60 years ago, on August 9th, 1945, the second of the only two atomic bombs (a plutonium bomb) ever used as instruments of aggressive war (against essentially defenseless civilian populations) was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, by an all-Christian bomb crew. The well-trained American soldiers were only "doing their job," and they did it efficiently.
It had been only 3 days since the first bomb, a uranium bomb, had decimated Hiroshima on August 6, with chaos and confusion in Tokyo, where the fascist military government and the Emperor had been searching for months for a way to an honorable end of the war which had exhausted the Japanese to virtually moribund status. (The only obstacle to surrender had been the Truman administration's insistence on unconditional surrender, which meant that the Emperor Hirohito, whom the Japanese regarded as a deity, would be removed from his figurehead position in Japan – an intolerable demand for the Japanese.)
The Russian army was advancing across Manchuria with the stated aim of entering the war against Japan on August 8, so there was an extra incentive to end the war quickly: the US military command did not want to divide any spoils or share power after Japan sued for peace.
The US bomber command had spared Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kokura from the conventional bombing that had burned to the ground 60+ other major Japanese cities during the first half of 1945. One of the reasons for targeting relatively undamaged cities with these new weapons of mass destruction was scientific: to see what would happen to intact buildings – and their living inhabitants – when atomic weapons were exploded overhead.
Early in the morning of August 9, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress called Bock's Car, took off from Tinian Island, with the prayers and blessings of its Lutheran and Catholic chaplains, and headed for Kokura, the primary target. (Its bomb was code-named "Fat Man," after Winston Churchill.)
The only field test of a nuclear weapon, blasphemously named "Trinity," had occurred just three weeks earlier, on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The molten lava rock that resulted, still found at the site today, is called trinitite.
With instructions to drop the bomb only on visual sighting, Bock's Car arrived at Kokura, which was clouded over. So after circling three times, looking for a break in the clouds, and using up a tremendous amount of valuable fuel in the process, it headed for its secondary target, Nagasaki.
Nagasaki is famous in the history of Japanese Christianity. Not only was it the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary's Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan. It was the city where the legendary Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, established a mission church in 1549, a Christian community which survived and prospered for several generations. However, soon after Xavier's planting of Christianity in Japan, Portuguese and Spanish commercial interests began to be accurately perceived by the Japanese rulers as exploitive, and therefore the religion of the Europeans (Christianity) and their new Japanese converts became the target of brutal persecutions.
Within 60 years of the start of Xavier's mission church, it was a capital crime to be a Christian. The Japanese Christians who refused to recant of their beliefs suffered ostracism, torture and even crucifixions similar to the Roman persecutions in the first three centuries of Christianity. After the reign of terror was over, it appeared to all observers that Japanese Christianity had been stamped out.
However, 250 years later, in the 1850s, after the coercive gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Perry forced open an offshore island for American trade purposes, it was discovered that there were thousands of baptized Christians in Nagasaki, living their faith in a catacomb existence, completely unknown to the government which immediately started another purge. But because of international pressure, the persecutions were soon stopped, and Nagasaki Christianity came up from the underground. And by 1917, with no help from the government, the Japanese Christian community built the massive St. Mary's Cathedral, in the Urakami River district of Nagasaki.
Now it turned out, in the mystery of good and evil, that St. Mary's Cathedral was one of the landmarks that the Bock's Car bombardier had been briefed on, and looking through his bomb site over Nagasaki that day, he identified the cathedral and ordered the drop.
At 11:02 am, Nagasaki Christianity was boiled, evaporated and carbonized in a scorching, radioactive fireball. The persecuted, vibrant, faithful, surviving center of Japanese Christianity had become ground zero.
And what the Japanese Imperial government could not do in over 200 years of persecution, American Christians did in 9 seconds. The entire worshipping community of Nagasaki was wiped out.
