Sixty-four years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, instantly killing about 80,000 people and eventually leading to the death of between 90,000-140,000 people.
Forty years later, Catholic chaplain George Zabelka, who had blessed the crews of the bombers that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gave a speech titled, “Blessing the Bombs.” Here it is:
The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945, Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and I said nothing.
I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who wet e doing it. I wits brainwashed. It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary–implicitly by my church’s leadership. To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.
I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights struggle. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism–active non-violent resistance to evil.
I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clearly: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.
For the last 1,700 years the church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.
War is now, always has been, and always will be bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. It is not of Christ. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.
The morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just war ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to deter mine what level of slaughter is acceptable.
Christians need to stand up and pay up
So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter.
For 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the church universally saw Christ and his teaching as non-violent. Yet the church, in the free of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians. Christians continued to believe that Christ was their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.
Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the church refuses to be the church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life and spirit of Jesus.
Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said: “Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gale and the Boxcar.
All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people.
I was there, and I was wrong. Yes, war is hell, and Christ did not come to justify the creation of hell on earth by his disciples. The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. I was wrong. And to those of whatever nationality or religion who have been hurt because I fell under the influence of the father of lies, I say with nay whole heart and soul I am sorry. I beg forgiveness.
I asked forgiveness from the hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after of feting flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness–for myself, for my country, for my church. For both Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima. By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still dropped it. As a Catholic chaplain, I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakalni Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier, centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And yet I said nothing.
Thank God that I’m able to stand her e today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God.
Their message was simple, and so is mine.