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Shusaku Endo's Jesus

He was despised, the lowest of men;
  a man of pains, familiar with disease,
One from whom men avert their gaze --
  despised, and we reckoned him as nothing.
-- from Isaiah 53

Shusaku Endo in 1973  wrote A Life of Jesus, in which he intended "to make Jesus understandable in terms of the religious psychology of my non-Christian countrymen and thus to demonstrate that Jesus is not alien to their religious sensibilities" (1).  He argued that his people would be more open to the motherly side of Jesus:

The religious mentality of the Japanese is --just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism--responsive to one who "suffers with us" and who "allows for our weakness," but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them.  In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father.  With this fact always in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus. (1)

This maternal Jesus is important to Endo because he is one who came to stress the message of God's love and forgiveness for our failures, as well as one who desires to suffer with us in our weakness and poverty.  Endo presents Jesus as coming on the scene of first-century Palestine during a time when the average Jewish person must have felt deeply the seeming silence of God: four hundred years of political and religious persecution, their hopes for a political Messiah seemingly unanswered, the average person living a life of economic hardship, illness, and desperation.  Against such a backdrop, where most were stressing the judgment of God on sin, Jesus came stressing the compassion of God and the fellow-suffering of God. 

Endo's portrait, then, is one that tends to stress Jesus' merciful side.  Endo says, for instance, that we are more drawn to the "consolation" stories of the Gospel because they show us the great compassion that Jesus has on those who suffer, such as the women who wash Jesus' feet.  By contrast, Jesus' performing of miracles always has a tragic note to it, for he can never escape that the people want to be healed rather than simply be loved:

[He] was well aware of something also, namely, love's futility in the world of material values.  He loved the unfortunate ones, yet he also understood that once even they came to know love's futility, they too would be turning against him.   When all is said and done, the hard fact remains that human beings are on the lookout for practical and tangible results. [. . .] Yet love is an act which in this visible world bears no direct correlation with tangible benefits. (52)

For Endo, one of the burdens that Jesus had to bear was that others wanted him to further their political and economic dreams, even his disciples.  But in Endo's conception, love must be free of these anterior motives, and such love is most clearly seen in compassionate suffering with others--a deeply maternal instinct. Endo's Jesus is one who is drawn to the ugly and ignored.  "We in our hearts know how we are attracted to glamorous and beautiful people" but Jesus instead cared for lepers and harlots (62).

These particular values, according to Endo, eventually rendered Jesus a man  despised by the multitudes.  And he wonders why the disciples chose to stay with their teacher after the multitudes abandoned him.  Endo paints a particularly daring psychological portrait of what might have motivated them:

When Jesus finally was arrested, they not only disowned him, but it seems clear his disciples gave first thought to their own safety [. . .] they were ordinary folk, and weaklings at that, like most of us. [. . .] Yet they persevered in dragging their feet along the road on the heels of their woebegone master [. . .] the only thing which held their little band together was a feeling that they would be haunted by lonely regret for the rest of their lives if they were to desert him now. (77)

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A fumie -- an image of Christ that Japanese apostates were required to step on to prove their apostasy.

We have, then, a portrait of Endo's typical loser and weakling in need of forgiveness in the very disciples of Jesus.  Endo goes so far as to conjecture that Peter's denial of Jesus represented a deal between the Sanhedrin and all the disciples.  Peter's denial was representative of the others.   In Endo's thinking, all apostatized.  They must have wondered if Jesus died angry at them, for they betrayed him, and "no hero can be expected to forgive anyone who betrays him" (169).  So imagine the disciples shock when Jesus from the cross says, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"!  Endo argues that it is this moment that produces a radical change in the disciples, for there they finally begin to see the true teachings of their master:

It was inconceivable to the disciples that such a thing could be.   Yet Jesus actually spoke the inconceivable.  In the agonizing torment of the cross [. . .] Jesus amiably continued his desperate effort on behalf of those who had deserted and betrayed him. [. . .] But now, in virtue of the pathetic death of Jesus the "do-nothing," Jesus the "weakling"--and precisely because his death was so wretched--the cry of love coming from Jesus in his dying moments prompted within the disciples' hearts a radical switch in their scale of values. (171-172)

Yet Endo goes on to stress that the disciples would have remained cowards who admired Jesus as "a man of supreme moral virtue and as a loving person" if something more hadn't happened.  As Endo notes, after Jesus' death, something changed in these followers who no longer "flinched at any physical terror" (77). Instead, something happened of "electrifying intensity" (177) that led them to call Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  And that was his resurrection.

[Endo, Shusaku. A Life of Jesus. Trans. Richard A. Schuchert. NY: Paulist P, 1978 (1973).]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding