When There Are No Easy Answers

Recently, my pastor participated in a neighborhood festival and was given the honor of helping to carry the mikoshi.

Once you have read and digested that sentence, you will likely fall into one of three groups of people.

The first group thinks: “That’s nice that the pastor of your church is an active and respected member of the community.” and nothing more.

The second group is horrified, and thinks “What kind of a Christian pastor would participate in a religious festival so closely tied to Shintoism and even went so far as to carry the mikoshi, an act that is more than passively approving of worshiping false gods but actively participating in it?”

And the third group is encouraged, thinking “After decades of making Japanese people feel guilty and shameful about their cultural practices with historic ties to religion, it is refreshing to see a Christian pastor who can look beyond the surface appearance of honoring people by participating in a community festival and see the long term goal of building trust and mutual respect with the community the church serves.”

So which of these three groups of people’s beliefs are correct? The answer is more complicated than you probably think.

Before we dive into this question, I want to say that I am well aware of the fact that this is a controversial subject. I may state things in a way you might find offensive, and though I intend no offense, I do not automatically apologize for it either. Perhaps it is you that needs to reconsider your views of Christianity, missions and evangelism and perhaps that truth can range from irritating to painful. If you are not ready to confront your own potential blind spots in these areas, it is best for you to stop reading here.

Here we have a conundrum. Two of the three possible responses to this situation are in direct opposition to one another, and it would not be surprising for well-intentioned Christians to line up on either side of the issue, ready to defend it with strong words for the other side. And that’s where we’d all be wrong.

The answer to the question, in my opinion, is that all three groups are correct and none of the three are correct, and it depends on the situation and the prayerful discernment of the one who must make that choice. That answer is probably completely unsatisfactory to many of you.

But perhaps that is because we as modern Christians have grown lazy in our spirituality. We expect the Bible to spit out an answer in form of chapter and verse that unequivocally answers our questions of morality. Unlike the spiritual giants of the past who spent hours a day locked in a room pleading for God to speak, we believe the Lord will give us an answer to our deepest questions in a 15 minute quiet time over coffee and a piece of toast.

And we fail to remember that the Bible wasn’t written in chapter and verses, neatly divided up for us to cherry-pick our answers from. The Bible is to be taken as a whole to see the character of God through His relationship with His people and that of His Son, Jesus Christ. In high school government, we learned the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When you divide the Bible into verses and take them out of context, it is far too easy to find the letter of the Law without discerning the Spirit, in this case, the Holy Spirit, who will reveal the character and nature of God through the entire text.

So in that context, the Bible does not speak directly to the participation in a Japanese festival, nor should we expect it to. It does speak about worshiping false gods. It also speaks about how Jesus himself broke perceived religious rules to reach people where they were at. When we cherry-pick from either of these verses, we end up in opposition with our own brethren, sometimes to the point of contention.

Much is left out of the sentence that began this division of Christian opinions. One of the major points is the fact that prior to starting relationship building with community leaders, our church was viewed with suspicion and perhaps even enmity in the community. Certainly, there was a lack of trust in the goodwill of the church toward the people in the neighborhood. After many years of actively participating in the community including attending community meetings and events and rising to a leadership role, our pastor was given the honor of carrying the mikoshi in the annual festival.

Now, let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. After investing years of relationship building and trust creation with the leaders of the community, you are offered one of the highest honors they can bestow on you. To these people, they view carrying the mikoshi as nothing more than a symbol of being a leader in the community; there are no religious overtones tying it to Shintoism. But you are aware that some members of your church and the Christian community in general will not see it that way.

What do you choose to do? Do you turn down the honor, which sends a message to the people that while we say you don’t have to be a Christian to come to church, if you are a Christian you can’t be a part of community events based on Japanese cultural traditions? Such a response can easily snowball into the misconception that you are a hypocrite, that what is good enough for the “pagans” is not good enough for Christians.

Or do you accept the honor, incurring the wrath and judgment (much of it in silence, behind your back) of the Christian community who sees your actions as heretical? Do you accept the possibility that some of your own congregation may leave your church because they so sharply disagree with your actions?

As you can see, there is no easy answer. Even if you believe accepting the honor from the community is the right choice, you will have to deal with the consequences. And in fact, there may be cases where choosing not to participate in such a festival is the correct decision. But one cannot discern either decision without wrestling with the answer in prayer and meditation.

Let me end this with one more analogy. For those of us in full-time ministry, we are fighting a spiritual battle against our enemy, the devil and his demons, for the souls of the lost. This is the front lines and though the battle belongs to the Lord, the enemy is using every trick, every tactic to hold us back. One of the greatest tactics he will use against us is to turn us on ourselves. In the stress of the battlefield, it is actually quite easy for him to do this to us. If we’re too busy killing off each other, we have no time to give life to those who need it.

So pulling back the camera and looking at the big picture, are the decisions being made by people furthering or hindering the communication of the gospel to the people who most need to hear it? And if we’re not willing to support one another in decisions that we don’t agree with, can we at least agree not to tear each other down for those decisions when they are made for the sake of the gospel? Let us not become our own greatest enemy, standing between our brothers and those hungry for the gospel.

2 thoughts on “When There Are No Easy Answers

  1. Tony in Canada says:

    That’s a tough call on the surface.

    According to the wikipedia definition – a mikoshi is a divine palanquin (also translated as portable Shinto shrine). Shinto followers believe that it serves as the vehicle to transport a deity in Japan [i.e. a pagan god] while moving between main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival or when moving to a new shrine.

    If this pastor can somehow turn his action into a gospel opportunity, I could see people supporting his gesture.

    Tony in Canada

    • Hi Tony, great to hear from you. Yes, Shinto believers do see the mikoshi this way, but in modern Tokyo there is a very small population of people who would classify themselves as true Shinto believers. The vast majority of people participating in these types of festivals are simply community members enjoying a community event. The religious aspects are either ignored or not considered important to the enjoyment of the festival. Our pastor sees the participation in this event as paramount to building a relationship of trust with the community members, something which has already helped break down the barrier of suspicion with people coming into our church building for community events and other ministries and activities the church has offered. So he has ‘weighed and prayed’ the potential cost of offending people by participating in the event and found that building bridges of trust with the people we are here to reach is more valuable than avoiding offending other Christians.

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