Friday, February 08, 2008

Moltmann on ancestor cult

Okinawa counts as a centre of the Asian ancestor cult. Everywhere in the mountains one sees graves with benches in front of them where families can gather. I gave the main lecture of my tour in a Catholic church taking as my subject “Ancestor cult and the Resurrection Hope.” My listeners were very moved, and for the first time I saw Japanese people weeping. For them, the dead are not “dead and gone” as they are for us.

As ancestors, they are indeed very much present, and as good spirits can bless and as suffering spirits torment. Down to the present day, the battle of Okinawa has left behind it long shadows in families. The stories they tell are terrible beyond all imaginings. During a long car journey, Professor Kinjo, who is today 80 years old and pastor of the central church, told me defeated Japanese soldiers on the island of Takashiki drove families in his village into the caves to mass suicide, in order to save “the Tenno honour.” He himself and his brother were forced to kill their own mother, and he only survived by chance. On the southern tip of Okinawa, whole classes of Japanese schoolchildren threw themselves down the precipice. Finally, Admiral Otta committed ritual suicide. On the black marble tablets in the Peace Park, the name of 250,000 people who died in that battle are engraved. The souls of these dead find no peace, because they have received no justice, and to find peace with the dead belongs to the reverence for ancestors.

Christian missionaries condemned this Asiatic reverence for ancestors as idolatry and demanded that Christians abandon it. But that was the non-culture of the Western world rather than Christian faith. It is better to develop a Christian form of reverence for ancestors, springing from the shared Christian resurrection hope, as has happened in Korea. And for us in the West, it is important to learn again how to deal with the burdens and blessings of our forefathers instead of letting them disappear in anonymous graves; for whether we like it or not, we live in their light and in their shadow.

Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 365-66.

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