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The dangerous memories of Nagasaki

 HONG KONG (SE): Japan could well celebrate Easter between August 6 and 9, the anniversaries of the 1945 atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in so many ways tell the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

While the memories involved with both events are vital, from a Christian point of view, Nagasaki takes on a particular significance because of the high percentage of Catholic people among the victims, most of whom were also descendents of the persecuted era of the Hidden Church, from the late 16th century to the Meiji era in the second half of the 19th century.

The crucifixion endured by the Japanese Christians, both in the Hidden Church era and the atomic bombing, can be considered in the context of the Good Friday sacrifice of the Christ, who cried out in his hour of agony, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann asks how can Christian theology not speak of God in the face of Jesus’ cry from the cross and, in an article published in the Australian Journal of Mission Studies (June 2011), Gwyn McClelland notes, “Despite the horror expressed in these words by Christ, a faith is also expressed, in the word my. What hope is this that the Christian faith expresses in a crucified God? It is anticipatory, but tenuous, not yet faith.”

However, Moltmann continues, “The cross of the Son divided God from God to the utmost degree of enmity and distinction. The resurrection of the Son, abandoned by God, unites God with God in the most intimate fellowship.”

Christians seek to reinterpret history and retell the stories of the past in the light of suffering, such as that experienced in the atomic bombings, as well as the many other atrocities which have brought horrific suffering to millions and millions of people.

To the powers-that-be of this world, these are dangerous memories, as they lead to criticism of the sociopolitical systems that legitimate such suffering. The follower of Christ is called to associate with those who suffer and to be liberated from attachment to comfort and oppressive dominance. In this, Christianity speaks of the resurrection.

This is the challenge of Christian mission and the experience is that God works in unexpected ways. The liberation spoken about in Christianity also takes unexpected forms, as it is to be experienced as the future of the suffering, a future that is not expected.

McClelland notes, “The power and control coveted by the crucifying powers is not sufficient to control this unexpected future. Mission should aim to reveal this… and the future of suffering as hope.”

He continues, “Memories of suffering threaten the powerful in their attachment to apathy and comfort. Followers of Christ remember his suffering. They are called alongside their companions who suffer.”

The story told in the Bells of Nagasaki by the man who witnessed to a future in God more than many others, Takashi Nagai, writes, “Walking with God through the wasteland of Urakami (hypocentre of the Nagasaki bomb) has taught me the depths of his friendship… God will turn the desolation into Eden, and the wasteland into a garden of Yahweh.”

Preaching in Urakami Cathedral, Nagai referred to the nuclear destruction as a hansai (holocaust or whole-burned offering). His congregation became angry and shouted at him for using a pious word to describe a hideous evil, which they believed reduced the significance of their suffering.

However, Nagai continued, “The Christian flock in Nagasaki was true to the faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as hansai on his altar… so that many millions may be saved.”

He concluded, “Happy are those who weep; they shall be comforted… The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole-burned sacrifice.”

While the God of the scriptures does not need sacrifices of atonement, Nagai was evoking a dangerous memory of Christ, so the deep personal suffering the people were experiencing could be connected with the God-walking-with-us.

This witness of the Christian community did have an impact on the response of Nagasaki people to the bombing and, the city today, together with Hiroshima, represents a direct challenge to political and social subversion both in and outside Japan.

The hope is manifest in the determined few who are prepared to suffer in order to ensure that the truth continues to be told, as these are dangerous memories for those who want to forget.

McClelland notes, “There is nothing magic about the testimony of suffering.” He describes those who suffered as witnessing to more than death, because they also reveal a hope of reconciliation.

He continues, “Without taking away from the ghoulishness of these memories, there is a sense that they shed a spotlight on our God-with-us. God accepts all, even evil into the Godself, and transforms both the victimised and the dominating.”

McClelland concludes, “The dangerous memory of the history of suffering in Nagasaki reveals our God-with-us and an ongoing transformation of societies (which are) built on the premise of domination.”
We need to ask if the reality of the suffering can outlast the dominant shows of strength. Even 460 years after the Martyrs of Japan were crucified and 66 years since the atomic bombs were dropped, there is still a tension between the storytellers from Nagasaki and the dominating powers, which still seek to silence them.

Those who suffered in the atomic bombs have continued to suffer in telling their stories to a world that wants to forget, or remember selectively, to avoid the repercussions of history and sustain power through force.

This is manifest today by those who want to abolish Japan’s peace constitution (Article Nine) and allow the country to once again enter the world arena as an armed power.

True mission encourages right and truthful recollection. The missionary Church tells the stories of the people’s suffering, as they contain the beginnings of hope, but on the other side of the coin, they evoke the dangerous memories that affect the standing of Christians in a community.

If the mission of the Church encourages the dangerous remembering by telling the understories of suffering that the powerful seek to cover up, it will have an impact on the social context and the building of the kingdom of God.

McClelland says that Nagasaki links the extremes of political forgetting with the truth of the people of God, terrible suffering. “There is a connection between past suffering and hoped for peace,” he notes.
For the sake of peace, the world must embrace the dangerous memories of Hiroshima, and maybe more so, Nagasaki.

Pope John Paul II dedicated a cathedral in Hiroshima as a place where the stories can be held, told and retold, reflecting the hope of a lasting peace not as a pipe dream, but as something that can grow out of the truth of memory and the transforming power of God.

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