Hiroshima and Transfiguration

21 Comments

 

In the Catholic calendar the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing and the Feast of the Transfiguration occur on the same day. The conjunction illuminates both events. One, recalling the revelation of Jesus' relationship to God, is a feast of light; the other, recalling man's inhumanity to man, speaks of darkness. Both are pointers to possible human futures — one of glory and the other of annihilation. The history of nuclear weapons and recent developments present this choice even more starkly.

Trasfigurazione di Cristo (Savoldo)When the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima with the loss of about 150,000 lives only one nation possessed the nuclear bomb. A few years later Britain, France and Russia had also developed nuclear weapons. China, India, Israel, Pakistan and, briefly, South Africa soon followed. By then the destructive force of thermonuclear weapons had greatly increased. The largest device ever tested destroyed an area with a radius of 100km, more than ten times greater than that of the first weapons.

During the Cold War the possession of nuclear weapons was seen as a deterrent: their use would be met by massive retaliation and risked the destruction of both societies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union treaties limiting nuclear testing and reducing the number of nuclear weapons were signed, and efforts made to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty signed with Iran was part of this policy. The goal of these efforts was eventually to produce a world free of nuclear weapons, a Utopian hope but one that provided some reassurance that national leaders recognised their danger to humanity.

More recently the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons still held has not diminished. But the consensus militating against their use has weakened. North Korean leaders' determination to develop nuclear weapons of its own has exposed the hypocrisy of combining the justification of deterrence with opposition to proliferation. They realised that their only defence against possible attack lay in developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

The United States then disowned the treaty signed by its previous president with Iran, so encouraging Iran to expand its nuclear program. Now it has decided to withdraw from the intermediate range nuclear forces agreement with Russia. In Australia, as spring approaches, voices are heard spruiking the merits of nuclear power and the development of nuclear weapons.

This combination of the unilateral repudiation of agreements to curb the development and use of nuclear weapons and the sole emphasis on the interests of the nation state is deeply concerning. It suggests that nuclear weapons are regarded as a normal part of the armoury of strong nations and that their use will be governed by expediency to the exclusion of moral criteria. They are coming to be seen as normal and their horror lost in the political imagination. Their cost in lives, environmental degradation and living conditions to nations will be no more a consideration than it is in limited military action in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The dismantling of the taboos and protections that prevent their use does not mean, of course, that they will be used soon or lightly. But it increases the risk that in times when anxiety and xenophobia reign ideologically driven or careless leaders will license them.

 

"The careless attitudes to nuclear weapons taken by the world's leaders may reflect a more general atrophy of the moral imagination."

 

At the heart of this carelessness is moral insensitivity. It is highlighted in the Christian story of the Transfiguration and its embodiment of the belief that God loved and valued humanity enough to share it. The glory that surrounded him on the mountain reflects not only God's involvement in his life but also the inalienable value of each human being and the respect owed to them.

Though this story grounds the value of each human being in religious faith, the same insight is shared in many other philosophies that insist on human rights. They protest when human beings are used as means to an end, are counted by numbers and not by persons, and when their value is not seen as innate to their humanity but depends on race, religion, wealth and utility in the schemes of the powerful. As on the mountain, so for them each human being is holy ground. That insight lies at the heart of the moral imagination and distinguishes civilisation from barbarism.

The undermining of protocols designed to guard against the use of nuclear weapons erode the moral imagination. In the emphasis on the interests of the nation state, as in the emphasis in national politics on defining groups of people who are really part of us as distinct from those who are not, humanity is defined in terms of use, not of value. As a result we fail to see as salient the dehumanisation and destruction by which we secure our narrow interests. Those whom we see as hostile are like the forces of the dark powers in apocalyptic movies — they don't count as human.

