REFLECTION: Let the weapons fall from our hands! A gospel plea for peace

Pax Christi USA

Scott Wrightby Scott Wright

Pax Christi USA National Council member

As we approach October 4, the Feast of St. Francis, the rumors and preparations for still another war in the Middle East evoke memories of the build-up to war in Iraq that occurred ten years ago.  In the last fifty years, the United States has initiated or intervened in a succession of wars in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Middle East. These wars have caused enormous human suffering and loss of life, and brought pain and sorrow to families everywhere, including here at home. Can we endure the prospect of yet one more war against Iran?And what will the leaders of our church say this time? I remember returning from Iraq in January 2003 with Voices in the Wilderness, just six weeks prior to the outbreak of that war, and praying that the leaders of our church would stand up to our government and say no to war. I had just returned from the excruciating experience of accompanying young Iraqi children from southern Iraq in the Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad who were dying of cancer, most likely caused by depleted uranium used by U.S. weapons in Basra during the 1991 Gulf War. Surely our church would take a stand and speak with the same clarity against this war, as John Paul II had done so passionately, and not give a blank check to the government as it did once the war was begun on March 19, 2003.  Today I find myself returning to a still earlier October 4, 1965, when Paul VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly and called for war to be abolished once and forever, hoping that we will not forget his impassioned plea:

“If you want to be brothers [and sisters], let the weapons fall from your hands. You cannot love with weapons in your hands… It suffices to remember that the blood of millions of men and women, numberless and unheard of sufferings, useless slaughter and frightful ruin… unite you with an oath which must change the future history of the world: No more war, war never again! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all humankind.”

On the Brink of War?

Today, we face another crucial moment in our journey as those who aspire to follow Jesus Christ in the way of peace and nonviolence. On September 13, 2012, the news agency Reuters reported that the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency passed a resolution, rebuking Iran for defying demands to curb its uranium enrichment and failing to quell mounting concerns about its suspected research into atomic bombs.  Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney speak of leaving all options on the table to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to carry out a military strike against Iran. Increasingly, violence seems more seductive each day as it becomes the preferred way to resolve conflicts.

The debate over drawing “a red line” in the sand, and threatening military action is strangely reminiscent of the debate ten years ago in 2002, when President George Bush and the United Nations were engaged in a similar debate about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. That was the prelude to more than a decade of war, based on a lie.  What lessons can we learn from the past? What wisdom may we draw from our faith? After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, can the U.S. and the world afford another war against Iran? Can we bear yet one more human life destroyed by violence?

John Paul II, whose native Poland was victim to aggression both by German fascism and Soviet communism, was no stranger to the destructive impact of war, especially upon the civilian populations. In his condemnation of war after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, John Paul II spoke words that could describe the consequences of any modern war, including that of Iraq and Afghanistan:  “No, never again, war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution to the very problems which provoked the war.”

Today, this description vividly characterizes what we know from the past decade of war against Iraq and Afghanistan: Innocent people destroyed, the lives of soldiers thrown into upheaval, those who have been the principle victims of the war filled with resentment and hatred, and the possibility of a just solution difficult to imagine. Surely the suffering caused by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq makes clear the dangerous consequences of still another major Middle East conflict posed by a military strike on Iran.  John Paul II’s condemnation of war reached its strongest expression on January 1, 2000, when he spoke eloquently of the challenge of peace in his World Day of Peace message:

“In the century we are leaving behind, humanity has been sorely tried by an endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ‘ethnic cleansings’ which have caused unspeakable suffering; millions and millions of victims, families and countries destroyed, an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger, disease, underdevelopment and the loss of immense resources. . . .  War is a defeat for humanity.”  This time around, however, that defeat threatens to further unleash – sooner or later – the destructive force of a nuclear war.

The Bells of Nagasaki

Some years ago, my wife Jean and my then eight-year-old daughter Maura, and I were fortunate to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “epicenter of peace.” In the years since, I have tried to write about that experience, but have been at a loss of words to describe the enormity of human suffering and evil represented by what happened there in 1945. The saving grace was to meet with survivors – the hibakusha – who were my daughter’s age when the bombs dropped. That memory is seared forever in their hearts, and in their bodies.

One story that stands out in my mind is the story of Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor who survived the bombing of Nagasaki, lived to care for the victims, and returned to Ground Zero to build a hut where he received visitors as he lay dying. On Christmas Eve, 1945, a “miracle” occurred. The bells from the cathedral of Nagasaki, which was destroyed in the bombing, rang! Parishioners who survived the bomb blast dug up the bells from beneath the atomic rubble and debris, hoisted them up and rang them, morning, noon, and night. Takashi wrote:  “Men and women of the world, never again plan war! With this atomic bomb, war can only mean suicide for the human race. From this atomic waste the people of Nagasaki confront the world and cry out: No more war! Let us follow the commandment of love and work together. The people of Nagasaki prostrate themselves before God and pray: Grant that Nagasaki may be the last atomic wilderness in the history of the world.”

