Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Burnt Offerings

Nagasaki was a small fishing village until the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. It grew into a major port with strong influences by Portuguese sailors and Jesuit missionaries. In 1580, the city became a Jesuit colony. Japanese Christians who were being persecuted in other regions sought shelter in Nagasaki. It was called the Rome of Japan. Although there were growing efforts to quash Western/Christian influence, southern Japan continued to be openly Christian. Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries also made their way to the region.

In 1614, Catholicism was banned and the missionaries forced out of Japan. Many Christians fled or were martyred. Christianity went underground for centuries, until missionaries returned in the late nineteenth century. In 1890, Nagasaki got its first bishop, the Catholic population in the diocese doubled. By the twentieth century, Nagasaki was once again the center of Japanese Catholicism. Of course, the city is often known for something else.

Yesterday, the president responded to North Korean bluster by threatening “fire and fury, like world has never seen.” But the world has already seen pretty egregious fire and fury, so what was his threat? How far is he willing to go? Seventy-two years ago today, the U.S. dropped its second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki (the first being dropped over Hiroshima three days earlier). The events ushered in a new era – humanity now had the ability to obliterate itself. And it became a question of whether we were willing to.

In the intervening years, it has been a testament to humanity that while the number of counties with nuclear capabilities has grown, no one as resorted to use of nuclear weapons again. But the threat lingers, and quick-trigger mechanisms and narcissistic leaders make the threat feels real.

Recently, I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which follows the rebuilding of the world after nuclear destruction—right up to the next nuclear destruction. While the book offers the hope of the persistence of the faithful, it also articulates the despairing that humans don’t learn from their mistakes. They repeat the same threats and violence. Sin is uncreative. So of course the Cold War talk of nuclear annihilation crops up again on the anniversary of the first nuclear bombings.

In particular, the Christian community of Japan suffered from the bombings. The Urakami neighborhood of Nagasaki was the epicenter of Catholicism in the city; it was also the epicenter of the atomic blast. Of the 12,000 Catholics in the Urakami district, 8,500 were killed, including those worshipping in the cathedral, which was the largest Christian structure in the Asian-Pacific until that day. The Japanese could not understand why Westerners would harm civilians who practiced a shared (Western) faith.

Dr. Takashi Nagai was a resident of Nagasaki. He said, “…It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered WWII. Dr. Nagai interpreted the end of the war coming on the Feast of the Assumption as a divine message. But did anybody hear it? Or does the cycle of violence just start again?

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