Jesus Can Do What Jizon Can’t

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 26, 1997

Several weeks ago a spokesman for the United States Department of Health commented on the health risks associated with women who have abortions. When questioned about the moral implications of his findings he declined to answer, saying, “We try to stay away from the emotional issue and to leave the interpretation to others” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/8/97, A1).

That is the postmodern approach to abortion. Postmodernism says that there is no such thing as true and false, or right and wrong, only differences of emotion. The postmodern says, “You may feel like abortion is wrong, but I feel differently, and I have the right to feel the way I want to feel.” It is your feelings against mine, and everyone is entitled to his own emotion. Whenever people see abortion as nothing more than an “emotional issue” it is a reminder that we are living in postmodern times.

Abortion is an emotional issue, of course, but it is also more than an emotional issue. It is a moral issue. Moral issues are not based on human feelings, they are grounded in divine commands. When I say that abortion is immoral, I am not just saying that I don’t like it; I am saying it is against the will of God. Abortion does more than simply hurt my feelings. Because it involves the taking of an innocent human life it violates the God-given laws of the universe.

One place to show that abortion is more than an emotional issue is Japan. Like America, Japan is a good place to get an abortion. The Japanese government has allowed abortion on demand since 1948. The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that some 365,000 abortions were performed inJapan during 1994. That may be a low estimate since it does not include abortions carried out by private doctors. A survey carried out in the 1980’s showed that roughly 60 percent of college-educated Japanese women have had at least one abortion. Abortion has become the accepted form of birth control in Japan.

Despite the fact that there is little or no public opposition to abortion in Japan, there is a growing sense that something is badly wrong. Inexplicably, millions of Japanese men and women have been drawn to the Buddhist cult devoted to Jizo, the protector of aborted children.

Up until the 1960’s Jizo was a minor player in Buddhism. Now he has become a major bodhisattva. Temples devoted to Jizo are flourishing. Couples go there to perform mizuko kuyo, a ritual intended to ease the passage of their aborted children from death to life. Cemeteries and temples are crowded with little Jizo statues. These figurines are usually draped with red capes and festooned with toys or flowers. Many of them clutch colorful pinwheels. A message board next to each figurine gives parents an opportunity to write down prayers and apologies for their children. None of this is cheap, at up to $1000 for the statue and more for the ritual, not including capes or pinwheels.

Do millions of Japanese men and women perform mizuko kuyo because abortion is simply an emotional issue? No, they turn to Jizo because abortion is a moral issue. Without any instruction in the immorality of abortion they know that they have done something wrong. They can tell that they have betrayed the trust of their offspring. They sense that they have violated the moral law of the universe and that they must do something to get right with God. They feel guilty.

The growth of the Jizo cult in Japan reminds us that sin produces guilt. This is because sin is a moral issue, and not just an emotional one. Of course guilt has some influence on the emotions. When the psalmist wrote, My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear (Ps. 38:4), he was expressing the mood of his conscience. He felt guilty.

But the psalmist not only felt guilty, he was guilty. The fact that we feel guilty for our sins gives us a clue that God isn’t happy about what we have done, either. Sin is a moral issue: it doesn’t just make us feel bad, it actually separates us from God. Anyone who sins is guilty of breaking God’s law (see James 2:10) and stands under God’s judgment.

The Jizo cult reminds us of the heavy burden of guilt many men and women carry in our own society. Abortion wounds the soul. Men and women who have participated in abortions know, deep down, that they have failed to be the fathers and mothers God meant for them to be. Such wounds do not heal on their own. Not even time will heal them.

If abortion were simply an emotional issue, then a Buddhist ritual might remove these feelings of guilt. If abortion were simply a matter of feelings, then performing mizuko kuyo might take care of the problem. If men and women feel bad about having an abortion, all they have to do is buy a Jizo figurine and then they will feel better.

The trouble is that abortion is not simply an emotional issue, it is a moral issue. Men and women who have committed abortions do not just feel guilty, they are guilty. And the sad thing about the Jizo cult is that Jizo cannot atone for sin.

The hope of Christianity is that there is a way for every sinner to get rid of the guilt that comes from sin. Jesus Christ died on the cross for sins—not just to remove feelings of guilt—but to remove guilt itself:

Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience (Heb. 10:19, 22).

Jesus can do what Jizo can’t: he can wash away the guilt from an abortion, or any other sin.

(Much of the information about abortion in Japan comes from Joan Frawley Desmond, “Apologizing to the Babies,” First Things, October 1996, pp. 13-15)

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