Saturday, August 7, 2010

A reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the dawn of the Nuclear Age

This Friday, August 6th, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day on which Christians commemorate the appearance of Our Lord to his disciples, on the holy mountain, in dazzling white clothes, infused with light and splendor. This is the day upon which Peter, John, and James saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, and on which they knew with a certainty- with no need for testing, for doubt, for skepticism, or for proof- that the carpenter whom they followed was truly the Second Person of God, the Word made flesh. I had the opportunity to go to a beautiful cathedral in Pittsburgh this Friday, for a short weekday Eucharist, and heard a great homily. The priest emphasized that the Transfiguration can’t be taken as a myth or a metaphor, or a pretty story. It was a miracle, but it was also a piece of literal history, a moment when heaven literally, for a moment, opened up and allowed three of the Apostles to see a glimpse of the world beyond this one. St. Peter mentions that he personally witnessed it: “And this voice we heard brought from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mount” (2 Peter 1:18) and his recollection probably found its way into the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well. If we are to accept that he wasn’t lying, or crazy, then we pretty much need to accept that the story happened as he described it.

Here’s St. Luke’s description of the event.
“And it came to pass about eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James, and went up onto a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening.
And behold, there talked with Him two men, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep. And when they were awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And it came to pass as they departed from Him, Peter said unto Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he was saying.

While he thus spoke, there came a cloud and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is my beloved son; hear him!" And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.”
It would be nice to focus on this miraculous, strange, and mysterious event on the feast day dedicated to it, and to meditate on the vision of the transfigured Christ that the apostles were privileged to see. But of course, August 6th, especially this year, has another resonance for people in the modern era, a darker and more morbid one that nevertheless has strange echoes of the Transfiguration. On August 6th, exactly 65 years ago, the United States used nuclear weapons- alone of any country in human history- upon the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Just a week later, we repeated that act, using them upon Nagasaki, the ancient port city of Japan and its gateway to the West, and in doing so won the war for good. We bought peace, security, and an end to the bloodiest war in human history, at the cost of some two hundred thousand civilian lives. This date, as much as the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also run through with theological meaning. As the early church lived in the shadow of the Transfiguration, our own age lives in the shadow of Hiroshima. What happened on that morning of August 6th, 1945, changed our world forever. Our thoughts, fears, dreams, worries, the language of our moral discourse and of our political debates, has been shaped permanently by the fact that we live in the world of total war and the atom bomb. For good or for ill, we live haunted with the knowledge of how to make and use nuclear weapons, and with the legacy of actually having used them, and with the fear that they may be used again in the future. This is, in truth, the age of Hiroshima. And so it’s worth stopping a minute, and thinking about the strange connection of these two events.

The Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, in a radio talk that I heard while driving back from Pittsburgh, and also in a piece released the same day on the Huffington Post, draws some interesting parallels. He isn’t the first, of course- people have been drawing these connections since the bomb was dropped 65 years ago- but his piece was a powerful and compelling one, and I’m indebted to it for my own thoughts. He points out, first of all, that there are some strange similarities and parallels in the imagery of the two occasions. On August 6th, 1945, the world saw a blinding light, more brilliant and fiery than any light the hand of man had ever been able to create. On that day, a cloud enveloped the city of Hiroshima and rose up to the heavens, as it did on the day of the transfiguration. On that day, the world was struck with fear and trepidation, as we contemplated the reality that we had just entered into a new and unpredictable age, with many more questions than answers. And on it, we knew for the first time that we held in our hands an unfathomable power, that we weren’t really sure what to make of, just as the Apostles on the holy mountain got some vague and dim sense of the divine power that was inherent in their Master.

In the transfiguration of Christ, we see the City of God plant a small outpost on this earth, and we see, through the eyes of Peter and Luke, a glimpse of what that city will look like: a city in which the dead are raised, in which our clothes are washed to a pure and glistening white, and in which we are illuminated by the light of Christ himself, whom the Nicene Creed calls “Lumen de lumine”, Light of Light. And in the destruction of Hiroshima, and in the deliberate killing of two hundred thousand civilians- women, babies, the aged, the sick, schoolchildren, farmers and industrial labourers who had never done anything to any one of us- we saw, in the vivid halo of the burning city, and in the light of that fire that burned to death tens of thousands of people in unspeakable agony, a vision of the ultimate opposite of the City of God. We saw, in all its peacock-bright glory, the City of Man.