As Christians, our reflection on the challenge of peace begins with our own encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ. It is our encounter with the crucified Jesus – present in the crucified victims of war and violence – that helps shapes our understanding of the urgency of peace and nonviolence. It is our experience of the risen Christ – in the survivors and witnesses who cry out for justice and for life – that gives expression to our deepest hopes for peace and reconciliation.  Our faith then impels us to look at the world from their perspective – of the children, the families, the poor who are most often the victims of war – and to work with the same passion and urgency for justice and for peace.

Violence in all of its forms is sinful because it destroys human dignity and the common good. When violence becomes institutionalized – as poverty, war or racism – it becomes a form of idolatry, denying the sovereignty of God and the redeeming power of Jesus Christ’s love. Nothing short of the total abolition of war and nuclear weapons from the earth must be our common goal.  Before visiting Japan, I went home to see my father, a World War II Navy veteran whose aircraft carrier, the Bunker Hill, was hit May 11, 1945, off the coast of Okinawa. Two kamikaze planes struck the ship within 30 seconds and nearly sunk it. Four hundred men died in the attack.

While I was home, he told me an amazing story. One of the men on my Dad’s ship had recently died, and his grandchildren had discovered in his attic the personal belongings of the Japanese pilot who had crashed his plane into my father’s ship. There were some letters, some pictures, and his watch. One of the grandchildren relocated to San Francisco, and there she contacted the Japanese Embassy to see if she could locate the family of the Japanese pilot to return to them his personal belongings. The day arrived, and the two families met to return the personal belongings to the deceased pilot’s family in a gesture of reconciliation.

I shared that story with our hosts in Japan. Nothing can undo the untold suffering that war brings on all sides, nor repair the destruction of precious human life caused by the atomic bombs dropped by the United States over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only when we are joined in a common effort to abolish war and nuclear weapons might there be the real possibility of reconciliation and peace. But in that story, and that small gesture between those two families, formerly enemies, now reconciled – I find hope.

Where is the Hope?

Where is the hope? One powerful image that comes to mind and that gives me hope is that day, June 12, 1982, when a million people gathered outside in New York City for the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament to call for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. It was the biggest demonstration on earth until the global anti-war marches that took place in dozens of cities around the world in February 2003, and an inspiring witness to the power of people to nonviolently confront their leaders and to call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Today, thirty years later, the nuclear sword of Damocles continues to hang over the world, and to threaten a nuclear holocaust. The fact that less of the public’s attention is focused on nuclear weapons is of even greater concern, given the fact that we are still a long way from the abolition of these weapons from the face of the earth, and still further from the willingness of the nations of the earth – including the United States – to refuse to use them.  In his 2009 speech in Prague on nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama said: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  What can we do to hold our nation’s leaders to that promise?

The challenge is formidable. Yet we are not defeated. The impassioned cry for life of people across the planet who are standing up for justice, and their hope and ours to hasten that day of peace – is the gift and challenge we have been given by our loving God. That is the promise we hold on to, the victory of God’s redemptive love over violence that we proclaim, the urgent need to affirm Gospel nonviolence as the center of our lives and our faith as Christians.

As I left Nagasaki with my family, our host, Archbishop Joseph Takami, shared his own story with us. He was in his mother’s womb when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki – he is a survivor “in utero.” He took us to see the ruins of the cathedral, partially restored, and the names of 8,000 parishioners who died on that August 9, 1945 morning. He also showed us the burnt face of the statue of the grieving Virgin Mary, whose charred remains were buried in the rubble, discovered by a Japanese Trappist monk days later, and taken to his monastery before being returned to the cathedral decades later.

Archbishop Takami also showed us the house where Blessed Maximilian Kolbe lived during the war, before returning to Europe and facing martyrdom when he exchanged places with a condemned prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. And he took us to another memorial site and told us the story of the 26 Japanese Christian martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki harbor centuries before. The church was forced underground for centuries, and he proudly showed us the baptismal records and lectionary notes that his own ancestors had kept during the time the church was underground.  “No more war!” Takashi Nagai wrote from Ground Zero, before he died in 1951. The victory over violence has already been won on the cross, but the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have paid a terrible cost.

Perhaps what is required of us today, to be faithful, is to never take up again the sword, or to justify violence. Never again as a church to justify war – as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq – or to be silent when our nation goes to war. Then, perhaps, we might remember, every time we hear church bells ring, the bells of Nagasaki, and imagine, too, the faithful hibakusha gathered around the ruins of the Nagasaki cathedral that Christmas Eve, 1945, and their cry for peace.  Scott Wright is a member of the Pax Christi USA National Council and a member of the board of Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore. He works with torture survivors at TASSC.