- For the past 17 centuries most Christians, contrary to the way of Jesus, have been disobediently and faithlessly trying to live by the sword, and it hasn’t worked out so well. Jesus showed us the way to live. Let us follow that way. Amen.
- Repenting of the Annihilation of Nagasaki Christianity by American Christians on August 9th, 1945
Gary G. Kohls, MD, Evergreene Digest
“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place: for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword’…Then all the disciples forsook him and fled.”
In 1995, during the 50th anniversary week of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was at Holden Village, a politically and theologically progressive Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. During that week, there was a one-man play about the life of Harry Truman, the president who was in office when the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan. The actor portraying President Truman mentioned pointedly that as a young man he had kept in his billfold a copy of the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Apparently Truman had claimed at various times during his life that he consulted the Golden Rule whenever he had ethical decisions to make.
Later in the monologue, the actor talked about Truman’s decision to order the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two defenseless, mainly civilian targets, both of which had been protected, for scientific reasons, from the conventional incendiary bombings that had destroyed nearly every major city in Japan during the first half of 1945. At the end of the play, the actor mentioned Truman’s conviction that ordering the bombings had been the right thing to do, that he had never lost any sleep over the decision and that he would do it all over again without feeling any pangs of conscience.
The grotesque contradiction of that statement coupled with Truman’s professed commitment to Jesus’ Golden Rule was too much for me, and so, during the question and answer period, I asked for clarification. How, I wanted to know, did Truman rationalize what Jesus clearly commanded his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount, with his decision to order the incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, especially with his awareness that Japan had been searching for a way to surrender with honor for weeks before the bombings. All I got was a sputtering defense of Truman’s political decision, and, of course, no coherent comment about the Golden Rule.
Harry Truman was a Bible-believing person of faith and privilege who obviously never felt any remorse for his part in causing the cruel suffering of other children of God. But I suspect that if he had been on the ground at Nagasaki in the weeks after August 9, instead of half-way around the world in the safety of the Oval Office, his cavalier attitude would have probably been different. If he had been at ground zero, Truman would have been forced to witness the agony of the living dead, pleading for water, pleading for relief from their pain or pleading for someone to kill them and put them out of their misery. He would have smelled the unforgettable stench of rotting flesh and feces that always follow military air strikes. He is also likely to have succumbed to radiation-induced malignancies himself as did so many American soldiers and Japanese civilians who visited the irradiated cities after the bombings.
If Truman had been at ground zero on August 10, 1945, he might not have been so proud of American technological superiority. He may have even expressed shame at having been part of such atrocities, as have so many other American observers of the aftermath. Truman might even have recanted of the deed, asked the Japanese for forgiveness, ordered compensation and looked for other ways to atone for the crime. If Mr. Truman and the tens of thousands of Manhattan Project workers who developed the bombs, and perhaps even the Christian bomber crews that dropped them from the safe distance of 31,000 feet, had witnessed the end result of their efforts up close and personal, they may have stopped cheering their success and instead would have started searching their souls.
If Truman’s cabinet ministers, his Joint Chiefs of Staff, his bomber command and the military chaplains who were involved in the war had actually been at ground zero those with any conscience at all would have experienced acute and chronic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with overwhelming guilt, panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, shame and even suicidality. Their symptoms would have persisted for the rest of their lives, as has been the experience of so many victims, perpetrators and bystanders of history’s battlegrounds.
If Harry Truman had really experienced the carnage of the scorching, radioactive fireball that created such a hell on earth for the hundreds of thousands of innocent, defenseless civilians, he may even have worked for the abolition of war and refused to put so much time, mind and money into the post-war development of America’s military machine, its nuclear weapons industry and its national security apparatus, all of which have been such tremendous curses to the world and to the soul of America.
But the problem isn’t just Harry Truman. And it isn’t just WWII. And it isn’t just the military. The problem is that most post-Constantinian Christians, politicians, war profiteers, super-patriots and the professional officer class are willing to cause others to suffer and die when their security is threatened.
The problem lies in our nation’s desire for power, prestige, property and prerogative.
The problem lies in our nation’s unquenchable thirst for retaliation when its honor is besmirched.
The problem is the church’s silence about, complicity in, or active support for its nation’s wars.
The problem is that most of Christianity has been nurtured in the type of religion that seems to never oppose its nation’s war-mongering until it is too late for the war victims, to whom, after the fact, we then pour out our hearts in charity.
