Sketch by Jack Chalker

My Fathers Witness

The Rev Canon Susan Cole-King's homily at yesterday's Conference Eucharist on Transfiguration and Hiroshima

Reconciliation: My father's witness

cole-kingLast year I read the statement from the Nippon Sei Ko Kai on their war responsibility. I felt humbled and moved by its honesty and courage. Its acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted by Japan during the war, and their moving apology, had obviously come out of a process of painful self-examination and prayer. It is an example to us all.

The particular reason why this statement from the Japanese Church touched me so deeply was that my father was one of the many Japanese prisoners of war who suffered from the atrocities perpetuated by their captors. His name was Leonard Wilson and he was Bishop of Singapore.

On October 10, 1943 (The Double Tenth as it became known), the Japanese military police---the Gestapo or Kempei-tai---raided Changi and arrested 57 of the prisoners. Among them was my father, the bishop. He was accused of being a spy and for many days he was subjected to torture.

Often he had to be carried back to the crowded, dark and filthy cell, almost unconscious from his wounds. On one occasion, when seven men were taking it in turns to flog him, they asked him why he didn't curse them. He told them it was because he was a follower of Jesus who taught us to love one another.

He asked himself then how he could possibly love these men with their hard, cruel faces, who were obviously enjoying the torture they were inflicting. As he prayed he had a picture of them as they might have been as little children, and it's hard to hate little children.

But then, more powerfully, his prayer was answered by some words of a well-known communion hymn which came to his mind: ``Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him.''

In that moment he was given a vision of those men not as they were then, but as they were capable of becoming, transformed by the love of Christ. He said he saw them completely changed, their cruelty becoming kindness, their sadistic instincts changed to gentleness. Although he felt it was too blasphemous to use Christ's words ``Father, forgive them,'' he experienced the grace of forgiveness at that moment.

After eight months he was released back to Changi---one of the few who survived. For the rest of his life he emphasised in his speaking and preaching the importance of forgiveness.

How he would have rejoiced to be here today---as I am sure he is. This year he would have been 100, and it is fitting to remember him now as this month is the anniversary of his death.

Although he was able to forgive, and I and my family want to affirm that unconditional forgiveness, true reconciliation can only happen when there is an acknowledgement of wrongs done, when the truth is faced, and painful self-examination leads to confession and apology.

I and my brothers here with me today want to say to our Japanese brothers and sisters a heartfelt thankyou for what you have done.The cycle of reconciliation is completed.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, says: ``Transfiguration is indeed a central theme of Christianity, the transforming of suffering and circumstances, of men and women with the vision of Christ before them and the Holy Spirit within them.''

My father's story is a transfiguration story, for himself and for his captors.

After the war he returned to Singapore and had the great joy of confirming one of his torturers. This is how he described the moment:``One of these men who was allowed to march up from the prison to the cathedral, as a prisoner, to come for baptism, was one of those who had stood with a rope in his hand, threatening and sadistic. I have seldom seen so great a change in a man. He looked gentle and peaceful. His face was completely changed by the power of Christ.''

St Paul says in 2 Cor 3.18: ``All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord the Spirit.''

Today we are also remembering something else. It is Hiroshima Day, when terrible suffering was inflicted on the Japanese people of Hiroshima, and then of Nagasaki three days later, when 8,000 Christians were killed instantly, and thousands later as a result of radiation.

How necessary were those bombs? Why was a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki even as the Supreme Council of War was meeting in Tokyo to decide whether to surrender? Those bombs ended the war, but at what cost! I do not know the politics, or the arguments, only that something terrible was inflicted on the people of Japan by my country and its allies, which the world must never forget.

A few years ago I read a little book called ``The Bells of Nagasaki'' by a Japanese doctor and physicist,who was also a Christian, Takashi Nagai. He witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki and describes in detail the terrible devastation and horror as it unfolded. Everything was destroyed for him---his home, his wife and family, his hospital, his cathedral, the honour of his country, and thousands of his fellow men and women. Heroically, in spite of his own wounds and radiation sickness, he worked to relieve the suffering of others. How he survived to write the book and tell the story is a miracle. As Nagai tells the story of Nagasaki, he is also telling the story of his own transformation through suffering and loss.

In his funeral address for the victims of the bomb he said it was fitting that the Church in Nagasaki, which had kept the faith through 400 years of persecution, should bear the brunt of this bomb, that through this sacrifice peace was given to the world.

He ends his book with a ringing message: ``Men and women of the world, never again plan war! From this atomic waste the people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world.''

It is significant that we remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Feast of the Transfiguration, which links the glory of Christ with his suffering. Transfiguration and disfiguration. It is through Christ's disfiguration on the cross that God's glory is revealed. Not only is suffering the means of reconciliation, but the transfiguring of suffering itself is attested to in the Christian life and experience. My father experienced this transforming of suffering through the power of others' prayer.

When two of his companions in the cell, who had shared so much with him, died of their wounds and hunger, he said he felt a terrible loneliness. But, conscious of the prayers of others, he said:``Here again I was helped by God. There was a tiny window at the back of the cell, and through the bars I could see the glorious red of the flame of the forest tree; and something of God, something of God's indestructible beauty was conveyed to my tortured mind.

``A great peace descended. Gradually, the burden of this world was lifted and I was carried into the presence of God, and received from him the strength and peace which were enough to live by day by day.''

Many of you have experienced depths of suffering among your people or in your own lives beyond what most of us can imagine. You will know, too, the darkness and the cloud where God is awesomely present in the confusion and pain.

I would like to end with some words of Karl Barth: ``Thus, our tribulation without ceasing to be tribulation is transformed. We suffer as we suffered before, but our suffering is no longer a passive perplexity but is transformed into a pain which is creative, fruitful, full of power and promise. The road which is impassable has been made known to us in the crucified and risen Lord.''


Rev Canon Susan Cole-King died Brisbane, Queensland 8 February 2001

Obituary from The Independent



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