Finding peace amid the storm

On the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb at the end of World War II, let’s listen to the Hibakusha – the survivors of the atomic blasts and their descendants – says Fr Frank Brennan SJ. As we listen to them and see their faces, we walk the path of Elijah in today’s first reading from the Book of Kings. We will not find the Lord in the mighty wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. But we might just find the Lord in the gentle breeze

Homily by Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Newman College, University of Melbourne, Sunday 9 August 2020. 1 Kings 19:9,11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33.

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After the commotion and upset of the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples were keen to get away for some peace and quiet. They tried, but the crowds followed, and Jesus insisted that they feed them. Having collected twelve basket loads of scraps, they were despatched by Jesus to head to the other side of the lake in a boat. In the middle of the night, they were battling heavy seas and a head wind. Jesus came to them across the water, declaring, ‘Courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.’ If I’d been in that boat, I think I would have said, ‘Come Lord. Get aboard. Join us. And do what you can to calm the waters and still the wind.’ I think that would have been both a prudent and faithful response.

That’s not what Peter did. He declared, ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ Hearing the call, ‘Come’, Peter steps out, panics, takes fright, starts to sink, and calls, ‘Lord! Save me.’ Jesus reaches out and holds him, asking, ‘Why did you doubt?’ Mind you, everyone else had the good sense to stay in the boat. Imagine if they’d all jumped overboard. It’s not as if those who stayed on board were not true believers. They were the ones at the end of the story who bowed down, declaring, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ It’s not as if Peter had unshakeable faith or unerring instinct about what was right or best to do. He believed but then he doubted. There are times when just staying in the boat is not the only option, or it’s not the best choice for everyone. There are times when it works out best for everyone if someone has the combination of courage, trust, faith and hope needed to step out of the boat. Thank God, occasionally someone like Peter has the guts and the simple faith to jump overboard, pleading with the Lord to save not just himself but everyone on board the boat.

Walking through the ruins of Nagasaki. In the background are the remains of Urakami Cathedral. (Getty images)

Today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the second atomic bomb at the end of World War II. On 9 August 1945, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, having dropped one on Hiroshima three days before. Four years ago, Barack Obama was the first American President to visit the site of the bombings. He did not apologise but he did say that we could all build a peaceful future ‘in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening’. If only!

Kevin Rudd, the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, wrote in the visitors’ book: ‘Let the world resolve afresh, from the ashes of this city, to work together for the common mission of peace for this Asia-Pacific century, and for a world where nuclear weapons are no more.’

The US objective in dropping the bombs was to bring the war to an end without the need to stage a bloody invasion of a nation whose leadership was implacably opposed to unconditional surrender. President Truman’s military advice was that a land invasion of Japan would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties. Without the use of the bomb, war was expected to last another year. A million Allied troops were being moved into place for the invasion of Japan. After the war, Truman observed, ‘It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.’ Having authorised the use of the atomic bomb, Truman told his wife three weeks before Hiroshima that ‘we’ll end the war a year sooner now’.

On the day he authorised the military to go ahead with preparations to use the bomb on Japanese cities, Truman wrote in his diary: ‘I have told the Secretary of War, Mr Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. …. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and saves lives.’ Truman’s rationalisation was completely false, and he knew it was. This is the moral problem which still confronts us.

After the dropping of the second bomb, the Japanese Emperor decided to ‘bear the unbearable’ and surrender. Five days after the two bombings, the Japanese accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered. Three years later, at a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the custody of the atomic bomb, Truman, insisting that it remain under civilian control, said: ‘I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.’

I daresay most Australians still think President Truman did right in authorising the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities, regardless of whether such bombs are classed ordinarily as military weapons or not, and regardless of the fact that the dropping of those bombs entailed a direct attack on the innocent with the intent to do them injury. They thought, and still do, that the obliteration of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally excused if not justified because this, and only this, helped to end the war, without the need for hundreds of thousands of Allied Forces having to face annihilation invading Japan with its citizenry blindingly committed to the Emperor’s honour.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared: ‘Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.’ There is no other church moral teaching which has been so solemnly declared. Many democratic leaders, if placed in Truman’s shoes, would in good conscience, and with a very heavy heart pleading for God’s mercy, or at least seeking the approval of their people, invoke an exception and do exactly the same again, no matter what any church leader said.

