On August 6, 1945, a new epoch began. The bombing of Hiroshima,
followed three days later by the bombing of Nagasaki, is more than just
one more atrocity among many other atrocities in modern warfare. For
the first time, nuclear bombs were dropped on two crowded cities. Tens
of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children were killed in one
instant, and for many decades, many more Japanese citizens have
continued to die because of the radioactive fallout. With abysmal
clarity these two atomic bombs have demonstrated that weapons of mass
destruction can bring our world to a sudden and horrible end. And yet
most of us choose not to look too closely. A history of denial has set
in that lures people into thinking that the danger of global
self-destruction somehow does not exist.
The Japanese people, shaken to the core by the massive death of so
many fellow citizens, took a step that was as unprecedented as was the
bombing itself: they made the possession of military forces, and the
preparation and execution of war, unconstitutional. Article 9 of the
Japanese Constitution renounces war and puts a stop to the possession
of aggressive military forces. The preamble of the Constitution affirms
that all peoples of the earth have the right to live in peace, free
from fear and want.
Those of us around the globe who are committed to peace are
listening with sadness to growing discussions in Japan that are aimed
at the revision of this unique Article 9. It seems impossible to
imagine that the Japanese nation should be willing to forget the lesson
learned in August 1945 amid so much anguish and horror--namely, that
peace is the one and only precondition for life on this planet.
The two bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were
primitive compared with the sophisticated weapons of mass destruction
that have since been developed, tested, and stored in the earth, in
submarines, and in the holds of battleships. As a matter of fact, the
development of ever more "intelligent" nuclear weapons is still going
Never in their history have human beings acquired this kind of
power, namely to undo or "uncreate" themselves and most organic life on
this planet. This is the power that has ushered in a new and ultimate
phase in human history. The well-known German theologian Jurgen
Hiroshima 1945 fundamentally changed the quality of human history: our history has become time with a time-limit.
. . . This time of ours, when humanity can be brought to an end at any
moment, is indeed, in a purely secular sense and without any
apocalyptic images, the "end-time"; for no one can expect that this
nuclear era will be succeeded by another in which humanity's deadly
threat to itself will cease to exist.(1)
The furies of the Cold War successfully prevented human beings from
coming to terms with this scary reality. Rather, the confrontation
between the two "superpowers" fathered the hectic development of more
and more destructive nuclear bombs until a situation has been reached
in which all of humanity and most of the organic life on earth can be
annihilated many thousand times over.
After August 1945, it took more than twenty years for groups of men
and women to realize the gruesome impact of this end-time threat.
During the 1970s and 1980s a strong antiwar movement swept around the
globe. It was capable of producing enough pressure for the leaders of
the superpowers to negotiate treaties of nuclear disarmament. Hiroshima
Day became an important reference point for the global peace movement
around the earth.
To a large extent, these peace movements have become silent,
however, while the nuclear race continues unabated. In spite of the
nonproliferation rhetoric, the number of states trying to gain the
ability to produce nuclear weapons keeps growing. The argument goes
that having them is a matter of security, even if the assurance is
given that they will never be used.
As the years go by, the process of forgetting appears to be growing.
With the increasing uneasiness of the nations over access to, and
control of, the world's essentials, we see the return of nationalist
politics. Today it is not the clash between two superpowers that must
serve as an explanation but the "war on terror." Both the Cold War and
the "war on terror" fail to grasp the true character of our end-time
era. As a matter of fact, they betray its urgent message.
The failure to comprehend the real, if hidden, character of our time
is more than mere unwillingness. It is a kind of blindness that
prevents us from seeing the unprecedented newness of our global
condition. Admittedly, it is very difficult for us to comprehend
something for which we do not have any reference points in the past.
For many millennia, human beings lived with the endlessness of the
world. They saw themselves as victims of nature's violent powers. Never
did it occur to them that their activities might upset the carrying
capacities of this world, whose resources seemed to be inexhaustible.
