Consider the horror from up close

A plaque in front of a partially destroyed building.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome, serves as a memorial to the over 140,000 people who were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. This summer marked the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
 on October 1, 2020

The annual commemoration of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki usually focuses on the overwhelming statistics. I used to think about the horror of nuclear weapons this way, as fundamentally quantitative. That is, these bombs were dropped, and this many people died, and the badness of the act is measured in the number of zeros in the death count.

What I have discovered in seeking the God who saves the world is that the horror of nuclear weapons is qualitative. The wickedness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not that hundreds of thousands of people died, but that innocents were killed. The number of innocents simply illustrates and magnifies the transgression against the God who made human beings in his image and who holds life and death in his hands.

So consider Hiroshima from close up, instead of our usual vantage point, which is big enough to frame miles-high mushroom clouds and six-figure casualty statistics. Consider it intimately – from the perspective of the trespass – and you will find that it becomes a story about God.

There is a little boy named Keiji Nakazawa standing in front of the gate of his elementary school in Hiroshima on a hot August morning in 1945, speaking with a friend’s mother. Then there is a blinding light and deafening roar, and he is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he sees his friend’s mother‘s charred body and realizes that he has been protected from the heat blast by the school wall. Dazed, he makes his way home and discovers a smoking ruin. He continues to wander the city. Later in the day, he finds his mother, who holds an hours-old infant girl – his sister.

What had happened was this: when the bomb exploded, his mother, in her third trimester of pregnancy, was at home with his father, sister and brother. Then there was a flash and a roar, and the house collapsed.

When his mother dug herself out of the rubble, she saw a carbonized human shape where her daughter had been sitting. She heard the voice of her son, crying out under a pile of roof timbers. She heard her husband from under another pile, asking, “Can’t you do something for him?” These three things barraged her stunned brain through her eyes and ears: her daughter‘s burnt corpse, her son crying out, her husband pleading.

She tried to pull the wreckage away to free her son, but her hands were burned, and she lacked the strength. Then she saw that houses nearby were on fire and that the blaze was approaching their house. A neighbour passed by, and she begged his help.

But he replied, “No, we must go! We must go, for the fire is coming!” “No!” she said. “I will stay and die with my family.” But for her sake he forced her to leave. “No, no, no!” As she was pulled away from her home, she heard, over the roar of the fire, the sounds of her husband and son being burned to death under the roof timbers.

The shock drove her into early labour, and hours later she gave birth to a baby girl. The baby died two months later from radiation sickness and malnutrition.

After her husband, two daughters and son had been killed, Mrs. Nakazawa lived another two decades. She cared for and educated her remaining son, Keiji. Keiji became a famous author of manga, Japanese comic art, and wrote the famous Barefoot Gen series based on his experiences.

I heard the story of his family from his own mouth. He told it in hallmark hibakusha (A-bomb-survivor) fashion, without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality – and perhaps understandably so: what verbal affect could add to the bare truth? But our translator, a mother of young children, wept and wept with the cruel labour of making his words her own.

Or let us go even closer, to a point so intimate it is obscene. While walking in Hiroshima’s A-bomb museum, I encounter a Plexiglas case containing a tiny pair of linen shorts, mottled tan and brown and rust-red, and a photograph of a laughing, impossibly chubby little boy. The exhibit card labels it as “Son’s underpants.”

It tells the story of Ren Taoda, a 30-year-old mother carrying her two-year- old son, Hiroo, when the bomb exploded. She was terribly burned, except for the Hiroo-shaped patch on her back where her son absorbed the blast, likely saving her life. They fled. Hiroo, scorched, was desperate for water, but Ren had heard that drinking water would kill him. (The sudden shock of cold water killed many people in Hiroshima desperately trying to soothe their burns, and a rumor rapidly spread that this bomb had made water fatal.) The exhibit card said that, for the sake of her son, “Ren hardened her heart and didn’t give him any.” He died hours later.

And here, right before me, are the underpants in which he died, stained with the blood and ichor that dripped from his terribly burned body, and which were saved by a mother left with nothing but guilt and remorse. I stand there, transfixed, thinking of my three small nephews.

“Son‘s underpants.” I stare at the bloody folds and recognize, like a dog with its nose shoved into its own sick, what we have offered up to our Master.

The moral of these stories is not about right or wrong, but about rights – to human life, and who has them. The terrible passages of Scripture teach us that human life belongs wholly and only to God, full stop. And none of it – not a cellular micrometer or temporal millisecond – is ours to take.

This does not mean that humans can never kill. The Bible is replete with instances of divinely sanctioned lifetaking. But the common thread in each of these is that no human ever possesses the authority to take life. It may be delegated on a situational and temporary basis. Because all life belongs to God, those who take it must always be acting as God‘s proxy, for God‘s purposes. You can see why this is a weighty responsibility: to get it wrong is, literally, murder.

To kill outside the boundaries of God‘s justice is to take from God the time and place of a person‘s death. For this reason, there can be no quarter and no compromise between Christians and pragmatists on the ethics of life and death. In World War II, commanders justified the bombings of civilian centers like Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that is, taking lives that they had absolutely no right to take – with the claim that doing so would save lives in the end. The theological error here is assuming that God‘s primary concern is numbers.

Only in the recognition of God‘s complete right over all the world – salvation and damnation, life and death, blessing and disaster, joy and suffering – can we understand our utter lack of authority over life. The commandment against murder, which is any act of taking human life outside the judgment and justice of God, is absolute.

The working of God is often terrible. But God may be terrible because he is holy, and holiness is fearsome to behold. So, what do we name it when we, who are so deeply profane, arrogate to ourselves the right to ape God, to plant our unholy feet in his sacred place and wreak terror and horror? It is abomination.

Excerpted and adapted from The World Is Not Ours To Save, a book by the Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, a long-time activist for the abolition of nuclear weapons, is Scholar-in- Residence at Little Trinity, Toronto, and is in the dissertation phase of his Th.D. at Wycliffe College, writing on the premodern concept of secularity.


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