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This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. As a uniformed member of the American armed forces who has lived in Japan for almost half of the last 15 years, this anniversary churns up deep emotions within me. It also is a good illustration of one of the issues Johnny, our imaginary returning veteran, may well be dealing with.

During my three tours in Japan I have visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki twice. Hiroshima is a large, industrial city. The major attractions are the Peace Memorial Park where the bomb fell, the Peace Memorial (the untouched ruins of one of the major buildings) and the Peace Memorial Museum. Nagasaki is a much more cosmopolitan city. For many years, when Japan was closed to the West and Christianity was illegal, the harbor at Nagasaki was the only place where western traders were allowed — and interestingly enough, only ships from the Netherlands. It is also a city with its own bloody history prior to the atomic bomb. During the winter of 1597 twenty-six Christians from around Japan were rounded up and forced to march through the cold winter snows to Nagasaki, where on February 5 they were crucified for their faith. There is a haunting painting of twenty-six crosses in a row hanging in the Oura Catholic Church in the heart of the city. A museum near the Atomic Bomb Museum tells the story of each one of these martyrs. Many of them were only teenagers.

There is an ongoing debate over whether the United States was justified in dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan. Critics point to the large number killed in the two bombings:  140,000 in Hiroshima and 39,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki, the vast majority of them civilians. That compares to 2,500 people killed in Pearl Harbor, most of them military casualties. Defenders of the bombing point out that the United States lost 20% of the entire Marine Corps in the battle over Okinawa. The expectation was that an invasion of the mainland of Japan in a similar manner to Okinawa would result in many more casualties, both Japanese and American, than the death toll from the two Atomic bombings. The refusal of the Japanese to surrender when they knew that the were not going to win the war, and the high standard of “Unconditional Surrender” set at the Yalta Conference as the only acceptable end to the war are also factors to be considered in assessing whether the two bombs were necessary. While differences of opinion remain about the justification of Truman’s decision to drop the two bombs, everyone agrees that the result was a wartime horror without precedent in human history. As Christians we all agree that God never intended such wide-scale destruction, and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are prime examples of the absolute horror of human sinfulness.

As an American, but more importantly as a member of the military, I feel a keen sense of responsibility over what happened in those places. I wear a uniform that represents the military that is responsible for the destruction of those two cities. Whatever my personal beliefs may be about the justification of those two bombings, I share in the responsibility for them, a kind of corporate guilt or guilt by association. This is not something that the Christian Church often talks about. Every Sunday in many of our churches, we have a time of repentance and confession. In our individualistic society, we generally think of our individual sin over the last week. But the Old Testament story of Achan (Joshua 7) reminds us that there is also a corporate guilt, or a guilt by association. Achan’s entire family was stoned because of the guilt of the father. American Christians seldom wrestle with this issue of corporate guilt or guilt by association.

Johnny understands this guilt. When he put on a military uniform, he became associated with everything that uniform represents, both the good and the evil. This personal identification with the dark side of war and the guilt he may feel because of it is a form of moral injury, something we will be looking at in more detail in future blogs. Glib comments about “Bush’s War,” referring to the Iraq conflict, only serve to highlight and intensify this injury. Vietnam veterans experience a similar moral wound as they are identified with the war that brings up images of My Lai and Agent Orange, a war most Americans today consider immoral. Many Vietnam veterans struggle with the horror of that war, while at the same time believing that they did their duty, which was the right thing for them to do. They are personally innocent yet struggle with corporate guilt.

What Johnny needs from his Pastor and the leadership of his church is not a justification for the evil of war and they way his country conducted the war, but the message of the gospel. He needs to hear the Good News that all guilt is taken care of at the cross — corporate guilt as well as individual wrongdoing. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai — these show the horror of human sin. But the Good News is that, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).

Last Sunday the pastor of Tokyo Union Church, the congregation where I worship and a church that saw its building completely destroyed in World War II, gave us the message of the gospel. He began the service by reminding us of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and pointed out that the two largest groups in the congregation were from the two nations at war 70 years ago: Japan and the United States. During the assurance of pardon, he reminded us not only of how powerful and evil sin is as evidenced by that destruction, but also that the Gospel cleanses us from all sin — including corporate sin. He encouraged us to not look back, but ahead, as the redeemed people of God. Then we passed the peace, men and women from 30 different countries passing the peace of Christ to each other, set free from the atrocities of the past because of the cross. Grace flowed in the heart of Tokyo on August 9, as it does every Sunday in that former firebombed city. Later in the service a soloist sang these words, Gospel words of comfort and healing on the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs:

May love preside

Being in each and ev’ry heart.

May joy rise up in heart for ev’ry tear

And hands reach out, soothing away each fear

Bringing a blaze of light into the dark

May wisdom spread its wings over the earth

May we let go of pain

forgive and know the peace

Lifting to the stars

all that cried out for rebirth.

“May Love Preside” based on G. F. Handel “Ombra mai fu” from Xerxes,

Lyrics and arrangement by Sherry Abstein Gordon.

The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author is his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the United States Government or the United States Navy.

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