If this is true, the careless attitudes to nuclear weapons taken by the world's leaders may reflect a more general atrophy of the moral imagination. To resist such erosion is all our business.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Trasfigurazione di Cristo (Savoldo)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Hiroshima, Japan, nuclear weapons, North Korea

 

 

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Existing comments

Andrew's very sobering and relevant connection between the Feast of the Transfiguration and the bombing devastation of Hiroshima suggests to me a similar juxtaposition of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and Picasso's Guernica, together with Paul VI's 1965 plea to the UN: "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind." When will we ever learn?
John RD | 13 August 2019


Thank you Andrew, For my entire lifetime, I have stood in the shadow of a Nuclear Winter . As a child, it terrified me (and still does). Last April I stood on the summit of the Mount of the Transfiguration which overlooks the Valley of Jezreel, a beautiful sight. With hundreds of others , my wife and I prayed in the Church on the site. The prayers were in many languages, yet we all had similar petitions. Peace , harmony among nations and forgiveness. May the Feast of the Transfiguration rekindle Jesus message.
Gavin A. O'Brien | 14 August 2019


How pertinent this article is to our world today. The devaluing of others has probaby gone in forever but I never thought I would see the day when refugees and asylum seekers to our shores would be treated so cruelly for so many years. I've never before heard the hate speech that is becoming common. Thank you for this timely article. If only people could realise the common humanity that exists between us all.
Anna | 14 August 2019


We are made of the elemental ashes of those cosmic thermonuclear blasts, the supernovae. This closes a circle: from Nature's unleashing of the elementary forces, to the emergence of Nature's exquisitely delicate ecology on one of myriad planets condensed from the remnants, to the appearance of on it of a consciousness capable of unleashing - maliciously - the very same force so to return itself to elemental ash. So, where is the transcendence? It is in realising that we, as a species, are not Nature's (thus God's) ends but the means of its flowering. To me it seems that both theological and materialist triumphalism miss the point of being human. We are not the masters; we remain the stewards, very vulnerable stewards. Each of us is loved unconditionally by God, for what His Nature crafted us to be. Yet as a collective we are constituted to be conditional as much as we are incomplete, almost by definition, if indeed "the best is yet to come" by the intimations of Transfiguration and Resurrection.
Fred Green | 14 August 2019


Literary artistry, the skill underlying theology and scriptural interpretation, can see connections between happenstances such as the deemed inclusiveness of God towards humans in the Transfiguration, each of whom is, supposedly, holy ground, and the exclusion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki supposedly symbolise. If Truman had decided to deploy his bombs in March, Father Hamilton’s literary artistry would have had to work a connection between the scenes of the Transfiguration and International Women’s Day. Inclusiveness is as inclusiveness does. God offers inclusion in Heaven; the supposedly holy ground in each human responds by accepting or rejecting. In the US, France and Israel, the leaders are included in their people. In China, Russia and North Korea, the leaders exclude their people. The people of the West cannot offer inclusion to the people of China, Russia and North Korea. In practice, they can only offer inclusion to the cliques that master those countries. There might be a lot of holy ground in China, Russia and North Korea, but whether that quality is to be found in the luxury compounds of Beijing, the Kremlin or Pyongyang is another question.
roy chen yee | 15 August 2019


What a moving and thought-provoking article! Thank you for drawing such a vivid connection between two of humanity's possible futures: our most exalted and most abysmal. Let's fix heart and mind on the Transfiguration...
Frances Letters | 15 August 2019


Terrific article, and comment by Fred Green. Spot on.
The time is Now | 16 August 2019


Peter and John and Jame saw the Transfiguration of Jesus with human eyes. So is any interpretation of ours. Maybe that's why Jesus told them to not tell anybody, until after His Resurrection. Once we have ourselves lived a Transfiguration or Resurrection of some kind in our own lives, He may have been pointing also to, we are clueless. Human conciseness in full blossom. Can be seen in the eyes of any child. Jesus said unless you become like children. Remember? A short poem I wrote in my teens, titled Here: Never look at what you see. What you look at may not be. Never look at a finished design. But All as motion divine in time.
AO | 16 August 2019


Fr Andrew's article brings to mind Samuel Johnson's pithy line about politicians. "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. " And Religion by Swift, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." So does the end justify the means? Truman bombed Hiroshima to end the war- but the reality was he wanted to impress Stalin with the awesome power of their new weapon. The defenceless citizens were pawns in a bigger game. Now as China threatens us should we deploy American medium range missiles on our shores, should we like the pro democracy citizens of Hong Kong, acquiesce and turn the other cheek? Israeli intelligence firm ImageSat International (ISI) said images taken on Friday indicated that China had returned its surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island, known in China as Yongxing Island, in the Paracels “exactly to the positions they were”. South China Morning Post Hong Kong 16 Aug 2019. If China is to become our new master, religious freedom will be over in Australia.
Francis Armstrong | 17 August 2019


Interesting to compare this article with Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose 1946 piece The Future of Mankind wrote that the recent nuclear bombings and tests showed the ultimate control of Man over Nature, the horror of ultimate power which would deter war for ever, somehow uniting all peoples and fulfilling God's plan.
Karis | 18 August 2019


I am absolutely sure that it is only the Divine Hand which has saved the world from a nuclear confrontation and the resultant nuclear winter. No, I have had no personal revelation, it's my instinct and my reading of these times. Our Lady's appearances and revelations at Fatima are key factors here. One of the Seven Deadly Sins is Pride. Pride is, in essence, attempting to abrogate God's authority to oneself: worshipping our own inner Golden Calf. People have not, in essence, changed since Adam and Eve. They were basically kicked out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience to God. Since then their descendants have followed this example. If we did not have this propensity to both evil as well as good, we would have developed safe nuclear power only and never, ever thought of turning it to evil.
Edward Fido | 18 August 2019


All who mentioned the Blessed Virgin and her words are also doing God's Will and are very Blessed. The following words of Our Lady of Guadalupe have been extracted from the Nican Mopohua, a 16th century historical account of the apparitions and miraculous event written in Nahuatl by Antonio Valeriano. These words of the Blessed Virgin Mary were spoken to Juan Diego over the course of several days. The historical context has been omitted so the reader may concentrate on Holy Mother's consoling message of solicitude..."I am your Mother", ''Hark, my little son, you must understand that I have many servants and messengers, to whom I must entrust the delivery of my message, and carry my wish, but it is of precise detail that you yourself solicit and assist and that through your mediation my wish be complied. ''
AO | 19 August 2019


Andy's timely and beautifully-crafted essay reminds us of the long association between the global and in particular English, Catholic Left, as evidenced in the columns of 'Slant' and 'Herder Correspondence', and the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In Australia, Pax Christi is but a tame version of the influence that British Catholics, and Quakers, of course, exercised in the public consciousness during the Ban The Bomb marches at the height of the Arms Race. The reason for this was the sustained attack that DLP and NCC cadres made on Australian Pax Christi advocates, especially Professor Joe Camilleri, who was shouted down at a public meeting I attended in 1980 at Newman College, Perth, where he launched the International Relations component at the introduction of Politics as a new subject in the Western Australian post-compulsory school curriculum. Although British Catholic supporters of CND came under the sustained attack of Desmond Albrow, when he was Editor of 'The Catholic Herald', the antipathy towards Catholic peace activists there, who took their lead from several public statements made by John-Paul II, paled in comparison to the hostile anti-politics emanating from Australian Catholic elites still wedded to anti-communist rhetoric and redundant contemporary Domino Theory invective.
Michael Furtado | 20 August 2019


Michael Furtado: “....redundant…Domino Theory….” As a proof of concept, DT has worked just fine --- both in the unravelling of the political Marxist intellectual blanket starting with the Soviet Union in 1989 (are there any real political Marxists in the world today?) and in the knitting of the cultural Marxist intellectual blanket starting with the Gramscian long march through the institutions (who isn’t a cultural Marxist today?).
roy chen yee | 21 August 2019


Quite so, Roy - especially in English and Social Science departments. The irony is, most neo-Marxist (Frankfurt School) practitioners deny they are now the staus quo.
John RD | 22 August 2019


ES's editors may well regard themselves as appropriate assessors of the competing claims of cultural theorists, both conservative (such as John RD and Roy Chen Yee) and liberal (such as myself), though this would still not derail the fact that Antonio Gramsci powerfully influenced the work of Paulo Freire and Edward Said, both Catholics of the Left. Like Gramsci, they were drawn into support of the Left at a time when, in the inter-war period, it was impossible for people of good faith not to take sides against the onslaught of fascism, whether (disgracefully) Catholic (as in Spain) and elsewhere (as in Italy and Germany). One must add that the crude and highly generalised iterations of John RD to the Frankfurt School do not stand the test of intricate examination, given that Australia's former Executive Head of the College of Deans of Education, Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat of Newcastle University, is the most ardent and well-respected proponent of the reflective practice methodology of the Frankfurtian, Jurgen Habermas, whose work has strong links into the praxis theology of Catholic religious educators. Professor Lovat is widely regarded and respected, both within Catholic and other Religious Education circles, as Australia's foremost religious educator.
Michael Furtado | 26 August 2019


Michael Furtado's charge that my "highly generalised iterations . . . to the Frankfurt School do not stand the test of intricate examination" ignores the fact that my point of view is based on searching critiques such as those of the late internationally recognised Professor Augustino Del Noce, cited by me in previous ES postings. Moreover, the influence of "praxis theology" is arguably a significant contributing factor in the serious and well documented decline in sacramental practice of students leaving Catholic schools. I might add that the use of political categories, e.g., "conservative", "liberal", in reference to Catholics betrays a misleading understanding of the Catholic faith: such labels are indicative of a recent, broader secularising trend of elevating the political and social above faith in the presentation of the Gospel.
John RD | 26 August 2019


Augusto del Noce used his position at La Sapienza to eradicate all aspects of Conciliar Theology and reinstate it with JPII's & Benedict's Communio Theology. To deny this is to deny the most fundamental tenets of his conservative philosophy, as well as to try selling our audience the hoary old pup that there's no link between theology and politics. The most fundamental process underpinning the method called scholastics is intrinsically political in character and argued in such a way as to inform parliamentary debate even to this day. While its mangled importation in Australian cultural context may account for your charming confusion, ask any employee within the Church's hierarchical structure about your assertions of clerical anti-politics and their laugh would drown out any emerging from Canberra. Our Church has from time immemorial understood the workings of politics only too well, since it is from Constantinian times that we have been at the epicentre of it. Indeed, any theology, such as the ones we have long contested, are intrinsically political in their implications and outcomes if not in their message, as the Concordats show. And Catholic schools do an excellent job of educating young Catholics, often in spite of the Church.
Michael Furtado | 27 August 2019


A reading of The Crisis of Modernity and/or The Age of Secularisation puts paid to Michael Furtado's assertion that Del Noce denies "a link between politics and theology." What Del Noce rejects as part of his critique of a "new totalitarianism" that subverts personal liberty and democracy while retaining their rhetoric and trappings, is the subjugation of faith, metaphysics and theology by the absolutist State and its materialist ends as advanced by scientism.
John RD | 28 August 2019


ES readers should know that Del Noce's work lies within the genre, both secular and religious, of dismal prediction, such as colonised by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Albert Camus, Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, among other reactionary and nihilistic doom-sayers. What unites this motley crew is an automatic and abiding suspicion and therefore condemnation of social change. Their work lacks balance and has been widely critiqued by several positivist authors, both religious and secular, such as the theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Kung, as well as by several interdisciplinary others, as diverse as the Jesuit-educated global development economist, Amartya Sen, the Oxford scholar, Timothy Garton Ash, the postcolonial public intellectual and Professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, and the eminent cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky. Furthermore, John RD misquotes me in attributing to Del Noce his own multi-evident severance and rejection in his own posts of any desirable association or cosmological link between the spheres of politics and religion, rejecting their obvious and widely-recognised overlapping in an interdependent world, regardless of the enormous body of support, including that of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and the current Pontiff for such linkages, bafflingly parodied by John as 'absolutist' and 'scientistic'.
Michael Furtado | 29 August 2019


For the sake of clarification let me respond to Michael Furtado's post by saying that nowhere have I denied a link between politics and theology: rather, I contest the subordination of theology to politics - two of the effects of which are to marginalise, if not ostracise, theological critique and the faith from which it arises from public discourse; and also the secularisation of the Gospel on ideological grounds. Further, Del Noce's thinking is realistic rather than pessimistic as his opponents label it, and a refreshing and salutary change from their artificed utopian humanism which should not be confused with the theological virtue of hope.Del Noce was astute in identifying and rejecting the totalitarian dimensions of both Fascism and Communism - something he lived through and something on which all popes from John XXIII to Francis concur. I 'd hope, too, that ES readers unacquainted with Del Noce's critique might investigate a highly significant contemporary commentator for themselves.
John RD | 29 August 2019


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