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Last Saturday Japan marked the 70th anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s announcement of the surrender of Japan to the allied forces, ending World War II. The Emperor had agreed on the Allied terms in Potsdam Declaration, which concluded with the words: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction." This historic anniversary brings up an important pastoral issue for “Johnny,” our hypothetical veteran. What is it like for Johnny to come marching home not in victory, as the song implies, but in defeat? We are reminded of the mothers of ancient Sparta, who, according to Plutarch, instructed their sons to “come back with their shields or on them.” Warriors are supposed to win, not lose the war.

Those who are defeated are faced with shame, an especially powerful emotion in Asian societies where it is very important to save face. That is why “unconditional surrender” was so devastating to the Japanese. Shame is also powerful in military culture, where honor has such a high value, which is why so many Japanese soldiers committed suicide at the end of the war and why returning Vietnam War veterans were so wounded when they were spit on.

Symbols are powerful ways societies deal with the shame of defeat. In Japan, Yasukuni Jinja, or Japanese War Shrine in Tokyo, is such a symbol. Every year, on this important anniversary, the Emperor or Prime Minister of Japan visits this shrine, honoring those who died in the war. For months there has been speculation about what Prime Minister Abe would say on this occasion. His official statement can be found here. Abe acknowledged Japan’s guilt, defeat, and subsequent apologies, but did not repeat those apologies. As expected, the Chinese government felt that Abe’s statement did not go far enough and lacked sincerity.

I was at Yasukuni Jinja on Saturday. A huge crowd gathered around a tent listening to speeches given by high ranking dignitaries. Worshippers formed a line that stretched for blocks, waiting their turn to offer their prayers at the shrine. The mood was somber, filled with grief and shame. Japan is a nation that continues to struggle to regain its honor after the shame of defeat.

When Johnny comes marching home from the War on Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war that the nation has grown weary of, a war Australian author Karen Middleton has called “The Unwinnable War,” what symbols will there be in the community to help him maintain or regain his honor? Will he be treated as a man of honor, someone who did his duty under extremely difficult circumstances, or a man of shame, someone that must be hidden away, a scapegoat bearing the sin of the larger community?  

Edward Tick (Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul after War) tells of Army Chaplain Michael Lembke who applies Isaiah’s words of the suffering servant to returning veterans:
Many people were shocked when they saw him;

He was so disfigured that he hardly looked human . . .
He had no dignity or beauty . . .
There was nothing attractive about him . . .
We despised him and rejected him;
He endured suffering and pain.
No one would even look at him—
We ignored him as if he were nothing.

A number of years ago a seminary professor made the observation that guilt is resolved on the cross, but shame is healed in relationship. In addition to symbols, Johnny needs to be reminded of a loving God that searches out those who are hiding in shame (Genesis 3:9). He needs to experience God’s love in a Christian Church that embraces him and welcomes him back into the community. Is your church willing to embrace Johnny, whether he is a veteran of Vietnam or the War on Terrorism, and help him bear the shame he feels over the nation’s unpopular wars?

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