One Matthias for Another – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

The Martyrs of Japan

Galatians 2:19-20
Mark 8:34-38

A large, distinctive, and inviting piece of art hangs in our refectory at Emery House, an image of the Last Supper in which the figures wear kimonos and dine on saké and sushi. It is a Japanese print in the mingei, or folk-art style, by the twentieth century Christian artist Sadao Watanabe. Watanabe used a technique called katazome, utilizing traditional mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk printed on mulberry paper.  Of his works, Watanabe once remarked, “I would most like to see them hanging where people ordinarily gather, because Jesus brought the gospel for the people.” Having lost his father at the age of ten, he began attending Church when a local Christian woman in his neighborhood took him under her wing. He was baptized at age seventeen.

At the age Watanabe lost his father, I was baptized in a chlorinated tank behind the altar at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Alabama. And at the age Watanabe was baptized, I encountered my first major crisis and painful loss of faith. A significant factor in this crisis was learning in school about the history of European imperialism, colonial expansion, and what missiologists today call “mission malpractice.” Like medical malpractice, malpractice in the history of Christian mission is rarely intentional, but has had devastating and tragic consequences for entire cultures. When the Gospel is intertwined with the interests of colonial trade; when racist denigration of traditional wisdom becomes normative; when Western people and institutions are the sole mediators of God’s grace; when conversion becomes a spiritual requirement of colonial acculturation; in all these instances, mission malpractice occurs. At that formative age, the painful truths of such history conflicted so drastically with the plain message of the Gospel that I became profoundly disillusioned with the Church altogether.

Yet without Christian mission to Japan, without Japanese conversion to Christianity, Sadao Watanabe would have lived a very different life, and my own life of faith would not be enriched by the radiant artwork through which Watanabe preaches the Gospel of Christ to me.

On this day in 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified on a hill near Nagasaki. Their number included six Spanish Franciscans and twenty Japanese Christians. Japanese relations with Spain and Portugal in this period were complex, Catholic religious orders rivaled with one another for converts and influence, and suspicion regarding Western intentions of conquest mounted. Much mission malpractice occurred. In the midst of it all, Japanese men and women chose to take up the cross of Christ, some of them literally, slowly planting the seeds of an indigenous Church in Japan.

Luis Froes, a Jesuit eye-witness, wrote a vivid account of the event, listing names and some details about the twenty-six martyrs. The account is short. The last name to be mentioned is Matthias, and it is his story that most captivates my attention:

The Japanese police arrived at the Franciscan residence in Osaka with a list of twelve Japanese Christians to be arrested. Only one was missing, a Japanese Christian named Matthias, who did the shopping for the friars. The policemen continued to search the house, loudly calling his name. In the neighboring house, another Christian with the name Matthias heard them, and offered himself, saying “I may not be the Matthias you’re looking for, but I am a Christian and a friend of these Fathers.” The police accepted his offer, and he joined the group who were led off to be tortured and marched to Nagasaki. [i]

In the end, it was loving, extraordinary relationships with loving but ordinary Christians that enabled my return to the Church. It was a loving relationship with a Christian neighbor that began Watanabe’s vocation as a Christian and an artist. It was a loving relationship with a complete stranger that caused one Matthias to lay down his life for another. Social, cultural, and political forces in the world are so often beyond our control. It is in our ordinary and loving relationships with others, within the Church and outside it, that we carry the greatest hope of practicing mission as Jesus did: embodying God’s mission one relationship at a time.

[i] Luis Froes, Historia XXVI Crucifixorum in Japon, 14, 109-110. Quoted in For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days, p. 437.

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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on June 17, 2022 at 13:08

    Br. Keith: Such a thoughtful, insightful piece. Here in Canada as we struggle with the mission malpractice of residential schools and their tragic legacy this should be required reading for all. Elizabeth Hardy+

  2. Rhode on June 17, 2022 at 11:13

    Over 300,000 Dutch and mix-raced Dutch Indos (as we were called) were forced to repatriate to the Netherlands and other countries, as all our possessions were removed, during Indonesias’ rightful and sometimes forceful reclaiming in the1950s through early 60s. My grandmother (as a young girl) believed in Christ because of missionaries. She gave her suitor a bible and wouldn’t marry him until he read it. My Opa did read and believed, gave his heart to Christ, married my Oma and became an ordained Minister. Together they pastored a fairly large Christian community on Java, forming deep and lasting relationships that are still remembered today among our Dutch-Indo Christian community. After release from internment camps during the revolution my grandparents chose to live in New Guinea as missionaries. My very large and extended family In NL and hundreds, if not thousands of my Opas’ past parishioners all over the world thank God for the selfless and humble American and Dutch missionaries who chose to share the love of Christ with us. Yes – there were/are horrible stories of terrible acts committed in Jesus name everywhere. Evil is active. But God’s word and truth is all-powerful and real and will always make a way through love and loving relationships. I thank you for your message Br Keith.

  3. Connie on June 17, 2022 at 10:45

    I’ve read of the Martyrs of Japan. It makes my heart ache.
    Br. Keith, thanks for the back story of Matthias. It strangely lightens the heaviness. Maybe it brings Light to the darkness.
    And thanks for the introduction to the art of S. Wananabe.

  4. Lisa Heisinger on June 17, 2022 at 09:49

    Hello there, Br, Keith,

    I’m wondering if you have a daily word addressing risk as it relates to risking one’s whole heart in the service of deep human and soul connection with another, knowing that there are specifics that lead to the real possibility of its eventual loss,

  5. gwedhen nicholas on February 6, 2016 at 11:07

    Br Keith,
    I was so touched by the story of the two Matthias’! What an incredible story. The second Matthias truly lived Christ. Thank you for sharing it.

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