During the 1988-89 school year, our family lived in Fukuoka, Japan, on a sabbatical leave from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During that time, we served as Mission Service Corps volunteers sponsored by what was then called the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Candyce Crew Leonard taught English and Spanish in various programs and I taught church history at the theological seminary of the Seinan Gakuin Daigaku (University), an institution founded by Baptists in the early 20th century. It was a grand adventure.
At the seminary, I had the superb assistance of a translator named Miyauchi, a young man who spoke three languages: Japanese, English and glossolalia. He was a Baptist with Pentecostal proclivities.
During the first semester, I wrote out my lectures for Miyauchi san to translate before class. By the second semester, however, he became so adept that he translated directly from lectures, no printed manuscript necessary. Teaching through another language, in a classroom of ministerial students from a different country and culture, was one of the great pedagogical experiences of my life. The students taught me as much, if not more, than I taught them.
During the first semester, as we moved into discussions of the Protestant Reformation, I encouraged students to take a weekend to read Paul’s epistle to the Romans and be prepared to tell me if the apostle sounded like a Calvinist or an Arminian in his view of salvation. Amazingly, the class consensus was that in the early chapters of Romans Paul sounds more Calvinist/predestinarian, while in the latter sections he leans toward Arminian/free will approaches.
Amid that discussion, a young woman asked a question I shall never forget.
“Sometimes I can’t tell which part of me is Christian and which part of me is Buddhist.”
“Sensei,” she said, “Paul writes about losing one’s self in the Spirit. I first learned that idea in Buddhism. Sometimes I can’t tell which part of me is Christian and which part of me is Buddhist. Is that all right?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I think it is. Paul could not always tell which part of him was Jewish and which part was Christian. I sometimes can’t tell which part of me is Baptist and which part of me is a Southern American. Welcome to the club.”
Her Christian identity was shaped by varying religio-cultural influences. For many of us, then and now, identities and origins can complement and/or collide. Sometimes we are the better for it.
The Japanese student’s question from 1988 prompts me to ask in January 2023: Where did Martin Luther King Jr. learn about nonviolent resistance that became the centerpiece of his view of Beloved Community? From Jesus, certainly, but also from a little Hindu man named Mohandas Gandhi, who, King would later say was closer to Jesus than a lot of preachers he’d known.
Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship. …But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably …….