Monday, August 10, 2009

Dazzling Light: Transfiguration and Nuclear Obliteration

Scripture appointed for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

The sixth day of August is marked in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop moment when a tiny chosen band of disciples watched as their Lord appeared, in dazzling radiance, in conversation with Moses the law-giver on one side of him, and with Elijah the prophet on the other. Flummoxed, totally out of their depth, the disciples could only wonder aloud, “What can we build to enshrine this moment?” And from heaven came a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

White is, appropriately enough, the liturgical color the church uses when celebrating the Transfiguration. When a tiny band of us gathered for the regular weekly eucharist last week, I wore a white stole that belongs to the parish and is displayed today in the cabinet at the back.

A photograph of this stole appears in your colored announcement sheet today (you might want to find it). The stole was given to us 58 years ago by Fr. Dick Merritt, who served as Curate here from 1944 to 1947, and was ordained a priest right here in 1945. For the rest of his long distinguished career he served the people of Japan as a priest and Christian educator in the Holy Catholic Church of Japan, what they call the Episcopal Church in that country, and lived in that country until his death in 2006.

The stole is made of white silk with red and gold embroidery. You’ll notice the dove with seven radiating beams, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.

The shield reminds me of the apostle’s words to the Ephesians today, how each Christian is marked by the Spirit of God like a seal bearing a sign of allegiance. Here it is a sign within a sign: within the shield is what looks like a capital P with a bar across it midway, but is in fact the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the monogram of Christ which tradition reads as if it were the Latin “pax”, peace. And superimposed is an orb topped by a cross, so all told this message is “Christ, the world’s hope for peace.”

I chose to wear this stole, and to bring it into my sermon today, because August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also, as you know, the date on which the United States deployed the first nuclear weapon in the history of warfare, obliterating everything and every form of life within a radius of one mile from the point of detonation, sending flashfires across 4.4 square miles, instantly killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people, more slowly killing another 70,000, in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

And today, August 9, we dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, achieving again total destruction within a mile of the strike, fires across two miles, in an explosion that generated heat estimated at 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds reaching an estimated 624 miles per hour, instantly killing between 40,000 and 75,000 and ultimately claiming yet more.

Our stole was woven in Kyoto. That center of intellectual and cultural life was on the short list of possible targets instead of Hiroshima, but was saved, it is said, by American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had admired Kyoto ever since his honeymoon there several decades earlier. Tokyo, with the Emperor’s palace, was also on the short list. But Hiroshima was an important army depot and port of embarkation in an urban industrial area. It fitted what our government sought: a target obtaining both great psychological effect against Japan and a target that would make the initial use so spectacular that the importance of this new weapon would be recognized internationally and instantly.

These two bombings followed a six-month campaign of intense fire-bombing of 67 other Japanese cities, followed by an ultimatum which Japan ignored.

The United States had previously dropped leaflets warning civilians of air raids on twelve other Japanese cities. The residents of Hiroshima were given no notice of the atomic bomb.

Originally set for August 11, and with the city of Kokura targeted, the second nuclear raid was moved forward to avoid bad weather. Set as a secondary target was Nagasaki, a large seaport of great wartime importance. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki had been hit by large-scale bombing at the very start of August, resulting in the evacuation of many residents, principally school children.

On this day, August 9th, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” took to the air, carrying the nuclear bomb code-named “Fat Man”. Two other B-29s had flown ahead by an hour as weather scouts. Two additional B-29s were to join the mission for instrumentation and photographic support. One of them failed to make the rendezvous, leaving the Bockscar circling for forty minutes using up precious fuel and time. In that short period, a dense cloud cover had obscured the city of Kokura. Nagasaki now became the target.

On this morning, Japanese spotters sighted two B-29 Superfortresses and assumed they were on reconnaissance, so no final alarm was given. A few minutes later, at 11:00 a.m., one of the planes dropped instruments attached to three parachutes. Packed in with these instruments were copies of an unsigned letter to Professor Ryokichi Sagane, a nuclear physicist at the University of Tokyo who had studied with some of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb, at the University of California, Berkeley, urging him to tell the public about the danger involved with these weapons of mass destruction. Found by Japanese military authorities, these messages were not turned over to Professor Sagane until a month later.

At 11:01, a last-minute break in the clouds allowed the bombardier to drop the bomb, and 43 seconds later it exploded, 1540 feet above the ground halfway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (torpedo builders) in the north.

In time, many unintended victims were found to have been among the casualties, including Allied prisoners of war, many thousands of Korean forced laborers, students from Malaya, and some 3,200 Japanese American citizens. An unknown number of survivors from the Hiroshima bombing had made their way to Nagasaki, only to be bombed again.

The United States expected to have another atomic bomb ready for use in the third week of August, with three more in September and further three in October. Just two minutes after midnight, 64 years ago today, Soviet infantry, armor, and air forces launched its first offensive announcing its declaration of war on Japan. Senior leaders in the Japanese Army responded by imposing martial law on their country in order to stop their people from trying to make peace. Five days later Emperor Hirohito capitulated.

Scholars remain divided whether the atomic bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the Pacific. Some estimate that in the planned invasion of Japan, Allied forces would have suffered a million casualties, and Japanese losses would have been in the millions. Others argue that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary, inherently immoral, a form of state terrorism.

Our first reading today gave us the vivid image of Absalom, a man of war, riding his mule and, as they passed beneath a great oak, he got stuck in its branches, trapped and held for his adversaries. The end of a man of violence is to become the target of someone else’s violence. The man who knows only how to fight is truly stuck with no good options.

Here in this sanctuary on April 1, 1945, Dick Merritt was ordained a priest. It wasn’t long before he accepted a call to serve in the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the small but resilient Episcopal Church in Japan, where he would spend the rest of his life.

I wonder if what drew him was that deep Gospel insight we heard expressed by the apostle today: “We are members of one another.”

I admit it’s speculation on my part, but in the wake of this country’s terrifying escalation of the terms of war and the human costs of war, what more important place in the world was there to go to pursue the Church’s mission to help God reconcile all people to one another and to God?

In the years following World War II, Japan’s suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the nation to firmly oppose any future location of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. I do not know what contribution the Nippon Sei Ko Kai made to this anti-nuclear insistence. But I do see at the center of the symbols on Dick Merritt’s stole the emblem of the Prince of Peace.

May this Christ be at the center of our allegiance. May his Spirit’s gifts free and guide us:

Wisdom, to find good options to war and its escalation
Understanding to appreciate people and cultures who appear to differ from us
Counsel to discern what is in the best interest of all
Fortitude to keep peacemakers from discouragement
Knowledge to lead us to the truth that sets us free
Piety to prompt prayer and trust in God, active in this world
Fear of the Lord to harness science to the purposes of peace.

(Information on the two nuclear attacks comes from the Wikipedia article “Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”)