Those atomic bombs were dropped 75 years ago in furtherance of an immoral policy which had been adopted by the Allies early in the war. The Royal Air Force adopted a strategy of obliteration bombing of German cities from March 1942 onwards. Back in 1940, Winston Churchill had condemned Germany’s policy of indiscriminate bombing as ‘a new and odious form of warfare’. But then the British decided to return fire with fire. In June 1942 Churchill promised the House of Commons that Germany was to be subjected to an ‘ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country’. In July 1943 he spoke of the ‘systematic shattering of German cities’ declaring that there were ‘no lengths in violence to which we will not go’. The British set about the obliteration bombing of 90 German cities with the intention of wiping out residential districts so that absenteeism would interfere with industrial production. For example, the total weight of bombs dropped on Hamburg in just one week equalled the tonnage dropped on London during the whole of the 1940-1941 blitz. The French bishops spoke up, saying, ‘We are convinced that it should be possible to distinguish with greater care between military objectives and the humble dwellings of women and children with which they are surrounded’. In 1944, the American Jesuit moral theologian John C Ford spoke up against his own government and the Allies, publishing the definitive article on the morality of obliteration bombing. He concluded: ‘Obliteration bombing is an immoral attack on the innocent. It includes a direct intent to do them injury.’ He said that to make it legitimate ‘would soon lead the world to the immoral barbarity of total war’.

Fr Bryan Hehir from the Harvard Kennedy School says: ‘Civilians may be hit but they are not to be targeted. On that distinction hangs the moral logic of war. World War II violated the logic in pursuit of a great good; it is less important to focus on why moral restraint failed then than it is to observe its rigorous imperative in our own strategy and policy today. The purpose in being clear about the past is to provide a guide for the future. War may be necessary; if so, it must be limited.’

Pope Francis prays after laying a wreath to the Hypocenter Cenotaph at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki in 2019. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Three years ago, Pope Francis admitted that ‘a certain pessimism might make us think that prospects for a world free from nuclear arms and for integral disarmament appear increasingly remote.’ Renewing the call for nuclear disarmament, he said, ‘If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.’

Last year Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Paul II, and visited Nagasaki. He spoke at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park where the bomb exploded 75 years ago this very morning. He told the Hibakusha, the survivors and their descendants: ‘One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire; indeed they seem always to thwart it.’ He told them: ‘Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation.’

This week, Australia’s most experienced international advocate for disarmament, Gareth Evans, joined his South Korean counterpart, Chung-in Moon, from the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in saying: ‘Seventy-five years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put beyond argument that nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, the distressing reality is that the risk of nuclear catastrophe is as great as it has ever been, and the goal of achieving their elimination from the face of the earth is as far from achievement as it has ever been.’

Since 1942, obliteration bombing has been on the table as an option for warring parties, including our closest allies the US and the UK. Since 1945, atomic obliteration has been an option for a handful of countries, including those allies. More than ever, we need the occasional leader like Pope Francis in the boat encountering the buffeting high seas and the headwind on the lake, hearing the call to step out on to the troubled waters with courage, trust, faith and hope. Even those of us in the boat agree with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev who said in 1985: ‘A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.’

At Nagasaki, Pope Francis prayed the prayer of St Francis, Lord make me an instrument of your peace, recalling: ‘In this striking place of remembrance that stirs us from our indifference, it is all the more meaningful that we turn to God with trust, asking him to teach us to be effective instruments of peace and to make every effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past.’ It’s time for more of us and more of our leaders to join Francis in stepping out into the deep, unequivocally condemning obliteration bombing, no matter who does it, and condemning the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, no matter who has them. We can’t all just remain in the boat of nuclear deterrence. Gareth Evans and Chung-in Moon remind us ‘so long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them, and so long as any nuclear weapons remain, they are bound one day to be used, by accident or misadventure, if not by design.’

On this 75th anniversary, let’s listen to the Hibakusha – the survivors of the atomic blasts and their descendants. As we listen to them and see their faces, we walk the path of Elijah in today’s first reading from the Book of Kings. We will not find the Lord in the mighty wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. But we might just find the Lord in the gentle breeze. 75 years on, we pray for peace and commit ourselves to that peace, particularly for innocent non-combatants. We need more courage, trust, faith and hope. Hiding behind the capacity of our allies to inflict indiscriminate annihilation on entire cities is just not an option.