Christians in War

This past week marked the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Here is an interview with WWII Catholic chaplain,  Rev. George B. Zabelka who repents that he did not counsel against the dropping of the two atomic bombs.  At times, it feels like a punch in a gut.

I’m not really sure where to start, myself.  This is a stark subject for me.  It makes me question the greatness of my country, and the greatness of the Church who did not oppose something so horrendous.  As I write, I feel halted, as if I’m channeling Hemingway.

First of all, I don’t oppose war itself.  Like many parts of life, I consider it unfortunate and horrible, but inevitable and often necessary.   There are, however, just wars and unjust wars, and the line between the two are often blurred.  And even if one side has a just cause, does not mean that all the men behind it are entirely just themselves, nor the methods they use just.

Perhaps I was just naive about this for a long time, but I spent most of my life believing that, whatever you said about Vietnam or the Iraq War,  one war we could all get behind was World War II.   The Japanese brought us into it with an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor,  and Hitler needed to be stopped.  If there was a line between Good and Evil,  the sides upon which the Allies and the Axis stood were clear.  We were The Good Guys, they were The Bad Guys.

The evidence was there:  the Axis was undeniably evil and committed horrible crimes against humanity. On one side of the world, they were murdering millions of Jews, Catholics and other minorities and were bulldozing Europe in the process.   On the other side of the world,  Japan had a raging case of The Little Guy Who Snapped,  wanted to be treated as one of the World Powers, and they needed the United States out of the way.    It was truly a noble war, proving to all the goodness of America, as well as its greatness.  The only reason to blush, for our part, being that now we get to take a collective look in the mirror and see ourselves wearing a t-shirt reading, “My grandfather went to Midway and all I got was The Baby Boomer generation.” (The Baby Boomers alone make me like grenades a little more.)

But does The Bad Guys being bad make the opposition The Good Guys?   World War II,  even if it was a just cause, was not won without making extremely amoral, and anti-Christian compromises.   We may have stopped Hitler, but only by aligning ourselves with Stalin, who was responsible for anywhere from three to six times the genocide that Hitler was.

And we ended the Pacific War with the murder of 250,000 civilians, and somehow, this slips under the genocide radar.

For the first three centuries, the three centuries closest to Christ, the Church was a pacifist Church. With Constantine the church accepted the pagan Roman ethic of a just war and slowly began to involve its membership in mass slaughter, first for the state and later for the faith.

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, whatever other differences they may have had on theological esoterica, all agreed that Jesus’ clear and unambiguous teaching on the rejection of violence and on love of enemies was not to be taken seriously. And so each of the major branches of Christianity by different theological methods modified our Lord’s teaching in these matters until all three were able to do what Jesus rejected, that is, take an eye for an eye, slaughter, maim, torture.

It seems a “sign” to me that seventeen hundred years of Christian terror and slaughter should arrive at August 9, 1945 when Catholics dropped the A-Bomb on top of the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. (Three orders of Catholic sisters were destroyed in Nagasaki that day.) One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t.

I, like that Catholic pilot of the Nagasaki plane, was heir to a Christianity that had for seventeen hundred years engaged in revenge, murder, torture, the pursuit of power and prerogative and violence, all in the name of our Lord.

I walked through the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited the place where once stood the Urakami Cathedral. I picked up a piece of a censer from the rubble. When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed His world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process, which began with Constantine, reached its lowest point – so far.

My thoughts on this are still evolving, and will probably continue to evolve for a long time.  But please read the rest of the interview.  For me, it was a turning point.  I used to be able to say I was not at all opposed to war and still, some of Rev. Zabelka’s anti-war and anti- military sentiments don’t sit well with me.   But it was an upheaval of all I thought I believed.  I now must question whether war is something I truly believe in, or something I have been conditioned to believe in.  Some things are worth dying for, yes, but is anything worth killing for? (excluding direct, immediate danger, in cases of self defense)

But were the Crusaders and the popes who commissioned them wrong?   Where does this leave soldiers who became saints?  St. Martin of Tours?  St. Joan of Arc? (it’s important to note, however, that in the latter’s case, God never directed her to kill anyone, and she never did.)   I can fortunately fall back on something  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters,

[T]ens of thousands […] will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.  I believe that The Enemy [Screwtape, a demon, refers to God as ‘The Enemy”] disapproves many of these causes.  But that is where He is so unfair.  He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophisticated ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

This merciful quality of God is certainly a blessing, because as I read about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I find myself less and less convinced that we have as many just reasons for war as we think we do.

2 thoughts on “Christians in War

  1. Claire says:

    In answer to your question of whether there are things worth killing for: yes, there absolutely are. Not in cold blood, or of a non-imminent threat, but to kill to stop a madman from slaughter is worthwhile and right. What about the story of Judith, or David and Goliath? I’m more ambivalent about wars for other things, but it’s possible that it is right to war over the prevention of holy land (and associated relics) being desecrated, or to stop the spread of a pernicious faith.

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