Lamenting and Learning from Hiroshima

Hiroshima Bombing
Today marks the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Here’s a really meaningful way to remember the day, by reading the words of George Zabelka, who was an Air Force chaplain that blessed the men who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years after the bombing, he was haunted by the horror of war and bombs and became a compelling voice for peace. Zabelka, who died in 1992, gave this speech on the 40th anniversary of the bombings. He left this message for the world. Let’s read his words today, and recommit ourselves to ending the horror of nuclear weapons and war. Here’s the speech:

The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan.

I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it… It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership.

I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.”

I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.

War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

For the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

Yet the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

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Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. (When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, “Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”)

As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “”Praise the Lord”” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt.

I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for myself, for my country, for my Church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

Thank God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.

Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way.  He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.


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About the Author

Shane Claiborne

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His most recent book, Executing Grace was released in June.View all posts by Shane Claiborne →

  • War is hell. Not a cliche. The tension for America’s Commander in Chief is his RESPONSIBILITY TO EVERY AMERICAN, whether believer or atheist, pacifist or just war advocate, rightist or leftist, Constitutionalist or Marxist, to vouchsafe their person and property.

    Pacifism is voluntary and it can NOT under the Constitution be Mandated (like the Obamacare Tax) that every citizen abide it. The Constitution does NOT forbid its citizens to practice VOLUNTARY pacifism but it also does NOT permit the federal government to force it upon the nation; not in light of the Enumerated Powers contained within Article I, Section 8, nor in Article II, Section 2.

    Unilateral nuclear disarmament would quite probably result, sooner or later, in an armed nuclear attack upon U.S. soil that we would be powerless to prevent and not likely to fully recover from.

  • An Old Testament prophet also said, “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).

    The Japanese nation waged unrestricted warfare against the United States, and they received just punishment for their evil deeds. Is war bad? Of course it is. So were the Rape of Nanking, the slaughter of sailors at Pearl Harbor, or the Bataan Death March.

    My great-uncle died as a POW in the Philippines after many months of brutal mistreatment. My father, a Marine at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, likely would have landed on the Japanese Islands had we not dropped the bomb, and very well could have been killed.

    Imperial Japan sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. They had their choice to avoid war as far back as the early 1930s, and they ignored it. No apology is needed for defending the United States, whether from a President’s grandson or one of many thousands of chaplains in the service.

    • 21st Century Episcopalian

      I understand your concern from a national standpoint, but from a christian standpoint, when do two wrongs ever make a right?

  • Ric

    Thank you for posting Zabelka speech, Shane. I long for the day we regain our pre-Romanized church.

  • 21st Century Episcopalian

    Thanks for sharing this speech. Very moving and spiritually/biblically accurate reflection of words/intent of Christ.

  • Ann

    When I was a child my father was in a couple’s Sunday school class at the Methodist church. One of the couples was Japanese. Comparing their war experiences, my father and the other dad remarked that they could very well have exchanged shots during WWII. Later, when I asked my dad if he didn’t think that was a terrible thing that he and Mr. Kikuchi could have killed each other, he said no, not at all. He did what he had to do. I respect that. It costs nothing for Father Zabelka to make a speech forty years after the event. How many civilians died in concentration camps? Millions.The point is, what options did fallible human beings in positions of responsibility have at the time these events occured? The Japanese and German people were ultimately responsible for the leadership they put into power, and their leaders were insane. The Allies put a stop to the slaughter the only way they felt they could, given what they knew at the time.

  • Charlie

    All governments have the right to bear arms to protect themselves and to maintain order. I encounter difficulty though in reconciling the teachings of Christ and a Christians involvement in war. A theology of martyrdom can be found in the gospels. God is our ultimate authority not the commander-in-chief.

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