St. Augustine gives us a good definition of these two cities. “Thus two cities are formed by two loves: the city of God by the love of God to the contempt of the self, the city of man by the love of self to the contempt of God.” The city of man is, he goes on to say, that city formed when we see ourselves as masters of our own fates, entitled to choose and to make our own good, rather than cleaving to the true Good which comes from God. We see the difference between these two cities in vivid detail, when we consider the image of Christ talking with Moses and Elijah. We don’t know exactly why Christ chose to have this conversation, but one part of it might be to show that, as he did with Lazarus, he had the power to call the souls of the dead out of the shadowy afterlife. In this scene he showed that his Father- and by extention, he himself- had power over life and death, and in particular, the power to conquer death and to bring life and renewal back to the dead. Christ brought life out of death, just as we, on that dark day of August 6th, chose to bring death out of life.

The morality of what we did then is a controversial issue in America today. But it shouldn’t be a controversial issue for those of us who believe either in a natural-law moral framework, or in Judeo-Christian morality. (Most Christian churches, including mine, also believe in natural law, so the distinction is somewhat vague. As Pope Benedict said at the Regensburg address some years ago, our God is a God characterized by reason. God doesn’t forbid things because He likes to forbid; He forbids them because they are inherently wrong, contrary to our good, to our natures, and to our ultimate purpose). One could argue the morality of the nuclear attacks back and forth, and people have done so for six decades, spilling reams of ink: but my position is simple and straightforward, and I’ll make no bones about it. It was a war crime, a violation of the laws of God and man, against natural law and against sacred tradition, a spilling of the blood of innocent civilians on a grand scale, and can’t be plausibly defended within any just-war moral framework.

Defenses of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki generally revolve around the idea that 1) it was necessary for our safety and survival, 2) the Japanese were far worse than we were, and have no grounds to complain, and 3) it saved lives in the long run. All may well be true, but they’re also irrelevant. For a variety of reasons, Christians, and other people who believe in natural law moral reasoning, tend not to judge actions solely by their consequences (I’d argue that consequentialism, judging solely by consequences, is ultimately an insupportable and self defeating way to think about morality, but that’s a separate argument for another time). But before I get into just why Hiroshima was so wrong, let me deal with these three points.

Most people, at some point, have a line that they won’t cross, for any reason whatsoever, including their own survival. I’d hope, and suspect, that most of us would decide that there are certain things we would never do, even if our lives- or the lives of those we love, or of our countrymen- was at stake. As Elizabeth Anscombe put it eloquently in her essay on Hiroshima, would you boil a baby alive to save your own life? If you wouldn’t, then you’ve conceded that some things are wrong even if our survival or that of our country or loved ones depends on it. Now all we have to decide is whether Hiroshima fits on the far or near side of the line. I’d point out that this isn’t a bad thing- it’s indeed, exactly what makes us human. Quite a few animals are driven by the goal of survival, and do whatever they need to ensure their own survival (though not all- there are many examples of animals sacrificing themselves for their kin, which should give us pause). One of the evidences that we are rational, moral, human creatures with a mind and a soul, is the fact that we can choose to obey drives beyond just physical survival. If we didn’t, then we would be no higher and no different, ultimately, than a wolf or a sea slug. But we can so choose, and we do, all the time. Christians and Jews alike, for example, honour the memory of the Maccabean martyrs, killed under the regime of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucids. These seven brothers chose to be boiled alive rather than eat pork: “For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our forefathers” (2 Maccabees 7:2).. If this is true- and we have no reason to doubt the story, for many people throughout history have chosen such sacrifices- then how much more must we believe they would have chosen to die rather than commit murder? These seven brothers preferred to die rather than ignore a minor dietary law, how much more would they have preferred to die rather than transgress one of the greatest laws of all, the command that the Israelites were given to “Choose life?”

Necessity, then, can’t excuse _everything_, unless you’re willing to swallow Anscombe’s gambit and boil the baby alive. Which we did, at Hiroshima, deliberately targeting what we knew was a civilian city, full of noncombatants including many, many children. Most of us agree that a line exists. I hold that what we did to end World War II- deliberate destruction of a whole city- was well on the far side of that line, and violated the laws of war, of nature, of morality, and of God.

If necessity can’t excuse it, neither can the greater good. It’s said that the bombing saved lives, American and Japanese, in the long run. Maybe so. But the distinction is that those lives that would have been lost, during a hypothetical invasion, would have been the fault of the Japanese military, not ours. They could have stopped it at any moment, and who knows, God willing, they might have. Such deaths would have been foreseeable, but not _intended_. Our intent- impossible as it might have been- would have been a quick surrender following an armed military invasion. The Japanese would probably have resisted, and there would have been many deaths, but those deaths, again, would have been _side effects_ of our decision to invade, not the direct _means_ or _end_ of the invasion. In that little distinction, what the moral theologicans call the doctrine of double effect comes into play. It’s sometimes permissible to do things you know will have terrible side effects, as long as you don’t intend those terrible things either as a means or an end. It’s _not_ permissible to use the killing of children or other innocent noncombatants as the direct means of achieving a military goal. In the destruction of Hiroshima, those 200,000 deaths were the direct means- not a side effect, but the whole intended purpose of dropping the bomb. It was done to terrorize the Japanese into submission, and it achieved its goal admirably: those 200,000 deaths were the means of achieving it. Had only a dozen people died at Hiroshima, our whole effort would have been in vain, which tells you right away that there was something immoral about the whole enterprise.

