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Something Greater Is Here

A Letter from Thomas Goetz, serving in Japan

May 2018

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I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. Matthew 12:6

On March 15, 2018, I was in Hiroshima attending the 2018 Missionary Conference sponsored by the United Christian Church, Japan. The highlight of the program was hearing the testimony of the atomic bomb survivor, Ms. Yamazaki Atsuko. The following is a summary of her speech. During this time of world tension and uncertainty, I ask you to divert your attention to hear her experience and the theological questions and insights with which she has lived. I would like to thank the organizers for a most wonderful and memorable conference.

Yamazaki Atsuko was in the fifth grade on August 6, 1945. She, like many school children in Hiroshima, was preparing to go to school to complete the required civilian service that even children engaged in to help compensate for the wartime labor shortage. Then, the flash. At first, everyone was surprised at the light followed by a deafening sound and instant darkness. Her mother asked if everyone was all right. At first, they were confused, but when it became light again, they saw that the second floor of their house was gone. How strange it seemed. All the glass was broken. She could not understand what had just happened. Not long afterward, people were walking towards her neighborhood from the city center. They were naked to the waist. Telling the difference between male and female was impossible. They were burned badly, and something like ribbons or scraps of cloth hung from their arms. They all were asking for water. Later, she learned that the ribbons were skin from their arms.

She can never forget this memory. A mother was taking care of her baby. The mother’s face was completely black, like that of a ripe avocado. The baby swung forwards and backwards in the mother’s arms. It was hard to tell if the child was alive.

The next day, at a nearby park, more and more people were gathering and dying. They asked for water, and upon receiving it, they died. It was as if the water poisoned them. This was too much for the 11-year-old Atsuko. She went home and stayed there with her family. Time went by, at first slowly, and then weeks, months and years passed. It seemed like this was the greatest tragedy ever to happen.

Later, she and her family rebuilt their lives. The city of Hiroshima rose up from its ashes. Monuments and memorials were built, new trees were planted and old surviving trees were identified and cared for. Atsuko never left Hiroshima. It was her home. She met a young man, a survivor himself, and they were married. She was full of questions and began to attend church. In the early 1950s, she converted to Christianity and has been a strong member ever since. She said her conversion to Christianity was the best decision ever. It did not solve her problems, but she developed a framework in her mind to understand things, to live with the tragic event of August 6, 1945 and all of the subsequent aftereffects.

As an example, the minister of her church was also a native of Hiroshima. He had a family, among which was a 16-year-old daughter. On the day of the bombing, his daughter received more radiation than her body could sustain. She never regained her health. A month later, she died.

The family, friends and the congregation gathered for the child’s funeral. And the father presided over the funeral of his own daughter. That day began with morning and ended with evening, all sadness in between.

But life went on. The membership of the church increased. The minister saw the complete reconstruction of the church building. There were baptisms and weddings, Sunday schools, weekly church services, and of course, funerals. Hiroshima was almost rebuilt. There were even plans for the Bullet Train to make a stop there. The old Hiroshima was forever changed.

Then, during the 1960s as the minister was preparing to retire, he gave a message during church that shocked everyone. He said something unimaginable, something that did not make any sense. He said that the atomic bombing was God’s grace.

When people talk about God’s grace, they usually refer to things or events that are good, that bring joy and happiness.

How could this be? Atsuko heard it and could not understand. Nor could anyone else. She was left asking the question “How could this be?” No one can understand this from a human point of view.

The minister said that “God makes all things beautiful.” And “nuclear weapons are inhumane.” And “we need a nuclear-free world.” Finally, he said that the first nuclear bombing was a mistake and that the second one was a betrayal against God. This is where grace finds expression.

And that was essentially the conclusion of her talk. Can it be inferred that God somehow demonstrated care and forgiveness in the midst of this? By human standards, this is unthinkable. During the group discussion that followed, our reflection team could only make partial connections, and this is what we came up with: We, as humans, need to stop betraying and rebelling against God and each other. Perhaps this is why the Dome remains as an icon not just for an event that must never be seen as a once upon a time thing but a once for all time reminder. It is likewise with the Memorial Cenotaph.

Our group later came to the consensus that humans throughout history have been rebelling and betraying. As seen in scripture, when Jesus harvested and healed on the Sabbath, he wanted to demonstrate that there was something greater. The human need of hunger is just as important on the Sabbath as on any day. When God rested on the seventh day, God looked upon all that God created and said that it was good. Jesus plucked grain on the Sabbath because hunger requires a never-ending care, love, and kindness, from which God never rests. And, neither should we in our daily missions.

Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.
Where there is caring and love, God is always there.

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