single wildflower in the rubble

Make Peace Inevitable: Reflections on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 2017

guest post by John Leung, preached on August 6, 2017
at First Congregational Church, Flagstaff

Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21

O God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you. If our words and our thoughts offend anyone, Dear God, may there be mutual forgiveness between the speaker and the listener, and may you, our refuge and our redeemer, grant us reconciliation.

Seventy-two years ago today, at 8:15 a.m., Tokyo time, the American warplane Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb into the heart of the city of Hiroshima. A little over 72 hours thereafter, on August 9, a plutonium bomb was dropped into Nagasaki, a port on the other side of Japan. In Hiroshima, roughly 70,000 Japanese citizens were killed, literally in a flash, by the blast and by the firestorm on the same day of the bombing. Approximately another 70,000 would die in the following two to four months from burns, other injuries, radiation sickness and collateral illnesses. In Nagasaki, the numbers were roughly 40,000 and 50,000 respectively. Instantaneously AND in time, those two atomic bombs would claim the lives of roughly a quarter of a million people, and generations of Japanese people would bear the physical, mental, psychological and cultural scars of those bombings. At Noon on August 15, 1945, on radio to a nation reeling from the devastation and mourning for the dead and dying multitudes, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito broadcast his message of surrender.

We are probably familiar with the story, and perhaps even with the statistics. Over the last seventy years, there have been numerous debates, in the media, in scholarly and non-scholarly publications, in and outside academia, about these historical events, mostly centered on the question of whether the use of these atomic weapons was justified, and if so, how? As a professor of history, I have participated in many such debates, and moderated quite a few. Arguments run a broad gamut. Here, in summary and composite, are some of the more common ones I have read and heard.  

“The only way to end a war is by overwhelming force. The Japanese deserved it; war is war, and THEY started it. The atom bombs are just payback for Pearl Harbor.”

“The question of tactical or even strategic justification in 1945 is shortsighted. These atomic bombings did not just end WWII; they were also the beginning of the threat of nuclear war, and the world has had to live with that ever since. We also have to live with the fact that the United States is the ONLY nation to have actually employed nuclear weapons in war. This has cast a shadow over nuclear politics ever since, and many of today’s international problems have their roots in this reality.”

For most Americans, looking for a silver lining behind the mushroom cloud, so to speak, a “centrist” perspective is the most appealing, and it goes something like this: “Well, the atomic bombs were necessary to induce Japan to surrender and thus end the war swiftly; more people — certainly many more Americans — would have died if the war had dragged on any longer.”

Some years ago, this “centrist” American position seemed to receive corroboration, from a rather unexpected source. In 2007, Kyuma Fumio, Japan’s Defense Minister at the time, scandalized his constituents of Nagasaki by remarks he made in a commencement address: “I now have come to accept in my mind that in order to end the war, it could not be helped that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and that countless numbers of people suffered great tragedy.” Kyuma’s words translated here as “it could not be helped” were translated and broadcast in the English-language Japanese and international press as “NECESSARY AND INEVITABLE.” Many American observers immediately seized on these words, spoken by a prominent Japanese politician, as validation that, however terrifying the results, the use of the atomic bombs was necessary, and a historical inevitability. On the other hand, however, the Japanese people were shocked by those words. As a consequence of his remarks Kyuma was compelled to resign his cabinet post four days later. This also played a significant role in the ruling party’s defeat in Japan’s upper-house elections that September.

My purpose today is NOT to litigate or adjudicate any of these arguments. I do believe, however, that in these commemorative days each year, we have the opportunity to learn once again from these intertwined awesome and devastating historical events and the world’s memories of them. Some years we may merely repeat the lessons we had already learned from years past; other years we may learn something fresh. What, and how, do we learn this year? And how do the lessons we may learn come from, and in turn, affect our faith, and our faithfulness to God?

The Kyuma episode provokes fresh thinking about attitudes we hold about the “total war” use of atomic weapons at the end of the Second World War and about war itself, AND ABOUT THE ANTITHESIS OF WAR – PEACE. What is “inevitable?” What does “inevitable” mean? With their time-lines and historical interpretations, historians tend to come up with explanations of how wars became “inevitable,” and then such notions of war’s inevitability come to be etched in our collective psyches.  

But what if we flipped our perspectives? What case can we make for the INEVITABILITY OF PEACE?

This brings me to the scripture passage that we read earlier. A familiar biblical story – we all probably learned it since we were young. Oddly, however, I step away from the larger narrative picture of this well-known miracle. What struck me more deeply is this:

When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said: This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them: “They NEED NOT go away.”

