Friday, October 9, 2015

The Angry War God

When I moved into my first apartment in Taiwan, a local friend gave me as a housewarming gift a framed picture of an angry god. "It will bring you luck. This god will watch over you in your new life."

"He looks angry," I said.

"I chose this god for you, because of all the gods, you remind me the most of him. So I think this is the right god for you," she replied.

With logic such as this, I was afraid to ask her what she really thought of me. I certainly hoped that I did not look like the angry god in the picture. He had a red face and bulging eyes, and he looked about ready to burst from apoplexy.

But I kept the picture and its frame, and I still keep it on the mantel for luck in my current home in the Ozarks. I like to think of this as my personal war god, who will help me keep up the good fight, while everybody around me is giving in and searching only for inner peace, and to hell with what happens to everybody else.

In my current work in progress there is a character called Sergeant Bu-Shing-de, loosely based on a real Japanese enlisted man whom almost everybody in the camp hated and despised and feared, because he was a real bully whose favorite phrase (in Chinese) was "It's not allowed." Sergeant Bu-Shing-de appears in almost every account of camp life that I have ever read for the internment camp in Weihsien. In most descriptions he does not come off in a very favorable light.

But there is one account that also shows him in a different, contrasting  light, and that is to be found in Langdon Gilkey's Shantong Compound.

Much to his surprise, Lawrence was invited to have tea one day in Bo-shing-de's quarters, a large bedroom in one of the walled-off sections of the compound. When he entered this drill-sergeant's room, Lawrence could hardly believe his eyes.
Decorated by the Sergeant himself, it was furnished in the most artistic Japanese taste, illustrating utter simplicity, a remarkable sense of harmonious use of space, and a painstaking attention to detail. At the focal point of the room, complemented by a pair of  classical flower arrangements, was an exquisite shrine to the sergeant's samurai war god. It was true, Lawrence remarked later, that this deity with his grimacing face and bow-legged stance, was hardly a thing of beauty. Yet the harmonious and artistic effect was in such striking contrast to the American soldier's gallery of mother, assorted pin-ups and model airplanes, that the sight of it made Lawrence gasp.
The horrible war god, expressing all the barbarity and cruelty of one side of the Japanese culture, and yet honored in the delicate, sensitive  taste of this cruel soldier, seemed a perfect symbol for the mystery of the Japanese character as I knew it during the war. (Gilkey 1966.47)
Today, when so often we are surrounded by Christians who act like Buddhists and Buddhists who sound like Christians, and people lecture other people about how if they are religious, as they claim to be, they should not be war-like, intolerant and vindictive, it is important to remember that there is more than one kind of religion in the world. Not everybody is using religion to calm their anxiety and to find ways to endure impossible suffering in silence, while not raising a hand against their oppressors. Not every religion tells us to turn the other cheek, and not everyone believes that forgiveness is something that you give away for free to a wrongdoer so that you don't have to be angry, anymore.  Some people still believe in vanquishing and then pardoning their foe -- in that order.

Gilkey, Langdon. 1966. Shantung Compound Harper: San Francisco.


  1. I had a samurai sword art hanging awhile back that my dad gave me. I really was not into it, but I wish I had sent it to you. It sort of reminds me of this war god. I ended up donating the piece.

    1. Hi, Julia. I would love to have seen the samurai sword art hanging.