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Hiroshima remembrance day: 61 years after the atomic bomb

August 6th, 2006 by isaac · 11 Comments

I don’t know if I shared this news on the blog, but I’ve recently accepted the position as pastor of a small Mennonite congregation in Chapel Hill, NC. I’m excited and it seems the church is excited as well. This is the first pastor for this church.

Anyhow, I say this because being a Mennonite pastor in Chapel Hill means I all of a sudden have a voice in the peace and justice community. As most people already know, Mennonites care about the church as a witness for peace. And as most probably don’t know, Chapel Hill is a haven for liberals—which means so-called ’peace and justice’ issues are hot. Although Mennonites are probably too christologically offensive for the ”let’s just all get along” liberal ethos of the peaceniks, the hippie throwbacks like to keep the token christian pacifist around. So, the Orange County (NC) Coalition for Peace and Justice heard through the grapevine (that passes through the office of Stanley Hauerwas) that Chapel Hill Mennonite finally has a pastor and gave me a call to see if I could give a word for Jesus at the Hiroshima Remembrance Day rally. I wrote out a reflection. It’s sorta Derridian with all the talk of “peace” being the “unnameable.” People dug it. And some didn’t dig it (Too much Jesus for the liberals, and maybe the Zen Buddhists).

Title: A reflection on Hiroshima. Date: August 6, 2006. Place: in front of the Chapel Hill post office.

Peace on our own terms. That’s what we remember when we remember the devastating violence at Hiroshima. A country, our country, with power to control the life and death of others, used that atomic power in order to control the terms of surrender. Mass death, indiscriminate violence, large scale terrorism… for what? For peace, strangely enough. They said it was for peace, for the sake of peace. Peace was the justification for those bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The powers that be said that this atomic violence is what creates peace, a lasting peace.

War for the sake of peace. Killing for the sake of sustainable peace. And this is the same message we get from the White House these days when the American administration talks about Iraq, or about Israel and Lebanon. We must fight, we must kill, they say, so we can create the conditions for peace.

I’m afraid we live in a world of violence, a world of death. The bombs dropped on the unsuspecting, innocent people of Japan 61 years ago testify to the reign of death. Those who guide the military—presidents, secretaries of defense, dictators, prime ministers, whatever they might be called—those leaders wield the power of death in the service of peace on their own terms. They want a world free from violence, but they think violence is the necessary way to make the world peaceful.

It seems everyone wants peace. The president says he wants peace. Those service men who dropped bombs on Japan over 60 years ago wanted peace. And we want peace. I mean, that’s why we’re here, right? We want to tell the rest of Chapel Hill, the rest of this country, the rest of the world, that we want peace.

So, here’s the question I want to leave us with. This is what comes to my mind when I remember Hiroshima, and the people who thought it was a good idea to drop the most destructive bombs the world has ever seen—all in the name of peace. Here’s my question: What makes the peace you seek different from those who use violence for the sake of peace? If you close your eyes, and make up a picture of what a peaceful life looks like, how do you think that picture differs from president Harry Truman’s, who said it was ok to drop the atomic bombs on Japan?

I don’t know how you might answer, but the least I can do is give you my answer. Maybe after this talk you can tell me what you would say. The peace I seek is not my own. I don’t want peace on my own terms. The desire for peace on my terms is a stone’s throw away from violence justified in the name of peace. Peace isn’t something I can make happen by force. Peace is not the unconditional surrender of my enemies. I believe that peace is not something I can name; isn’t not something I can come up with; it’s not something I can dream up when I close my eyes; it’s not a picture that comes to me when I’m alone with myself.

