King's Worcester

31 January

World Interfaith Harmony Week Assembly

During this week’s virtual whole school Senior Assembly, Dr McLaverty-Head (Religion & Philosophy Teacher) spoke to pupils and staff about Interfaith Week. First, monitor Jamie opened the assembly with his monitor’s address on productivity. The monitor’s speech during a whole school assembly is something that all monitors deliver during their time in Upper Sixth. 

Today, I have been asked to talk about Interfaith week, the effort that religious people undertake to build relationships with those whose beliefs differ from their own.

On 5th February, the church remembers the “martyrs of Japan.” If Interfaith week is to some extent about fostering religious tolerance then the story of medieval Christianity in Japan is an example of the tragic failure to treat people with human dignity.

Christianity was first introduced into Japan in the sixteenth century. By the end of that century, there were probably about 300,000 Christians in Japan. Alas, they were not destined to have an easy time.

Because of unrest among Japanese Christians, a decree in 1587 banned the propagation of the Christian faith in Japan.

In 1596, things got worse. A Spanish ship ran aground and its cargo of ammunition was confiscated. The ship’s pilot supposedly said that Christian missionaries were simply paving the way for Spanish military conquest. Needless to say, this confession did not go down well.

In February 1597, twenty-six Christians, both Japanese and non-, were executed in Nagasaki, becoming the first martyrs in Japan and it is this martyrdom that is commemorated on Saturday.

In spite of these persecutions, the Roman Catholic mission continued to expand. Finally, in 1614, Shogun Ie-yasu issued the edict of persecution and ensured its implementation: churches were destroyed, foreign missionaries expelled, and Japanese Christians tortured and killed.

From this time on Christians went into hiding and were known as Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”). The government closed the country to Roman Catholic traders as well as Christian missionaries. Contact with the West was henceforth strictly controlled and was not lifted until late in the 19th century.

A ritual known as fumi-e was forced on Christians: they were told to step on a mental image of Christ and publicly confess that they had nothing to do with Christianity. If the person refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed, most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen. Fumi-e factors heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), recently made into a film by Martin Scorsese.

In contemplating this grim story, here are some Christians you might ponder yourselves:

  • A question for the historians: Were the Japanese shoguns right to see Christianity as a European colonial endeavour and therefore a threat to Japanese culture?
  • For the philosophers: Should people try to share their faith as the Christian missionaries did or should they keep it to themselves?
  • Had you been a Christian then, what would you have done in the fumi-e: stepped on the image of Christ or accepted torture and death?
  • If you are a Christian, do you think these martyrs were brave or foolish? Do you think God expected them to choose death?
  • For all of us: In what ways today are you forced to stand up for what you believe?
  • Is there a culture of conformity here at school that forces people to be something that they are not?
  • Do those of you with religious faith feel welcome to be yourselves?

The Japanese shoguns rather obviously did not have an attitude of religious tolerance. For its part, Christianity has also not always been tolerant of others’ faith. Just learn about the Spanish Inquisition, which forced Jews to accept Christianity or die.

Tolerance of diversity is good…most of the time.

Why the caveat? For me, the inter-faith effort—and principles of religious tolerance in general—should not simply be about tolerating all beliefs just because they are beliefs. Some beliefs are demonstrably bad and should not in fact be tolerated. For example, if your beliefs require that girls undergo FGM, or if they promote the othering of homosexuals or a feeling of superiority over others, or the oppression of women, then I for one, do not think that we should be blindly tolerate of them in the name of religious freedom.

We all want to promote an attitude that is open and tolerant of belief here at King’s but not without limits. There is a difference between good and bad religion and of all worldviews in general: political and ethical as well as religious.

Friend of the school Peter Vardy [Good and Bad Religion] has written about the difference, as he sees it, between good religion (worthy of generous tolerance) and bad religion (which should be challenged):

  • Good religion spreads its truth claims “by persuasion rather than coercion … [with an] openness to other perspectives.” None of us has all the answers.
  • Good religion helps people to develop into individuals where “compassion, patience, love, pity, [and forgiveness] … are all present.”
  • Bad religion is characterised by fundamentalist readings of sacred texts that are often “used to justify [a] lack of independent thought” and the persecution of others.
  • Bad religion encourages a habit of compliance and unquestioning obedience.
  • Good religion, as promoted by Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, believes that science and philosophy are not the enemies of truth, but rather further tools for its acquisition.
  • Good religion promotes equality while “bad religion tends to tolerate and foster the [often heteronormative, patriarchal] status quo.”
  • Good religion challenges “accepted practice … and calls society forward beyond existing conventions.”

Both bad religion and intolerance led to the terrible treatment of people in medieval Japan and under the Spanish Inquisition; it led to the rise of IS, and the fundamentalist nastiness of the Westboro Baptists and other sects.

And so, let us learn to accept, to learn, to be tolerant, but also to challenge bad thinking and cruel behaviour. Be kind and just as importantly, have the bravery to challenge unkindness. In other words, be tolerant but do not tolerate intolerance.