Facing Hiroshima

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Each one of you has received a special grace, so, like good stewards responsible for all these different graces of God, put yourselves at the service of others. If you are a speaker, speak in words which seem to come from God; if you are a helper, help as though every action was done at God’s orders; so, that in everything God may receive the glory,, through Jesus Christ, since to God alone belong all glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:10-11

Today, for the first time, an American president has visited Hiroshima and embraced  a survivor of the unspeakable horror visited on that city, as well as three days later on the city of Nagasaki. This moment is certainly one that evokes in us the “serious and sober-minded” reflection of which the first letter of Peter speaks. It may well be that no United States president before this has been quite able to face not only the political but the human and moral contradictions that his presence in that city would symbolize. Inherent in nationalism is a sense of moral superiority. “We” are the human beings while “they” are something less. “We” are the greatest country on earth who seek only the freedom of all, while “they” are self-centered and desire dominance over others. We are believers in God and live by “Christian” principles, while others are immoral and worship idols. Today, however, whatever the words, the images are a reminder that it is only the United States that has used a weapon that destroyed an entire city and killed at once or over time well over 100,000 children, women, and men. And then, three days later, did it again.

In his speech at Hiroshima President Obama said: “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” The moral revolution that is required if we are not to pervert the capacities of our intelligence and technological progress is the very one that is spoken of in Peter’s first letter. “Each of you has received a special grace, so, like good stewards responsible for all these different graces of God, put yourselves at the service of others.” It is not trivial to understand that in every choice we make, in every word we utter and every act in which we engage, we are making a moral choice for service (responsibility to God) or manipulation (self-serving action), for love and consonance or violence.

The  question we are to ask, if we are to experience a “moral revolution”, is: “What is the source and what is the end of our speech and actions?”. The author of 1Peter says that if we are a speaker we are to speak in words that seem to come from God, and if we are a helper we are to help as if every action is done at God’s orders. Our gifts of speech, action, thought, technology will inevitably go awry unless we exercise them with responsibility to the One from whom they come. It may well be true that the core act of truly human living is appraisal, that is our continual questioning of  whence comes this thought, word, idea, action which is arising in us? Is it from God, is it of God, and will its fruits return to God?

Martin Heidegger spoke of thinking as thanking. By this he meant that we should think about what is presented to us as we receive it gratefully. Our thinking must be grounded not in our own often dissociated rationality but rather in the reality that is presented to us. The Buddha, similarly, says we are to be present to what is without craving or aversion if we are to engage in right speech and right action. It is in our actual field of formation that God’s words, God’s thoughts, God’s “orders” come to us. The more we are able to face reality, without craving or aversion but actually in gratitude for God’s presence which the truth both contains and conceals, the more responsible we become to God for our words, thoughts, and actions.

What this requires of us is continual daily practice. St. Ignatius of Loyola is said to have told his Jesuit confreres that if they only had time for one period of prayer each day it should be the examen. We must live always with the question of how we have used our speech, our actions, our thoughts during the day. It is not easy to admit that we have spoken, or not spoken, acted or not acted, thought or not thought in ways that were not of service to others. It is difficult to admit to ourselves and to God that our cravings or aversions were the motivation behind what we said and did and not God’s desire

to manifest
care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness; 
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed 
of this world.
Xaverian Fundamental Principles

It is by examining ourselves day after day that we slowly begin to experience within ourselves the “moral revolution” that turns the focus of our attention, and so of all we say and do, from self-preoccupation to the God who wills always that the fruit of our words and actions be the good of all.

What makes the personal exercise of examen so difficult is our inherent difficulty in being honest with ourselves. Until today, I suspect, no American president dared to come face to face with the reality and result of his country’s action. Shame is essentially a social phenomenon. Because we fear “losing face,” we are often unable to receive and respond to the truth in ways that can make things different, that can become a “moral revolution.” Today’s moment in Hiroshima and the moments of our own honest self-examen are not times for comparison with others. We are responsible, as the letter of Peter says, to God alone for our use or misuse of the gifts and the powers we have been given. We waste time and life trying to convince others of our rectitude and superiority because we refuse to be responsible and accountable for ourselves to God alone.

Culturally we have reduced and diminished the meaning of apology. Because we lack a sense of soul and spirit, of human transcendence, we think that the ultimate act of repentance is to force from another an apology for his or her failure or hurt. Yet, an apology that does not come out of an experience of responsibility, repentance and commitment to the reformation of our life is merely a social convention. The hurt which we do to and the violence we inflict on each other is the result of the perversion of our very personhood and call, of our responsibility to the One who has given us life to “to manifest care and compassionate love.” “I’m sorry” is meaningful, but only if it means a conversion and turning of one’s life back to it’s true and original direction. Only if it is a recognition of one’s own manifestation of evil. We must not only merely stop killing each other (although that would be a good start); we must come to know our responsibility to and for each other out of our responsibility to God. We can learn  and appropriate this responsibility by a consistent daily confrontation with the truth of our own lives.

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.

Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

Barack H. Obama, Hiroshima, Japan, May 27, 2016

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