This picture was taken on March 9, 1974–the day that Lieutenant Hiroo Onda officially surrendered his sword and his rifle and acknowledged the defeat of the Japanese Empire in World War II–nearly 30 years after the formal surrender on September 2, 1945.
Lieutenant Onda was the most famous of the zanryū nipponhei, or the Japanese holdouts—fighters in the Pacific theater who either did not hear or did not believe that the war was over. They stayed on their assigned islands for years—sometimes even decades—and followed the orders that they were given. Ondoo was the head of a small guerrilla band on the Philippine island of Lubang. He and the others spent most of the time between 1944 and 1974 hiding in the mountains and trying to survive, descending into the villages only to look for food and occasionally burn a rice field in the name of “harassing the enemy.”
When Leiutenant Onda returned to Japan in 1974, he was welcomed as a hero—a shining example of Japanese spirit and determination, but the honeymoon didn’t last long. He soon found himself incapable of living in a society that was well on its way to becoming the second largest economy in the world. Not having been part of incremental steps, he was thrust into a world that he could not understand or relate to. A year after his triumphant return, left Japan to become a cattle rancher in Brazil.
And now comes the part where I try to make a modern object lesson out of Lieutenant Onda and the holdout soldiers. This is always perilous, since analogies always end up collapsing under the weight of what is different. But here it goes: the longer contemporary religious people—including Latter-day Saints—persist in fighting the culture wars of the last two generations, the less able we will be to live meaningfully in the world that actually exists and to give our children the spiritual preparation that they will need in the future.
Here is an example of what I mean: in 1950, the question of whether or not women should work outside the home was an open question in our society. At the time, most people had grown up in a world where men worked and women stayed home, and that seemed right to most people. Women had entered the work force in large numbers during World War II, though, which opened up career paths for women that had not been open before. It was the subject of a serious debate of the sort that we often call a “culture war.”
But that war is over. Whatever choices individual families may make, no serious person now argues that the workforce should be closed to women or that social and legal barriers should be erected to force them to have children and stay home. This is no longer an open question in our society, and children growing up today simply assume that both women and men should prepare themselves for meaningful professions. This question simply is no longer at issue in the way that it was when my parents were teenagers in the 1950s.
And yet, members of my family have been told in officially sanctioned Church meetings that the main reason that women work today is that Satan tempts them into the workplace–and that they should not saddle their future husbands with debt for an expensive education that God does not want them to use. When I heard similar things growing up, I disagreed with them, but I at least understood the reference point. But when my children hear them, they just look confused–like they would if someone told them that people from Wisconsin have three heads or that the Empire State Building is made entirely out of waffles. They simply don’t understand how any sane person could think this way.
Something similar can be said for the idea that LGBT people deserve love and respect. We often hear this from the pulpit these days as a preface to a wholesale condemnation involving both “Satan” and “the world.” For our children, however, this is not an abstract theological issue. It involves their friends, their family members, and often themselves. And our kids are smart. When they hear the rhetoric of the last culture war repeated in toto, they are not likely to be impressed by the occasional acknowledgment that “God loves everybody and so should we.” They don’t need people to tell them to love their friends, but they do need us to stop qualifying our love with assertions that these friends are a sign of Satan’s power in a degenerate world. They know very well that this is not what love sounds like.
Let me be very candid here: I am worried about our children. I am worried that they will not even be willing to give the Church a chance because they do not hear it talking about anything that they recognize as part of their world. The longer we persist in fighting the culture wars of the last two generations—and in invoking political rhetoric that was manufactured for questions that are no longer at issue—the less relevant we will be in their lives, which they live in a version of “the world” that bears little resemblance to the hive of Satanic scum and villainy that they hear about in Church. In our minds we may be the last bastions of rectitude in a fallen civilization. To our children we look like crazy hermits in 30-year old uniforms torching some poor guy’s rice field for no particular reason.
I pray that we will figure out how to get this right in time to keep our children in the Church. I pray that, in the process of castigating the world for ceasing to be what it never was, we still manage to prepare our children for the world that will be. And that I pray that, instead of arming them to fight in the culture wars that we grew up with, we will find ways to give them spiritual tools that they will need for the all-too-real conflicts with actual evil (which will have very little to do with whether or not two people in a committed relationship get to use the term “marriage”) that they will one day be called upon to win.