Podcast: Emancipation and the (im)possibility of nationalism

Podcast: Emancipation and the (im)possibility of nationalism
Martyrs in Nagasaki

I've been hard at work on my book, and I managed to finish a rough draft of chapter 3 during April. Now I'm moving backwards a bit to work on chapter 2 during May. So, I'll be reading a lot of Japanese history this month, especially about the history of Buddhism and its relation to the state. You can expect some Twitter threads on any interesting or illuminating stories I happen to run across.

Note that you can help support Samsara Diagnostics by purchasing a copy of Endo's novel Silence through this affiliate link with Bookshop.org. Since my book is about Silence, I highly recommend reading the two side by side!

I released a new Samsara Audio episode on Friday. Since I've been thinking about the book so much, I took this opportunity to talk through the book's contents from end to end (while trying to not spoil certain details for those who haven't read Endo's novel yet).

My clarity about this book and my purpose for this project has only continued to grow as I've immersed myself in it, which has been a refreshing experience. Usually, I find myself drowning in a quagmire of connections and ambiguities as my project balloons out of control. But in this case, I think I've thought about this long enough that I have a clear vision about what needs to be said, so the work of saying it has felt more like building than wandering.

Give this latest episode of Samsara Audio a listen for yourself, and tell me what you think. If you like what you hear, consider pre-ordering the book.

‎Samsara Audio: Japan, Emancipation, and the (Im)possibility of Nationalism on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Samsara Audio, Ep Japan, Emancipation, and the (Im)possibility of Nationalism - 5 May 2023

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Welcome back to Samsara Audio.

This is our second episode, and I wanted to explore the book that I'm writing. I am writing a book about Endo Shusaku's novel Silence, and I just spent the month of April working on a rough draft of chapter three. I'm at the point where I can really talk through the book from beginning to end mentally and see how all the threads connect.

So I wanted to do that. I wanted to share a highlight, kind of an overview and a structure of what I'm trying to do in the book.

So I don't currently have a title for the book, although I did post a thread with some ideas. I'll link that in the description. Maybe you could offer me some suggestions on which one you think is best.

But if you haven't read Endo Shusaku's novel Silence, which by the way the movie adaption by Martin Scorsese is excellent and I definitely recommend it. I'm not one of those snobs who says read the book. The book is good. The movie is also good. I recommend both.

For those who don't know the background of the story, it is about some priests who go to Japan during a time of intense persecution when Christianity is essentially being stamped out by the Tokugawa regime in Kyushu. So the first part of the book focuses on bringing historical background to what is going on in Kyushu. So we look at how did Christianity arrive in Kyushu? What was its political role?

One of the things that I really want to hone in on is two major political events. One is the Shimabara Rebellion and one is the San Felipe incident. The Shimabara Rebellion is the largest peasant uprising in Japanese history and it was led and initiated by this sort of quasi-mythical Christian figure named Amakusa Shiro. It is this explicitly Christian and Roman Catholic uprising fighting against the local oppressors. So it's not only the poor rising up but it has explicitly Christian tones to it.

On top of that there's this interesting incident called "the San Felipe incident" where this ship named San Felipe ends up crashing on the shores of Shikoku, and these Spanish sailors end up getting captured, and they get taken to the Shogun Hideyoshi. He kind of gets the story of the Portuguese from the Spanish's mouth, and it kind of reveals to him that he's been getting fed a little bit by the Portuguese who are ,you know, the Jesuits are the Portuguese, and the Franciscans, who would like to break into Japan, but haven't been able to -- they're Spanish.

So, there's kind of this division going on between the Portuguese and the Spanish where, you know, they divided the world up based on a line of latitude, and so Japan was kind of going to the Portuguese, but the Franciscans were really jealous. Long story short Hideyoshi realizes he's kind of getting played by both sides, and this pisses him the hell off, and this really starts the beginning of the Shoguns realizing that this Christianity thing is a threat to their country, and that it's a political pawn in the political game of Europe.

