briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, May 2, 2019

It’s Thursday, May 2nd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Emperor Naruhito ascends to Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne after his father’s abdication: How the history of the imperial family informs this historic transfer of power

In a ceremony of formality rarely if ever seen in the modern world, Japan experienced an imperial transition. One emperor’s reign came to the end, and the very next day the new emperor’s reign began. All of this began with the abdication of the man who had been for the last 30 years the emperor of Japan, Emperor Akihito.

As Motoko Rich reports for the New York Times, “Three decades after he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Akihito on Tuesday became Japan’s first monarch in more than two centuries to abdicate, passing the symbolic but influential role to his eldest son in a brief unadorned ceremony at the Imperial Palace. The new emperor, Naruhito, received the sacred imperial regalia on Wednesday, becoming the new emperor, and with all the ceremony attending thereto.”

Now it’s significant that the New York Times and others have notices that the Japanese imperial house is the longest reigning monarchy on Earth today. But as western media especially reported on the monarchial transition, it’s really interesting not so much what they caught, but what they missed. What they missed was the theology, which is lurking very close to the surface.

Secular media fail often to pick up on these signals, and they especially did not know what to do with the religious and theological dimensions of the imperial transition that took place in Japan this week. We are looking at history here—a massive representation, a massive symbol of history. The Chrysanthemum Throne is the longest unbroken monarchy in the world today, and that’s not a small thing to say. This is an age in which monarchies are more gone than present. They are seen as going rather than coming.

What does it mean that Japan is still a monarchy in any sense? A constitutional monarchy as it is today? How recent is this, after all, that Japan’s monarch is a constitutional head of state rather than a demigod, understood to be a divine autocrat? Well it turns out that’s within the lifespan of many people now living, including the emperor who abdicated on Tuesday.

Motoko Rich reporting on the story for the Times again wrote, “Under the country’s post-war constitution, the emperor, once regarded as a demigod, has no political power to address any issues directly. But he can set a tone. Analysts are already scrutinizing the new emperor, Naruhito’s, public statements, for hints of what his reign might look like.”

Looking at his father’s reign, we need to understand that he was the first emperor to ascend to the throne after World War II. He was also the first emperor to begin and to end his reign understood as something other than a god. Not only according to Japanese tradition, but according to the Japanese people.

We need to go back to the grandfather of the new emperor, that would be emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989, and understand that he was, in the beginning of his reign and until the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, officially declared to be a god. He was worshiped as a god by the Japanese people.

The Japanese military seized upon his power and name in order to push the militarism of the entire country, and Hirohito became the great symbol, not only of national unity in Japan. He also became the great symbol of Japan declaring war. The most horrifying war in human experience, World War II. The Japanese involvement in that war is directly rooted to the role of the emperor.

He was not the person who was running the mechanics of the war. That instead was the role of the warlords, in control with the Japanese government. But they could not have done what they did without the active complicity of Hirohito. Remember, he was complicit not only as head of state, but as one who is considered to be god.

Most Americans hearing that kind of claim would assume that such a belief would be buried way back in the annals of human history. Back in the mist of time. Almost inaccessible to us. But that’s not the case in Japan. Furthermore, the situation is not quote so secular in the truest sense, that most media and western observers have believed it to be since 1945. Japan is a very secular culture in one sense, but in another sense it’s not secular at all. Even though the Japanese emperor is now not understood to be a god, he is understood to be a conduit to the gods. There is a huge story.

The Chrysanthemum Throne goes back to 660. The Chrysanthemum Throne is a throne, by the way. It’s a particular chair in which the emperor sits. He has other thrones. But it is also symbolically the name of the imperial house. When one invokes the name of the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan or elsewhere, that means speaking for the emperor.

But considering this monarchy, we need to recognize that not only is it old, but it represents the continuity of very old worldviews. Indeed, you can see in the history of the Japanese monarchy, a worldview shift followed by other worldview shifts in the mentality of Japan as a nation, and in the worldview that frames their understanding of reality.

