I post this entry because I promised my honors world history students that I would reveal my opinion on the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. To this point in the academic year, I have been guarded about my personal opinions and biases (as much as that is possible) but this issue currently under study evokes strong responses from everyone who is confronted with them—and teachers are no exception. That said, here is what I really think and how I have come to this stance.
Despite what students may think about teachers, we do not operate in a world that is purely academic, with no regard for ethics, religion, politics or emotion. To be sure, we focus our energies to a large degree on the academic disciplines we teach: we check facts, we collect data and resources and we try (we really do) to make the presentation of these facts as palatable as possible. My opinion on the dropping of the bomb derives from my understanding of ethics, my own religious life, my political tendencies and the admittedly fragile foundation of my emotions.
First, I accept the principles I laid out earlier in the academic year pertaining to the Just War Theory of Augustine, meaning I have a general abhorrence of targeting civilians as well as an ethical objection to making war when the avenues to peace are left largely untrod. In regard to Hiroshima and the war with Japan, there is ample evidence to show that the Japanese government wanted a cessation of hostilities as much as did the United States. Their concern was a politico-religious one, namely, that the integrity of the Emperor and the imperial system be left intact after suing for peace. This was not acceptable to President Truman and the American generals at the time, and yet, strangely, it was of no concern once the bombs were dropped since the Emperor was allowed to retain his position after all. From an ethical stance, then, I reject the idea that the atomic bomb had to be dropped because there was no other option. There were plenty of other options, but with both countries engaged in “total war” few people on either side could perceive them. That does not render these possibilities any less valid or worthy of consideration.
Secondly, I am a Catholic priest whose vocation is to nurture people wherever they are on life’s journey, without judgment or expecting them to be anything but what God wants them to be. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that God’s grace is sufficient, in even the most deficient of times, and it seems to me that if I as a white male, middle-class American demand grace for myself in the way of second chances, patience for my ongoing failings as a human being and a way of interacting with God in the manner I deem most appropriate to myself and my nature, then I am required by the strength of that faith to hold the same things to be true for everyone else on the planet. Killing people– innocent women, children and men who are non-combatants as well as those deemed guilty–deprives them de facto of access to grace and second chances. This is unacceptable to me.
Thirdly, my own political views, based on the two prior categories, have evolved to the point where I can see clearly that my country is pursuing a path of violence that is inimical to my core beliefs, as well as to common sense. We continue the “First Path” of retributive violence, we talk the talk of “peace”, but what we really want is a cessation of violence through an ever growing military industrial complex (to borrow Eisenhower’s phrase) and rely on its inherent power to inflict an ever expanding level of violence. This simply does not work long term and cannot work to procure for my students and their children the world I hope for them to inherit. I admit my own part in creating this dangerous world that they are poised to enter and attempt to control: I have not worked hard enough for peace, and I have not voiced enough of my concerns about the death penalty or the ongoing wars in various places around the world. I have allowed so-called “christians” to legislate away medical care for women and children, impose unfair legal strictures on lesbians and gays, cut benefits to the mentally and developmentally disabled, and in general make a mockery of everything that Jesus of Nazareth stood for, namely, the Reign of God in the here and now. I also believe passionately in the principles of the Enlightenment and consider myself “liberal” in the same sense that our founding fathers did, but I am sometimes reluctant to take a stand against our own government’s policies, even when they are clearly antagonistic to the principles we say we uphold.
Fourth, I cannot help but be affected by my emotions when I learn of families who lost children when the bomb was dropped. I know firsthand what it feels like to lose a son, to hold his lifeless body in my arms, to know that part of my patrimony to the larger world is gone forever. I know the depth of the dark space his dying left inside me, the woundedness that will never heal. Thousands of other fathers and mothers have endured the same sense of loss, experienced the same senseless grief, carried forever the empty space bearing the image of their sons and daughters. If the world’s survival, or at least the survival of the post-Enlightenment West’s survival is dependent somehow on the continued killing of the innocent, then perhaps I have already lived too long. I worry about the world in which I live; I worry even more about the world that will be after I am gone, the world my children and my students are about to inherit.
In the depth of my hopelessness following my son’s death, I vowed to him that I would change my life somehow, that I would no longer waste precious time on things like pursuit of money or things, that I would, in fact, become the man I knew he would have become—a man of integrity and compassion. This is why I teach in the first place, this is why my students have always meant so much to me personally. They are my own grace-filled second chance to do something positive for the world. Christopher is gone and I feel his absence especially at graduation time, remembering how close he came to graduating high school. And although he is gone, I have tried to bring up others, albeit in my classroom, who will carry the torch of compassion and healing and find a creative way out of the violence of our forebears. I believe completely in the Third Way, the way of Jesus, the way of Gandhi, in the way of my son, Chris. And I find hope in the eyes and writings of my students, who want nothing more than to transform the world and find their place in it.