Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Rejoicing in Hope a Tribute to Kosuke Koyama

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Rejoicing in Hope a Tribute to Kosuke Koyama

Article excerpt

Straight lines seemed to be an image of imperialism. I became aware that the love of God--hesed, agape--is more of a zigzag than a straight line. For the sake of others, love makes self-denying zigzags, displaying its power as it overcomes pro found frustration.--Kosuke Koyama

The earth-bound portion of Kosuke Koyama's "zigzagging" life came to an end on March 25, 2009. "Ko," as many knew him, died in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the age of seventy-nine. He had been battling esophageal cancer for several years, but the immediate cause of his death was pneumonia, according to his son, Mark, with whom Ko and his wife of fifty years, Lois, had recently been living.

Koyama was born in 1929 in Tokyo into a Christian family. His paternal grandfather had become a Christian around the turn of the century, and his father had followed him in Christian faith. Ko himself was baptized at age fifteen, in the midst of World War II. He often reflected through the years on the significance of this experience of being baptized into "the religion of the enemy." The pastor who baptized him, Ko recalled, told him that God loved the Americans as well as the Japanese. That became the heart of his ecumenical theology.

Ko lived through the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, in which 88,000 inhabitants were killed by those same Americans. The experience was to significantly shape his understanding of history, the idolatry of power, and the suffering of God. Following the war, he enrolled in Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, graduating in 1952. He then moved to New Jersey, in the United States, to complete his B.D. at Drew Theological School in 1954 and his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959.

After graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther's interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by his home church, the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. Serving as a pastor in northern Thailand, he found himself in theological conversation not only with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth, who had been his interlocutors at Princeton, but also with the farmers who now made up his congregation. The result was "water buffalo theology," a term that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth-century contextual theologies.


Ko wrote several works in Thai during this period, but it was the English publication of Water Buffalo Theology--a collection of meditations and academic presentations from 1960 to 1968 that was first circulated in 1970 by SPCK and later published by Orbis Books (1974 and 1999)--that gained him widespread recognition. Other books in English followed: Fifty Meditations and Theology in Contact (1975), No Handle on the Cross (1977), Three-Mile-an-Hour God (1978), and Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai (1984). Koyama's bibliography included numerous articles and reviews as well, in English, Thai, and Japanese. Through arresting images and a profound sense of irony, he sought to move beyond rabid triumphalism and crusading ideology to realize in a fresh way what it means to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5), which for Ko could only mean the crucified mind. His reflections were laced with wit, wisdom, candor, and copious biblical references, challenging his hearers and readers to move beyond the provincialism that too often passes for theological sophistication, in order to relate Christian faith to the diverse hopes and aspirations of human beings in their everyday world. …

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