What do we ‘celebrate’?

by Angie Allport.

“This monument stands in memory of all children who died …”

So begins the inscription on the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima, Japan.  The words perhaps bring one up short in the same way that these words do at the end of the ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ psalm:

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9; NRSV)

Really!  Commentators tell us that this and similar uncomfortable expressions we find in the Psalms are examples of the authors being honest with God about their feelings.  Today’s blog is not an apologetic for so-called ‘texts of terror’, however, but rather a call to reflect upon whether things have really changed.

15th August marked the 75th anniversary of VJ (Victory over Japan) Day.  Some of the language around that (as it was with the VE Day anniversary earlier this year) was celebratory. Many of the materials produced to commemorate VJ Day did not mention the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The inscription with which I began goes on to read:

“… as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The monument was originally inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb at the age of two. Ten years later Sadako developed leukemia [sic] that ultimately ended her life.”

The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m. on 6th August 1945, instantly claiming the lives of 150,000-200,000 people (the exact number is unknown) and turning the city to ashes.  (Nagasaki was bombed a few days later on 9th August.)  Today, the Genbaku Dome, the epicentre of the explosion in Hiroshima, is a World Heritage Site as a historical witness to the suffering caused by the first atomic bomb in human history.  The memorial for the atomic bomb victims reads:

“Mourning the lives lost in the atomic bombing, we pledge to convey the truth of this tragedy throughout Japan and the world, pass it on to the future, learn the lessons of history and build a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.”

I can understand the language of victory being used at the end of the war and in the immediate aftermath, but how appropriate is such language 75 years on, particularly when Japan, Italy and Germany are no longer our enemies?  The language could be changed to that of celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war, but personally I would also question the appropriateness of that when war continues.  When we’re reminded so starkly by such things as the Children’s Peace Monument of the cost of victory, do we still want to celebrate?

It’s true that there’s a lot in the Old Testament about warfare, but I’ve always been struck by the account of the Aramean attack of Israel in 2 Kings 6: 8-23.  We’re told that Elisha prays for the Arameans to be struck with blindness and that he leads the blinded men into Israel’s capital, Samaria.  God then answers Elisha’s prayer again and opens their eyes.  The king of Israel asks Elisha if he should kill the men, but Elisha tells him to give them something to eat and drink and let them return to their master.  The king does as Elisha advises; more, in fact, because we’re told that the king prepared ‘a great feast’ for them.

The upshot of this magnanimous act was that the Arameans no longer attacked Israel.  I like to think of that as an early manifestation of Micah’s prophecy:

“He [the Lord] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3; NRSV).

At the time of writing, the UK was looking to seal a trade deal with Japan.  What might it feel like for those with whom we are reconciled to be at ‘a great feast’ where the language of ‘victory’ is used about them?  Let’s hope, pray and work for the way to which Jesus calls us:

“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44; NRSV)

3 thoughts on “What do we ‘celebrate’?”

  1. ‘Celebration’ is not appropriate. ‘Remembrance’ is.

    I remember many years ago visiting Yad Vashem during a Holy Land tour. A German girl was standing motionless and silent before one of the exhibits, with tears running down her face. This would always be an appropriate way to recall war crimes, whoever perpetrated them and however much ‘before our time’ they occurred.

    The son of one of my cousins married a Japanese girl – they met at University and now live in Japan. I see in their children a sign of the healing of the nations.

    When will we ever learn?

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  2. On 6th August 1945 my father, a prisoner of war, was working as a slave labourer in the Hiroshima dockyards. He rarely spoke about his experience but if you had asked him “What do we celebrate?” I think he would have said that he celebrated his freedom, as simple as that. And, were he alive today, he might have added that he celebrated the fact that his son and daughter had been able to live in peace for those 75 years (without denying that there have been many wars and millions of casualties in that time). He would never celebrate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, though he knew that without it he would likely not have survived. I have been a lifelong pacifist but I too know that without it I would never have been born. These are complex issues and maybe the best we can do is to celebrate the fact that in 75 years no atomic bombs have been dropped in anger – and then redouble our efforts to live in peace with all people.

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  3. In 1968 I was working with an ex 6 foot 4 inch Guardsman, who when released weighed 6 stone. He would not be here if the war had not ended. I have watched a number of documentaries about Hiroshima, some concluding that it was a US experiment, others that it was to warn the USSR. But in the World At War, they estimated, bearing in mind the casualities on Okinawa, would with invasion of Japan be 500000+. Although the firebombing of Japanese cities had aready killed far more than the atomic bombs combined.
    I have since the sixties before I ever became a Christian, been against nuclear weapons, but I can allow for justification for their use in Japan for the number of people saved, POWs, soldiers and civilians.

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