Midwives Who Feared God, by Kosuke Koyama

01koyama.450“Midwives Who Feared God,” one of Kosuke Koyama’s biblical mediations speaks to me today. Professor Koyama (小山 晃佑) [1929–2009], one of the leading Japanese theologians of the twentieth century was known for his efforts to contextualize Christian faith in Asian. This, however, did not mean that he was uncritical of idolatry, as seen in this biblical reflection:


054214Midwives Who Feared God
From Kosuke Koyama, Three Miles an Hour God: Biblical Reflections (Orbis, 1979): 96-99

But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. — Exodus 1.17

‘Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly. They multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them’ (Exod. 1.6,7). The Egyptians felt threatened by the increasingly powerful presence of the Hebrews. The king of Egypt commanded: ‘when you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live’ (1.16). The midwives disobeyed the command.

They feared God. They feared the invisible God. They feared the God who does not have chariots and army, fortress and palace, and political structure and economic supremacy. Against the visible presence of the king of Egypt, the midwives feared the invisible God. I am sure the midwives were afraid of the king of Egypt. But courageously they acted according to the higher principle of morality they knew. They knew that murdering the male babies at their birth as commanded is against the mind of God. They feared the king. But they feared God more. ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).

The king of Egypt was ‘fearless’ when he issued such a destructive command. A ‘fearless’ world, in this sense, is a dangerous world. Fearlessless can be the expression of complete secularism. The king of Egypt did not fear God. He was a ‘secular’ person in spite of all the rich religious symbolisms which surrounds him. How strange. The title Pharaoh means ‘the great house’. It means the one who lives in the Great House. No house can be a great house without the touch of some kind of gods. At his coronation an Egyptian king received prenomen. The prenomen of Rameses II was User-maat-Re, ‘Strong in the right of Ra.’ It was believed that the kings came from the realm of the gods. They were god-kings. Ra was the solar god. It was the king, the god-king, who made the Great House great.

Yet the mid-wives feared God rather than this god-king. In every society we need ‘midwives who fear God’.

This does not mean that we need ‘religious people’ or more religious organizations and systems. We need all kinds of people who ‘fear God’. We need economists who fear God, politicians who fear God, educators who fear God, doctors who fear God. We need social midwives who fear God. They do not have to be ‘religious’. They fear God. They stand against the power of the occupants of the Great House when they misuse their power. They midwives are ready to disobey the command. They may not be Christians. Muslims, Buddhists, or Jewish. They may call themselves ’secular’ and ’non-religious’…. But they fear God.

Secular people, we think, do not fear God. ‘Religious’ people fear God. But is this really so? How do we draw the line between secular and religious people? If it is true that only religious people fear God why do we often see that religious people are more arrogant toward God than secular people? Arrogant? Yes, in trying to domesticate God to suit their own religious taste. Instead of fearing God, they use God to their self-enhancement. ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get’ (Luke 18.11, 12). God is adjusted to man’s religious taste. How often God is ‘theologically’ tamed! It often takes theology – what a tragedy – to adjust God to man’s liking.

Are secular people free from this danger No. They adjust God to their liking too. But they do not begin their adjustment program with the introduction; ‘God, I thank thee….’. Their programme is simpler than that of the religious people. The ‘God’ they adjust to their own liking is the God of their own making. The God they make is predictably quite subject to their adjustment.

In every society we need ‘midwives who fear God’.

Professor Tadao Yanaihara (1893-1961), economist, sociologist, educator and evangelist, was a disciple of Mr. Uchimura Kanzo, the founder of the no-church movement in Japan. Yanaihara was critical about the Japanese government’s colonial policy in Formosa, Korea and Manchuria. In 1937 he was forced to resign his professorship at Tokyo University. He never stopped his studied criticism of the Japanese government for its flagrant brutality and oppression of the fellow Asian peoples. In particular he was critical about Japan’s imperialistic policy in Manchuria. After he resigned from the university, he began to publish his own periodical Kashin or Good News. Kashin was only one of the Christian journals which was critical of the government, continued its criticism all through the war years and into the post-war period.

The January 1940 issue of Kashin sharply attacked the brutality in Nanking. The army general Matsui who was responsible for the atrocity in Nanking was received by a ‘so-called Christian meeting’ with a standing ovation in November 1939. Yanaihara referred to this incident in this issue and accused the ‘so-called Christians’ for not demanding words of apology from the general. In June 1940 issue of Kashin he speaks of General Itagaki, the Commander of the Japanese Army in China, who said that Japan was helping to make China independent and that Japan had no intention of imperial aggression against China. Yanaihara pointed out that this was not true.[23] Professor Yanaihara’s Kashin did not speak only about ‘spiritual and religious’ matters. It addressed itself clearly and loudly to the events that were taking place in his day. He feared God. He was fearless because he feared God. He was in the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament. After the war he was reinstated at Tokyo University. He became the president of the university for two terms, succeeding Dr. Nambara Shigeru, also a disciple of Uchimura Kanzo.

