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For the Sake of Ten (Gen. 18:24)

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 19-26, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? [Gen. 18:24].

In 1567 the Jesuit Luis de Almeida began preaching Christ in Nagasaki. On February 5, 1597, 26 Japanese Christians were martyred there. In 1859 an American Episcopal missionary, John Liggins, entered the city. In the year the Orthodox Bishop Nicolai died in Tokyo (1912) there were 49 Japanese Orthodox Christians in Nagasaki. This city, which had, in the perspective of Japanese history, a long experience with Christianity, was annihilated by a nuclear bomb on August 9, 1945. Seventy-thousand were killed. There must have been many "righteous" in the city. There must have been many "righteous" in the cities of Coventry and Dresden, too, when these cities were destroyed. Were the sins of Nagasaki, Coventry and Dresden graver than those of Sodom, Gomorrah, London, New York or Chicago?

Abraham intercedes with God in the destiny of Sodom, whose "sin is very grave" (Gen. 18:20) "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? . . . Suppose ten are found there?" God said, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." Abraham held his peace. Sodom must have at least ten righteous persons!

Sodom had a better chance than Nagasaki, Coventry and Dresden because it was God who expressed the intention of destroying Sodom. "Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love" (Lam. 3:32) In contrast, it was human beings who decided to destroy Nagasaki, Coventry and Dresden. This distinction is important because there is a difference, according to the Bible, between what we see and what God sees: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isa. 55:8; and see I Sam. 16:7)

In 1945 Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war, recommended to President Truman the use of nuclear weapons against Japan to hasten the end of the war and save the Allied forces an estimated 1 million casualties in an assault upon mainland Japan. The nuclear bombs were dropped for political and military reasons. God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on moral grounds. But Abraham and Stimson spoke different languages. No one asked the theological question about the fate of Coventry, Dresden or Nagasaki -- "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?" Outright rejection of the truth about humanity contained in the theological question brought calamity to human history. Bombs rained from the bellies of superbombers.

Behind the biblical story is a strong sense of community. What is the saving effect of having righteous people in allegedly wicked cities? The basic African philosophy of community represents Abraham’s social anthropology: "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am." The righteous and the wicked live intertwined in a community. Righteousness is not a private spiritual property. The good effect of the righteous, though they are a minority, must have healing power in the community where "I am because we are . . . ."

Christianity affirms the minority’s salvific effect on the greater community. "For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19) The Gospel of John tells us of the mystery of salvation concretized in Christ’s dwelling among us: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (1 -14). In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes:

On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.

When the righteous remain in a corrupt community they create the possibility of a new history. In the ancient Chinese tradition we read of the "three moves of Mencius’s mother." Seeing Mencius’s poor moral and educational environment, his mother moved three times in order to find an ideal place for his education. Churches also move to a more congenial location when the demography of the area changes. Sometimes there is a profound religious necessity to come out of (escape from) corrupt societies for one’s own salvation. Yet there is an even deeper sense of salvation when the righteous stay in Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to reform them from inside. The Indian theologian Stanley Samartha imagines the thoughts of Lot’s wife:

Why did I look back? Because my neighbours were out there. When, during the birth of my first child, I cried out in pain, the women were there. They held my hands, wiped my brow, gave me water to drink. And when the baby was born, they bathed it and put it to my breast.

One cannot reform and renew a community unless one is identified with the destiny of the community. Lot’s wife had more ground to engage in moral discourse than her husband, who ran away to save his own life. The intriguing story of Abraham interceding for Sodom is not really about a numbers game but about the salvific significance of the righteous in a corrupt community. In spite of all the excruciating ambiguities of history, it is fundamental to the Christian faith that humanity is saved by the life of one righteous person! The story of Abraham’s intercession thus points to the central theme of biblical faith: the steadfast love of God -- hesed, agape -- that refuses to be frustrated even in the context of a most immoral society.

In 1945 I stood in Tokyo, which was devastated by the U.S. ‘s incessant bombing. Were there not "ten righteous in that city? Tokyo was completely destroyed. By God or by the Americans? By the Americans. Did the Americans execute the will of God? I have no answer to this, but I would be very disturbed if Americans were to make that claim. In the destruction of all cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah, I hear the passionate words of the agape God: "My people are bent on turning away from me; . . . How can I give you up, O Ephraim!" (Hos. 11:7-8)


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