But if it’s not any of that, then what is it? Well, peace is the name of a hidden path we discover when I gather together with others who have committed themselves to the way of Jesus. Every Sunday I get together with a group of Christians, of Mennonite Christians, right here in Chapel Hill, and learn with one another what it means to find a peace that is inseparable from the well-being of enemies. Jesus told us to love our enemies because the peace he offers belongs to the enemies too. The church I’m a part of doesn’t have peace figured out. We still don’t know exactly what it looks like. We don’t know the things that make for peace. We are always stumbling in the darkness, looking for new light to shine a way towards the horizon of peace we can see every once-in-a-while. And as we walk, all we know is what Jesus taught us: it is better to die for the sake of an enemy then to kill our enemies.

And that’s why I came here today. So I can join my voice to yours as we confess to each other and to the watching world that violence does not lead to peace. Killing enemies cannot be part of the peace for which we long.

Tags: theology

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 DavidD // Aug 8, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    What if you’re wrong?

    I doubt that every use of violence for the sake of peace had the desired effect. But Hiroshima? It’s true that there are revisionist historians, including a prominent one where I went to college, that sit down and say the casualty estimates of the invasion of Japan expected in 1946 were inflated. Of course, that was before it was well known how advanced Japanese jet and rocket technology would have been by 1946. It would have been hell. That’s for sure. So because that was avoided with atomic bombs, some talk about the hell that actually occurred, avoiding mention of what was avoided, avoiding mention of how equally destructive firestorm bombing of Tokyo was, as if the wrong decision was made.

    Hopefully there never again will be an Imperial Japan or similar nation bent on conquest. They were not seeking peace. China proved that. But many Americans dragged their feet, hoping for a local peace, perhaps making the war even worse when it came. Peace is not the ultimate good, but even if that’s what one is looking for, violence can make sense.

    People can argue about this. That doesn’t mean people get it right. Pacifism never has worked in the long run, not for any nation, not for the church. It was not pacifism that made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Would anyone here be Christian but for that?

    Maybe that has changed today. I would have been interested to see an American President say on September 11, 2001, that we mourn 3000 dead, but have 300,000,000 people who are alive and will do best with peace, meaning we would be willing to forego vengeance toward that end. That’s not what happened. I don’t know if it’s better the way it did happen. No one does yet.

    It’s easy rhetoric to say that everyone should just be nice. I do believe in living to end poverty and living to end conflict, because of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels, among other things finding what one can agree with in what someone else says. That’s so hard for me to do with what you wrote. It’s so obviously rhetoric. Maybe it was what your audience wanted to hear, but it’s not the truth. To criticize the peace that World War II brought as something the US did wrong, even with the continued wars that came from its loose ends, is pure propaganda. That may score points with some people, but it is not a way to end conflict. It is a way to try to have your way. So what did your words mean?

  • 2 Drew // Aug 8, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    Wow, congratulations on your pastorship, Isaac! I’m proud! Haha. Thank you for your witness to the truth of the way of Christ, the way of peace. Great mini-message.

  • 3 katie // Aug 10, 2006 at 10:14 am

    I just wanted to respond to DavidD. As a student of international relations, I understand your claim that pacifism has never “worked” for nations. (That it has never worked for the church is another issue) But I think maybe you misread what Isaac was trying to say. He did not praise peace because it works. He does not plead for us to be “nice”, of course that would be easy rhetoric. In fact, niceness has nothing to do with this peace that Isaac is trying to get across. The peace that he seeks with his congregation is precisely not this worldly peace, i.e. the lack of war, or the lack of harsh words. This peace is only known by knowing and being known by Jesus Christ. It is about loving our enemies precisely because that is what Jesus did, or laying down our lives for others regardless of their nationality because that is what Jesus did. Obviously, it didn’t “work” for Jesus. He was killed. And so we may be. So indeed, peace for us Christians may not look like you may think, peace may mean dying. But I don’t think peace is killing.

    Side note: It is interesting to me that you talk of “revisionist” historians. What is history but subjective stories passed down by those who have the power to pass them down?

  • 4 isaac // Aug 11, 2006 at 5:04 am

    David, thank you so much for the clear and intelligent comment. And thank you for taking the time to read my post. I really do appreciate that. And I also appreciate a well-thought disagreement.