It is vital for Americans to understand, although this is largely missing from all of the major media consideration, that the emperor of Japan was and still is understood to be a priest, a priest of Shinto. One of the aspects noted by very few in the western media is that the abdicating emperor, Emperor Akihito, had to go before his ancestor spirits according to the understanding of the Imperial House, and the ceremony that was undertaken this week, and inform his ancestors’ spirits of his intention to abdicate to his son.

Emperor Akihito was the 125th emperor of Japan. His son, Emperor Naruhito, is thus the 126th. Hirohito is the most infamous, the 124th. What happened in that transition at the end of World War II?

Well for one thing, the militarists in control of the Japanese Empire during the time of the Second World War promised the Japanese people, in the name of the divine emperor, that Japan’s mainland would be unassailable. Now just remember that days ago on The Briefing, we talked about the death of the last of the Doolittle Raiders. The last of the brave American airmen who took off on heavily laden bombers from the decks of American aircraft carriers shortly after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, in order to make the point that the Japanese mainland was not unassailable.

Thus you had the situation in which the Japanese military had to apologize to the Japanese emperor for the fact that they had failed to protect the Empire of Japan, and its home islands. That became an even more acute issue when in 1944, and in 1945, Japan was clearly going to lose the Second World War. But the militarism that marked the Empire of Japan and its military has to be explained, not merely in secular or psychological terms, but also in theological terms.

The Japanese soldier, sailor, and airman believed that he was serving the spirits of his ancestors by the military expansion of the empire and by its military defense. That was turned into theological exercises that have to be understood as theological, such as the infamous kamikaze pilots who flew their bomb laden aircraft right into American ships. Naval ships in particular.

The promise that was made to those kamikaze pilots was that they were serving the spirits of their ancestors, and that they would return to the spirits of their ancestors. They were serving the divine emperor in this way, and he was not only the head of state of the nation. He was also the chief priest of Shinto.

Shinto, we need to understand, is the state religion. It’s often described in the west as a secular state religion of Japan. How did all that come about? Well, in order to understand that we have to go back to the end of World War II. The man who was most instrumental in the transformation of Japan wasn’t Japanese. He was American. The conquering five star American general, Douglas MacArthur, who became basically a shogun, a military ruler of Japan.

That role brought out the very best in Douglas MacArthur. He turned out to be an extremely efficient administrator, and he also turned out to be something of a political genius. Leading to the transformation of Japan from a feudal nation that had been absolutely committed to military expansion, into a modern democratic form of government. Furthermore, it was MacArthur who was also the one who had to decide the fate of the emperor.

Now just consider what was at stake here. In the wake of World War II and all of its horrors in the Pacific theater, understanding the atrocities that the Japanese military had undertaken in the name of the emperor, and looking for instance just at the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, there was enormous pressure in the United States and amongst its allies to arrest the emperor. To remove him from the throne. To try him as a war criminal, and eventually to execute him. That was done, we need to note, for prominent war criminals both in Germany and in Japan.

But MacArthur chose not to do so when it came to the Japanese emperor. There was enormous pressure to end the monarchy itself. To make Hirohito the last of the Japanese emperors. But Douglas MacArthur understood something that many others didn’t. That is that Japan would require a national symbol of unity. So he did something completely unexpected. He spared Hirohito’s life. He refused to put the Japanese emperor on trial, but he required three things.

First of all, he required the Japanese emperor, who had been considered a god, to come to visit him. There’s an iconic photograph in which Douglas MacArthur, who had made his headquarters out of a bombed insurance building across from the Imperial Palace. He is dressed in American military clothing, while Emperor Hirohito in a top hat and in formal attire had to come to the American general. It was an incredibly symbolic act of tremendous power.

The Japanese people got the message. Hirohito was still a symbol of national unity. But Hirohito had to come to MacArthur. MacArthur did not go to Hirohito. MacArthur also required that Emperor Hirohito would make very clear that he is not a god. The third thing is that the emperor would be required to give his imperial ascent to the new secular democratic constitution of Japan.

