This past weekend, I went with my wife and three-year-old son to an event marking the 67th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. This evening was not just a remembrance, though, of the of the victims of the atomic bomb "Little Boy" that killed or wounded an estimated 170,000 people. It was also a kind of pep rally to raise consciousness and bloster resolve for the political battle to rid the world both of nuclear weapons and of nuclear power.
Growing up, I had been taught in school that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tragic measures that were, nonetheless, necessary to end the war, potentially saving the lives who would be lost on both sides in an Allied ground invasion of Japan. I grew up never questioning these assumptions. I also grew up believing that a nuclear apocalypse was virtually inevitable. I had many dreams about what it might be like for those of us who survived to crawl out of those bunkers after the attack.
On Sunday, the guest speaker read selections from her book chronicling the horrors of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She drew the obvious connections between the horrors happening in Japan and vigorous local efforts to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a facility about 45 minutes due north of us on the Connecticut River. She passed around a New York Times clipping about some 200,000 people who had gathered in Tokyo to protest the country's nuclear power. I think that clipping was one of the most moving things I experienced all evening.
The event was convened at a liberal Northampton Protestant church whose members are well plugged into the local activism scene. (On this sweltering summer evening, a discussion of climate change no doubt would have been received sympathetically too.) We put our chairs in one big circle -- there must have been at least 50 or 60 people in that crowded hall -- and went around the room, introducing ourselves and a giving brief statement about why we were there. (There was good free food, an excellent incentive to make the trek in the drizzly heat.) In the room were political activists connected with all kinds of local organizations, some of whom have been at it for decades.
I have absolutely no activist credentials. At the very least, I try to learn what I can and to lend moral support to friends and acquaintances who have struggled personally with injustice or who are directly involved in Occupy protests or other causes.
My son slept in his Radio Flyer wagon for the first part of the event. His pillow was my backpack, which hid my main current main read, the outstanding biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Wightman Fox. I thought that Niebuhr probably would not have been too much of a hit with this crowd, ad that thought sparked a certain cognitive dissonance.
I felt a certain disconnect in the presentation itself too. I'm not trying to be dismissive here, not at all, but am just sharing an impression. On the one hand, the language about Fukushima and the effects of nuclear power was starkly apocalyptic. Pretty believable, actually, though I don't know the relevant science that well. The speaker talked about the effects of the wounding the earth receives from nuclear madness as lasting "for all eternity." I found that language interesting, disconcerting actually.
On the other hand, the vision of a nuclear-free future that animates the activism had a more of a utopian ring to it. I would like very much to believe in that vision, but why is it that the apocalyptic horror stories seem much more real to me? Many people in the room, who had been doing anti-nuclear work since the '60s and '70s, seem to really have expected that the warheads and power plants would have all been scrapped by now.
For idealists of any stripe (and I would include the neo-cons here as well), Niebuhr is a spoiler. Beginning in the 1930s, Niebuhr eschewed passivism as wistful idealism and articulated a "Christian realist" stance that claimed violence was sometimes necessary in pursuing justice within a fallen world. Later in life, he argued -- notoriously -- that a limited (!) use of nuclear weapons might be necessary in some circumstances. Perhpas Niebuhr, who died in 1971, would have known better if he'd had to watch the faux-reality nuclear apocalypse movie The Day After that kept me up late one night in 1983.
But I ask you, Professor Niebuhr: Just what is reality anyway? And how do you know?
I find Niebuhr's life and thought fascinating and frustrating -- an icon of the ambiguities that riddle liberal theology and ethics, on the one hand, and the critique of and use of American power in the 20th century and today, on the other hand. Our current President claims Niebuhr as a major influence on his poltical philosophy. One wishes, perhaps, our politicians would broaden their reading in religious ethics a bit more.
I've been thinking a lot lately about American politics and what the ethical scope and limits of political action might be. I've especially been puzzling over various models of integrating Christian theology and discipleship with political thought and action. I had better save my more stunning insights for the Major University Book Contract that is almost certainly around the corner.
For now, though, just some musings: Just what does it mean to walk around Northampton, Massachusetts, with Niebuhr in my backpack?
And perhaps also a few extra unwelcome ions in my bloodstream.