And neither, of course, can the horrible acts of the Japanese military excuse it. That our enemies behaved abominably doesn’t excuse us from following the moral law. It’s said, by Our Lord himself, “Repay not evil for evil”. Our Lord overturned (in the main) the law of Moses, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, stripe for stripe, life for life”, but even the Law of the Talion, eye for eye, is incomparably superior to the ‘law’ that we followed when we bombed civilian cities. The ‘law’ of World War II would be something like, ‘If you pluck out my eye, I’ll pluck out, not yours, but your baby daughter’s.” For those people that we destroyed at Hiroshima weren’t predominantly the soldiers or (much less) the military, political and economic elites who had waged war on us and had spread death, torture, and oppression across Asia and the Pacific. They were innocent civilians- labourers, industrial workers, farmers, teachers, doctors, librarians, priests- going about their daily lives, who shared nothing in common with Tojo and his armies besides a nationality. (And not even always that- a seventh of all the people killed at Hiroshima weren’t even Japanese, they were imported slave labourers from Korea. Wonder how we would have explained that to their families.)

I am not a pacifist, to say the least. I believe most rules have exceptions, and the general rule against killing has exceptions, too. It’s permissible to kill soldiers in war, as long as the war is a just one. It’s permissible, I think (though this is more controversial) to kill tyrants and the elites (military, political, economic) who are carrying out direct acts of oppression in such a tyrannical regime. In context of a just revolution, killing government officials, soldiers, and police of a fiercely oppressive regime can be justified. You can push this a little- though you start getting into morally murky territory- by executing collaborators, spies, enemy agents, and the like. Execution of people responsible for the worst crimes- think the Saddam Husseins, John Gottis, Jeffrey Dahmers- can, I think, be justified too. Abortion is the great ‘life’ issue being debated in our time, but even there, though I’m generally pro-life, I’d recognize exceptions on the ground of self defence, when the baby is a serious threat to the health of the mother. But all of those, with the exception of the last, involve people who are actively doing harm to others, or who have committed grave acts of harm in the past, and by their crimes have placed themselves liable to judgment. This is the difference, in other words, between using violence against the guilty and using it against the innocent. As the Mosaic law said, again, “The just and innocent man ye shall not put to death” (Exodus 23:7).

Why do Judeo-Christian morality, and natural law, make such a distinction between the guilty and the innocent? It would take a while to explain, but in part, it stems from the fact that it’s implicit in our nature to be rational moral agents, to make free choices to do good or evil, and to treat us in a way reflective of our human dignity means that the treatment we receive should in some way be reflective of the consequences of our choices and our actions. This is why we don’t sentence insane criminals to prison, because we recognize that a person can’t be held responsible for something they didn’t choose to do. In order for our choices to have meaning they must have consequences, and that means that the treatment we should expect when we do something wrong, or harm others, is different from the treatment we should expect when we have done nothing wrong. When we harm another person unjustly, they have a right to resist us by force, because we have merited that by our actions. But when someone else has harmed them, we’ve merited no ill treatment whatsoever, and to harm us would be an injustice by itself. It’s been said that you should never use violence against someone unless you can give them a good explanation of why. Some explanations work- they would be convincing to me, if my opponent were right on the facts. “You’re an enemy soldier, actively trying to kill me.” “You’re a tyrant who has murdered your opponents and stood by while your subjects starved and died of poverty and neglect.” “You grew rich off directing murderous gangs.” In all these cases, these explanations are plausible because they refer back to something the person has chosen to do, and show that the use of force is justified because of their own actions. But some such explanations are completely unworkable. “You must die because you’re Japanese”, or “You must die because you live in this city”. Would anyone find that a plausible reason they should die? Being Japanese, or living in Hiroshima, are incidental, accidental facts about a person, they’re not _essential_ to who they are in the same way that their moral choices are essential, and that’s part of the reason why, if we take natural law seriously, killing the innocent and those actively doing (or having done) serious harmful or unjust things, are two very separate enterprises. No one would want to suffer for something that they personally didn’t do, or weren’t responsible for. And if we wouldn’t want to be killed for something that wasn’t our doing, how can we decide that we should do this to other people?

