The value of a dead man in Tokyo, and the Mona Lisa

Years ago, I was walking in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, and a dead man lay upon the sidewalk. Apparently deceased, with rigor mortis setting his joints solidly, the view was surreal as his well-pressed suit arm was raised as if he was reaching out to pedestrians to shake their hands, and to be noticed lying upon the crowded sidewalks. As one walker after another approached the decaying body of the dead, but apparently affluent man, their direction of travel would be diverted slightly with an even slighter glance, and they would walk past him without horror or care. This tender and focused culture shocked me with their indifference to one of their own laying dead upon the sidewalk, and wisely discerning it best to act as the culture I was visiting, I walked on to my destination.

I had ridden the crowded Tokyo subway for one reason…to see the “Mona Lisa” which was on loan to the Ueno Art Museum. Shaken from the shock of a culture’s lack of care toward it’s dead, my emotions were running up and down like a roller coaster by the time I had entered in the museum. As I walked passed the statute of Rodin’s “The Thinker” (either a copy, or maybe also loaned to the museum), I marveled at the Japanese artists that surrounded the statue on all sides, with easels and oils capturing the artist’s views. Every painting was different, and every sketch with a perspective of the artist that changed as I walked the circle.

The crowd began moving toward the gallery where the famed “Mona Lisa” was attached to the center, lit wall of a grand hall. It was the only picture on display, and the lines of people there to see it slowly moved past, stopped often and gave reverence to a surprisingly tiny painting, and the scene reminded me of state funerals of a society’s beloved. More often than not, the stoic Japanese, both men and women, would pause for a moment in front of the picture, and you could see their breath exhale in an escape of extreme moving, and tears would form in their eyes. Anticipation enveloped me as I watched them, and as I approached the painting, I excitedly waited to feel the same thing.

It was my turn to stand in front of the famous painting of the woman who did not smile. Nothing happened. I had no tears, I had no release of extreme pleasure, nor did my soul leap. The painting mattered nothing to me. What mattered to me, is that a dead man was lying upon a sidewalk, and I had walked past him to pleasure myself with a beauty that culture has declared with value. It had no value to me, but the drama of a human life that lay dead on a sidewalk in the busy Tokyo street was valuable to me; and that was where I returned to wait for help to come, and I stood watching and valuing a life that I did not know, but surely must have had value because it was created by my Lord.

I am actually a little ashamed that I didn’t realize my values immediately and stop in the first place. I have all kinds of excuses…I was young, I was in a foreign culture and felt a little lost, excited to reach my destination, and I suspect I probably had a little voice reminding me that “he was dead anyway, what could I do.”

By returning and standing by the body until authorities removed it, I hope I was at least offering contemplation to the value of life. Certainly, the U.S. Embassy and my commanding officers had to consider my values when they got a bill for the burial expenses of the man I had discovered. Apparently, Japanese tradition charges those who last have control of a dead body for burial fees. By me standing over the body in declaration of my values, his value became the United States responsibility.

Regardless of the trouble that came my way, inside my own soul, it made a difference, and I must believe that it made a difference to some passerby, or some military finance officer, or maybe to someone I tell the story to. My love for art continues, and I jump at chances to go to museums. My value for art, however, does not take precedence over my values of Christ, and that was a lesson I learned in the strangest of ways in my young faith, in the busy city of Tokyo.

How do citizens of a powerful nation speak of such high ideals, while at the same turning a blind eye to the lower end of a culture’s spectrum?

If Christians do not start focusing more on the social issues in our country, and start standing up for the homeless, lost, orphans, widows, disabled, and crazy, then we are going to lose ourselves. We can have the greatest works of art produced in our country, the smartest books, and most entertaining movies, but if we don’t start looking at real life and reflecting the impoverished with reality rather than illusion, our culture will one day die a pathetic death. As part of a Christian culture, we must shine the light of Christ to illuminate reality, and make it shine in focus and transparency, so the value of life matters once again.

James 2:1-13
1 ¶ My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?

8 ¶ If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. (James 2:1-13)