    I think you are right about what you said here: “Pacifism never has worked in the long run, not for any nation, not for the church.” Well, I think you’re right about the first part. Pacifism hasn’t worked for the nation-state. That’s true. And I echo Katie’s comments above. Jesus’ way of peace is not a way to sustain the nation-state. And that’s ok because the church is called to be “strangers, aliens, exiles” to the political arrangements of this world (Hebrews makes that clear, I think—especially chapter 11).

    I’m sorry that you can’t agree with me that the way of Jesus’ peace must resist the sword. And I know that, regarding this issue, you speak for most Christians in the United States. I am in the minority. I wish I wasn’t, but that’s just the way things are. I’m sure you’ve done your research, your bible reading, and have very legitimate reasons for your convictions about the usefulness of violence. But I must humbly disagree. (And, as I already said, the conviction of peace I’m talking about is and should be “humble” because I’m in the minority). I’m also sorry that you reduce everything I said to “pure propaganda.” I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “propaganda”, but it sounds like a word you are using to make the point that my position is absurd, completely irrational. But that’s ok too, I guess. You don’t have to listen to me for very long—you can stop reading whenever you want. So I am at least grateful that you took the time to read my post and engage it enough to articulate a disagreement. Honestly, I am thankful for that.

    If I may appeal to that same patience one more time, let me say one more thing about how it seems our (yours and mine) visions of peace differ. For me “peace” is not the ultimate good, as you put it. I don’t worship an idol called “peace” that I can see. My conviction of peace is rooted in God’s work of reconcilation through Jesus. Paul makes a big deal about this in 1st Corinthians. Jesus reconciles us to God, and then we are invivted into God’s work of reconcilation with all humanity. We are “ambassadors of reconciliation,” Paul says. We are invited into the work of reconciling all humans to God, and all humans with each other. So, it seems to me that killing another human flies in the face of our task of reconciliation. Killing is just so final; it ends conversation; it dismisses the call to evangelism; it claims that we know who is beyond the miraculous work of God’s redemption. That’s why I think Jesus’ call to love enemies is so important. Unlike all the other visions of peace, Jesus invites enemies to sit and eat at his table (think of Judas Iscariot). And as he is dying on the cross, Jesus asks his Father to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Like Jesus, we embody God’s work of reconcilation by offering forgiveness as our last work, not violence. To kill is to refuse to forgive. And I just have a hard time making sense of that.

    thanks for listening.

    Peace of Christ,
    isaac v.

  • 5 Chris // Aug 15, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    David’s comment reveals why we Christians must “define our we.” When he says that Americans “dragged their feet, hoping for a local peace” he situates himself within the “we” called America, but “we” Christians are not hoping for a “local peace.” We are hoping for a universal peace delivered to us by the Resurrected Lord. We are also charged by this Lord to be agents of his peace. This is our prime directive: “love one another as I have loved you.” We love as he has loved. All other considerations must diminish in the light of this new commandment.

    Furthermore, David’s comment reveals that his “we” is unable to bear the full weight of Christian identity. It’s not as though we Christians were just trying to follow Jesus most of the time, while making allowances for our flesh when the going gets tough. Instead, we are his body. We are ontologically one with Jesus Christ. In fact, we are “the earthly historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ,” as Barth put it. “As he is, so are we in the world,” according to the 1 John 4:17. We are called, not only to “follow” Jesus, but to BE Jesus in this world. As such, our actions must be his actions. We can know for certain that Jesus would not drop an atomic bomb on the “least of these.” As his body, we cannot drop an atomic bomb without tearing ourselves away from the one who is our Head. To do so would be to endanger our salvation.

  • 6 Jason // Aug 16, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    Chris, great comment. Separating the we’s from the we’s was very helpful. Do you know where that Barth quote comes from?

