Anyone who’s read James Clavell’s encyclopedic, sprawling Shogun surely appreciates the 1k+ pages of military and political strategy, and specifically the chess-like skills of the Feudal Lord, Toranaga, who moves individuals and even armies like pawns in his grand plot to take power. Manipulating people, thinking 12 moves in advance, maintaining perfect composure in the face of unexpected challenges to the path toward victory—these require a serious cold cunning, if not genius, that is possessed by few.
Clavell glorifies these skills and celebrates Japanese culture in general. He conveys to the Western audience ideas that challenge Judeo-Christian norms (i.e. thou shalt not kill) in a way that helps us Westerners appreciate how we might appear to cultural and religious “outsiders.”
Having warmed to the beauty of the Samurai lifestyle, I was eagerly anticipating the book selected by my small (but powerful) book club, Shusaku Endo’s small (but powerful) book, The Samurai. Endo is a Japanese Catholic novelist of great spiritual depth, the rare type possessed by religious poets. He doesn’t preach or theologize, and eschews orthodoxies in favor of evocative and moving scenes of compassion and even spiritual love. I first encountered his work when a friend recommended Deep River, which hooked me immediately.
The Samurai tells the story of a 17th century Catholic Priest who aspires to convert Japan to Catholicism. A Feudal Lord gives the Priest the impression that if trade with Catholic countries could be increased, the latter would be given permission to missionize freely. The Japanese Lord sends an envoy of a few low-ranking Samurai along with the Priest on a diplomatic-religious-economic trip from Japan to (what is now) Mexico, from there to Spain, to the Vatican, and ultimately back to Japan. The years-long journey is especially difficult for the Samurai, who were wrenched from their simple farming lives and their young families. Along the way there is death and shame, and all the while the Samurai struggle to maintain their ancestral traditions while the Priest works on converting them. They are only sustained by the hope of completing the mission thrust upon them by their Feudal Lord, bringing honor to themselves and their families.
[SPOILER ALERT] Alas, the entire journey filled with loneliness and suffering undertaken by the Priest and his envoy of Samurai yields nothing. It was all a ruse. A chess move, made by the Feudal Lord. The Samurai were pawns in a game they didn’t know they were playing. They left Japan believing that they were of great value to their country but realized that they had been sent to fail or die—it didn’t matter.
Toward the end of the book, when one of the Samurai feels the pain of his life’s futility, he remembers a story about Jesus that he had heard along the way:
When He was in the world, He undertook many journeys, but He never called upon the lofty or the powerful. He visited only the poor and the afflicted, and talked with no others. On nights when death visited the afflicted, He sat beside them, clutching their hands until dawn, weeping with the survivors…saying that He came into the world to minister unto men….
And behold, there was a woman who for many years had made her living selling her own body. When she heard that He had come across the sea, she ran to the place where He was. And she went to His side and spoke not a word, but only wept, and her tears did bathe His feet. And He saith unto her, with these tears all is satisfied, your Father which is in Heaven knows your misery and your sorrows. Therefore be not afraid.
These words transform the Samurai’s view of his life and purpose. Whereas “the Japanese used only those who could be of benefit to them,” “God has use for all men.”
Endo (an insider) provides a critique of the Japanese culture that Clavell (an outsider) celebrates. While the ability to successfully use people as pawns in one’s ambitious plans might take genius, it also takes a heart of stone. In Martin Buber’s terminology, this is the ultimate I-it relationship. In order to secure my own success, I treat the people around me like objects, tools, chess-pieces in a game I’ll sacrifice anything and anyone to win. Jesus’ lesson, as expounded by Endo, is that every person is a Thou. An I-Thou relationship is one wherein I treat the other, no matter who s/he is in the world of humanity, as a manifestation of the Divine.
Endo taught me something powerful about the poetic power (as opposed to objective truth) of “Jesus’ love.” I had never understood what “Jesus loves you” means. For Endo, at least, it means that while we might evaluate our own worth based on honor, socio-economic status, or other external measurements that ebb and flow, there is an infinite Divine love that extends to all, even (or especially) to the lowliest pawn in the game.
The Rabbis expressed this idea most profoundly in their interpretation of why Genesis describes humanity as emanating from a single man, Adam. It’s a radically democratic vision of human worth (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) that challenges us to see the Divine in everyone:
…man was created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul…it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul… it as if she had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow, “My father is greater than yours;”…. Again, to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for a person stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, “For my sake the world was created.”