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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 23 July 2007

The Scandal of the Particular:
Preached at Trinity Church

A guest essay by Nora Gallagher, the author of the newly released Changing Light: A Novel, and the best sellers Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection. She is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church Santa Barbara and a layperson licensed to preach by the Bishop of Los Angeles. She was a postulate for holy orders in the Diocese of Los Angeles and decided to remain a member of the laity (see Practicing Resurrection).

For Sunday July 29, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Hosea 1:2–10 or Genesis 18:20–32
           Psalm 85 or Psalm 138
           Colossians 2:6–15 (16–19)
           Luke 11:1–13

Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.
Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.

           Sodom and Gomorrah. Infamous town.  Let’s clear up a few points first. Why God wanted to destroy the city as reported in the Hebrew text has to do with several specific events. Prevalent among them are sadistic cruelty to beggars and visitors, murder, and greed. The other reason the Hebrew texts tell us that Sodom was eventually destroyed was because of homosexual rape. Not, mind you, homosexual acts, but specifically rape. This is what happens shortly after the story of Abraham and God talking about how many people to save in Genesis 18:20–32.

           God sends two angels to Sodom to check out the bad rumors. They are welcomed by Lot. Some men of Sodom surround the house and demand that the angels be given to them so that they can be “intimate” with them. That’s not about homosexuality; it’s about raping a stranger. We are, I hope, all aware in this day and age that rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with violent crime. Lot refuses, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sodom, by the way, is derived from a Hebrew word meaning "burnt," and Gomorrah from a word meaning "buried," references to their destruction.

           It isn’t the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah that interest me but rather the character of Abraham, and ultimately the character of God himself. Abraham wants to know: will God kill off the righteous right along with the wicked? Will he kill off the innocent along with the guilty?

           I recently heard of a wonderful theological idea: the scandal of the particular. The idea is that God, this enormous creative force that “hung the stars” and created “that great leviathan just for the sport of it” would care about one of  us, a particular person.  That the God of Creation—Aristotle's Unmoved Mover or Plato's Divine Source—would stoop to join us in the mundane details of every day human life, would care even if a single sparrow fell to the ground. This "Yahweh" was completely low-brow to the Greeks, it was a  scandal: from the Greek skandalon, which means ‘snare or stumbling block.’    

           And yet, it's a beautiful scandal, isn’t it? That God would care about one, singular, particular life.  Where would we be, how would we understand our human story, without it? “The first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and earth down to the first man and woman,” writes Rabbi Richard Friedman.  “The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family.”  One family: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.  

           And here in this Genesis story we also have Abraham, who reminds God that the story of salvation is the story of single human beings. Abraham persuades God to stay his hand on behalf of the few—they haggle down to ten—who are still righteous.  God was ready to be just—to punish the wicked; Abraham reminds God to be merciful.

           That God and Abraham should care about a single human life is more than pure sentiment. It means that a single human life is more important than the aggregate, the generic group, the nation. "I don’t love 'groups,'” said the great philosopher Hannah Arendt. I can only love persons.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, what we hear is the emphasis on individual lives, individual souls, singular stories. The labels we use to separate and divide ourselves may be the last thing we need: suppose there is no such generic as “Republican” or “Liberal” or “Fundamentalist” or, here’s a good one—“Terrorist.”

           In a little over a week we will commemorate the anniversary of America's use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). I think of Hiroshima when I read the old story of Sodom and Gomorrah, not because the people in Hiroshima were evil or deserving of what happened to them, far from it, but because it’s the only whole city in all of history that was destroyed all at once on a single day.  Rather than the hand of God sweeping the city aside, it was our hands, the hands of human beings. And I am sure many of you remember this, but those of you who were not alive during the 40’s may not know just how we Americans characterized the Japanese, our enemy.

