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Reflections on the Ninth of August

By Gary G. Kohls, MD
August 8, 2010

Editor’s Note: Some days stand out as times for celebration; others for sadness. There are anniversaries of marriage, parties for births, and recollections of death.

However, as Gary G. Kohls notes in this guest essay, August 9 should be a special moment for reflection on how Christians, followers of a pacifist rabbi who advocated love for one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek to one’s enemies, could instead engage in unspeakable violence against others, including innocent Christians:

On the 9th of August 1945, an all-Christian B-29 bomber crew took off from Tinian Island in the South Pacific with the blessings of Catholic and Protestant chaplains.

In the plane’s hold was the second of the only two nuclear bombs to ever be used against human targets in wartime.

The primary target, Kokura, Japan, was clouded over, so the plane, named Bock’s Car, headed for the secondary target, Nagasaki.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, located in Nagasaki City’s Urakami River district, was a massive structure and a landmark easily visible from 31,000 feet above. The cathedral was one of the landmarks on which the Bock’s Car’s bombardier had been briefed for weeks before the mission.

The Urakami cathedral was briefly seen through a break in the clouds, and the drop was ordered. The bomb exploded in a searing fireball as hot as the sun 500 meters above the church.

Most Nagasaki Christians who lived in the area did not survive. Six thousand of the church members died instantly, including all who were at confession at 11:02 a.m. that morning.

Of the 12,000 members of the church, eventually 8,500 died as a direct result of the bomb. Three orders of nuns and a Christian girl’s school were incinerated.

All told, tens of thousands of innocent people died instantly and hundreds of thousands were horribly wounded, some of whose progeny are still living in agony as a result of the cross-generational contagiousness of the deadly plutonium.

An irradiated crucifix was photographed in the days following the blast, lying helpless and forlorn and thrown onto its back, a deeply profound symbol of a religion gone wrong.

The Urakami cathedral was the oldest and largest Christian church in the Orient, and Nagasaki had the oldest, largest and most influential Christian community in Japan, having been founded by the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, in 1549.
The Nagasaki Christian community is legendary in the history of Japanese Christianity because of its two centuries of catacomb-like existence during the horrible persecutions by the Imperial Japanese government - including mass crucifixions of faithful Christians who refused to give up the faith.

Despite the persecutions and the formal outlawing of the religion (it was a capital crime to be a Christian - as it was for the original nonviolent form of Christianity - for over two centuries), Nagasaki Christianity survived and ultimately flourished – until 11:02 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945.

What Imperial Japan could not do for over two centuries of brutal persecution and the arbitrary use of the death penalty, fellow Christians from America did in nine seconds.

The Cathedral was totally destroyed by the plutonium bomb and thousands of Nagasaki Christians were instantly boiled, incinerated, carbonized or vaporized. Radiation-induced disease and deformities among the “surviving” victims and their progeny continues to this day as a gruesome testament to the horrors of nuclear war.

Resisting Hitler

Two years earlier, on the 9th of August 1943, Franz Jaegerstaetter, a devout Austrian Christian pacifist, was beheaded by German Christians for refusing to join Hitler’s army.

Because of his gospel-based conscientious objection to war and killing, he had been abandoned by his spiritual leaders, as well as by his family and friends, all of whom had tried to convince him to do his patriotic duty and kill for “Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland.”

They all told him that his commitment to gospel nonviolence was futile – and, in the context of the national militarism operating at the time, also fatal.

Instead, being obedient to the God of love rather than to men, he refused to relent and was murdered at Brandenburg Prison, at the hands of obedient baptized Christian soldiers, whose belt buckles read “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us).

One year earlier, on the 9th of August 1942, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Jewish Catholic Carmelite nun, was murdered by fellow German Christians at Auschwitz. “Gott Mit Uns” was also stamped on their belt buckles.

Most of German Christianity had, by its collaboration and/or by its silence, endorsed the Nazi’s ruthless forms of nationalism, militarism, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and its “legal” right to kill the enemies of the state.

Three years later, on the 9th of August 1945, Lutheran Chaplain William B. Downey of Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Minnesota, prayed for the safety of the crew and for world peace just before the Nagasaki bombing mission.

(Downey was attached to the U.S. Army Air Force’s 509th Composite Group, whose major responsibility on Tinian was the delivery of the atomic bombs.)
Pastor Downey’s prayer went as follows:

“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night. Guard and protect those of us who venture out into the darkness of Thy heaven. Uphold them on Thy wings. Keep them safe both in body and soul and bring them back to us.

“Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts. Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world. May we go forward trusting in Thee and knowing we are in Thy presence now and forever. Amen.”

After the war ended, Downey, in counseling those soldiers who still had their consciences intact and were therefore troubled by the mass killing of innocent civilians by the bombs, said: ”The wrong was the killing, whether by fire bombs from hundreds of planes, by one atomic bomb or by a single rifle bullet. War itself is the evil that man must conquer.”

On the 9th of August 1945, the 509th Composite Group’s Catholic chaplain, Father George Zabelka, was just one of millions of victims of societal attitudes at the time: “The whole structure of secular, religious and military society told me clearly that it was all right to ‘let the Japs have it.’ God was on our side.”

Father Zabelka knew what his bomber crews were doing to innocent civilians and their defenseless cities with conventional incendiary bombs in the spring and summer of 1945, and yet “I said nothing.”

Regretting that silence, he spent the last two decades of his life working for world peace and denouncing militarism as being clearly anti-Christian. A contrite Father Zabelka was in Nagasaki on August 1995 asking for forgiveness from the Japanese people for his role in what is now recognized to be a crime against humanity and an international war crime

Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the foremost apostle of Christian nonviolence in America today and the person most responsible for Zabelka’s conversion to gospel nonviolence, has dedicated his life and ministry to raising the consciousness of the church to the truths of Jesus’s nonviolent teachings. McCarthy says:

“Today, as for most of the last 1,700 years, most Christians continue to justify as consistent with the spirit of Christ those energies, understandings, and emotions which lead inevitably to August 9.

“Today most Christians still do not unequivocally teach what Jesus unequivocally taught on the subject of violence. Today most Christians still refuse to proclaim that violence is not the Christian way, that violence is not the Holy way, that violence is not the way of Jesus.”

Every July 1st, to call the Christian community to repent and to return to the truth of the original form of Christianity, i.e., that violence is not the way of Christ, Father McCarthy leads a 40-day fast from solid foods, solemnly breaking it on Aug. 9 at the site of the first atomic bomb detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test was blasphemously code-named “Trinity”.

McCarthy suggests that sincere Christians remember all the victims of past August 9ths (as well as other infamous dates in the history of war) in their thoughts and prayers on Nagasaki Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010.

Those devoted to the truth of gospel nonviolence also hope that all ethically-conscious people, especially Christians, consider a day-long fast on Aug. 9 lamenting the hundreds of millions of war dead, the hundreds of millions of physically, psychologically and spiritually dead and dying survivors of war violence (especially those most severely afflicted: the military veterans of war, their secondarily traumatized families and their loved ones and their civilian- and soldier-victims who were on the other side of the battle lines).

Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who practiced holistic mental health care, dealing extensively with the totally preventable and difficult to treat reality known as posttraumatic stress disorder, which is always a consequence of violence. He is also a student of European fascism. He is a member of the Community of the Third Way (a local Every Church A Peace Church affiliate) and the Just Peace Committee of Peace Church UCC in Duluth, Minnesota.

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