Today is the feast of St. Paul Miki and companions. They are 26 Japanese martyrs from 1597. As Vatican II confirms, martyrdom is one of the highest witnesses to love and an unquestionably powerful testimony to the Gospel and its demand to forgive our persecutors. Celebrating the feasts of martyrs from every age reminds us of the Council’s words that, “And while it [martyrdom] is given to few, all, however, must be prepared to confess Christ before humanity and to follow him along the way of the cross amid the persecutions which the Church never lacks” (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 42, Austin Flannery translation). There is another lesson I draw from this feast day, the danger of political hijacking.
When I was in college, I took a History of Modern China and Japan with a great professor named Dr. Agnew. We discussed the outlawing of Christianity and its eventual persecution in 16th and 17th century Japan. He exposed us to a reason why Japan might have been opposed to Christianity that I had never heard. He established the historical context of how Japan was in a time of upheaval known as the Sengoku Period. There had been over a hundred years of on-and-off war between Daimyos (nobility) vying for power. Thus, as this time came to close there was a strong desire for unification and a need to remove any onus for war. Dr. Agnew proposed that Japan’s opposition to Christianity was not merely a desire to preserve traditional Japanese religions, but was a desire to stop political hopefuls from hijacking Christianity’s claim to exclusive monotheism to stir up further revolution and civil war. In a sense then, St. Paul Miki and his companions were not just killed for being Christians, they were taken against their will and martyred because others had made the faith a tool for their ambitions.
The example of Solomon in the first reading is a perfect counterproposal to the situation in 16th century Japan and unfortunately 21stcentury America. When God offers Solomon the fulfillment of a request, Solomon does not seek strength, wealth, or health. He seeks wisdom. He asks to know how to govern and to know right from wrong. His goal is not to do what he wants, but to do what God wants. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if more of our political officials seemed more interested in God’s will than our vote?
So on this feast of these first Japanese martyrs, let us pray that we have the strength to bear witness to the Gospel. May we have the humility to seek first God’s will and Kingdom. May our faith guide our politics instead of our politics hijacking our faith. And may we have the grace to utter the words of Paul Miki from his cross, “I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. … I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all…”