Hirohito cooperated in all three of those actions. The imperial war maker became the great symbol of the new Japan. He did so until he died in 1989. Remember that the war came to an end in 1945. That meant that he spent more than 40 years as an emperor who was not a god. Or at least not officially a god.

His son, Emperor Akihito, who just abdicated this week, was raised in the context of the defeat of Japan. He also became a very important symbol of Japanese national unity. But Shintoism is right there. MacArthur understood that the Japanese people were not going to simply walk away from their traditional religion, and it had been centered in the emperor as the most important of the priests.

MacArthur, by the way, made an explicit public plea to American protestant denominations and churches to send missionaries. He called for over 10,000 Christian missionaries to come to Japan. That didn’t happen. Of course there are incredible historical results, in this case to what didn’t happen. Japan is now one of the most secular nations on Earth measured by theistic belief.

But here’s where we as Christians have to understand, even where there is not theistic belief, that doesn’t mean there isn’t theology. Even though MacArthur required the Shinto religion to be re-envisioned as a secular state religion for japan, any religion can be only so secular. Thus you still have the picture of the abdicating emperor going to visit the spirits of his ancestors to announce his abdication. Also you had in the middle of this week the fact that the new emperor assumed his new role, and the imperial throne, acknowledging that it also came with priestly responsibilities.

The priestly role of the Japanese emperor is understood to be mediated through the most important of the ancestral spirits. That would be Amaterasu. She is known as the Sun Goddess. When you look at historic Japanese art, when you see a figure of a woman hovering over the scene, that is Amaterasu. Again, we are told that it is a secular state religion. But it turns out that secular sometimes doesn’t mean secular at all.

Remember that Amaterasu is the Sun Goddess, and that’s why the symbol of Imperial Japan is the rising sun. Remember that as the Japanese war flag. Remember that sun symbol, that red dot infamously on those fighter planes and bombers that arrived over Pearl Harbor in 1941. Remember the fact that even now, the Japanese flag has at its center this sun. The sun which is the symbol of Amaterasu, the symbol of the Imperial House.

It’s also interesting that when you see a photograph of the Japanese emperor, you often see very ornate boxes being carried by formally attired servants, both before and after him. Those are the three sacred symbols of Japan. They include a grass cutter sword, and also a special jewel and a mirror which is also the imperial seal. Here’s the interesting thing. Only emperors have seen them. That’s why they’re in a box. No one who is not divine or semi-divine or formerly semi-divine can see those sacred symbols.

Part II

Though once thought to be a god, the emperor of ‘secular’ Japan is still considered a priest of Shinto. How secular can a society really be when worship is involved?

The New York Times did offer some really brilliant coverage of the history represented by Emperor Akihito, who abdicated this week. As a very young boy at the end of World War II, he was required to attend an English speaking school along with other Japanese boys of the upper caste. He was a very young boy, 12 years old about middle school age, when this transformation that greatly affected Japan took place in the classroom where he was being taught.

His teacher was a woman by the name of Gray Vining. Miss Vining made every boy in the class take an English name. The teacher, a native of Philadelphia, said to the young prince, “In this class your name is Jimmy.” Akihito swiftly replied, “No. I am prince.” “Yes,” said Miss Vining, “You are prince Akihito. That is your real name. But in this class you have an English name. In this class your name is Jimmy.”

The New York Times then tells us that, “The teacher waited. The other students glanced at one another nervously. Finally the crown prince smiled, and the class beamed.”

In a very moving moment of the young prince’s life, he heard his father, the emperor, announce the unconditional Japanese surrender. That surrender language by the way was not in language that westerners would have understood as an unconditional surrender, but it was. Emperor Hirohito said to the Japanese people, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” It was not only Japan’s historic statement of surrender. It was also the first time that the Japanese people had heard the emperor’s voice.

The 12-year-old prince, hidden away for his own safety, heard his father, the Emperor Hirohito, offer those words of surrender. Wiping away tears, he simply wrote a note to himself. “I think I must work harder from now on.”

