How Different Faiths Handle Tragedy

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 killed more than 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most were Japanese (foreigners also were killed, including some American POWs). Many were children. A lot were religious. The Japanese imperialist government was responsible for leading the country down the path of war, and in response to the aggression of a fascist military state, the United States dropped two atomic bombs that caused the indiscriminate deaths of people from all walks of life.

Two cities — Nagasaki, with a large Christian population, and Hiroshima, with a large Pure Land Buddhist population — bore the full force of the atomic attacks. How did Christians and Buddhists interpret the tragedies?

A basic function of religion is to help followers make sense out of nonsense. To many, war is a senseless act. When senseless acts of violence produce innocent victims, the providence of god and the propriety of religious faith can be called into question.

Why do terrible things happen to good people?

The task of responding to this question may be more difficult for those who believe in a single, all-good and all-powerful god. Confronted with the continued presence of evil, there seem to be only two uncomfortable options to account for this reality: God is not all-powerful (god cannot stop evil) or god is not all-good (god allows evil).

Perhaps there is a third option. The plutonium bomb that exploded over Nagasaki Aug. 9 was more powerful than the uranium one dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier. The bomb destroyed what was then the largest church in Japan and killed many Christians. The burned bodies of 27 nuns were discovered shortly after the blast. The nuns were heard singing hymns in a convent just before the explosion. Likewise, at Junshin High School — a Christian school for girls — hymns were sung that morning asking for God’s protection. One of the songs had the lyrics, “Mother Mary, I offer myself to you, my body, my soul and my spirit.” Two hundred and seven girls were killed.

Why was the second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the most Christian city in Japan?

There is a history of Christian persecution and martyrdom in Nagasaki, and Christians in Nagasaki interpreted the horrific events of Aug. 9, 1945, in this light. Salvation through suffering and forgiveness is the foundational message in Christianity. This was exemplified through the crucifixion of Christ. The destruction of Nagasaki then and the deaths of so many Christians from the bomb were viewed as a sacrificial offering.

Nagai Takashi, a prominent voice for Christians in Nagasaki, wrote, “Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” Those who died were martyrs, witnesses to their faith and their lives given as an offering for peace.

The first atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. About 80 percent of Hiroshima residents belong to a form of Buddhism that worships Amida Buddha. Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life. Amida Buddha is not the creator of the world or of life, thus the task of explaining tragedy in light of religious faith is different for these Buddhists. Amida Buddha does not control events, but is ever-present in all things and through wisdom and compassion offers salvation in the Pure Land.

There is no clear voice in Japan to interpret the tragedy of the atomic bombing from a Buddhist perspective. Perhaps this is because of the complicity among a number of Buddhist organizations and Japan’s war effort in the years leading up to World War II. Japan’s military government acquired the cooperation of several Buddhist leaders and utilized Buddhist teachings to support and justify its wartime aggression.

In short, Buddhism was an ally of the Japanese military aggression that resulted in the atomic bombs.

The tragedy of Hiroshima can be traced to the moral failings of humanity, including those of Japanese Buddhist leaders during the war years. Despite this, followers of Amida Buddha believe the compassion of this Buddha extends beyond right and wrong, victim and perpetrator, and embraces all.

When Buddhists pray, they place their hands together in gassho, a symbol of the unity of opposites or complements: oneself and others, ignorance and wisdom, past and present, life and death, Amida and all beings. Prayer beads — representing the teachings of the Buddha — are held around both hands during gassho. Through the embrace of the Buddha’s teachings, followers see that opposites are really one. Gassho is an expression of the interconnectedness we have with each other and the gratitude that arises from this realization.

When I visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum last fall, I saw people quietly bowing their heads in front of the exhibits and displayed artifacts of those who were killed.

There were visitors from all over the world, and I assume from different religious faiths. Regardless of citizenship or religion, there was sadness for those who perished mixed with despair and fear from knowing this was a real event that could happen again.

Just outside the museum is Children’s Peace Monument, where schoolchildren come to lay strands of 1,000 paper cranes and offer prayers and wishes for peace throughout the world.

An opportunity to contemplate issues of sacrifice and forgiveness, blame and compassion, aggression and peace will be available Oct.18-26 at “A-bombs Exhibit for Peace” held at Oahu’s Palolo Hongwanji. Admission is free. The peace project is offered by Hawaii Conference of Religions for Peace (HCRP) and was initiated by Masago Asai, a second-generation survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. A number of groups and organizations sponsor and support this exhibit, including the Religion Department at UH-Manoa.

“A-bombs Exhibit for Peace” is an educational and non-political program that contemplates the prospect for global peace in a nuclear world. Though religiously neutral, “A-bombs Exhibit for Peace” tries to make sense out of nonsense.

It offers visitors to the exhibit the chance to do the same.

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