by Sheryl Takagi Silzer
A Japanese-American scholar discusses how Confucianism can look remarkably similar to Christianity.
At a recent meeting of mission trainers I was the only Asian (and non-Caucasian) person there. We played the game “two truths and a lie” to get to know each other. When it was my turn, I gave “I am a practicing Confucianist” as one of my truths. No one believed me because Christianity is considered to replace such religious beliefs as Confucianism. However, when some of the tenants of Confucianism are examined, they are very similar to Christian principles. Because of this it is easy for a Confucianist to look like a Christian.
I come by my Confucianism legitimately. I am a third generation Japanese-American. My grandparents all came from Japan. Both my parents were born and raised in the Los Angeles (California) area. My father was the first-born son and as such he followed the Confucianist value of filial piety (care of his parents) by having my grandparents live with our family. Indeed, my mother moved in with her in-laws when she married my father.
THE EARLY YEARS
My grandmother spoke very little English and my grandfather spoke broken English. Since I did not grow up speaking Japanese, I could not communicate much with my grandparents. I was born after World War II and my family’s experience in an internment camp led my parents to decide not to teach me Japanese; their hope was that I would learn English and be accepted as an American. I intentionally was not taught anything about Japanese culture and specifically Confucian beliefs. I was not even given a Japanese name.
I grew up in a small town in Southern California and was one of only a few Japanese in the school. All of my friends were Caucasian and I pretty much considered myself the same until someone made a comment about my slanted eyes (which really are not slanted) or my knees (“Japan-knees”). It was not until the past ten years that I had even considered what it meant to be a Japanese-American.
Growing up I heard people joke about Confucius (e.g., “Confucius says man who sit on hot stove will rise again”). I had no idea who Confucius was or what his beliefs were; I just thought he had said some humorous things. I first became aware of Confucius when I started researching Asian culture in order to teach a class for Asian Americans preparing for ministry in ethnic churches. As I prepared lectures on the influence of different religious beliefs of Asian cultures—Confucianism, Buddhism and Shintoism — I started noticing how tenets from these religions were not only similar to those in Christianity, but were also reflected in my own beliefs and behavior. Neither my parents nor my grandparents instructed me to follow Confucianism; however, I discovered many of my family practices were Confucianistic. The similarity between the two ways of life made it easy for me to think my Confucianistic lifestyle was the same as the Christian lifestyle.
TEACHINGS OF CONFUCIUS
Confucius believed that people have the capability within themselves to improve or become better, and as they improve they have the potential to create a better society. However, this capability must be taught; it is not a natural inclination. This training begins in the earliest social environment—the family. The focus of this training is to develop a concern for others through humility and reciprocity; the intent is to eventually result in a harmonious and peaceful family and society by following the five basic hierarchical relationships of submission: subject to ruler, child to parent, wife to husband, younger to older and friend to friend. Each submissive relationship develops specific virtues—loyalty (subject to ruler), filial piety (child to parent), faithfulness (wife to husband), propriety (younger to older) and fidelity (friend to friend). Each person should strive for these virtues and everyone is expected to have these relationships. As people fulfill their social obligations they not only develop their inner character but also create an orderly society. However, these social obligations can easily become only outward duties.
This hierarchy of relationships unintentionally creates unequal cultural roles that change only when the higher-status person dies. Subjects are always in submission to rulers unless one becomes the ruler. Children are always in submission to parents (even as adults) until the father dies and the oldest son takes his place. A wife is always in submission to her husband until he dies; then she is in submission to her oldest son. Younger people are always in submission to their elders until one becomes the oldest one living. Theoretically, friends also have a mutually submissive relationship. This unequal system places women at the bottom of the hierarchy—a woman is submissive her entire life (first to her father as a child, then to her husband as a wife and finally as a widow to her oldest son). Therefore, a woman’s role is only submission.
These hierarchical relationships are the ideal for many Asian cultures and as such give greater support to individuals in the “higher” position. At the same time, this hierarchy also creates much dissatisfaction and frustration for those in the “lower” position. Disagreements are addressed top-down on the basis of status, age or gender, and leave no room for deliberation or the consideration of other factors. Technically, the only way a contradictory issue can get changed is when the older person passes on and another person takes over. It is interesting to note that the response of an older person to a disagreement may depend on the amount of his or her own pent-up frustration over the years. Many of the conflicts within an Asian group have a long history since negative emotions are suppressed over the years.
Because this unequal system of justice creates bitterness and resentment, it is unable to help people appropriately resolve these feelings. Indeed, bitterness and resentment are built into the system and are called hen (Chinese), urami (Japanese) and han (Korean). These are all acceptable emotions that are allowed to exist because the system creates them. Bitterness is often considered a positive trait that can encourage a person to do something good. However, it is most often demonstrated by a negative response.
Even though my upbringing had mostly Caucasian influences, I could still see the influence of Confucianism on my family. My parents responded to authority figures with complete obedience without question. When they were placed in an internment camp during World War II, they never complained against the United States government. They simply did what the authority figures told them to do. They, along with the rest of the Japanese living on the West Coast, went to live in one of the ten internment camps. In my adult life I found that I often disagreed with authority figures, but could never speak up; instead, I would suppress my negative feelings.
My mother and grandmother were always in submission to my father and grandfather. I never heard either of the women contradict or question their husbands. Even when my mother disagreed with my father, she remained silent. Although I do not remember my grandmother, my older brother remembers her as being grumpy. Since she did not have a voice with her husband and oldest son, she complained to the grandchildren. In my own experience I have found that instead of confronting authority figures I have generally complained to other people about my dissatisfaction with these individuals. Growing up, my older brother and I were expected to take responsibility for our two younger brothers (both of whom are nearly a decade younger than I am). I often thought it was unfair that I was the only daughter; it seemed like I had to do more work than my older brother. Perhaps the Confucian value of fidelity of friends was not as evident due to the fact that all of my family’s friends were Caucasian. I did notice that a few close friends drifted away in their old age and often wondered why they did not continue to be friends with my family as they were in earlier years.
