By Bob Russell
General Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. military forces in Japan following World War II. According to American historian Lawrence Wittner (“MacArthur and the Missionaries: God and Man in Occupied Japan,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, University of California Press, 1971), MacArthur was proactive about bringing Christianity to the Japanese. Wittner cites MacArthur’s belief that “Christianity was the antidote to Communism and essential for democracy to work.” He expressed hope that Japan would become Christianized and officially abolish Shintoism as the Japanese state religion.
A Great Opportunity
The popular general appealed to American churches to send hundreds of missionaries and 2,500 volunteers responded. He encouraged Americans to send 10 million Bibles and then oversaw their distribution. He arranged for Christianity to be given favorable treatment in the Japanese educational system.
MacArthur saw post-war Japan as “the beginning of a great movement toward Christianity.” He told a Hearst reporter in early 1946 that missionaries had an “unparalleled opportunity” to win Japanese people to Christ. (He would never get by with that kind of pro-Christian activism in today’s multicultural environment!)
But as positive as the opportunity appeared, statistics tell a dreary story. By 1951 there were an estimated 200,000 Protestant believers in Japan—the same number as before the war. Christians comprised less than one half of one percent of Japan’s 83 million people. The stats remain pretty much the same today.
Why, in spite of the advantages it enjoyed, did the Christian offensive fail? Partially because the Shinto and Buddhist religions were more deeply ingrained in Japanese life than the missionaries assumed. The fact that Christianity was regarded as a Western religion also diminished its appeal.
A Missed Opportunity
But one major reason Christianity failed to impress the Japanese, according to Wittner, was this: “American troops, despite their occasional religious endeavors, often outraged Japanese citizens through their social and sexual behavior.” One Japanese Christian, referring to the mores of American soldiers, wrote, “Most Japanese non-Christians are apt to judge Christians by their deeds. . . . Even Japanese Christians think that Christianity in America seems to be weak.”
How sad! What a missed opportunity! But what an important reminder to us that evangelism at any level will not succeed if not backed up by righteous living. We will never significantly impact the world for Christ until there is genuine repentance in the church pew.
While I disagree with much of the political philosophy of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he spoke truth to President Obama when he advised him, “You never let a serious crises go to waste.” Paul and Silas took advantage of a violent earthquake to evangelize the Philippian jailer. Ephesians 5:16 counsels us to “make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” The present political, moral, and financial crisis in our world presents a golden opportunity for Christians to introduce Jesus as our only hope.
However, the world is not going to listen to our promises of forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life if they see us addicted to pornography and terrified of aging and death. We can’t expect them to be impressed with our biblical position on marriage if they see church families falling apart. They’re not going to listen to our message of faith, hope, and love if we are joyless, pessimistic, and angry.
Before we seek to evangelize our world, which has been ravaged by sin, let’s heed the admonition of Simon Peter: “Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us”
(1 Peter 2:12).
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2013 by Bob Russell. Permission to
copy this column may be obtained by writing Debbie Carper, Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenbaker Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243.