By Any Means Necessary
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Last month I was asked to read excerpts from sermons of my grandfather Kengo Tajima and my uncle Don Toriumi for an exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum. The exhibit, Sutra and Bible, focuses on the role of religion during the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
I have not said much about it because I wanted to see it before recommending it. Frankly, I was concerned because the very day I was contacted about the exhibit, I was also contacted by someone on a separate matter, but who ended up commenting negatively about the project. The main curator is a Buddhist priest at USC who has been involved in various racial justice events. While I appreciate some of his efforts, his desire to find justice for Buddhists has left me thinking he was anti-Christian, which made me wonder how my family’s ministry would be represented. The exhibit tries to be very even in its coverage of both Christian and Buddhist traditions and leaders, which was different for me (since I have only known the Christian side of the history). But since there were far more Buddhists in the camps than Christians, having an even split actually favors the Christians.
As it happens, I saw the preview video of the exhibit first, and I found the video more moving than the exhibit itself. So if you are interested but you don’t want to drive down and find parking in Little Tokyo, you can go to https://www.janm.org/exhibits/sutra-and-bible and scroll down to find the “Related Video” for the preview and gallery talk.
The focus of the exhibit was the great lengths people took to maintain their faith lives and traditions, even when outside forces tried to take it all from them. This was most extreme against the Buddhists, but even Bibles were confiscated and worship services monitored. But there was also mention of grace, such as the story of Rev. Emery Andrews, who was serving as English-language pastor of the Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle when his congregation was sent first to Puyallup and then to the Minidoka camp, over 600 miles away in southern Idaho. Rev. Andrews moved his family to Twin Falls, Idaho, outside the Minidoka camp, so that he could serve his congregation. Because he was White, he was able to visit his people in camp, drive back and forth to Seattle to retrieve belongings that were stored at the church, advocate for them, and get furloughs so that members could visit his house and have a brief time of celebration, including family picnics and weddings. Not only did Rev. Andrews and his family leave their home, they were subject to harassment and threats for their care for the Japanese.
One remarkable work was the “Kitaji Bibles,” two volumes of over 3,000 pages, produced by Salvation Army Captain Masuo Kitaji. Capt. Kitaji took an English Bible, then wrote in Japanese translations, commentary, and compelling illustrations. Most of the work was done while he was imprisoned at Poston camp in Arizona. The Bibles disappeared, only to resurface in an auction in New York; they had been retrieved from a recycling bin in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Buddhists also showed their devotion, including beautiful family shrines carved out of fruit crates, and a large can filled with stones, with one kanji character on each. Only recently did Buddhist scholars put the stones together and realize they constituted a portion of the Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra.
Since all Buddhist materials were destroyed, a Buddhist priest at Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming recreated the Sutra from memory. (Coincidentally, Heart Mountain was where the Toriumis were sent, and my cousin Karen was born there. It is also the camp where young Boy Scouts Norm Mineta and Alan Simpson became lifelong friends, even as politicians of opposing parties in Washington, DC.)
As I saw the exhibit, I kept thinking about our time through the COVID pandemic, and sadly now as I hear the news from Ukraine. In all instances, people who have been removed from life as they knew it have sought out ways to maintain their faith, by any means necessary. Whether it was with handwritten Bibles, bring-your-own-elements Zoom communion, or playing music in bomb shelters, our spirit wins out. While the term “by any means necessary” was used in the 1960s to reference going so far as to take violent action to gain equal rights, people of faith have gone to that extent in order to keep the faith alive, the life of peace even amidst oppression and disaster.
When I recorded excerpts from my uncle Don’s sermon, I included Romans 8:38-39, and highlighted the end of the sermon, which offered a radically Christian parable about the extreme grace of Jesus Christ:
There is a legend which is commonly told about Judas Iscariot after he had committed suicide, having betrayed his Master for thirty pieces of silver. It is said that for many years, the soul of Judas Iscariot wandered over the face of the earth. Finally, he came to a window which opened into heaven. He looked in, and saw Jesus and His disciples standing around a table upon which were the bread and the cup. Jesus saw Judas looking in, and so He went out to Judas and brought him to the table. Jesus said to Judas: “We could not sit down and partake of this supper without you.”
As we continue through the season of Lent, we are reminded how God, through Jesus Christ, sought to offer us grace beyond what we deserve; grace by any means necessary. As we recognize the grace given to us, may we offer that grace to others.