Isaiah 2: 2-4
Matthew 5: 43-48
One of the history teachers in the high school school where my brother in law taught, gave a final exam at the end of the unit on the Second World War in which she asked this question: Which nation wrote the following editorial, and in what year? Justify your answer in a few sentences. "They are utterly lacking in any ability to understand the principles of humanity. Whatever may be the state of their material civilization, they are nothing but lawless savages in spirit who are ruled by fiendish passions and an unrestrained lust for blood. Against such enemies of decency and humanity, the civilized world must rise in protest and back up that protest with punitive force. Only through the complete chastisement of such barbarians can the world be made safe for civilization."
Make your own mental guess, before I tell you the answer: Japan, specifically The Nippon Times of Tokyo, on March 29, 1945 in an editorial, directed against American fire bombings of Tokyo, which on March 9th of that year killed between 80 and 100,000 civilians. By the end of the war, American planes had bombed 66 Japanese cities, leaving dead an estimated 400,000 civilians, half of whom perished in the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When we consider that the total U.S.military casualties in the Second World War were 300,000, 400,000 civilian deaths should give us pause Japan lost more civilians than we lost soldiers. But, of course, as we all know, we did not start the war, though we did manage to finish it, successfully, though certainly not easily.
War is always ugly, and as all nations learn, they must help their recruits to move not only beyond the moral prohibitions against killing but also beyond any feelings of empathy and compassion for the enemy. At one of the camps for the building of the Burma-Siam railway, the Japanese commander, noticing that some of his men were showing compassion to Allied prisoners by allowing them to rest, ordered his men not to waste their compassion on “the remnants of a degenerate white race and the fragments of a rabble army.” If you were a new American recruit in 1944, the United States Army had learned just how strong the prohibition against killing was. And so beginning in 1944, a pamphlet with these words was handed out to its newly drafted men: You’ve got to rid yourself of squeamish feelings about killing these men who are your enemies. You may not hate them, but they hate you, and killing them is the only means of defeating what they would kill you to accomplish.
Yes, war is hell to quote the famous Union General William Sherman, and we all know or should know each side does hellish things to the other. No one fights wars with clean hands, and many people openly acknowledge they did not fight with clean consciences. This is not to excuse war, but rather it is a frank acknowledgement of war’s inevitable brutality. The words from the prophet Isaiah: Nation shall not lift sword against nation or learn war any more express the human longing and hope for the peaceable kingdom, but alas, that kingdom is not yet here. Jesus commands us to love our enemies, not kill them, but most of us do not expect governments, including our own, to run on non-violent principles. It is not practical, we say, and so in some instances, many of us are willing to go to war, and pick up the pieces afterwards. We do what we have to do, and then ask for forgiveness later. This is not cynicism; it is reality. This is the world in which we live, the world we have helped to make.
73 years ago, almost to the day, on August 6th and August 9, 1945 the United States dropped the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing over 200,000 civilian deaths. And on August 15, General Henry H. Arnold, who wanted to show Japan that we could “bake, boil and burn them to death” even without the use of atomic weapons, ordered the final bombing of Tokyo, knowing that the words of surrender were being worked on even as the planes took off. 1,014 bombers were sent against the already devastated city, and Japan’s surrender came before all the bombers had returned. True, we did not begin that ugly war, but how we ended it is worth pondering. We ended it through the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. And if we do not know that, if we do not face that, we do not fully know who we are as a nation, and we fool ourselves into believing that we are more morally pure than we actually are.
The great Protestant reformer, John Calvin said, ‘The Bible contains two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God.” And knowledge of self embraces more than our individual lives. We are part of various communities, including a nation, and as citizens we partake of a national identity and a history that far transcends our own personal actions. When the prophet, Isaiah, spoke, his words were directed to a covenental people to whom he held up the image of the peaceable kingdom. But he also demanded that his people take a hard look at themselves as a people and acknowledge the ways the community had failed to honor God and God’s covenant.
Any nation that fights a war inevitably has blood on its hands. The world is a violent place, and the church recognizes that hard truth. Though the early church was a pacifist institution---no military person was allowed to join the church--- by the 5th century the theory of just war developed as a means to help Christians live in an unjust and violent world. Just war theory says you have a right to protect yourself as well as a right to defend those who are too weak to defend themselves, but you must consider the good that can be achieved and the means used to achieve that good. If you must kill civilians to achieve good ends, (such as the ending of a war) how many deaths can be tolerated? In the case of the atomic bombs, it is interesting to note that although the military overwhelmingly supported the idea, two of the strongest opponents to dropping the bombs came from military men. Admiral William Leahy and Dwight D. Eisenhower both argued that an invasion of Japan was unnecessary, since we had broken the Japanese code, and we knew that Japan was near surrender anyway. Such civilian slaughter would leave the United States morally compromised, they argued. Slaughter, by the way, was the exact word Eisenhower used.
We all realize how much easier hindsight is than foresight. In 1945 everyone just wanted the war to end, and most did not care how. Most Americans did not know then that Japan was near surrender and was working the details out through the Soviet Union. Most Americans did not know then that the dropping of the bombs was a determined demonstration of American power to the Soviet Union, who was growing into the new enemy. And so today when we look back, what do we see? What have we learned? Those are questions worth pondering.
My brother in law told me that no one answered his colleague’s exam question correctly. A few thought it was an English editorial during the Blitzkrieg of London; one thought it was Russia after Germany invaded; some thought it was a U.S. editorial after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and most thought it was written in May, 1945, when the United States saw the death camps in Europe. The teacher did give a lot of partial credit for the answers, because she said while they were wrong, the students were able to justify them. That’s really quite fitting, isn’t it? We can be oh so wrong, but oh so clever at justifying our answers. But the God in Jesus Christ, who commands us to love our enemies, may be much less impressed with our justifications than history teachers are. In the end it is not justifications, which save us or our enemies, but the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!