It may seem odd to consider that these samurai – which we see flooding our television and movie screens – as models of the Christian life. They were, after all, soldiers of a pagan world who gave their lives entirely to an earthly master, trained from young ages to kill. On closer inspection, however, there is much we can learn from the example of the samurai as Christians – and not only those who have been recognized as blessed.
One of those beatified is a samurai named Zaisho Shichiemon, who accepted baptism despite the express prohibition of his master. According to www.chiesa, when the priest reminded him that such defiance of his lord could be punished by death, Zaisho replied, “I know, but I have understood that salvation lies in the teaching of Jesus, and no one can separate me from Him.” Four months later, he was ordered to renounce his faith. Zaisho replied, “I would obey in any other matter, but I cannot accept any order that is opposed to my eternal salvation.” He was then executed in the street in front of his house.
Even though it became a matter of life and death, Zaisho and other samurai knew the importance of service and obedience to one’s lord. Samurai lords, called diaymo, literally held the lives of their servants in their hands. However, Zaisho was aware that in the case of his soul and salvation, he could not disobey his Lord, Jesus, even at the command of his earthly master – despite the fact that the man he disobeyed provided all his worldly needs, including home, food and wages, and even had the power to have him executed on a whim.
In the Hagakure, a book of the samurai’s ideals and instruction, it states:
“Being a retainer [samurai] is nothing other than being a supporter of one’s lord, entrusting matters of good and evil to him, and renouncing self-interest… when it comes to throwing away one’s life for his lord all get weak in the knees. This is rather disgraceful. The fact that a useless person often becomes a matchless warrior at such times is because he has already given up his life and become one with his lord.”
“The way of the samurai is found in death… This is the substance of the way of the samurai. If by setting his heart right every morining and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”
Zaisho understood, like all samurai, that he lived for the sake of his lord, and that he must live as already dead for his lord’s sake. He therefore realized, perhaps better than we can, that in baptism he was dying in Christ. From then on was dead to the world, and free in the Way of Christ. Although he was still in the employ of his diaymo, it was clear to Zaisho that no other man – be it his employer, political ruler or neighbor could compromise his service to his Lord. After all, the very title of “samurai” literally means “one who serves,” and as a samurai Zaisho’s service, self-sacrifice, and resolve were the very definition of his honored position.
In the Western world, we do not honor service, but independence and individualism. We have lost the perspective of what it means to serve, to wholly give oneself to our Lord. Fear of losing status, job security, economic stability often compromise our judgment when we are faced with the choice of following in our Lord’s footsteps, or succumbing to the way of our world. The idea of living as dead to the world is foreign to us, even though Christ has called us to “take up our cross” and follow him.
Remember, the cross was not a symbol of salvation in Jesus’ time. It was the means of a torturous execution reserved for criminals. Jesus did not spare his followers the fact that following Him would mean the losing of one’s life – “For whoever want to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.” (Mt 16:25)
Other samurai in Zaisho’s time may not have accepted Jesus, but they did understand the self-sacrifice that service demands, and many of them literally gave their lives for worldly lords, choosing death over disobedience even to human masters who could be corrupt, cruel, unforgiving and bloodthirsty.
How is it then, that these pagan servant-warriors could better serve fallen human lords better than we Christians can serve an infinitely good, merciful, and eternal Lord? May we keep in mind the example of Blessed Zaisho Shichiemon, who knew both the way of service and the Way of Jesus. As it says in the Hagakure:
“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master.”
Or, as we have heard it proclaimed so many times before, “Love the Lord your God with your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” (Mt 22:37)