How often do we come to see things from the perspective of OUR DIRE NECESSITY? We have a problem. Something drastic – and often drastically bad – HAS TO HAPPEN. We have to build a wall! We have to scrap health care for millions of people! We have to deport people! We have to turn people away at the airports! Really?

NO! Jesus said: “THEY NEED NOT GO AWAY.”  We say: “War is inevitable! The atom bombs could not be helped!” Jesus said: “No! Peace is inevitable!”  Perhaps if we can break down that sense of necessity, of inevitability, of war and conflict, of competition in scarcity, we can begin to take steps down the path of MAKING PEACE INEVITABLE, and the miracle of peace can really happen.

How do we make peace inevitable? Let me begin to offer a modest proposal, inspired by our faith and the words that God Still Speaks to us today.

Number 1. We need to have a revolutionary change of heart. A paradigm shift. Let us start with understanding that WAR IS NOT THE WILL OF GOD. For far too long humankind has projected our wars onto God’s will. Today we decry the word and the idea of Jihad – a perversion of Islam’s concept of struggle, and we denounce the idea of Holy War, which we think is peculiar to Muslims, or some convenient OTHER. However, if we looked back honestly into history, we would find that the idea was, at least just as much, of our own making. The slogan for our version of Holy War, “Deus vult” (God wills it) emerged as the people’s response to Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade in 1095. Can we honestly say that we do not carry a single trace of that mentality in the wars we wage today?

We MUST start with embracing the principle that WAR IS NOT THE WILL OF GOD.

On July 19, 2006, when a conflict between Israel and the Palestinians  expanded into massive bombing of cities in Lebanon, the Rev. John Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, wrote a prayer accompanying the UCC’s call for peace. This prayer speaks to the point I make today. Please allow me to read it in part to you:    

You did not make us, O God, to die in bomb craters or to huddle through the night in basement shelters.  You made us to play under olive trees and cedars and to sleep soundly with animal toys and gentle lovers.  Lord, have mercy.

You did not make us, O God, to hold hostages for barter or to rain deadly fury on innocent children and beautiful coast lands.  You made us, O God, to welcome strangers and to cherish all creation.  Christ, have mercy.

You did not make us, O God, to oppress in the name of security or to kill in the name of justice.  You made us, O God, to find security in justice and to risk life in the name of peace.  Lord, have mercy.

… Save us from self-justifying histories and from moral equations that excuse our folly.  Search our hearts for our own complicity.  Spare us from pious prayers that neglect the prophet’s angry cry.  Let us speak a resounding “no” to this warring madness and thus unmake our ways of death, so that we may be made more and more into your image.  Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.  Kyrie eleison.

Included in this change of heart must also be a transformation in our calculus of war and peace. Remember, a few weeks ago, Rev. Margaret Gramley encouraged us to adopt a new way of understanding God’s moral economy – to think of God as a prodigal sower – one who flings the seeds of grace with wild abandon? Then let us think of God commanding that the seeds of peace also be sown with equally wild abandon and fullness and “care-lessness.” Unfortunately that is not so with our usual mathematics of war and peace, often characterized by a “tit for tat” frame of mind. Even in our democratic societies, our politics, our military configurations, and our foreign relations tend to be loaded with dangerous logarithms that make war, not peace, inevitable. We more often demand unconditional surrender than we make peace unconditionally. We forget the words of Christ who said, “I do not give to you peace AS THE WORLD GIVES.” We fail to grasp Paul’s meaning when he described “the peace of God” as a peace “that surpasses all understanding.” Peace will not be made inevitable as long as we remain within our “normal” ways of making peace. We have to think of the peace that we seek to make as the peace of God, a peace that we cannot comprehend normally. When we reach out to others with THAT peace that defies norms, peace will then become a necessity of history, an inevitability.

Secondly, making peace is an ACTIVITY. Peace may be God’s will, but it also will not fall into our laps. We have to DO something to make peace. In describing God’s mandate for peace, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” If peace is to become inevitable, we need to actively disarm, and we need to UNLEARN war. This may not be an easy thing, but think about it this way: As a species, we have spent thousands of years “learning war.” Can we not devote a few decades to unlearning war and learning peace instead? Can we not – should we not — have, at every university and college and school, at least as many students majoring in peace studies as we have in, say, in ROTC and military sciences? We learn a lot of things from the things of our “popular culture” – our literatures, the things we watch, the games we play, the technologies we employ. Why, then, are these things so inundated in the images and ideas of conflict and combat? Can we not devote even a small portion of the technological genius that we deploy in creating such things as films, videos, images on the Internet, and videogames in order to create at least a sector of our “popular culture” that would extol peace, and not valorize war?