Akihito may have been called Jimmy in class, but he never became just a common boy. At one point we are told that one teacher asked him if he would rather be an ordinary boy. The prince replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never been an ordinary boy.” When asked along with other boys what he wanted to be when he would grow up, he said, “I shall be emperor.”

But this finally points to another major problem facing the Imperial House in Japan, and the entire nation of Japan. That is a disastrously falling birth rate. The Japanese Imperial House is going to have a massive succession crisis. The new emperor has a daughter, not a son. According to the Japanese law, not only can a daughter not inherit the throne. Once she is married, she must leave the family.

The new emperor has just one male uncle, and one male cousin, and one male nephew. A 12-year-old boy. The only boy of the Imperial House of his generation, upon whom the entire succession of the oldest monarchy on Earth now rests. That is a symbol of Japan itself. Even as the royal house has a dramatic succession crisis, so also does the nation have a disastrous future. Its birth rate is so low that Japan is unsustainable.

I always worry that some of these headline stories actually interest me more than they’re going to interest anyone else. I hope that’s not the case. I wanted to help all of us understand that there is far more going on in this story than you would hear in the cultural conversation. First of all, there’s the historical awareness of the fact we’re dealing with a monarchy that is virtually 14 centuries old. But far more importantly, we need to understand the theology that is at stake.

Perhaps the most important thing thus is what’s missing from the cultural conversation. The fact that the new emperor of Japan, though not claiming to be a god, is none the less a priest. When it comes to theology, it’s right there. If you don’t worship the one true and living god, then you’re going to worship something or somebody. In the case of Japan, you’re going to worship the spirits of your ancestors.

You could call it secular if you insist, but it’s not. How in the world can you call something secular, and then turn around and acknowledge its worship?

Part III

Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston criticizes rugby star Israel Folau for judgmentalism: Why the bad news of sin and hell is necessary in the good news of the gospel

Next, we’re going to go from Japan to Australia. A few days ago we discussed the controversy concerning one of the nation’s most famous rugby players, Israel Folau. He got into trouble because he stated in public his judgment based on scripture that homosexuality is a deficient lifestyle. That homosexuality is a sin, and that furthermore, citing 1 Corinthians 5:6, it is a sin that would prevent one going to heaven. That was simply too much for professional rugby in Australia, and he was let go by the national team.

But what’s really interesting now, and the reason we’re returning to the story, is not because of something said by an athlete, but something said by the pastor of the largest church, and one of the most influential movements coming from Australia. That would be Brian Houston, who is the senior pastor and founder of Hillsong.

In an article he addresses Folau as, “Not only a sports person, but as a man who won’t compromise his beliefs and is not afraid to stand up for Christ. I respect others who have also been criticized for their beliefs, such as Margaret Court. Freedom of religion,” said Brian Houston, “is paramount in a society like Australia. No one should be condemned for holding firm convictions.”

“Yet,” he went on to say, “as Christians, it is equally important to look at ourselves and our own failings and imperfections. If you look at the list of sins that Izzy,” that’s Israel Folau, “listed, there’s not too many people he’s left out, including Christians.”

Now I’m going to stop here and say that once again, Folau is basically just quoting Scripture. Houston went on to say, “There isn’t a person on Earth who hasn’t told a lie, or put something before God.” Then he puts in parenthesis, “Idolatry.” Is he right or is he wrong? Well of course he’s right. But then he goes on to say this. “While sin is a real issue, the God I know and seek to follow is a God of love. He says that he did not come to condemn the world, he came to save it. As Christian,” said Houston, “we would do well to follow the example of the founder of our faith. I believe there is a heaven and a hell,” he said, “but if you study Scripture, you won’t read about Jesus screaming to people that they are all going to hell.”

“In fact,” he says, “Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul all kept their harshest criticism for those who were religious and judgmental.” Now let’s just look at this statement. Speaking of Jesus, the pastor said, “He did not come to condemn the world. He came to save it.” Well that’s really interesting. Is that true or false? Of course it’s true, sort of.

