Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence

hiroshima
With so much political posturing dominating the news this week there seems to be little notice in the U.S. that today is the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan. I’m sure the date is not forgotten in Hiroshima. August 6, 1945 has been a somber day for me ever since I learned about it in school. Even though I wasn’t born until 15 months after it occurred, what happened in that Japanese city at 8:15 that morning changed the world I was born into forever.

Diana and I visited Japan several years ago, and the horror of that event was made even more real. As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning.

Many arguments about the pros and cons of the decision to drop that bomb and the one 3 days later on Nagasaki have been offered, and I appreciate that ethical and political debate. The truth is that whether dropping the bombs was justified or not, the atomic genie can’t be put back into the bottle. The question as always is what to do now with the reality we have.

I am haunted by Einstein’s assessment of the significance of this day. He said, “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man’s mode of thinking. Thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” Yes, we have managed to avoid nuclear annihilation for 70 years, and that’s a good thing. Except for the people unfortunate enough to live near Chernobyl or Three Mile Island or Fukushima the human race has been smart enough or lucky enough to avoid nuclear disaster. We will probably never know how close we have come on many occasions, and the tensions with Russia and Iran and North Korea, not to mention the threat of nukes falling into the hands of terrorist groups, mean we still have not changed the mode of our thinking.

Why has humankind always used every new technology to develop more deadly ways to maim and kill each other? Every advance in science seems to carry with it a dark side of destruction. Chariots, horses, airplanes, ships and rockets become delivery systems for death. Chemical gases, Nobel’s invention of dynamite, even pressure cookers can and have been turned into weapons—just the opposite of the biblical vision of beating “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

A friend emailed me a piece today about the positive uses of drones to deliver medicine with the comment that drones have been getting bad publicity lately. My response was, “No, some idiots flying drones have been getting bad publicity.” It isn’t the technology that is the problem; it is our failure to use it wisely. And that failure usually stems from fear.

Fear is the enemy of the moral courage to change the way we think and stop the madness of violence as the default solution to our conflicts and problems. Another wise friend sent me these statistics yesterday. “In the US we had about 34,000 gunshot deaths in 2013, two thirds of which are actually suicides. Germany had about 200, and Canada and Britain had even less. Somebody has to have the moral courage to say that this is crazy, to have 300 million firearms in one nation, and that all it does is to lead to thousands of deaths.”

There is an old folk song that asks a question that is as relevant today as it was in 1945 or when Bob Dylan asked it in 1963: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Dylan’s answer was that “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” I don’t know if Dylan knew that the Hebrew word for wind, “ruach,” is also the word for “spirit” and “breath.” So that song for me says the answer is blowing in the life-breathing spirit of God, and only there.

The answer is not more and bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.

I started a series a few months ago on Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (see posts from May 26 and June 14). I haven’t finished that series because other issues keep grabbing my attention. I didn’t realize when I started this post that I would come back around to Pentecost.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4)

The forces of fear are powerful and real and require an even stronger power to overcome them. They cannot be conquered by any human technology or ideology. Fear paralyzes our ability to reason and recognize the futility and foolishness of our attempts to save our lives and our stuff through arms. We can learn a valuable lesson from Alcoholics Anonymous about our addiction to bigger and badder weaponry or security systems. AA knows we cannot conquer an addiction without surrendering to a higher power.

That higher power blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost and changed lives and the world forever. And the answer to stopping the violence in our theaters and schools and churches and to defusing the nuclear nightmare is still blowing in the ruach of God.

Blow, holy wind, blow away our fears.

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Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)

Pentecost and Beyond: Christian Theology in Acts 2

We were out of town for Memorial Day weekend, and I was reminded again why Pentecost should not fall on the same weekend as a secular holiday. The empowering of God’s spirit is absolutely critical for faithful living; so for many Christians to be absent from church on Pentecost while traveling or doing other holiday activities is regrettable. Fortunately, Pentecost season in the church is like Eastertide, it is not a 24-hour event but a way of life.

To that end I am going to post here a series of reflections on Acts 2 which is one of the most important and complete summaries of Christian theology in the entire Bible. That one chapter covers a remarkable summary of the story of repentance, salvation, the power of God’s spirit to create both personal and social holiness, individual evangelism and conversion, and the resulting transformation of servant disciples into a model faith community.

Over the next few weeks I will reflect on different parts of Acts 2, and the outline for this 5-part series, at least at the outset, is as follows:

Verses 1-4: Obedient waiting for the Holy Spirit. If you are expecting a nice gentle dove be forewarned that the power of God’s spirit is not for sissies.

Verses 5-13: The communication barriers created at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) are miraculously removed and spirit-drunk apostles emboldened to preach the word.

Verses 14-36: Through the Holy Spirit all people of any age, race, and gender are capable of being God’s prophetic witnesses. As proof of that the former Christ-denying Peter’s first sermon summarizes salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Verses 37-42: The overwhelming response to authentic preaching – 3000 people from all over the world repent, believe and accept the gift of God’s grace.

Verses 43-47: The proof in the pudding. True conversion and salvation are not one and done personal events, but result in an authentic community of social justice, compassion and holiness.