           “Wipe the Jap off the Map” was a popular poster. When they started choosing target cities for the atomic bomb, they had Kyoto on the list for awhile until Henry Stimpson, the Secretary of War, pointed out that it was a famous historical city and to destroy it would be like destroying, say, Venice.  But no one on the target committee knew anything about Japan, so this news came as a surprise to them. A series of photographs ran in LIFE magazine the summer of 1945 that showed a Japanese soldier being burned out of his cave on the island of Borneo. The headline read “A Jap Burns.”  In six photographs, a barely discernible human being on fire is shown running until he falls. The captions read like this one: “The Jap who wouldn’t quit ducks out enveloped in flames.” The accompanying story ends: “But so long as the Jap refuses to come out of his holes and keeps killing, this is the only way.”

           I don’t know how many of you have seen Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s film from the Japanese point of view. I have not seen it but I had a conversation about it with the young man who cuts my hair in New York. Tomo is about 28 and he is from Japan. He works at a fashionable downtown salon. He is by far the most polite person I have ever met. We have never talked about WW2, although I mentioned to him once that I had written a novel called Changing Light about the building of the atom bomb. He didn’t seem very interested. I thought, he’s young and it was a long time ago. But this spring when he cut my hair, he mentioned he had seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I said I had heard it was a great movie. Oh, yes, he said, and then he hesitated. It is the first movie, he finally said, that tells the story from the Japanese point of view. Yes, I said. Then he hesitated again and said: "And when I saw it, I cry."

           I looked up. He was behind me, so I could see his eyes in the mirror: He could only see my eyes the same way.  So this very human moment  was seen by both of us, only in a mirror.

           "And what about the bomb," I asked. "Tomo, what do you say about Hiroshima?"

           He again hesitated and then he said very softly: “It was a war crime.”

A Hiroshima victim 3000 meters from the blast.
A Hiroshima victim 3000 meters from the blast.

           My friends, this is one of the hardest sermons I have ever written and I have gone back and forth on whether to preach it. The pulpit is the place for speaking the truth, but it is not the place for partisan politics. How to distinguish between the two is always a very sensitive task for any preacher. We must not, in this liberal church, become comfortable with hearing liberal partisan slogans from the pulpit, just as we would not be happy with the partisan political sermons of another sort that are delivered from other pulpits in conservative churches.

           But the question of Hiroshima is a moral question, and I want us together to contemplate what happened to us as a nation on that day, and to ask ourselves how it relates to the idea of the value that God sets on one human life.

           For my novel Changing Light I did quite a lot of research about the bomb, the era, the circumstances and the final decisions, and I have concluded that dropping the bomb on Japan was unnecessary. It was an act of one-sided war, to use the brilliant phrase of Dr. Richard Falk, an authority on human rights, an emeritus in international law from Princeton, and a professor of global studies at UCSB.

           The Japanese were defenseless against such a weapon.  Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, hardly a bleeding heart, says in the documentary The Fog of War that had the United States lost the war, we would have almost certainly been  tried for war crimes.

           Hiroshima had a population of 400,000. 100,000 were killed on August 6.  By the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead. The five year death toll was 200,000. The death rate was 54%, compared to fire bombing, which was ten percent. The ratio of civilian deaths to military deaths was 6-1.       

           Another way to look at Hiroshima is by visiting the two museums. The museum in Los Alamos is dedicated to the technological: models of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and photos of the labs. It's a very distant and detached view, a view, as a friend said, from above the bomb.

           The museum at Hiroshima is another matter.  There you will find, among the photos of destruction, the stories of those who managed to survive. Here you will find the human particular. Here is one story from a woman named Shin Bok-Su, a Korean married to a Japanese man, age 28 at the time:

           “My grandmother was going into the living room to wash the dishes. I had pulled the hose out of the bath and was using it to change the goldfish water in the yard. First there was a flash, then an ear-splitting roar. Instantly, everything was dark: I could see nothing. I heard voices calling, 'Help me! Help me!' Terrified and dumbfounded, I stood on shaking legs in the pitch black. It grew a bit lighter. Where had my house gone? The neighbors' houses too were smashed. Everywhere I looked was a plain of rubble. I hid my mother and second son in a field of millet growing in the corner of the grounds of Hiroshima City Commercial High School and hurried back to the house. I began to pull the roof tiles off the fallen house one by one to get to my two children caught underneath. I screamed their names as if I had gone mad. Rain as black as oil fell from the sky.

