survivors sued for peace and surrendered? How is that different from the quote attributed to Chief Joseph after his band surrendered just short of their escape from the United States into Canada? "I will fight no more forever." In Europe the outward form of Christianity remained after the surrender, but the justice movement was dead. In Japan, the justice movement and the Christians died together. Sometimes fallen rebels suffer one fate, sometimes the other. We live with the aftermath, and struggle to understand how to balance peace and justice.

    See Part 2.

  5. Part 2.

    This is important today in another way, for the Christian rebels in both Germany and Japan have much in common with the Islamic extremists of today. The heavy boot of Western imperialism has fallen hard upon the Islamic world, both directly through military and economic exploitation, but also through the imposition of Islamic versions of banana republics. Especially in the United States, true Christians are in a very awkward position. Our faith recognizes the validity of the economic and political justice claims, even as our recent religious history favors the ruling imperial powers here and abroad. Violent rebellions usually end horribly for those involved. There is a good reason thinking Christians have long sought alternate paths. Even so, the forces of evil are powerful in our time, and are wreaking havoc on people all over the world, indeed, even upon the world itself. Perhaps we could begin with the confession that America is not a Christian nation, in both good and bad ways. At its best, it is a secular nation where we follow scientific evidence in designing public policy. At its worst, it is a pseudo-Christian nation, harboring a civic religion of Imperial Christianity which is at war with people, nature, and everything Jesus said. America is the land of "greed is good" and "the almighty dollar." Every day we learn again just how true it is that just about everyone and everything has its price, and deep pockets have plenty of almighty dollars to buy both souls and resources. What we have in turn is Jesus' promise, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32) Will we be able to find and implement the truth we need, or will we merely be footnotes on a long pilgrimage through another dark age? Trapped between global warming and economic fundamentalism, our immediate future looks bleak, no matter how high the irrational exuberance of the imperialists drives the stock market. Fear and trembling is our path.

    1. Craig, thanks for your lengthy, thought-provoking comments.

      I think there was a close relationship between the rebellious, mostly Christian peasants in Germany in 1524 and the rebellious, mostly Christian peasants in southwest Japan in 1637. Dire physical needs and apocalyptic beliefs give rise to desperate actions.

      However, I don't think it was because of the inability of the radical reformers to stand up militarily to the imperial forces that caused the former to become pacifistic. In the case of Menno Simons, who became an Anabaptist the year following end of the debacle at Münster in 1635, his pacifism was clearly based upon his reading of the New Testament and commitment to the teachings of Jesus. In his writings, he repeatedly rejected the wrongheaded thinking and actions of the rebel Christians of Münster.

      I was impressed by your next to last sentence, "Trapped between global warming and economic fundamentalism, our immediate future looks bleak, no matter how high the irrational exuberance of the imperialists drives the stock market." I agree with that assessment of the immediate future--but I hope to live long enough to see a dramatic swing of the pendulum in the 2020s.

  6. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "The 'Christian wars' eat away the credibility and integrity of the Christian faith. Certainly, it brings into question the delimma posed by the difference in the natures of the Gods of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

    "Jesus brought salvation for all who accepted this Divine gift, but also taught us that His Father was not really like the ancient people perceived Him. In effect, Jesus said, 'If you really want to know what God is like, look at me.' He even went so far as to say, 'the Father and I are one.'

    "Jesus, the Christian's model, was a man of love and peace. He did not condone violence or war. However, he did drive the money changers out of the temple.

    "The Christian rebels you describe and the crusaders, really don't have a Biblical leg to stand on when it comes to justifying violence of any kind. This raises the issue of how the violence described in the book of Revelation in the last days fits into the nature of the non-violent Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    "There is much in the Bible about the war between good and evil--is that not God-induced violence? I have raised more questions than I have answered but that's my take on 'Christian' wars and violence. I think there may be some place in the gestalt of Christian life for violence but it has been grossly misused."

  7. Truett, it was good to hear from you again, and a appreciate your pertinent comments.

    To respond too briefly, let me suggest that you read Brian Zahnd's new book "Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God." He has three chapters about Revelation, and they directly address the problem you mentioned.

  8. I intended to note this earlier, but my 5/15/12 blog article was about the Battle of Frankenhausen, the final decisive battle of the Peasants' Revolt in Germany on May 15, 1525. Here is the link to it:

    Then, my 6/25/12 posting was partly about the Münster Rebellion that culminated in June 1535. Here is the link to that article: