Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Revelation 8:16 8-6-45

Today is the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  As my first sermon back after a month away from the pulpit of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, this is what I had to say on the subject.  (As always, if you want to listen to the sermon, just click here.)

Opening Reading:  from Ray Bradbury's short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains"
“Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hand raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint- the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”

* * *
At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but now it looked like everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  15,000 tons.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  42-year old Mitsuno Ochi was sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, when the bomb exploded.  She was reduced to nothing but a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved those steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And then the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 100,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  100,000 people. 
Yet these are just numbers:  15,000 tons of TNT.  Seven thousand degrees.  100,000 people dead.  60 million dead if you add in all those—military and civilians—who died during World War II.  The war after “the war to end all wars.”
When I was in my twenties I got to spend a couple of months in Tokyo working with a Japanese mime troupe.  One of the few regrets I have of that time is that I never made it to the Hiroshima Peace Museum.  Like so many I have been haunted by what happened at 8:16 on August 6th, 1945.  The suddenness of it.  The enormity of it.  The … I don’t know … the comprehensiveness of it.  Everything changed in that moment.  Everything.  And the shock waves continue to reverberate in our world and in our psyches. 
Who are we – as a people, as a species – if we’re capable of this?   And not just once, but again two days later?
In 1903 the incomparable George Benard Shaw wrote a play called Man and Superman.  It’s a four act play, but most often only Acts I, II, and IV are performed together.  The 3rd Act is almost always performed as a stand-alone piece and even has its own title: Don Juan in Hell.  I grew up listening to a recording of Don Juan in Hell that was one of my parents’ prized possessions and one of my greatest pleasures – a recording of a 1952 readers’ theater production staring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead.  Oh but those four could have been reading the phone book, their voices are so marvelous to listen to.  I recently found this recording on iTunes and have been listening to it, enraptured, since.
The play is a philosophical dialog about the meaning of love and marriage, men and women, life and death – pretty heady stuff, really.  It takes the literary figures of Don Juan, Doña Anna, and her father the Commander, and sets them in Hell having a conversation with the Devil.  It’s full of wonderful Shaw-isms.  An example?  “An Englishman thinks he is being moral when he is merely uncomfortable.”  There are also some tremendous monologues, one of which I’d like to quote at some length here, germane as I believe it to be.  This is the Devil, countering Don Juan’s assertion that man’s (this was written in 1903) that man’s brain is the pièce de résistance of creation.  And so the Devil says:

And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man's wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine. The peasant I tempt today eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady's bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind. In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvelous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness. […]

The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

It is said that Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the Father of the Atomic Bomb,” responded to seeing the first test of the device he helped birth by quoting the Hindu holy book the Bahagavad Gita:  I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.  We, we human beings, had become death, the destroyers of worlds.
How is it possible that we haven’t stopped fighting yet?  After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Pearl Harbor, the Congo, Korea, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Somalia, Northern Ireland, New York City, Bagdad, Fallujah, Allepo, Israel, Gaza—how can we still be slaughtering one another?  It’s been nearly forty years since Edwin Starr shouted out, “War.  What is it good for?”  and answered himself, “Absolutely nothin’.”  How is it that we’re still doing it?
Maybe it’s because we keep talking about numbers.  Joseph Stalin said that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. But there are no statistics.  There is no such thing as “collateral damage.”  There are only people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, neighbors, friends.  Strangers, even.  Enemies, even.  But no numbers.  Numbers don’t exist; only people do.  Until they don’t anymore.  Until they become shadows in a museum.
Or maybe it’s because we keep thinking that we can fight our way to peace, that the problem is some bad people over there and if we can just beat them into submission peace will prevail.  We believe that it’s in talking tough, acting tough, that we protect the peace.  We’re told—and many believe—that the best defense is a good offense and that while might might not always make right, might in the hands of the good guys is there to be used.

The revelation of that lovely Monday morning when the birds burned and the world shuddered was just how incredible is humanity’s power to create death.  We demonstrated, irrefutably, just how masterful we are when it comes to being “ingeniously destructive,” as Shaw’s Devil put it.  I think that it was Einstein who said, after seeing the devastation of the atomic bomb, that humankind had progressed so far technologically that we now needed an evolution of consciousness if we hoped to survive. 

Yet I don’t believe that that’s all that was revealed in that blinding flash –  we also saw clearly, and still can see when we look back at it, how important is the imperative for us to work against our inclination towards death and work for life – tirelessly, unceasingly, incessantly. 

We say in our Mission Statement here at TJMC that we, “seek to have a lasting influence on local, national and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.”  Surely work for peace fits that criteria.  So while some of us engage with the struggle for full equal rights for LGBT folks; and others continue the seemingly endless work of striving for racial justice, and economic justice; and some are working tirelessly to end the suffering, the oppression of the earth herself; we need some to be standing up for peace, too.  Peace among nations.  Peace within communities.  We need people to attend protests and vigils, write letters, host community forums, work on legislation, run for office, keep the rest of us informed . . . there so many things we can do.  And we should do those things.  Our own Peace Action/United Nations group is a good place to start.  And there is much to be done.

I’ll end with four quotations that, I think, taken together are a fitting response to the horrors we remembered today and, I hope, are an inspiration for the work to be done:
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
~ Mother Teresa
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.  ~ A.J. Muste
Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.  ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.  ~ Martin Luther

Closing Words:  "Every Day" by Ingeborg Bachmann (an Austrian poet)
War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday. The hero stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front. The uniform of the day is patience, its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.The medal is awarded when nothing more happens, when the artillery falls silent, when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament covers the sky.It is awarded for desertion of the flag, for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard of every command.

Pax tecum,


PS -- As the prelude to the service, and to provide an alternative to the grim nature of the sermon, the incomparable Scott DeVeaux performed a rendition of this classic Randy Newman song:

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