Hiroshima Day in Washington and Bethlehem

Most of us have never heard a Japanese A-Bomb survivor tell their story. Listeners are always transfixed after the victims say they remember seeing the flash. Yesterday marked the 70th Anniversary of the dropping of an Atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I joined 200 people at American University in Washington to hear Mr. Goro Matsuyama and Ms. Takako Chiba tell their stories of that fateful day.

A few hours earlier my daughter Yasmin attended a similar event in Bethlehem, Palestine also commemorating 70 years since the destruction of Hiroshima. It too was attended by about 200 people who gathered in Manger Square, just outside the Nativity Church, thought to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Back in Washington, 86-year-old Goro mesmerized those in attendance. He was a 4th grader at Hiroshima 2nd Middle School (16 years old) at the time. He was working as a mobilized student at the Mitsubishi Shipyard two and a half miles from the epicenter of the blast. Immediately after seeing the flash he tried to run and was hit in the back by the bomb blast. He lost his balance, but he wasn’t hurt. “I saw an enormous cloud rise up. The cloud took the shape of a mushroom. It grew larger and larger and became reddish brown.” He spoke very intensely through an interpreter.

The opening ceremony of the annual Bet Lahem Live Festival commenced with a peace vigil headed by Earth Caravan, a Japanese pilgrimage of peace and healing. The Japanese activists brought the eternal Peace Flame fromHiroshima to Manger Square. Privately, they spoke passionately and sounded out a warning against war and nuclear weapons.

“Dad, I was in Manger Square in Bethlehem, attending this amazing peace vigil with beautiful, passionate people from Japan. They’re tying it all together with a powerful message. They’re modern-day prophets.” The call to my cell phone was perfectly clear. “I’m heading up to AU later on to commemorate the anniversary,” I replied, only slightly phased by the coincidence, but struck by the somber, world-wide, nature of the significance of August 6th, Hiroshima Day. “Bethlehem and Washington,” I thought out loud. Yasmin suggested we write a piece together, describing each event and our reactions. I agreed.

Goro told of that horrible day. He described ghastly scenes in graphic detail of charred human and animal corpses strewn everywhere as he walked from the shipyard toward his school dormitory. He talked of people walking away from the direction of the epicenter who looked like “marching ghosts.” A month after returning to his home town 60 miles away Goro developed purple spots on his body, his hair started falling out and his gums started bleeding. Adults living nearby who had gone to help in Hiroshima came down with the same symptoms and died one after the other. Goro eventually healed to tell his story.

The Peace Caravan began its journey in Hiroshima where they were given permission to take the flame toAuschwitz to honor millions of innocent souls who suffered and lost their lives in Hitler’s death camps during World War II. From there they brought the eternal flame to Bethlehem to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. “Politics and power are being bent for control and we wanted to do something to bring healing and peaceto the region. We couldn’t understand why Israel occupies Palestine so we came to experience it for ourselves,” explained Nobi Taniguchi. Nobi said we all must work for justice and to rid the world of war and nuclear weapons.

In Washington, Goro Matsuyama was using the same words, urging those in attendance to become involved in the struggle. Someone said in both places that all human life is sacred.

Seventy-three-year-old Takako also addressed the well-heeled Washington crowd. She was just three when the bomb exploded one and a half miles from her house. She survived but tells of a sickly childhood of anemia, fevers, diarrhea and frequent nosebleeds. Her first child was stillborn. She blames her poor health on the massive radiation from the blast. She remembers hearing a young girl just a couple of years ago who lived close to the Fukushima nuclear power plant describing many of the same symptoms she experienced. Since then, Takako has worked tirelessly for a nuclear-free future.

Goro and Takako and their compatriots in Bethlehem urged their audiences to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, the elimination of all war and to struggle for justice around the world and in their own communities. The people of Bethlehem know about struggling for justice.

“Dad, I wish you could have been here to witness this. You would have loved it.” The Bet Lahem Live Festival was organized by Holy Land Trust, a thriving local community organization working to foster understanding and transformation to address the challenges that are preventing peace and justice from taking a strong root in the Holy Land. The festival was designed in hopes of reviving Star Street in the Old City of Bethlehem which has been almost been completely deserted since the Israeli military closed it during the Second Intifada. The festival celebrates the richness of Palestinian culture and heritage and is used as a springboard to support social justice locally and throughout the world.

The Palestinian community has been under military occupation by a nuclear Israeli state for two generations. Israel continues its oppressive control over the Palestinian people living in and outside of the state of Israel. Israel takes away the Palestinians’ basic human and civil rights through the confiscation of land and resources, demolition of homes, forbidding refugees their right of return, not allowing freedom of movement, or freedom of worship, and building an imposing barrier wall that tears through the land, dividing Palestinian villages, cities and people.

My daughter and I spent an hour on the phone, comparing notes. She said we can learn from the Palestinians. She said they understand the faith traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. She said their peacemakers hold wisdom from the ages. I was delighted to hear her explain that they work closely with Israeli Jews who see things the same way.

The Palestinians are suffering and struggling to nonviolently resist the oppression of the Israeli state. “Dad,” she said, “This is a tinderbox, the world’s crucible. It’s why the Hiroshima flame was brought to burn here. It is tenuous, dangerous, uncertain…”

We spoke of the recently negotiated peace accord with Iran. I told her that there are extremists who prefer violence and bloodshed among the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Iranians, and the Americans over the frustrating, and seemingly unending struggle of nonviolent resistance. It’s always been that way. I reminded her of Dr. King’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The discussion got me to googling various polling results to see where folks in these nations stand on peace and nuclear issues. My little girl always has this effect on me.

Three out of four Israelis see a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and large majorities don’t trust the recent peace deal. When Israelis are asked , “Do you support independent military action by Israel against Iran if such action is needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?” Forty-seven percent said yes, 35 percent said no and 18 percent expressed no opinion. There’s a lot of peace work to be done in Israel.

Meanwhile, two thirds of Iranians say that producing nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam. Eight in ten approve of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. (It’s not something I read in the Washington Post or ever saw on CNN.) Large percentages of Iranians will anonymously admit, however, that they live under an extraordinarily oppressive regime. There’s a lot of justice work to be done in Iran.

Fifty-six percent of Palestinians think Israel’s goals in the long run are to extend its borders to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expel its Arab citizens. There’s a lot of hope work to be done in Palestine.

In America, 56 percent still think destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons was justifiable. It’s scary, but sizeable numbers of Christians in America support military action as a means to bringing on the second coming of Christ. It runs counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Forty-six percent of Americans believe the formation of modern Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Last month a crowd of 5,000 (25 times the Hiroshima commemoration) gathered in Washington for the annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference. Six Republican presidential hopefuls addressed the audience.

CUFI, with 2.2 million followers, was founded by Texan preacher John Hagee. Hagee wants the United States tojoin Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill what he describes as Bible prophecy. He says a war against Iran will cause Arab nations to unite with Russia and lead to Armageddon. That’s a good thing to these folks because they say the conflict will lead to the rapture, tribulation, and the second coming of Christ.

There’s a lot of peace work to be done in the US too, perhaps more than anywhere else.

Hiroshima Day causes us to reflect on our perilous times and the struggle in front of us. We must heed the words of Goro Matsuyama, Ms. Takako Chiba and the Peace Caravan. All human life is sacred.

Nations will no longer kill people. People will no longer kill people. It must and it will become accepted by all. It’s part of the arc of the moral universe.

“Believe it, Yasmin.”

“I do, dad.”