The Confucian women’s role to submit to men has been very evident in my life. My oldest brother has been looking after my mother since my father passed away. As the only girl with three brothers (and married with two sons and no daughters), I felt the duty of the Confucian hierarchy. As a child I learned to take care of my brothers and as a married woman, I unconsciously began placing my own needs after my husband and sons. Although I knew this was not fair, I did not think it was right to complain or do anything about it. I kept these negative feelings inside and they festered. I would complain about injustices that affected me and I blamed authority figures for being irresponsible; however, I did not know how to resolve this bitterness in the biblical way.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
Confucius’ concern for others can be seen in his own version of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” The five relationships of the Confucian hierarchy also contain values similar to those taught in scripture. However, there are two differences: (1) the basis and means of submission and (2) how to address the downside of social hierarchy. Scripture gives commands for submission of subjects to rulers (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1, 1 Pet. 2:13), children to parents (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20) and wives to husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). However, there are no universal commands for the younger to submit to the older (although everyone is to be in submission to one another; Eph. 5:21). Titus 2 discusses the responsibility of the older to the younger. Proverbs 17:17 reminds us that a friend loves at all times and John 15:13 describes a friend as one who lays down his or her life for his or her friends. And we are Christ’s friends if we obey his commands (John 15:14). We are told not to look to our own interests; instead, we are to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4; 1 Cor. 10:24). Scripture also teaches that there is no difference between men and women (Gal. 3:28) and that the image of God can be reflected in both (Gen. 1:27).
However, biblical submission is based on our relationship to God. We are to submit to rulers because they are God’s servants (Rom. 13:1). Children are to obey their parents because it is right (Eph. 6:1) and because it pleases the Lord (Col. 3:20). Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22) and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for it (Eph. 5:25). Wives are to submit so that if their husbands are unsaved, they may be won over by their wives’ behaviors (1 Pet. 3:1-2). Fathers are not to exasperate their children, but to bring them up in the training of the Lord (Eph. 6:3).
Because Christianity is based on a relationship with God, the downside of the hierarchy is addressed. Bitterness along with cursing is considered evil (Rom. 3:14) and we should rid ourselves of it (Eph. 4:31) so that it does not affect others (Heb. 12:15). Divine wisdom does not harbor bitterness or deny the truth (James 3:14); God’s word addresses not just the outward behavior of submission but also the inward behavior of the heart based on one’s relationship with God.
CONFUCIANISM AND CHRISTIANITY
Confucianism focuses on proper conduct in an attempt to create an orderly, harmonious and peaceful society. Christianity focuses on a person’s relationship with God, which will in turn give us the power to become a reflection of God. The ability to become a better person within Confucianism lies with the individual alone doing his or her duty to impact the whole society. The ability to become a better person within Christianity lies in the individual’s relationship with God in which Christ’s power through the individual affects the community of faith. The main difference is that Confucianism focuses on human relationships while Christianity focuses on a relationship with God. Confucianism presents the five relationships for a person to follow while Christianity presents a relationship with God that enables him or her to submit to others. One is done out of duty; the other is done out of love for what Christ has done for us.
My Asian students are usually surprised at how similar Confucian values are to Christian values. They recognize that many church conflicts stem from Confucianistic values, and that the strength of these values prevents biblical conflict resolution. They also sadly admit that Confucianism (not biblical principles) influence their own behavior. They are relieved to understand how Confucianistic ideas influence the Church, but disturbed as to how to address the resulting problems.
During the meeting of mission trainers (which I spoke of at the beginning of this article), I allowed men to speak first and did not contradict them openly. Instead of biblical values, this behavior reflects Confucianistic values of subservience. As a Japanese-American I find the tension inside me between Japanese and American values. I try not to make myself stand out as “the nail that stands out gets pounded down” (Japanese proverb), but I know that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” (American proverb). I am learning to speak up and share my feelings, but I have not yet learned to do it in a wholly biblical manner.
And although I am learning to speak up, I still get frustrated when my voice is not recognized. I have a difficult time bringing up a topic in the first place and get discouraged reiterating it. One of the topics I mentioned in the missions meeting was the need for cultural sensitivity training for Americans as a whole. The topic was duly noted; however, nothing further happened. Rather than allowing my resentment and bitterness to grow (as is typical in Asian cultures), I am trying to take active steps in addressing the underlying issues. This is where my relationship with God comes in; he is the one who can give me the wisdom to respond appropriately.
It is vital that we effectively prepare non-Asians to understand how Confucianism affects Asians. Asians may look like Christians because of their submissive attitude, but their underlying bitterness may not be as evident. Asian women in particular think they can never do enough to please God because they always have to submit to male authority (their father, their husband and later, their eldest son). Rather than recognizing that the actions of others may be wrong, they tend to think they are always wrong. Although it is easy for non-Asians to see Confucianism in Asian churches, Asians need help in discerning cultural influences from biblical values. Perhaps there is also a need for confessions of practicing individualists, practicing secularists or practicing materialists so that we all grow in our understanding of how our cultural values conflict with biblical values.
Sheryl Takagi Silzer has been a member of SIL International since 1967. She has served in Colombia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and has taught cultural identity discovery at Biola University’s SIL program as an assistant professor. She has taught Asian American Ministry at Talbot Theological School since 1998.
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