Asian Americans and the Color of Christ - Beth Hessel

Our third and final post in the Asian Americans and the Color of Christ round table comes from Beth Hessel, a PhD student at Texas Christian University where she is writing a dissertation on the role played by a group of furloughed white Protestant missionaries as mediators between incarcerated Japanese Americans and the federal government and general public during WWII.

Beth Hessel

Henry Sugimoto, "Thinking About Christ"

The federal government’s decision during World War II to forcibly incarcerate on the basis of ethnicity 120,000 Japanese Americans – seventy percent of whom were American born citizens and the rest denied citizenship under American law – served as a catalyst for re-imagining Christ in the Japanese American community.  In sermons preached in early 1942 and published in 1945 in a booklet entitled “The Sunday Before,” first and second generation Protestant pastors challenged their flocks to align themselves with the suffering Christ. The Christ evoked by these pastors differed sharply from the triumphalist, masculine Christ who blessed America’s martial endeavors. Under the brush of artists like Henry Sugimoto, this suffering Christ took on a decidedly Japanese American face.

While some pastors drew upon Old Testament exilic texts on the Sundays before removal, most of them linked the desert wanderings of Abraham and Moses and their own forced evacuation from the West coast with a Christ of exile and suffering. Born far from home, Jesus and his parents became political refugees in Egypt. This peripatetic Christ eschewed earthly trappings of power in favor of the sorrow and wounds inflicted by a broken world. The Christ proclaimed by Nikkei pastors knew affliction as the path to ultimate glory, and called all people to walk his road.

Pastor John Yamazaki drew from Philippians 3:10 to portray a suffering Christ, a “victim who becomes a victor” through his resurrection. This Christ drew no color lines and preferred no nation. In their sermons, Reverends Kengo Tajima and Donald Toriumi insisted that Christ extended God’s election to all oppressed people, and bound Americans across racial differences in “Christian familyhood” through their perseverance in times of distress. Japanese American Christians might find their own redemption, their own victorious resurrection, by approaching the suffering of their exile and the rejection inflicted by their fellow Americans as a challenge to overcome, a pathway to salvation. As Christ atoned for the sins of the world through his sufferings, so would the Japanese American community make recompense for their own sins and the sins of their nation through their wartime suffering.

By contravening dominant images of a Nordic, victorious, unscarred Jesus, Japanese American Christians paralleled African American artists and theologians who repositioned Christ as a man of color who traveled with the reviled and oppressed. None of the pastors explicitly spoke to Christ’s race or ethnicity, but their clear identification of Japanese Americans with Christ in his trials and his ultimate resurrection paved the way for the art of Henry Sugimoto.

Classically trained Sugimoto’s art underwent a profound transformation during his years in the Jerome (Arkansas) camp. Many of Sugimoto’s paintings of Jerome included crosses. Perhaps most stunning are three works from 1943 that merge the cross with images of Japanese American men. Thinking About Christ depicts the intersection of the paths of a young Japanese American man carrying a dark casket that contains symbols of the camp and Christ carrying his cross on the path to Calvary. An open Bible is suspended between them, suggesting that the man sees his life as a living parable of Christ.

The second work, In Camp Jerome, portrays a Japanese American soldier.   Taking leave from his mother, who is gifting him with a traditional senninbari (a belt containing one thousand stitches given to soldiers by women), he seems to hang from a cross, a stunning image of a brown Christ facing death in order to prove his people’s loyalty to the United States. The Reverend Yamazaki, who invoked the “victim as victor Christ,” serves as the subject of the third painting. Reverend Yamazaki was Beaten in Camp Jerome shows two Japanese American men attacking the pastor, whom they believed served as a stool pigeon for the Jerome Camp administration. Bleeding profusely from his forehead, his dark suit rent in the side where one of the men is about to place another hard kick, Yamazaki is held up in a cross-like position by the second man.

The pre-evacuation words of the pastors proved prophetic.  During World War II, Christ became a suffering and sacrificial Japanese American.