Nagasaki: Why Suffering Does Not Have the Last Word 長崎──沉思原爆

Dr Matthew Jones shares a reflection he wrote for Ming Hua’s recent study trip to Japan.

“We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel. “What a work of art,” says Shakespeare of humanity. “We are very dangerous,” says Arthur Miller in After the Fall; “We meet…not in some garden of wax fruit and painted leaves that lies East of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths.” [1]

With these words Daniel Migliore sums up the great paradox at the heart of humanity: we are capable of great good but also of the most unspeakable evil. We can be creative and beautiful but also incredibly destructive and ugly. We can bring great joy to the world, but also immense and unspeakable suffering. Any of you who have studied the Bible in a theological college or university will know that most of the classic biblical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century comes from Germany, the home of much classic biblical and theological literature but also the place where Nazi ideology took root and led to the Holocaust. Great and important scholarship but also immense suffering and genocide. 

As we reflect on our experiences over the last few days and now as we focus on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and its legacy we are reminded of the horrendous suffering human beings can inflict on each other. We are reminded that as technology leaps forward, we can create new life-saving medical techniques that can save lives but also invent numerous new ways of killing each other, each more horrific than the last. But why is this? Why as creatures created in the image of God do we spend so much time in our history fighting and killing each other? Why is much of our modern history filled with instances of mass murder and genocide, where human beings have tried to wipe other human beings off the face of the planet? 

Before we ponder that question let us not forget either that the human attempt to kill extends to the human attempt to kill God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, opened up himself in love to the world and human beings nailed him to a cross as a result. Not only do we try to kill each other, and the planet that we live on, but we also try to kill God. How on earth did it all come to this?

I think that part of the answer lies in the many boundaries and categories that human beings create to separate and divide each other. We are very good at doing this, we have throughout history erected barriers that separate us into them and us. These barriers can be based around issues of race, religion, culture, language, society, politics, economics, sex, gender and the list goes on… We have become very good at seeing anyone different from us as being ‘other’ than us, people to shun, avoid or fear. We have learnt to fear difference as something that is inherently bad, dangerous or threatening. 

And yet we are reminded of the new community of Christians in the early Church who worshipped together in the first house churches as Christians. People from different social classes and of differing status began to worship together. People who in conventional conservative and hierarchical Roman society would never normally meet at all. Indeed, one of the reasons for the persecution of early Christians was the fear that they were undermining the ‘traditional’ moral and social cultural norms of the society. They were dangerous because they were challenging the way things had always been done. 

Christ himself, of course, was questioning and pulling down the barriers in his own ministry. There are many examples of Christ challenging the social and cultural conventions of his day, his conversation with the woman at the well in John’s Gospel being a classic example. Another is in Mark 3: 31-35: 

“Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'”    

The love of Jesus here takes us beyond the biological limits of our immediate family to a kinship with all people who do the will of God. This is a new family which goes beyond many of the barriers that serve to separate us from each other. It is perhaps not surprising then, that this kind of teaching would get Jesus into trouble with authorities who don’t want the status quo challenged or disturbed.

Again we see this kind of thinking in Paul who in his mission to the Gentiles spreads a message where barriers are challenged, a new community in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28)

Again, today this is something that we also participate in. As members of the Body of Christ we share and partake of the Eucharist. At the table of the Lord we all share the body and blood of Christ, regardless of who we are and where we come from. It is the place where all become one body by sharing in the one bread. There is no distinction as we share the bread and wine as one people in the Lord. This power of the Eucharist should never be underestimated and I saw some of the very practical implications of this from my own experiences of living and teaching in Melanesia. Often if a tribe or clan had been at war and were reconciling, traditional cultural practices would be observed, but there would also be a Eucharist in which former combatants would partake of the bread and wine together, kneeling around the same altar and many would be brought to tears as the Eucharist and the presence of God within it, had the very real power to create peace, to heal and to reconcile. 

So why then, is our history still filled with stories of death and destruction like this one here in Nagasaki? Much of our history is filled with the barriers that we have made to divide humanity, but not only that, we have created human ideologies that seek to divide and conquer. There are many reasons for this, but often around issues of power, land, colonialism, and the need to conquer, divide and subdue. Wars are fought, over such ideologies and philosophies and inevitably people die, many of them innocent and often uninvolved in perpetrating such ideologies in the first place. 

