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The Silence where God speaks: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:

450px-Cenotaph_HiroshimaThis morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.

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On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.

It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).

While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).

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Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.

At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.

God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.

Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.

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That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).

The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).

We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).

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‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.

It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).


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