To be sure, wars have always been seen as terrible, albeit
unavoidable, catastrophes, but there was always the hope that life
itself would go on. Somehow, when the fighting had ended, the people
would scramble to their feet, begin to rebuild their homes, to tend
their fields, and to raise their children. Wars were the interruption;
life itself was forever.
This fundamental experience is reflected in all of the world's
cultures and religions. It is this basic experience, however, that is
being challenged by the dire facts of our end-time condition: life, at
least as we know it, is not forever. It is not endless. It can be wiped
out, in its entirety, in one instant, not by outside interference, but
by human beings themselves.
The self-annihilation by nuclear weapons is invisible to most of us.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, are the only places where a part of
humankind did experience how it feels to be reduced to "point zero." In
this sense, these two Japanese cities are unique reference points for
our end-time situation. They need to remain part of our remembering.
What happened to them can be part of our future if we fail to learn
During the last few decades, an additional end-time factor has
arisen: the threat of self-made ecological disaster. In a few decades,
large parts of the earth may become permanently uninhabitable. The map
of the world will have to be redesigned. Again, this surpasses our
understanding. Our minds cannot really comprehend the threat until the
catastrophe hits us directly. And then it is often too late.
In sum, it is easy to use the term "unprecedented," but it is
difficult to grasp its full impact in everyday life and politics. To
deal creatively with facts and trends for which we have not enough
experience to guide us does pose enormous challenges to our
intelligence and our emotional capacities.
One troubling factor has to be added: the end-time character of our
era has been brought about by human beings. Its terrifying threats are,
therefore, a matter of human responsibility. To be more precise, the
most powerful nations and their leaders are the ones who must be held
accountable. This accountability borders on guilt.
Guilt, however, is a reality that human beings do not like to admit.
Our political leaders are no exception. This applies even more to guilt
on such a massive scale.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the United States of
America--the first and only nation thus far to have used atomic
bombs--has consistently denied the guilt aspect of what it did to the
Japanese people. In 1995, the American researchers Robert Jay Lifton
and Greg Mitchell stated:
From the start [of the atomic age], Americans were not
shown the human effects of the bomb. This reinforced the psychological
resistance to taking in the horror of Hiroshima. Nearly fifty years
later, the same impulses were at play in the Smithsonian dispute.
Curators, under pressure, removed from the exhibit nearly every
photograph of dead or badly wounded Japanese civilians. There remains
today a reluctance to face squarely what America did, or excuse it,
perhaps even to wish it away.(2)
The situation in the United States has not changed much since then.
Especially after September 11, 2001, the government of President George
W. Bush has consistently emphasized the moral superiority of the United
States. As a consequence, patriotism and nationalistic zeal have
This is for me a significant example of massive denial. Instead of
living up to failure and guilt, the "official America" prefers to
regard itself as the champion of goodness and decency.(3) The backbone
of such denial is to be found in policies of national security that go
hand in hand with heavy growths in military spending. In this way,
massive denial further increases the end-time threats of our age.
But it will not do to point fingers only at the United States. My
own country, Germany, has been tempted to go into denial over its role
in causing the two World Wars and the Holocaust of the Jewish people in
Europe. It is difficult for the German nation to remember both the good
and the cruel things of its past and thus to resist the temptation of
building its policies on false assumptions of its role in the world.
My impression is that denial over its historic role in large parts
of Asia can also be found in Japan. Denial seems to be the option to
save a sense of pride. In fact, it takes much more critical courage and
patriotic love to accept the ambivalence of one's past. It is a sign of
political wisdom to remember not only the great things but also the
pain and the suffering.
Perhaps it has proven to be somewhat "easier" for the two biggest
losers of World War II, Germany and Japan, to integrate defeat into our
national identity. Our nations have experienced what it means to bring
war to other peoples and what it means to have war come to our own
lands with utter devastation. We know firsthand the price of military
arrogance: humiliation and unconditional surrender. "Nie wieder! (Never again!)" was the deeply felt motto of Germany's postwar years. We dare not forget it. