A mixture of high politics and transcendent human concerns

by Jonathan Frerichs last modified 30 May 2016 11:37 AM
A mixture of high politics and transcendent human concerns

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome, in Hiroshima, Japan. © Paul Jeffrey/WCC

30 May 2016

27 May 2016 – Today a US president finally came to Hiroshima to pay respects and acknowledge what happened there in the atomic bombings of 1945.

The visit was a mixture of high politics and transcendent human concerns. Perhaps the strongest moments were in the silence carried live on global news channels as President Obama stood listening to two atomic bomb survivors after his own meaningful speech. The first survivor clasped the president’s hand as he spoke. The second man was reduced to tears and the president put his arm around him.

That the visit comes 71 years after the epoch-making attacks is a measure of many things. There is the unspeakable suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is the fact that no one has been held to account for the most deadly single act of violence in human history. And, instead of learning from tragedy, weapons far worse have threatened humanity ever since. US presidents have visited Japan before, but none of the 11 presidents since 1945 have undertaken to visit either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Thankfully, millions of citizens from all corners of the world have come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obama’s visit will have awakened their own memories. Last year, the World Council of Churches brought church leaders to Japan for the 70th anniversary of the A-bombings. They were from seven countries that possess, or rely on, nuclear weapons. We met a pastor’s daughter, Koko Kondo, who lived through the bombing and its aftermath. Later, as a teenager, she met one of the air crew who had dropped the bombs and was consumed with anger. But he confessed his own anguish and her rage turned to forgiveness. The president mentioned such a case – perhaps her’s – in his speech. If he met even one such witness, the trip was worthwhile. In fact, as mentioned above, it appears that he met at least two.

The president’s public remarks and actions at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial touched on issues that figure in 70 years of ecumenical advocacy for a world free of nuclear weapons. In a letter to the president for the Hiroshima visit, the WCC general secretary shared some of those concerns.

Eyewitness testimonies from the two atomic bombings and the hundreds of nuclear tests guide the churches’ policy. The WCC letter urges that Japanese, Korean and other victims be heard. Such concerns were taken into account in the president’s speech. He used the Japanese term for the survivors, "hibakusha", twice.

Compared to what diplomats of the US and other nuclear powers tend to say at disarmament meetings, the president’s speech was relatively evocative about the human impact of nuclear weapons. “Why are we here?” the president asked. To stand and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell, he said. To ponder the "terrible force" used; because the souls of the casualties speak to us; to "look inward"; and to “take stock of who we are and what we might become”.

The churches’ positions are shaped by what nuclear weapons do to people and to life on earth. The letter to Obama notes that nuclear weapons must be eliminated because humanity is responsible for protecting and caring for what God has created, including the dignity of all human beings, made in the image of God.

Technological progress without equivalent progress in human institutions can doom humankind, the president said. The scientific revolution to split the atom requires a moral revolution as well, he noted. We are not bound by a genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past, he said. Churchly discernment is reflected in WCC policy which says that using the energy of the atom in ways which threaten and destroy life is a sinful misuse of the fundamental building blocks of God’s creation. Churches in every region of the world refuse to accept that the mass destruction of other peoples can ever be a legitimate means of protecting one’s own people, the WCC Central Committee stated in 2014.

In a speech in Prague in 2009, President Obama said that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon. The ecumenical letter cites the moral leadership provided today by the world majority of governments who have pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons. A growing international focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is helping to shift the political calculus that has so far supported the nuclear-armed status quo. Civil society is mobilized to that end. WCC and Pax Christi International are members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. A clear sign of this collective resolve is the pledge by 127 governments to finally close the legal gap and prohibit nuclear weapons the way other weapon of mass destruction have been banned.

Another such sign is the joint statement by more than 150 governments that “it is in the interest of the survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again under any circumstances”. Today, Prime Minister Abe of Japan, speaking after Obama, echoed that sentiment, if weakly, by saying “This tragedy must not be repeated again”. Japan is both the only nation that has suffered a nuclear attack and a loyal ally relaying on US nuclear weapons for its security. When Abe spoke at the 70th anniversary ceremonies last year, he was booed for his equivocal stance.

Political factors, including US elections, were reflected in the president’s choice to frame the bombings within human suffering in wars generally and to highlight the necessity of diplomacy to prevent wars and reconcile enemies. Neither topic is out of place in Hiroshima. In the Prague speech, President Obama committed the US, as the only nation that had used a nuclear weapon, to take the lead in creating the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. It is too late in his presidency to carry through on much of that promise now. Speaking to US military personnel earlier in the day, the president said in a more guarded way that the Hiroshima visit was to “reaffirm our commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world where nuclear weapons would no longer be necessary”.

He also repeated that this goal may not be achieved ”in my lifetime”. One is reminded of the self-fulfilling mantra used by states that rely on nuclear weapons, namely, that it will be necessary to keep nuclear weapons for as long as they exist. But that line would be difficult to repeat in Hiroshima on a day like today.

All in all, what carried the day for a long-overdue and much-anticipated visit are the human elements and the humanitarian concerns. These helped combine in a powerful way the official memory of the atomic bombings with government responsibility for the use of weapons that are still deployed in their thousands, and raise that combination higher on the international agenda. To encounter the evidence of what nuclear weapons do, especially from the living witnesses, touches the heart, the mind and the soul. As it must.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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