We have just watched a documentary, “Komagata Maru: Laws of Exclusion.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuTg4gztLBs In the middle of the incident in 1914 there was an astute observer, William Scott. I would like to briefly introduce him first and then we will be thinking about implications of the incident for racial justice and Dr. Scott’s life.
About one hundred and thirty years ago, in 1886, William Scott was born, as his name hints, in Lanark, Scotland, about 40 km southeast of Glasgow. At the age of eighteen he became active in religious work through the YMCA and in evangelical work through the local town mission. Early in 1906 Scott responded to the call to become a candidate for ministry for the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Later on he studied at Brandon College (BA), Manitoba, Queen’s University (MA), Ontario and then Westminster Hall of the Presbyterian Theological College (MDiv) in Vancouver, British Columbia, to become a minister.
As Scott approached the end of his theological education at Westminster Hall, now the Vancouver School of Theology (VST), in 1914, he was wondering what shape his future ministry would take. During this time of discernment, he witnessed the shocking “Komagata Maru” incident on May 23, 1914 in Vancouver. This incident changed his life and perhaps mine too.
In the fall of 1906 there were over 1,500 Indian (Sikh) workers in or near Vancouver. During the next few years, another 5,000 entered British Columbia. As you can imagine, since at that time many people of Chinese and Japanese descent were already living in the greater Vancouver area, many Caucasian Canadians often expressed anti-Asian feelings toward the more recent newcomers. This ill-will was directed against the Sikhs who looked more distinctive with their turbans and long flowing beards and were less docile than their fellow Asian people. In a short period of time, Sikhs became the cynosure of Canadian eyes.
In response to the growing numbers of Asian newcomers, particularly from India, to Vancouver, the Government of Canada passed two regulations to deal with the situation. First, it raised the so-called Head Tax from $25 to $200 against Indians. Second, all immigrants were required to come directly from their point of origin, a requirement called a “continues journey (1908).” At that time no company ran ships directly from India to Canada. Since the main immigration routes from India did not offer direct passage to Canada, it was an almost impossible task for people from there who wanted to begin a new life in Canada to meet the rules.
Regardless of the rules, Gurdit Singh from India rented a Japanese shipand made the long journey from Hong Kong via Shanghai, China and Yokohama, Japan, with the mission to challenge Canada’s immigration rules. While aboard the vessel were376 Indians including 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus, all British subjects, all the passengers except the 22 people who could prove Canadian domicile were refused entry to Canada because they did not keep the “continuous journey” regulation of 1908. These passengers, having been refused entry to Canada, languished aboard the ship in the Vancouver harbour for two months, suffering a lack of water and food.
While the passengers were being held on the boat, the song, “White Canada Forever,” was gaining popularity. The song goes like this:
the rights that our fathers have been given
we’ll hold by right and maintain by might,
till the foe is backward driven.
We welcome as brothers all white men still,
But the shifty yellow race
whose word is vain, who oppress the weak,
must find another place.
Then let us stand united all
and show our father’s might,
that won the home we call our own,
for white man’s land we fight.
To oriental grasp and greed
we’ll surrender, no never.
Our watchword be “God save the King”
White Canada forever.
William Scott, who had just graduated from Westminster Hallwitnessed this shocking incident. It caused him “deep concern” for the Indian people and fired his determination to work as a missionary. Scott’s first choice was India, but since there was no opening in that country, the Foreign Mission Board suggested Korea.
Scott agreed and he and his wife Katie arrived in Korea in December, 1914. The next day Scott met the Canadian missionary L.L. Young who was teaching the Book of Job in the local Bible Institute. As their conversation developed, Scott realized that Young was teaching Job, including all the circumstances of the story, as historical fact. Scott’s interpretation of the bible differed but when he told Young that on studying Job in his final year of theology, he “had found it a sublime, imaginative, poetic treatment of the problem of suffering,” Scott records in his book that Young responded, “Poetic, nothing!”
One hundred and five years ago Scott believed that the Bible could not be understood literally. Scott became deeply concerned about the damage being done by the conservative theology of missionaries to the Korean church. He wrote: “Almost all the missionaries sent to Korea by American Presbyterian churches were men who strongly supported the ultra-conservative side in an understanding of the Bible.” I, however, was lucky to have studied at Hanshin Theological Semimary in Seoul where Scott had taught and was introduced to the emerging higher Biblical criticism being taught there. As a result, Scott changed my life as well.
Let’s go back to today’s scripture reading. Jesus knows that, since he will probably soon be killed by the Roman colonial power for his radical stance for justice, he is about to leave his disciples. He does not want to give up his vision for building the Kin-dom community so he commissions his disciples with this new commandment to “love one another”(John 13:34) - to carry out their common mission. He hopes God’s mission will be accomplished by the practice of the new commandment.
Jesus makes it clear and simple. This new commandment is a radical one that transcends even the familiar Ten Commandments. The new commandment moves beyond both the religious tradition and the conventional wisdom of the time. As the world becomes smaller and resources become more limited, society tends to become more fearful, violent and destructive. However, Jesus believes that through love for one another, we can build a loving community.
I firmly believe that Scott lived a life of loving each other without condition.He lived faithfully a life loving others beyond all differences. As we commemorate the 105thanniversary of the Komagata Maruincident this week, remembering Canada’s past such as this is painful, but it gives us hope. The incident allows us to reflect on our history as well as the contributions Indo-Canadians and peoples of all different cultural heritages have made and continue to make to the building of our country. The wrong convictions and the racist actions we saw in this “incident” were the result of, in part, a false understanding of the Bible and Christianity, that is that by excluding others who believe in God or the Bible in a different way than we do, brings blessing to us only. But Jesus says “Love one another.” No condition is attached. Jesus says that when we practise the new commandment, we are becoming disciples (John 13:35). Thanks be to God for the invitation to us and to all people. Amen.
P.S. Dr. Scott joined church union and became a member of United Church of Canada in 1925. He and his wife Katie worked in Korea for 38 years. For his life and mission see Hyuk Cho, “Partnership in Mission: William Scott’s Ministry in Korea,” Touchstonevol. 31, no. 1 (February 2013): 57-66.