           Early on the morning of the 7th, our house caught on fire. I desperately shrieked, 'Takeo! Akiyo!' The fire ignited a mosquito net that was near where I expected the two children to be. Then I saw Takeo's corpse burning. The three buttons on his school uniform remained properly aligned as he burned.”

           This is the view from below the bomb, in the particular human world.

           “Those men who built the bomb,” asked a girl who survived Hiroshima, “what did they think would happen if they dropped it?”

The aftermath of Hiroshima.
The aftermath of Hiroshima.

           We have been told a great many things about why America dropped the Hiroshima bomb. Foremost was that it was to end the war. To save American lives.  This is factually true: Hiroshima did end the war and it did save American lives. The Japanese were a tough enemy. But I think many of you know what other facts have come out about that time in 1945. That the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Japan on August 14, from the north, from Mongolia. That, too, might very well have ended the war, at a much lower cost to our troops and without the massacre of Hiroshima. We also know that the Japanese, it turns out, were exploring conditional surrender even as our targets team was exploring a list of cities on which the first atom bomb would be dropped. They wanted to find a city, this is a particularly chilling detail, that had not been destroyed by fire bombing so they could see just how well the atom bomb worked.

           One hundred and fifty scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project signed petitions to President Truman the summer of 1945 to try to stop him from dropping the bomb on Japan. They were present-day Abrahams, if you will, arguing against the use of a weapon which they called "a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities." They went on to say in one petition: “Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness." 

           Twenty years after Hiroshima, in 1965, when an interviewer asked Robert Oppenheimer (the director of the Manhattan Project) what he thought about President Lyndon Johnson’s proposal to initiate talks with the Soviet Union about halting nuclear proliferation, Oppenheimer replied, “It’s twenty years too late. . . It should have been done the day after Trinity.”  The day after the experimental bomb was tested in July 1945 in New Mexico.

           Several days after the bomb was dropped, reporters asked Gandhi for his reaction; he replied, the atom bomb “resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.”    

           The soul of the destroying nation—now there’s a phrase. And that, if you will, is the heart of this sermon. What happened to us as a nation on August 6, 1945.

           What happened to us as a nation on August 6, 1945? How did Hiroshima erode our sense of morality, what we permit ourselves as a nation to do? How did it affect our fragile sense of what is permissible for one human being to do to another?  Did the use of a weapon designed to ruthlessly annihilate whole cities contribute to where we find ourselves today? Finally, what is the line of connection from Hiroshima to Vietnam, from Hiroshima to Iraq, and on to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?

           The value of one single, particular human life guards against the vilification of a whole nation, a group, a race, a tribe. It forces each of us to confront the part of us that wants to reduce the value of another in order to destroy them.  If we make them “Japs,” then killing them is not the same as killing a fellow human being. But of course that isn’t true. And that is why my haircutter cried when he saw Letters from Iwo Jima. Because even though they were the losers and our "enemy," the movie humanizes the Japanese.

           The soul of the United States is very much in jeopardy as we continue to launch wars designed to destroy others while risking comparitively little damage to ourselves. The view from above the bombs. One-sided war is now the norm: we go about our daily lives while somewhere, off in the corner, people are bleeding and suffering and dying, below the bombs. But each one of us can be an Abraham, the possessor of a lone, particular and deeply human voice. We have the power to speak, to penetrate the shadows and the fog. Our lives begin to end on the day that we are silent about things that matter.  Why are we so silent?  Amen.