The story of the bombing of Nagasaki is a particularly sordid chapter in the history of post-Constantinian Christianity, for on August 9, 1945, an all-Christian bomb crew dropped the second atomic bomb on the center of Japanese Christianity - the Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral. The massive Cathedral was one of the few aiming points that the bombardier had been briefed on and the bomb exploded only 500 meters above it. What the Japanese Imperial government had tried and failed to do for over 200 years – destroy Japanese Christianity - was done by American Christians in 9 seconds.
Since the Cathedral was at the epicenter of the blast, most Nagasaki Christians who lived in the area did not survive. 6000 Nagasaki Christians died instantly, including all who were at confession at 11:02 am that morning. Of the 12,000 members of the church, eventually 8,500 died as a result of the bomb. Three orders of nuns and a Christian girl’s school were incinerated. Tens of thousands of innocent people died instantly and hundreds of thousands were mortally wounded, some of whose progeny are still in the process of dying from the cross-generational contagiousness of the deadly plutonium.
Is this the way of Christ? It is not.
For rational non-religious people, it should be obvious that the economic and psychological costs of war are too high. It should be obvious to the followers of Jesus that the spiritual costs of war are way too high.
War and violence are equal opportunity destroyers of the soul, whether the psychologically and spiritually traumatized humans in the combat zone are the victims, the bystanders or the perpetrators.
When Martin Luther King was asked what he wanted said at his funeral, he said:
”Tell the people that Martin King tried to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and that he was right on the war question.”
And looking back on the true history of the monstrous evil that was the Viet Nam war, it was obvious that King was ethically correct when he joined the antiwar protest movement, even though that highly ethical, courageous and very Christlike stance was an unpopular one. It is generally agreed that King was signing his own death warrant when he delivered his famous anti-Viet Nam war speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year, to the day, of his assassination. The pacifist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right on the war question - and it cost him his life.
The pacifist Gandhi was “right on the war question” when he led his nonviolent revolution against British military-enforced economic oppression.
The pacifist Christian church of the first 3 centuries was “right on the war question” when it refused, on the basis of their understanding of the message of Jesus, to allow its members to join Rome’s military.
The pacifist Jesus was also “right on the war and violence question” – and it cost him his earthly life. “Love your enemies” was not a throwaway line. And Jesus meant it when he said to the sword-wielding Peter in the garden of Gethsemane: “Put up the sword, for he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”
We American Christians are citizens of the nation that possesses the largest collection of lethal weapons in the history of the world – and we have the military-industrial-congressional complex that has the willingness to use them. Let us not find ourselves on the wrong side of the war question when Judgment Day comes, whatever is that reality. Let us learn and teach and adopt into our lives the ethical lessons of Nagasaki and Viet Nam before it is too late. Let us learn and teach and incarnate the ethics of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule. Let us learn and teach and incarnate what Jesus modeled for us in the way he lived his life – a life of unending mercy, compassionate understanding, forgiveness 70 X 7 and the unconditional love of friend, neighbor and enemy.
If we Christians don’t teach and live what Jesus taught - rejecting violence in all its forms, refusing to throw the first stone, rejecting the very human desire to retaliate against our enemies, being merciful to the inconvenient “least ones”, who is going to teach and live it? If we fail to teach all that Jesus taught us, we will find ourselves living by the sword and then we will – along with our progeny and the progeny of our friends and enemies – eventually wind up dying by the sword, figuratively if not literally; spiritually if not physically.
We disciples have the crystal-clear model of the nonviolent Jesus to emulate. Let us pray for the courage to follow him and not flee him as the pre-Easter disciples did. Let us pray for the strength to drop our swords and, in that seemingly radical action, minimize the chances of dying by the sword. Our children and grandchildren’s futures, the future of the planet and certainly the future of Christianity depend on whether or not we disciples, and the greater church, finally start teaching and living as Jesus taught and lived.
For the past 17 centuries most Christians, contrary to the way of Jesus, have been disobediently and faithlessly trying to live by the sword, and it hasn’t worked out so well. Jesus showed us the way to live. Let us follow that way. Amen.
Gary G. Kohls, MD, Duluth, MN for The Community of the Third Way (an Every Church A Peace Church local affiliate – www.ecapc.org)