On Easter Sunday, 26 March 1967, The United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) issued its Confession on the Responsibility During World War II. Let me quote the last three paragraphs of the Confession:

     The Church, as ‘the light of the world’ and as ‘the salt of the earth’, should not have aligned itself with the militaristic purposes of the government. Rather, on the basis of our love for her and by the standard of our Christian conscience, we should have more correctly criticized the policies of our motherland. However, we made a statement at home and abroad in the name of the Kyodan that we approved of and supported the war, and we prayed for their victory.
     Indeed, as our nation committed errors we, as a Church, sinned with her. We neglected to perform our mission as a ‘watchman’. Now, with deep pain in our heart, we confess this sin, seeking the forgiveness of our Lord, and from the churches and our brothers and sisters of the world, and in particular of Asian countries, and from the people of our own country.
     More than 20 years have passed since the war, and we are filled with anxiety, for our motherland seems unable to decide the course that we should follow; we are concerned lest she move in an undesirable direction due to the many pressures of today’s turbulent problems. At this moment, so that the Kyondan can correctly accomplish its mission in Japan and the world, we seek God’s help and guidance. In this way we look forward to tomorrow with humble determination.

I am not going to document here how the Kyodan approved and supported the war. The tragic chapter of the Christian church becoming obedient to the Japanese religion of Ra is now documented in the important publication Jinja Mondai to Kiristo Kyo ‘Shinto Problems and Christianity’.[24]

In 1978 a small book was published by Japan’s most prestigious Iwanami Publishing House. The book is titled Shûkyô Dan Atsu O Kataru or War-time Repression of Religions. Four of its six chapters describe the brutal destruction carried out by the Japanese government against religious groups other than Christianity. The government decided to demolish them because they were openly critical of the state ideology. These four groups (Omoto, Hitono-Michi, Shinkô-Bukkyô and Hon-Michi) are quite different from the biblical faith. On the basis of their faith they criticized the behaviour and philosophy of the powerful government. One chapter of the book is devoted to the Holiness group of Christianity. Here is a report on the cross-examination of Rev. Sugar: [25]

According to the Old and New Testament, which I understand is the basis of the creed you believe, all people are sinners. Is that correct?
Yes. All men are sinful.
Do you imply then the emperor himself is a sinner?
A humble subject I am… how should I dare to speak about the august emperor? I am, however, willing to answer the question. As long as the emperor is human, he cannot be free from being sinful.
Then, the Bible says that the sinners cannot be saved apart from the redemption done by Jesus Christ on the cross. Does this mean that the emperor needs the redemption by Jesus Christ?
With due reverence to the emperor, I must repeat what I said before. I believe the emperor needs the redemption by Jesus Christ as long as he is human.

Rev. Sugero feared God. He had a difficult life. He died in prison. When a human is elevated to the divine the storm comes. The majority of the people will not resist the storm. But some dare to resist. They will not ‘do as the king of Egypt commanded them’.




[23] See Ienaga Saburo, Taihei-Yo Senso Shi (History of the Pacific War). Iwanuarui Publishing House, Tokyo 1968, p. 241.

[24] Jinja Mondai to Kiristo Kyo (Issues relating to the Shinto Shrine and Christianity) ed., Tomura Masahiro, Shinkyo Publishing House, Tokyo 1976.

[25] ibid., pp. 173f.

How did Native Hawaiian Christians respond to the overthrow of Queen Lili`uokalani?

One of the most vexing and troubling aspects of the history of Christianity is its association with European and American colonialism. When Christians today ignore or endorse the structural inequalities around race, gender, and class, we unwittingly perpetuate Christianity’s historical complicity with the Western colonial project.

However, the good news is that this history is much more nuanced. There is also a smaller, but powerful tradition of Christian anti-colonialism that has connections with the abolitionist, social gospel, and civil rights movements. Can Christians today reconnect with this minority prophetic tradition?

In this local television broadcast, “Issues That Matter,” Kumu Dr. Lynette Cruz interviews historian Dr. Williams who shares a surprising history  of Native Hawaiian Christian anti-colonialism. We discover that many Native Hawaiian churches were sites of activism and resistance during the American occupation of Hawaii after the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili`uokalani in 1893.

Many thanks to Brennan Takayama, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Area Director, Hawai`i for bringing this to my attention!

About Ron Williams

Ronald Williams Jr. holds a PhD in History of Hawaiʻi centered on a historiography that platforms Native voice through Hawaiian-language sources. He also has earned a masterʻs degree in Pacific Island Studies and an undergraduate degree in Hawaiian Studies. He was a faculty member at the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, UH Mānoa, 2010-2017 and has published in both academic and public forums on varied topics with a focus on historiography in Hawai’i and the past elision of Native voice and Native-language resources. Dr. Williams is the current president of the 125-yr old Hawaiian Historical Society.​ For more of Dr. Williams’ research, go to independent.academia.edu/RonaldWilliamsJr

Angel Island: Congregational Ministry and Advocacy (1910-1940)

AngelIsland-Mission works

Thank you, Ben Lee for the digital version of this important document about Christian communities that served and advocated for the detainees of Angel Island. The book was organized by Deborah Lee and Craig Wong in 2010. Ben is a docent at Angel Island and Oakland Museum – and a member of San Lorenzo Japanese Christian Church. Ben’s website contains additional information.