So when we get to the persecution that's happening under Tokugawa Ieyasu at this point Christianity is nearly wiped out of the country, because Hideyoshi first goes extremely hard against Christians -- we've got the 26 Nagasaki martyrs – there's immense persecution whereas once Christianity was thriving, flourishing, growing in Kyushu, and that's kind of where the story takes place. What's interesting is that the author Shusaku Endo does not include any of this, so I kind of, I'm calling this first chapter "the missing prologue," because what we're missing is why are the Japanese authorities persecuting Christians, and in order to show why some of the history that I just shared with you is even more significant I try to put that into the context not only of the history of Kyushu itself but also the history of Japan.

So the history of Japan is this history of one particular clan -- the Yamato clan -- trying to subdue all the other clans in order to – claiming this divine right – and trying to basically consolidate power in all four of the islands (at least, you know not Hokkaido, initially), but essentially the history from roughly the 500s of Japan is this imperial line of the Yamato setting up in Nara, and then moving to Kyoto a little bit later, and trying to consolidate their power, trying to figure out how they can build a stable, durable regime. and more importantly. a Japanese identity that persists across time.

So of course they try to import Buddhism. they import Confucianism. they're trying to import governmental technologies from both China and the Korean Peninsula. but it's consistently a struggle for them. and they're never really fully able to succeed. For most of Japanese history it's been quite good to be local gentry because you've had quite a bit of personal autonomy. A lot of this is just due to physical stuff like it's very hard to travel long distances in Japan on foot or by horseback because it is so incredibly mountainous. So news doesn't travel fast, communities are relatively isolated there. that is a huge contributor to just making Japan very difficult to govern. just the daily practices of governing Japan. So, the idea of a Japanese people and of a unified Japanese state is kind of this goal that the Yamato clan is constantly falling short of and failing at, and it's not really until Tokugawa Ieyasu (and of course Oda Nobunaga who started this process of unifying the nation) – it's not until under Ieyasu that we actually see the emergence of something like a Japanese nation.

But in order for that to happen this new sense of being a singular people has to emerge. This idea of being Japanese, and there's a lot of things kind of floating around in Japan that Ieyasu doesn't want to be a part of that identity. So one thing is that the relationship to the Buddhist Church changes during this time. Originally, Buddhism was brought in by the elite, and was run as a governmental institution, but now under the three shoguns who kind of unify the country, what they do is downgrade the Buddhist Church's importance -- they de-center it from the center of civil society, they defund it, they take away its political power, and kind of make it their dog that lives on the periphery, and that kind of parrots their answers, that functions a little bit administratively, like people had to register births and deaths at the local Buddhist temple, so it kind of had this administrative function to it, but they took away the money, they took away the power, and they de-centered it from the center of culture.

So all of religion is getting de-centered, whereas also this kind of new construction of kind of a Japanese religion of Shinto is emerging. It's this artificial construction of various local deities and superstitions and even some Buddhist concepts all kind of getting mixed together, but they're ultimately in service of this coherent national identity of being Japanese and of being the Japanese nation.

So that's a lot of history but to bring that all back around, Christianity does not fit into this image at all,especially because it's the only religion that has effectively motivated a peasant uprising and provides kind of these theoretical concepts and the groundwork for thinking emancipation in the context of being poor and oppressed.

The problem is that Buddhism just did not have the intellectual resources to think this way. It was kind of functionally a nihilism, and I go into detail about a Japanese Christian in the early 1600s named Fukansai Habian who wrote the MyoTei dialogues in which he, as an indigenous Japanese Christian, critiques Buddhism as nihilism, saying that it doesn't have the resources to motivate ethical behavior, and that Christianity does.

So, I go into that, and I think that he hits the nail on the head as -- interestingly enough, Zizek has got some work on this. Zizek talks about how Buddhism, it doesn't have the ability to resist nationalist ideology, as we've seen, as he points out in, I can't remember the author's name, there's a book called Zen at War, and you can see how Zen Buddhism just totally got behind the war in Japan -- World War two specifically. There just wasn't enough intellectual resources to develop an idea of resistance against tyranny, resistance against a Japanese identity or against nationalism.

So, I'm trying to argue that basically what's happening in Japan during the book of Silence is that a sort of proto-nationalism is emerging in Japan, and Christianity as this potentially emancipatory force is not compatible with the nationalism that Ieyasu is trying to forge for a modern unified Japanese nation.