What Jesus actually said in John 3 is that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, because the world is already condemned. In John 3:16-17, we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In verse 18 we read, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Now that’s about as clear as we can get. But the impression left by this article, by Brian Houston, is that somehow we don’t have to worry about condemnation.

Again he says, “While sin is a real issue, the God I know and seek to follow is a God of love. He says that he did not come to condemn the world. He came to save it.” What’s missing from that is the biblical affirmation that the world is already under condemnation. Thus, we all need salvation, and we are condemned for our sin. That’s what’s really missing here. What’s missing here is the superstructure of the Christian gospel.

By the way, in the same paragraph Houston says that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul, “All kept their harshest criticism for those who were religious and judgmental.” Is that true or is that false? Well, it’s true and false in this sense: even as it is true that Jesus and John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul condemned religious hypocrisy, the main hypocrisy that they condemned was believing that we have no sin. Declaring sin in others while ignoring sin in ourselves. That’s not what Israel Folau was doing.

But what you have here is the insinuation that if you call out sin in public, then you’re doing so hypocritically. But that would be also impossible to square with Scripture. Jesus did just that. John the Baptist didn’t merely preach. He preached repentance. The Apostle Paul could not be more clear. The very text that got Israel Folau in trouble came from the Apostle Paul, that Brian Houston here is claiming as evidence of the fact that you do not call out sin.

Houston went on to write, “In 40 years of telling people about the good news of Jesus, I have seen that the turn or burn approach to proclaiming the message of Christianity alienates people. Scaring people doesn’t draw them into the love of Jesus.” Well, I simply have to wonder if he’s right or wrong here. There’s a sense in which we all know that there is a good point to be made here. That’s the reason why most of us do not wear sandwich boards and stand outside stadiums or restaurants simply saying, “Turn or burn.”

It’s not so much that it’s false. It’s that it’s not a good representation of the gospel. But on the other hand, it’s Jesus himself who said, “Fear not the one who can destroy the body, but the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Jesus warned of hell, spoke of hell actually more than he did of heaven. The Bible is extremely clear about warnings concerning hell. Christians haven’t made that up. Evangelical Christians haven’t constructed this. It’s in the Bible.

Later Houston says, “I would never compromise the integrity of biblical teaching, and I believe that the Bible is clear about the consequences of sin. However, as Christians we are first called to love God and love other people, including those who believe differently to us.”

I guess one of my thoughts looking at this article is that there’s something of a timestamp on this kind of argument. It’s the kind of argument made by someone who says, “I want to talk about the good news, but I don’t want to talk about the bad news. Even as in Scripture, there’s a great deal of warning. Instead I’m just going to turn to promise. I want to put a good happy joyous positive face on Christianity. Let’s not focus so much upon sin.”

The problem is that the Bible strikes its own balance, and it’s a very different balance than this. But the timestamp I’m speaking about is this. It’s hard to believe that in a secular society, growing as hostile to biblical Christianity as ours is, and Australia if anything is a little bit in advance of that. It’s hard to believe that saying you still believe in the biblical categories of sin but don’t want to talk about them too loudly is going to be a winning strategy. Because eventually that very hostile society is going to say, “You’re going to have to articulate the fact that you don’t believe that my lifestyle or behavior is sin. If you do believe it’s sin, I don’t care how positive you mean to be.”

That’s why all the seeker sensitive Christianity in the emergent church and all of that is going to pass away like the mists that go away under the heat of the sun. A secular society is not going to be impressed by the kind of soft sell that has come with so much postmodern Christianity.

Houston argues in one of his punchiest sentences, “The world doesn’t need more judgmental Christians.” There’s something very true about that as well. The last thing we need is Christians who are judgmental.

The only thing worse than a Christian who is judgmental is a Christian who really doesn’t make biblical judgments.

We need to remember that every single biblical warning about making judgments comes in the context of very explicit judgments. The fact is, the great challenge for Christians is not to find out how not to make judgments, but how not to make judgments hypocritically. It’s also a bit ironic to conclude on the fact that you can’t condemn judgmentalism without, you’re there already, making judgments.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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