OVER THE LAST 14 months, I visited Nagasaki six times to prepare for and then participate in the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia, along with 60 Christian leaders from Japan, the U.S., China, and South and North Korea.
Following the forum, I attended the International Symposium for Peacemaking in Northeast Asia, held at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. These events gave me much opportunity to think about nuclear weapons and peacemaking, alone and together with a peaceable community of believers.
The devastating power unleashed on Nagasaki and Hiroshima 70 years ago shocked the human community. I have friends whose families suffered when atomic bombs fell on those two Japanese cities. But Japan was not simply a victim. The Pacific War started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And if the Japanese military had then had an atomic bomb, I am quite certain they would have used it.
Today, many are working to abolish nuclear weapons as inhumane and unacceptable. I am convinced that nuclear weapons cannot be justified. But the question “Why should we abolish nuclear weapons?” leads to additional questions: How do we think about wars, about killing and violence, in general? While seeking to abolish nuclear weapons, should we keep on making, selling, and using other kinds of weapons? Should we regard only nuclear weapons as unacceptable? The answer depends on the foundations of our ethics as people of faith.
MEMBERS OF THE early church generally refused to serve in the military. While accepting the police function of military forces, they rejected killing. They made the teaching and example of Jesus the norm for their ethics. But when Constantinian Christianity unified church and state in the 4th century C.E., the church crafted an ethic based not on Jesus’ life and teaching, but on “common sense” and natural law. Thus the teachings of Jesus came to be seen as heavenly ideals while the imperatives for daily life became “realistic choices.” In the 20th century, theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr seized this ethic, claiming that stopping huge evils justified the use of lesser evils, even the violent use of guns, bombs, and missiles.
This “realistic” ethic also led to the ironic tragedy of a country that claimed to be Christian dropping an atomic bomb upon Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, where generations of underground Roman Catholic Christians had lived, worshiped, and been persecuted for 260 years. This ethic also led to the further irony of the United States, a “Christian country,” virtually forcing Japan, a non-Christian country, to adopt the Peace Constitution—a document that the majority of Japanese still favor keeping nearly 70 years after the end of WWII. Within the church in Japan, support is even higher. Similarly, the church and most Japanese reject the making, keeping, and use of nuclear weapons.
Those of us who take the teaching of Jesus as our norm need to reject not only atomic bombs, but also weapons and violence as a means of forcing one’s will on others. The primary task of the church is to become the church, reflecting the character of the reign of God to come: shalom. No one else can do this, and no one else knows the will of God better than the church.