The above true (and unwelcome) story should stimulate discussion among those who claim to be disciples of Jesus. The Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group (the 1500 man Army Air Force group, whose only job was to successfully deliver the atomic bombs to their targets) was Father George Zabelka. Several decades after the war ended, he saw his grave theological error in religiously legitimating the mass slaughter that is modern land and air war. He finally recognized that the enemies of his nation were not the enemies of God, but rather children of God whom God loved, and whom the followers of Jesus are to also love. Father Zabelka's conversion to Christian nonviolence led him to devote the remaining decades of his life speaking out against violence in all its forms, especially the violence of militarism. The Lutheran chaplain, William Downey, in his counseling of soldiers who had become troubled by their participation in making murder for the state, later denounced all killing, whether by a single bullet or by a weapon of mass destruction.
In Daniel Hallock’s important book, Hell, Healing and Resistance, he talks about a 1997 Buddhist retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh that attempted to deal with the hellish post-war existence of combat-traumatized Vietnam War veterans. Hallock said, "Clearly, Buddhism offers something that cannot be found in institutional Christianity. But then why should veterans embrace a religion that has blessed the wars that ruined their souls? It is no wonder they turn to a gentle Buddhist monk to hear what are, in large part, the truths of Christ."
As a lifelong Christian, that comment stung, but it was the sting of a sad and sobering truth. And as a physician who deals with psychologically traumatized patients every day, I know that it is violence, in all its myriad of forms, that bruises the human psyche and soul, and that that trauma is deadly and contagious, and it spreads through the families and on through the 3rd and 4th generations – until somebody stops continuing the domestic violence that military violence breeds.
One of the most difficult "mental illnesses" to treat is combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In its most virulent form PTSD is virtually incurable. It is also a fact that whereas most Vietnam War recruits came from churches where they actively practiced their faith, if they came home with PTSD, the percentage returning to the faith community approached zero.
This is a serious spiritual problem for any church that (either by the active support of its nation's "glorious" wars or by its silence on such issues) fails to teach its young people about what the earliest form of Christianity taught about violence: that it was forbidden to those who wished to follow Jesus.
If a Christian community fails to thoroughly inform its confirmands about the gruesome realities of the war zone before they are forced to register for potential conscription into the military, it invites the condemnation that Jesus warned about in Matthew 18:56: "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
The purpose of this essay is to stimulate open and honest discussion (at least among the followers of Jesus) about the ethics of killing by and for ones government, not from the perspective of national security ethics, not from the perspective of the military, not from the perspective of (the pre-Christian) eye-for-an-eye retaliation that Jesus rejected, but from the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount, the core ethical teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, 6 and 7.
Out of that discussion (if any are willing to engage in it) should come answers to those horrible realities that seem to immobilize decent Bible-believing Christians everywhere: Why are some of us Christians so willing to commit (or support and/or pay for others to commit) homicidal violence against other fellow children of a loving, merciful, forgiving God, the God whom Jesus clearly calls us to imitate? And what can we Christians do, starting now, to prevent the next war and the next epidemic of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder?
What can we do to prevent the next round of these atrocities, all of which have been perpetrated by professed Christians: the My Lai Massacre, Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps, Dresden, El Mozote, Rwanda, Jonestown, the black church bombings, the execution of innocent death row inmates, the sanctions against Iraq (that killed 500,000 children during the 1990s), the military annihilation of Fallujah and much of the rest of Iraq and Afghanistan, the torturing of innocents at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay plus the many other international war crimes (albeit unindicted to date) perpetrated by the current "Christian" administration of the United States. And what is to be done to prevent the next Nagasaki?
A large portion of the responsibility for the prevention of military atrocities like Nagasaki lies within the organized Christian churches and whether or not they soon start teaching and living what the radical nonviolent Jesus taught and lived.
The next Nagasaki can be prevented if the churches finally heed Jesus' call to nonviolence and refuse their government's call for the bodies and souls of their sons and daughters.
August 30, 2005