One of the things that we must DO to make peace inevitable is to take care of people’s wellbeing and needs. In the next breath, after he proclaimed that the people “need not go away,” Jesus said: “YOU give them something to eat.” He made it clear that simply not turning people away is not enough; we must also bear responsibility for meeting people’s needs. It is so, too, for the peacemaker. War and poverty and scarcity go hand in hand, and it is often difficult to tell which is the cause and which is the effect. It is estimated that about one tenth of the people who died in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts did so from causes and conditions complicated by dehydration and starvation. To say that we are giving people peace without addressing their needs makes the promise of peace a hollow one, and such peace cannot endure, much less be inevitable.

We must not fear, nor be discouraged, when our work to make peace inevitable happens on a small scale. That is one lesson I took away from Jody’s sermon last week. The peace that we sow may be the smallest and seemingly the most insignificant of seeds. Let us remember: The horrific bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguably the most enormous weapons ever used, wreaking the greatest destruction, came from SPLITTING THE ATOM, the smallest thing imaginable. Why then should we not learn to sow, instead, the atoms of peace?

Finally, I submit that to make peace inevitable, we must also learn how to live a new life, or, to live Life anew, not only as individuals and families, or even as nations, but as the world, as humankind, as God’s entire creation. Many of us are aware, I am sure, that the famous Godzilla stories and films originated in a post-war Japan in reaction to the atomic holocausts suffered by its people. In the decades since 1945, we have seen the proliferation of films depicting how people learn and struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic global landscape. That survival is not only grim and bleak, but it is also one that is most often filled with the same conflicts that begat the cataclysm in the first place. The question that stares us in the face is: Why do we wait to learn to live anew AFTER the whole world and all Life have been devastated by our weapons? Why can we not start right now to learn to live anew? What on earth are we waiting for?

The lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are lessons for the future and not just for comprehending how the past may be “justified.”  They are not merely lessons explaining how such a vast number of people died, but lessons for how the whole world must live.

In March 1988, Japanese author Kurihara Sadako, herself a hibakusha, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, wrote the following poem, teaching us this very lesson:

“In the rubble a single wildflower
Sent out small white blossoms.
From the burned soil filled with the bones
Of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, relatives,
From the now-silent ruins
Where every living thing burned to death:
A small life that taught us to live.
Hiroshima, carrying on from that day –
A flower blooming in the midst of destruction.”

If “inevitability” is not a matter of fore-ordained fate or of strategic expediency or even tactical necessity, but a matter of building up the conditions for a process that points in a particular direction, then it is indeed within the power of every one of us to make peace, not war, inevitable; to make life, not death, inevitable. It would mean that each and every thing we do can, potentially, be a building block for that process, however large or small. It would mean that we, like all the generations of our forebears, are constantly at the crossroads of choice. What is inevitable is of our own making, and of our own choosing.

I used to, sometimes on my way to work at NAU, drive past the Quaker meeting house on Beaver Street and see these inspiring words: “There is no way to peace; Peace is the way.” For people of faith, making peace inevitable must begin with our completely identifying with God’s will for peace and with our own responsibility in the process. It is a painstaking process, one that might not be completed in our own lifetime, but is the most precious legacy and gift we can ever hope to pass on. We can, and we must, build peace in our lives, in our church, in our society, and in the world, piece by piece, peace by peace.

Each year at 8:15 a.m. (Tokyo time) on August 6, Japanese throngs gather at the cenotaph in Hiroshima in remembrance of the horrifying event and those who died in the atomic bombing with a long silence. Representatives of many faiths offer prayers. Then bells are rung to complete the commemoration. Perhaps this year, and for years to come, those bells could ring out not only in Hiroshima but all over the world and most of all in our own hearts, to echo our commitment to make peace inevitable.

Let us pray:
To you, O Christ, who taught us that to be estranged from another human being is to be estranged from God, and that to be reconciled to a brother or a sister or to a “stranger” is to be reconciled to you, to you we pray:

Let a small flower of hope blossom from the rubble of death and destruction, from the ruins of our times, some silent and some still raging with the voices of the dying and the dead;

Come, small life, living, crucified, dead, and resurrected, and teach us how to live. Amen.