  • 7 isaac // Aug 16, 2006 at 6:11 pm

    I echo Jason’s question for Chris. I know Bonhoeffer says that sort of thing: his quote is, “Jesus Christ exists as a community.” But I’d love to see where Barth says it. Barth’s usually pretty sketchy about Jesus and any materiality other than his 1st century Jewish body. I’m not saying that I doubt Barth said what Chris says he said. It’s just that I’d love to read it and see how Barth uses it.

  • 8 Chris // Aug 16, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    For the Barth quote check here: Church Dogmatics IV:1, trans. G.W. Bromiley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 710.

    It seems to me that the church’s role as the incarnation of Christ on earth is perhaps the strongest foundation for Christian ethics. If we are called to be like him, to embody him, then we must opt for mercy over judgment, peace over warfare, healing over harm. The problem is that, as sinners, we fail to reflect our true identity as bearers of Christ’s image. David’s comment should make us think about the ways in which fear and the desire for safety lead us to abandon our “true selves” (Christ) in order to “save our selves.” Like Jesus said, if we try to save one, we will lose the other.

    The question is, do we have the strength to put down our weapons of self-defense? Have we really accepted the suffering that our discipleship entails? The position of nonviolence may be “correct” in the abstract, but dare we make it real by living lives of costly obedience? I’m not sure I can. Maybe with the church…

  • 9 isaac // Aug 21, 2006 at 6:35 am

    Chris, thanks for the Barth reference. I checking it out and I dig it. It’s a good balance to that passage from IV/3 that always troubles me: “the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church” (CD IV/3.2, p. 826).

    Jason, here’s another quote from that same page that Chris quotes that you might also like: “But in this concrete form [the church] lives as His body in this world. It is spiritual by nature, but it exists in terms of this world. Therefore there is always something lacking in its expression of itself. It may be one thing here, another there. Indeed, in the strict sense it is everything everywhere. Its expression in terms of this world is always a compromising, and obscuring and denying of its spiritual nature. It acts like the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene. It is like Peter who at first was so self-confident, and then struck so recklessly and finally denied so blatantly. It is even like Judas Iscariot” (CD IV/1, 710-711).

    I think that last bit of the quote is important. The church is fallable, constantly in need of reform. On this point, Barth sounds pretty close to Yoder’s church that is in constant need of reformation. And it sounds like this is exactly the sort of thing Chris points out: “The problem is that, as sinners, we fail to reflect our true identity as bearers of Christ’s image.” But I would even like to emphasize the “maybe” in Chris’ hope that the church will help us live without sin: “I’m not sure I can. Maybe with the church…” It’s always only a maybe. That’s what I get from Barth. It’s the same thing I get from Foucault: “Everything is dangerous.” There’s no safe position to which we may retreat in order to stage an attack on ‘the world.’ As Jim McClendon always reminds us, “the line between the church and the world passes through the heart of every one of us.”

    And maybe that’s a reason why Barth’s despairing quote about the ambivolent place of the church in God’s redemptive plan is a reason for hope. Here’s Barth’s statement again: “1. the world would be lost without Jesus Christ and His Word and work 2. the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church” (CD IV/3.2, p. 826). This claim hasn’t helped Barth’s reception among Roman Catholics. But I think it’s more honest, and more hopeful even in it’s despair, than most confident ecclesiologies. Nicholas Healy has a wonderful essay that develops this Barthian ecclesiology against some quite popular conceptions of a confident church (e.g. Dan Bell Jr., William Cavanaugh, and even Hauerwas sometimes). It’s called “Karl Barth’s Ecclesiology Reconsidered” (Scottish Journal of Theology 57).

  • 10 amanda // Jan 30, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    well if the bomb to hiroshima was the same year the war ended then how did they say months later that the war ended when they already anounced it was over?

  • 11 Sheila // Dec 12, 2008 at 11:22 am

    wow…kind of ironic, huh? the idea to stop killing….sounds kind of whack to me!! but good comment…i agree with your opinions fully!!