Yesterday I sat on a panel of judges for a high school English speech contest. There was one girl, in particular, whose speech really stood out to me. She spoke movingly about extreme poverty and philanthropy in Africa, and how she believed that, as someone who was well-off, she had a duty to work for the dignity of the poor. When I suggested to the other judges (all of whom were Japanese) that she ought to be a prizewinner, the reaction shocked me.
One of them said, “But she talked about helping people in Africa. That’s so . . . Christian.”
Before I could ask what, exactly, the judge’s hypothesis about the girl’s religion had to do with judging a speech contest, she continued derisively, “Look at this, it says she’s from a Christian school,” as if that sealed the argument.
I suppose that was my cue to ask whether I had missed the part of the judging rubric that took into account whether the child was suspected of being a Christian (what is this, the Tokugawa Period?) but in the actual event I was shocked speechless.
The other judges carried on with their deliberations while I stared at the table in disbelief. If the reigning ideology here was that anyone suspected of being a Christian wasn’t worth listening to, then how could I make an argument?
My deepest apologies to the girl who worked very hard on her speech. It really rips up my heart.
Now, you might wonder why an interest in helping those in extreme poverty in Africa would be labelled Christian. Of course, it is a very Christian interest to have, but one likes to think that there are plenty of people of goodwill in the world with such an interest.
However, recall the first Christians in Rome, who were considered a curiosity because of their interest in helping widows and orphans. As talk of them spread, charity began to catch on in secular Rome as well. The world we live in now has been transformed by an idea that was once quite unusual.
And Japan, which purposely sealed itself off from Western, and especially Christian, influence for so long, still remembers a time when extreme poverty in Africa was somebody else’s problem.