It’s worth thinking back to the Transfiguration, and to remembering who was speaking with Christ: one of the two, of course, was Moses. Moses was, among other things, a war leader as well as a lawgiver, and was at the same time a deeply flawed man, and one through whom God chose (in some sense, maybe in a fairly attenuated and indirect one) to work. He was a controversial figure in early Christianity, and remains one today, not least because of his status as a war leader. (Some of those wars, and his guidelines for conducting a war, are rather hair-raising; I’m not up on my Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but I don’t think they quite match up to either the modern or the medieval ideas about conducting war in a just and moral fashion. To say the least, though I’m not about to start quote mining Deuteronomy. Spare me.). Quite a few of the early Christian heresies threw out the Old Testament entirely. The Marcionites and the Manichaeans were among them, and they pointed out, reasonably enough, that all the business about killing the men and male children of hostile tribes, and taking the women as wives, were incompatible with the law of Christ. And that’s quite true (Judaism, just like Christianity, evolved over time, and to judge the whole religion by some of its earliest and murkiest writings would be quite unfair). The broad Christian tradition, though they did accept the Old Testament as scripture, never saw Moses as a perfect man, or his writings as a perfect record of morality (Christianity didn’t agree with the Mosaic law on divorce, for example, and neither Christians nor later Jews followed its views on the conduct of war). Revelation is a gradual process, and moral progress happened between the time of Moses and that of St. Augustine.

We see this in what the Christian tradition tells us about Moses himself. We are told that the devil argued with the Archangel Michael over Moses after he died: “Yet Michael the Archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed over the body of Moses, durst not bring a railing accusation….” (Jude 1:9). This is apparently a reference to some Jewish apocryphal texts which I haven’t read; I should though because they sound interesting. The apocryphal tradition is that the devil claimed Moses’ body, on the grounds that he was a murderer. Now the Enemy is a liar, but he is also a smart cookie, and doesn’t claim things unless he has a hope of getting them. Implied in this passage is that the Enemy had a hint of a legitimate claim, in that Moses, as great as he was, had some serious flaws and limitations, and one of those moral flaws was an overly sanguine approach to war and to the ethics of war. Moses wasn’t welcomed into heaven because he was a perfect man, or because his moral code was perfect, or a perfect reflection of God’s commands; on the contrary, his flaws ran deep, just as his virtues did, and he was welcomed into heaven because of divine grace (as with us all), not because of his righteousness. He wasn’t a perfect moral authority any more than we are, as the story of the Enemy’s claim to his body makes clear, and that means that we need to look for where he was wrong as well as where he was right. And tradition tells us that the most questionable thing about him was his approach to war. The story of Jesus conversing with Moses on the holy mountain is a perfect reflection of how the new ethic of just and limited war overcame and superseded the old ethic of total war, Assyrian style.

Of course, Jude didn’t know, nor did Peter, that total war was gone but not forgotten. And that it would come back, on a grand scale, starting in the nineteenth century and reaching unheard of abysses of destruction in the twentieth, and would come close to drowning civilization in blood. St. John, another witness to the Transfiguration, gave us a hint of the terrible future, when he suggests that the powers of evil in this world would use the powers of nature to do strange and terrible wonders, and to envelop the world in flame. “And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men” (Revelation 13:13). As we reflect on the horrors that we wrought 65 years ago, this quotation seems particularly prophetic and chilling. When the world heard the radio broadcasts on that August day, it must have seemed to many that indeed, at last, fire had been made by human hands to come down from heaven on a greater scale than ever before. And they must have wondered whether, as St. John had foretold, this new age would be one in which the Enemy would have found a great new tool to work in the hearts of men to bring about hatred, evil, and destruction.

The nuclear age, unfortunately, is the age that we live in. Lamenting the destruction of Hiroshima is something we ought to do, but it isn’t enough. It happened 65 years ago, and most of the people involved have left this earthly coil; I hope all of them, Americans and Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, British and French, Russians and Australians, have been able to make their peace with God, and that the people on both sides who did evil that good might come of it, have repented and found forgiveness in the light of God and His peace. What’s left for us is to strive for a world in which that kind of horror never happens again. I’m glad that President Obama is striving for a world without nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, but that will never happen without great and massive popular pressure. All of us- not just Jews and Christians but all of us- should be striving to ensure a world free of the weapons that could destroy all life on this planet several times over. And all of us should hope and pray that our military men and women are safe, healthy, and preserved not just from physical danger but from moral danger, and that the United States Government does not ask of them to break the laws of war, to deliberately target civilians and innocent noncombatants, and to do evil that good may come of it. Let’s hope and pray that there will be no more deliberate killings of the innocent in the name of the United States government, not now and not ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

1 comment:

Geeklet said...

Followin' you. :)

- Geeklet