Blessing the Bombs

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George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Air Force, served
as a priest for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in August 1945, and gave them his blessing. Over the
next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been
terribly wrong, that he had denied the very foundations of his faith
by lending moral and religious support to the bombing. Zabelka,
who died in 1992, gave this speech on the 40th anniversary
of the bombings.

destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church,
and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through
a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would
be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield
in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around
the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose
of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds
and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians –
and I said nothing.

a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish
Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki,
the center of Catholicism in Japan.

never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the
men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind
to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids.
I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told
implicitly by my Church’s leadership. (To the best of my knowledge
no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids.
Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.)

worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle
in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action,
choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence
instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face
with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his
words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind.
He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we
gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that
of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of
our white brothers.”

struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the
Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I
went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said,
as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable:
it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession,
an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been
brainwashed. This is a lie.

is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was
there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me
out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way.
There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings
of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity
with the teachings of Jesus.

morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never
taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings
of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be
all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never
have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his
teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching,
for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to
follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality
of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter
is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what
the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What
the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and
pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who,
in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim:
the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He
or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if
necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church
universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember
that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three
serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to
horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion
for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form
of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and
political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned
the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on
a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against
her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed
Peter he disarmed all Christians.

continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient
liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that
if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ
was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic.
Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and
his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given
for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman
army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church
saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as
Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security
and peace.

the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to
be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves
and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is
no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously
to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves
the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to
say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a
lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another
is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized
Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the
teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity
carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made
a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated
in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox
churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said
Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform.
(When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982
and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, “Every time I
went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform,
I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me:
Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”)

an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands
of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to
the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition.
As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final
channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the
crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument
to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ
can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses
and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say
is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do,
feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first
and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation:
admission of error, admission of guilt.

is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of

was there, and I was wrong. Yes, war is Hell, and Christ did not
come to justify the creation of Hell on earth by his disciples.
The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and
philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching
of Jesus. I was wrong. And to those of whatever nationality or religion
who have been hurt because I fell under the influence of the father
of lies, I say with my whole heart and soul I am sorry. I beg forgiveness.

asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of
the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I
made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there
at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for
myself, for my country, for my Church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas
present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl
Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military,
and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried.
Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission
of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this
way to peace.

religions have taught brotherhood. All people want peace. It is
only the governments and war departments that promote war and slaughter.
So today again I call upon people to make their voices heard. We
can no longer just leave this to our leaders, both political and
religious. They will move when we make them move. They represent
us. Let us tell them that they must think and act for the safety
and security of all the people in our world, not just for the safety
and security of one country. All countries are interdependent. We
all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries
to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers
and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world

one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating
in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military.
This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for
the weapons. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to realize
we all become responsible. Silence, doing nothing, can be one of
the greatest sins.

bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima.
By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still
dropped it. We knew that agonies and sufferings would ensue, and
we also knew – at least our leaders knew – that it was not necessary.
The Japanese were already defeated. They were already suing for
peace. But we insisted on unconditional surrender, and this is even
against the Just War theory. Once the enemy is defeated, once the
enemy is not able to hurt you, you must make peace.

Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the
teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish
Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki,
the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier,
centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew
that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And
yet I said nothing.

God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war,
all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all
false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping
the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical
power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security
and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply:
Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust
in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something
for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of
metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our
destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also
the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in
the history of our world – to save our world from complete

17, 2005

article was originally published by,
and is reprinted with their permission. It is an excerpt of a speech
Fr. Zabelka gave at a Pax Christi conference in August 1985 (tape
of speech obtained from Notre Dame University Archives).

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