The Christian call to be one people in the body of Christ is challenged by a human conviction to separate, divide and conquer. And so here in Nagasaki, we encounter one such example in the context of war. Wars are fought, people die and there is an immense legacy of suffering for those who survive and for their later generations. And yet we are drawn back to the question that has haunted much of our theological reflection for this week, where is God? 

The cross reminds us that God is not detached or unaffected by the suffering of the world around us, but profoundly involved and affected by it. God is in the midst of human suffering in the incarnation as the Son, living and dying for us in the midst of apparent hopelessness and despair.

Here we are reminded of just why the incarnation is essential to Christian faith, for within it we encounter God with us. Jesus Christ becomes one of us, who experiences human life, in all its joys and sorrows, he experiences all that we experience, hope, despair, laughter, sorrow, popularity, betrayal, faith, doubt, pain, torture and death. Jesus in his life and death shows us true humanity and through him we can see true divinity as God himself is walking among us. God is not removed from human life in all its grandeur and squalor, rather God is walking in the midst of it and it is his living and dying for us that enables the hope of new life and transformation both in the world to come but also now in the reality of human history.   

This may be very easy for us to say when we are, ourselves, detached from the experience and legacy of the people who have suffered here but in the midst of great darkness, the light is never fully overcome. In this story of great suffering and death there are still people like Takashi Nagai, who in the midst of his own suffering and loss, cared for the victims and the dying and strove for peace through prayer and contemplation. There are still people like Oskar Schindler who risked everything to shelter Jewish workers in his factory and save them from the Nazi death camps. In these stories of great darkness and many others, we are reminded that although death seems to have won, the light is never extinguished. From the cross comes resurrection, from the persecution of Christians in Silence comes the story of the Hidden Christians and those who strove to keep the faith alive. From the story of Nagasaki comes the re-emergence of a people and a Christianity symbolised in the rebuilding of Urakami Cathedral at the very site of the bomb blast. 

We are reminded that in the midst of the unspeakable suffering, in the midst of man’s inhumanity to man, in the midst of the brokenness, Christ whose own body was broken is bringing a way to restore and transform the relationships that have been lost. To be Christian is to be a member of the body of Christ where diversity and unity is embraced. To be a Christian is no longer to be constrained or confined by the barriers that divide and dehumanise us, it is to be a new people empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit to, like Christ, strive to embrace our mothers, our fathers, our brothers and our sisters. It is a breaking down of all barriers that divide us and have divided us. It is to live in the image of God as human beings in peace, as God intended us to be. 

But to think in this way is at once liberating and challenging. Liberating in that we are no longer constrained by the human barriers which encourage separation and fear of the other, but challenging in that we live in a world where barriers and walls are still going up, where fear and suspicion are still a reality and where voices encouraging war and confrontation are still being heard. And in some cases these voices are from those who would claim to be Christians themselves.  

And so the question for humanity is that when we reflect on the consequences of war, the reality of suffering and the continuing untold suffering that we inflict upon each other, do we learn from our history? Do we take seriously the power and reality of God working in our brokenness to create and re-create the means for resurrection and new life to emerge? Are we, to use the Easter language, really resurrected people as Christians who strive to live a life of new community that reunites, that reconciles and gives hope in the midst of an often dark and complex world? 

Being part of the Body of Christ is more than just being a group of like minded people with the same beliefs, rather it is a new reality that compels us to think differently and to live differently. The human history of war, violence and suffering must not be forgotten, for it stands as a constant reminder of what human beings can do to each other, what we can be led into, how countries, nations and peoples can be consumed by the very real powers of evil and violence. We must never forget our history, and yet, being the Body of Christ suggests something quite different, a hope for a different way, a way promised and fulfilled in God’s activity in the world. A way in which the barriers can come down, where clenched fists can turn into an embrace of peace and loving friendship, where enemies can become friends, where the dimensions of life are expanded. A place where human beings can live differently.

This does not and never will explain away the consequences of war, violence and suffering, for these leave deep and painful scars that never and should never be forgotten. But through Jesus Christ, we are reminded that war, violence and suffering is not the end of the story, they do not have the last word, because that last word is resurrection.

[1] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 143.

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香港聖公會明華神學院 香港聖公會在香港及澳門設立的神學院, 矢志推動普及神學教育。 The Theological College of HKSKH works for the training & education of all members of God’s Church in HK & Macau.

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