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Japan’s Witness

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is drawing international praise for his innovative policies aimed at reviving Japan’s somnolent economy. In July he received a crucial boost from Japan’s voters, who helped put his coalition in firm control of the country’s legislature. Mr. Abe now has the political muscle he needs to complete his economic program, but his nationalist ambitions are causing some concern.

With control of two-thirds of Japan’s Diet (parliament), Mr. Abe now has the votes to revise the country’s constitution, which was drawn up under the close supervision of the United States after World War II. Mr. Abe has proposed a constitutional change that would allow Japan to maintain a stronger military. At issue is Article 9, which outlaws war “as means of settling international disputes.”


In a statement marking the Ten Days of Peace, the annual commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Peter Takeo Okada, the archbishop of Tokyo and president of the Japanese bishops’ conference, called Article 9 a “world treasure” that “reflects Jesus Christ’s teaching of love most abundantly.” Indeed, Japan has served as a unique witness to peace over the last 50 years, especially in the area of nuclear nonproliferation.

In making the case for change, Mr. Abe cites a shift in public attitudes about national defense and points with worry to the growing power of China. The power of Article 9, however, lies in its complete repudiation of war, and Japan’s bishops deserve support from the international community as they work to protect this “treasure.”

Doing God’s Work

Perhaps more than any other public intellectual, Robert Bellah, the sociologist of religion who died on July 30 at the age of 86, summarized the American identity in a few words—civil religion—and explained it in a way that both respected the constitutional relationship between church and state and defined the United States as a nation under God. Its principles, articulated by almost every president from Washington to Obama, constituted a tradition, said Mr. Bellah, “to hold the nation in judgment and to assert that it should operate under higher moral standards.”

Steeped in popular culture, Robert Bellah called upon Scripture, myths and history to define us. Habits of the Heart (1985), of which he was the lead author, warns against individualism’s “religious” offshoot, which he called Sheilaism after a woman quoted in the book. Sheila’s faith included little more than God and herself, with no link to public life. Mr. Bellah contrasts the individualism of American folk heroes like cowboys and detectives, loners who never fully belong to society, with loners like President Abraham Lincoln—isolated and misunderstood, but committed to the larger whole and willing to die for it.

Associated with the Communist Party as a Harvard undergraduate, Mr. Bellah was asked during his doctoral studies to identify other party members. He refused and lost his fellowship. In 1973, when he was invited to become a permanent member of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., his fellow scientists rejected him because religion was not “scholarly enough” to study. The last line of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address epitomizes the civil religion about which Mr. Bellah wrote, and it well describes his own achievements: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Turning Point in Congo?

When reporters need “art” to accompany stories about the latest violence and refugee exodus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they can reach into their digital photo morgues and take their pick. They will have little trouble finding images of desperate families in flight from conflict propelled by the continuing struggle over the riches beneath the soil—and soon to be in your cellphone or computer—in the eastern province of North Kivu. It seems every few months there is a new outbreak of violence as a nearly incomprehensible array of warlords and antigovernment factions operate with relative impunity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that some 40,000 people remain displaced near the border with Uganda, fleeing attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces in July. Elsewhere Congolese villagers have been driven from their homes by the various offensives of the March 23 Movement, a rebel group. Too often U.N. troops sent to keep the peace have watched impotently from the sidelines.

Now a new U.N. force, an unprecedented “intervention brigade” of 3,000 soldiers from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi, has been deployed. Better trained and equipped than typical U.N. multinational peacekeepers, the brigade will even be assisted by drones tracking activities in warlord or rebel-controlled territory. The brigade has been charged with taking the fight to the peacebreakers who have been a plague in the region for decades. The deployment has been billed as a turning point in Congo by U.N. officials. But if it will be a turn that finally breaks the vicious cycle of conflict and flight in North Kivu or a turning point that mortally diminishes the U.N.’s credibility remains to be seen.

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5 years 4 months ago
I find your editorial comments about the work of the late Robert Bellah a little curious, suggesting perhaps that the American civil religion he described is something to be celebrated. It seems to me that the vaguely described "God" of our nationalist religion is quite other than the Biblical God worshiped by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Indeed, American civil religion may be a dangerously deceptive form of idolatry, as this little video entitled "American Civil Religion?" suggests.


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