From there I get into the details of the novel ,some of them I can't talk about because I would spoil some of the story for you, but the story really goes where there's a priest -- father Rodriguez – who is imprisoned and tortured and the goal of he Inquisitor named Inoue is to get him to apostatize, and so I talk about the strategies that Inoue uses to try to produce this apostasy in Fr. Rodriguez – how he's shaping his consciousness, and how he's shaping his world, and his cadences, and his relationships, and his perception. What are the tools he's using?

One of the things I particularly hone in on is this idea of compassion -- he's weaponizing compassion. He makes Fr. Rodriguez feel that if you have compassion for these other Christians who are imprisoned with you, you will apostatize to set them free. What happens is Inoue weaponizes that relationship of priest and parishioner, he weaponizes the relationship of compassion -- I go deep into Nietzsche's critique of pity to kind of show how this works because it's exactly what Nietzsche is describing in his own work where he talks about pity, which I really think he means like empathy. Compassion is the operative concept here though.

From there, I try to get into how I think that if Rodriguez were to apostatize how he would betray the fundamental insight of Christianity which is this emancipatory aspect where every one of our relationships is relativized in relation to Jesus Christ, in relation to the kingdom of God. I bring in Zizek to talk about this because Zizek has a great reading of Saint Paul in The Puppet and The Dwarf where he talks about how Paul overcomes the old divisions of race, language, family, country, blood, all of these old divisions that tear humanity apart, they are overcome in Christ, and the way that they are overcome is by positing a higher division.

You don't create unity by dissolving divisions but rather, according to Zizek, and I think that this is an incredibly insightful point, you have to posit a division that's higher than all of those other divisions, thereby relativizing them all. You can't get rid of division, you can't get rid of that difference, but rather what you can do is posit a higher difference, and that difference is the kingdom of God. It's being in Christ, it's being not in Christ, and Paul does that in his work.

To bring this kind of towards a conclusion, I want to see that to betray the Japanese Christians in the book Silence would be to turn one's back on the possibility of that emancipatory thinking, of the ability to think beyond the particular, and to be able to say 'no, this is wrong, I appeal to a higher authority than the political ruler that I am under, and that I have the ability to fight back, to resist, to commit myself to a truth, and even die for that truth that is beyond this world.' Christianity provides the ability to be able to do that, and that was what made it so dangerous to the Japanese authorities.

Now the way that they handled it was brilliant though, and the book will go into this, Christianity in Japan was essentially annihilated. So, I think that looking at how the Japanese government handled the elimination of Christianity in their borders, how they conceptualize it as a problem, is extremely vital for understanding our own situation as the church, because I think that the way that the Inquisitor Inoue went about attempting to secure apostasy from the priests is the way that our government operates in this biopolitical mode, in this mode of weaponizing compassion.

Ultimately. I think that this book is something of an intervention in political theology, as well as in this conversation that we've been having lately about Christian nationalism, in evangelical circles. I do think that Christian nationalism is in danger of losing the core emancipatory element of Christianity, which is this ability -- not only the ability, but the inevitability – with which it relativizes every other commitment by committing us to the kingdom of God, by the power of the allegiance to Lord Jesus that fundamentally unsettles any sort of nationalism that is possible.

Because what is nationalism trying to do – it has to be religious, and what's interesting is Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities talks about this -- how nationalism emerges in the wake of the weakening of religious structures so that the nation-state has to step into that messianic role. Nationalism is a product of the weakening of religious ties, and the the nation-state having to become this religious entity. Now, I think that the nation is a fictitious entity, but what stands behind it is a large, functioning, grinding bureaucracy, and the over class who runs it who would happily ask that you die for the Leviathan, and so this is what nationalism is.

I oppose Christian nationalism primarily on the grounds that a nationalism is fundamentally impossible, not only theoretically but practically impossible, but also that Christianity itself is the ultimate force of unsettling nationalism, like even if you could brainwash everybody you would still run up against this force which is the Holy Spirit operating through his people in this world to unsettle all of the powers and principalities.

So I've said a lot here, there's probably more to say, hopefully this gives you some idea of what's gonna be going on in the book, and if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me. I would love to interact. You can also interact with me on Twitter at @notstanlee -- thank you so much for your time, and I'll see you next time.

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