They Remember Their Martyrs

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In 1998, London's Westminster Abbey dedicated an evocative gallery of statues commemorating the Christian martyrs of modern times. The ten figures were chosen to represent a wide range of circumstances and persecutors, from Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany to Mao's China and radical Islamists. Some of the martyrs are celebrated (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero), others less so.

In one instance though, not only is the martyr himself thoroughly obscure, but so is the whole setting of his life and death. Who is Lucian Tapiedi, and who are the Christian martyrs of the Pacific War? And why has this savage persecution slipped so completely from public memory?

Lucian Tapiedi was a young native Papuan, one of a group of eight Anglican clergy and lay workers executed under the Japanese occupation in 1942, and commemorated as the "Martyrs of New Guinea." In the context of such a horrific year of global bloodshed, such an atrocity may seem almost irrelevant. In fact, these eight martyrs were only a tiny contingent of a vastly larger number of Christians that the Japanese slaughtered for their faith during the war years. New Guinea alone records some 330 martyrs, not to mention many thousands of others across the Philippines, Micronesia, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and China.

To the best of my knowledge, no single book covers this phenomenon, and that amnesia needs some explanation. Partly, martyrdoms were recorded by individual churches or even religious orders, without much attention to the wider story, especially if that meant crossing linguistic boundaries -- hence the Anglo-American ignorance of the terrifying situation in the Dutch colonies. Also, much of the attention focused on high profile white leaders and missionaries, as opposed to the great majority of murdered Christians, who were native people.

But the failures of memory also reflect a more general refusal to acknowledge the scale of Japanese atrocities during that war. At the time, Western media depicted Japanese misdeeds in the most flagrant terms, but matters changed radically after 1945, because the nuclear attacks that ended the war gave Japan a kind of victim status. For many modern scholars, wartime atrocity tales arose from hysterical Western racism, in a conflict in which both sides demonized each other. If we don't accept wartime propaganda images of "Japs" as sadistic misshapen monkeys, why should anyone pay serious attention to every legend of massacre and mutilation? Wasn't that the kind of wild rumor that incited the deportation of Japanese-Americans?

The problem, though, is that most of these horror stories were factually true, just like the equally ghastly tales told of German conduct on the Eastern Front. Throughout their colonial empire, Japanese soldiers acted in very much the same way as the Nazis in Poland or the Ukraine. They massacred prisoners of war and enemy civilians, enslaved tens of millions in conditions that ensured mass deaths, and forced tens of thousands of women into sexual slavery. The most appalling charges against Japanese forces -- torture, medical experimentation, and even cannibalism -- are well documented. China alone probably lost twenty million dead during the war, Indonesia four million. To characterize the Western struggle against Japan in terms of moral equivalence is as ludicrous as comparing Roosevelt's US or Churchill's Britain with Hitler's Germany.

When the Japanese empire launched its new expansion in late 1941, Christian missionaries and converts were widely distributed across the region: the Philippines, of course, were firmly Christian. Missionaries were targeted because they were foreign and Western, and many were casually killed. A few incidents became notorious, but they were only the tip of a substantial iceberg. Four Catholic missionaries were murdered on Guadalcanal in 1942, six Jesuits on Palau in 1944. In the Philippines, the Japanese drowned Bishop William Finneman. In 1945, they murdered sixteen de la Salle brothers in Manila, together with dozens of Filipino lay people. Often, missionaries suffered because they tried to protect local women from gang rape.

We might argue whether these crimes had any specifically religious motivation, but the case is clearer for native converts like Lucian Taipedi. Like the Germans in the East European Bloodlands, the Japanese wanted only a population of terrified and subservient slaves, and they systematically slaughtered any educated or professional native people who might emerge as leaders or sources of opposition. In Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, this meant massacring hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Across the region, it spelled doom for those literate Christian converts who sought to reform and modernize tribal societies. They died specifically because they were Christian.

The most moving part of the story involves those native lay people, often young recent converts, who took over the activities of the churches when white missionaries were killed or interned. Typical was Catholic catechist Peter ToRot of New Britain, who insisted on maintaining church life after the Japanese prohibited Christian worship, and ordered a revival of native religious practice and polygamy. Martyred for his faith, he was beatified in 1995, and the church in Rabaul just celebrated the centennial of his birth.

I confess to a strong personal prejudice concerning Japan, in that I have a lifelong fascination with its history, art and religion, its literature and cinema. I still don't understand why a political psychosis could have led a culture that glorious to have carried out such crimes, any more than I can explain Germany's Nazi nightmare. But as in the German case, the atrocities did happen, and they demand to be remembered.

But we need have little fear for those memories of terror and heroism. Whatever Westerners choose to forget, the Pacific martyrdoms remain vividly alive for the thriving churches of those regions, now wholly under local control. Taking China and the Pacific Rim nations together -- Japan's abortive empire of the 1940s -- we count at least 220 million Christians, a tenth of the global total of believers. And they remember their martyrs.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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