Privilege and baggage

January 5, 2018

Last Sunday, I concluded nearly eight years of service as an English Ministry pastor at Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church. It was a bittersweet moment. Canaan has blessed me tremendously. But joining InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s ministry to graduate students and faculty was a clear call that I simply could not ignore.


Thank you Canaan for eight wonderful years!

Instead of taking a break during the week after Christmas, I spent most of that week clearing out my church office. I digitized the 30-year old notes I took as a seminarian and doctoral student. Yes, I confess: I’m a pack rat. I stored these notes in file boxes that have traveled with me from New York City to Denver to Rochester (NY) and, finally, to the Bay Area.


Notes from a seminar on John Calvin’s _Institutes_ at Union Theological Seminary (1988). It was taught by Christopher Morse.

As I reviewed these notes, I was struck by the tremendous privilege I had to study under such wonderful teachers. I can’t resist bragging some of my favorite teachers and classes (by the way, if theological topics make you dizzy, skip the next paragraph):

  • James Cone (Foundations of Christian Theology)
  • David Fraser (Christian World Mission at Eastern Baptist Seminary)
  • Elouise Renich Fraser (Introduction to Theology at Eastern Baptist Seminary)
  • Robert Handy (History of Christianity Since the Reformation; Major Religious Traditions in America)
  • Kosuke Koyama (Christian Theology in Asia; History of Religions)
  • David Lotz (Medieval-Reformation Christianity; Seminar on Ritschl, Harnack, and Troeltsch; Reformation Historiography; Major Themes in Luther’s Theology)
  • Christopher Morse (Karl Barth – the Early Writings; Seminar on Calvin’s Institutes; Karl Barth – Church Dogmatics)
  • Richard Norris (History of Early Christianity; Introduction to Neoplatonism; Seminar on Christology from Constantine to Chalcedon; Early Tradition of Greek Christianity)
  • Phylis Trible (Old Testament)
  • James Washington (Religion and Politics in American History; History and Theology of Afro-American Christianity; Seminar on Jonathan Edwards; History of Theology in the Americas; Seminar on Christian Faith and Modern Ideology)
  • Cornel West (Contemporary Marxist and Post-Marxist Philosophy; Cultural Criticism and the Organic Intellectual)

The opportunity to complete an “advanced degree” in theology and the history of Christianity was a privilege that God gave me, the son of a Chinese immigrant pastor who toiled among working-class immigrants. My theological education was a privilege because it gave me tools to work for the on-going reformation of the Church. It’s been a privilege to be in ministries that encourage Christians to grow in faithfulness to Jesus and his gospel. It’s been a privilege to have many rich experiences of relationship building between evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and racially diverse Christians. It has been a privilege to contribute something of value to academia, Asian American Christianity, and the common good. Like most graduate students, I was privileged to be a leaven for Christian faith and I pray that I have been able to leverage that leaven to reveal God’s redeeming love and justice.

But the privileges that graduate students like me receive are also accompanied by baggage that can harm Christian witness. Too many of us are tempted to take pride in our accomplishments and are given to intellectual arrogance. Many are saddled with large student loans and, therefore, struggle to express generosity. Those of us who want to live out our faith in local churches often bring this baggage into these communities. I, for one, have been grateful for Canaan (and all the local churches that I’ve been part of) for gently helping me check my baggage at the door!

It is unfortunate that too few Christian graduate students have learned how to turn their privilege into a leaven for God’s kingdom. Few learn how to check their baggage before entering a church community or mission field. This is why I’m so invested in strengthening IV’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries in my area. Our ministry encourages spiritual formation, community, evangelism and service, and the integration of faith, learning, and practice with graduate students and faculty. We cultivate many emerging, innovative, creative, and impactful Christian leaders for the Church and society. It is truly exciting!

I look forward to leveraging leaven and checking baggage! In the next update, I’ll share some stories of graduate students, faculty, and alumni who have been transformed by God’s love and grace through the ministry of GFM. Please keep praying for me and my work in the Pacific Area!

Christianity and the 2016 Election. A Pre-election interview

about-photoMy good friend, Dr. Tony Wang, a fellow historian and progressive Christian Asian American, hosts a really good podcast/radio show called “I’ll Look Into It.” I was privileged to have been interviewed by him TWICE! Last November, before the elections, the two of us (Tony is an economic historian, I am a historian of religion) chatted up our thoughts about Christian (particularly evangelical) engagement in and discourse about the 2016 election. Have a listen and let me know if you think we were on target or way off the mark! Here is the link to the interview: Christianity and the 2016 Election – my interview with Dr. Tony Wang

Also highly recommended

ASIAN AMERICA: THE KEN FONG PODCAST, a weekly show that explores the cultural, artistic, historical and spiritual aspects of the Asian American community. View at this link.

%d bloggers like this: