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Christ's Homelessness

by Kosuke Koyama

>Kosuke Koyama is John D.Rockefeller, Jr., Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theology Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in The Christian Century July 14-21, l993, pp. 702-703. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


I called him Shoki. One day in 1960 a group of church leaders from the U.S. headed by Shoki visited Bangkok. I was then studying the Thai language at Bangkok Union Language School. Despite his busy schedule Shoki visited me at Thailand Bible House where our family was living. Some two decades later he made a detour in order to visit me in Dunedin, New Zealand, where I was teaching at the University of Otago.

My last encounter with Shoki took place only a few months before his death. I visited him by the sea in the south of England. We spent all afternoon viewing the calm water from his apartment window. Our agitated conversation was on theology in Asia. When Shoki died I had the honor of speaking at his memorial service in New York. Shoki Coe (Chang Hui Hwang), 1914-1988, former principal of Tainan Theological College in Taiwan, was my mentor and spiritual pastor for three decades.

On various occasions, Shoki passionately and humorously talked about the "contextualization of theology" in terms of his own story. Due to the changing contexts of his life, he had to change the form of his name from Chinese to Japanese and then to European spellings. The metamorphosis of his name epitomized his idea of contextualization. Every time I heard him speak about it, I found something new and unexpected. He told me: "The gospel must be culturally contextualized, yet it must 'gospelize' the cultural context itself. The incarnation is the ultimate event of contextualization. This means that the gospel remains a stumbling block and no contextualization can domesticate it." These were key points in his understanding of "Christ and culture."

Over the years I felt that Shoki's contextualization reflected the words of Paul: "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." The time of the Holy Spirit is a time of contextualization. No time is outside the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the time of the Holy Spirit, contextualization may take the form of suffering martyrdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero and Steve Biko contextualized the gospel with their lives. Contextualization, then, is a critical undertaking; it belongs to the essential dynamism of the gospel itself. "I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27).

Shoki helped me to review and understand my life contexts: I was 15 years old when Hiroshima was bombed. I listened in a bomb-ravaged military factory in Tokyo as the emperor broadcast his decision to accept the Potsdam Declaration in order to "end the war." The emperor was careful not to say the plain truth: Japan was defeated. The experience of war, its demonic destructiveness and blatant self-righteousness, had a profoundly disturbing impact on my soul and mind. For a time I was physically and spiritually disoriented in the sense that I lost interest in everything. But it may be that in those days of hopeless confusion I was engaged, in my own way, in a theological reflection. I passionately shared my solidarity with the people of the Book of Lamentation. I have come to see this as my first experience of the contextualization of the gospel.

In 1951 49 nations signed the peace treaty with Japan. In 1952 I arrived at Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey to continue my theological studies. I plunged into the American theological curriculum. Rejecting my Asian religious and cultural background as worthless, I thought that the theological knowledge discussed, formulated and presented in the West was the authentic Christian theology.

In 1959, on the occasion of a thanksgiving celebration for the centenary of the Protestant mission in Japan, the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) expressed its own dedication to overseas mission work. One steamy night in August 1960, my family was met by the general secretary of the Church of Christ in Thailand as we arrived at Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. We were a Japanese missionary family to Thailand.

My first year in Bangkok was completely dedicated to the study of Thai. This language study denuded and humiliated me. Native teachers were always right and everything I had known failed to help me. In spite of all my Pentecostal enthusiasm and prayer, my tongue could not manage to pronounce certain key sounds crucial to the language.

Some two years later, now called Acham Ko by my students, I was lecturing on Reformation theology in a classroom at Thailand Theological Seminary in Chiengmai. I had considerable difficulty communicating Luther's idea of justification by faith. How could I explain it in language so steeped in Buddhist meaning? Suddenly I was confronted by the great reality of the religious culture of the Thai people. I felt lost and empty. "Why am I lecturing on Luther in Chiengmai, Thailand?" I asked myself. This question came to me like "the little cloud no bigger than a person's hand" in the story of Elijah.

Confused and panicky, I began to see that the theology I had acquired in New Jersey was deeply influenced by Greek and Latin ways of thinking. In spite of my severe linguistic limitation and emotional distance, I had tried to adapt myself to this alien tradition. I had thought that this Western way of thinking was what made theological knowledge reliable and authentic. No

professors and no assigned readings had suggested otherwise. In Thailand I realized that I confronted a confusing history of Jewish, Greek, Latin, American, Thai and Japanese ways of thinking. Anyone of them could threaten me with its awesome complexity. I saw I was a theological orphan. What had seemed to be my own basis for theology had crumbled. I was never again to feel so confident about any system of thought.

I had no choice but to lay my head on him who said "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." It is this homeless Christ who represents 8,990 cultural contexts in the world today (I use the figures of statistician David B. Barrett). Christ "speaks" Southeast Asian Thai as well as Polynesian Maori. He does so without becoming imperialistic because he affirms his centrality by going to the periphery. This must be the meaning of Christ's particularity and universality.

Responding to the challenge of the contextualization of theology, I have become homeless. Shoki too was homeless -- theologically and politically. The more I tried to find my theological home, the more homeless I became. The more I meditate over theology, the less settled and peaceful I become. If I try to control the complexity of relating to Christ and culture, the complexity relentlessly increases. Is there some connection between contextualization and homelessness? Is the Holy Spirit, which inspires our contextualization of theology, homeless?

I remember the mysterious sense of freedom I experienced when Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in 1945. In that terrible moment of national abandonment all that cluttered my soul momentarily disappeared. I was taken to "the wilderness. in a land not sown" (Jer. 2:2). I associate this blessed moment of spiritual unclutteredness with Shoki's theology of contextualization.

Always a good listener, Shoki helped me to see the theological implications of my homelessness. His sharp comments and his ability to empathize with my struggle gave a focus to my thinking that I would have had difficulty finding alone. Shoki was a spiritual father.


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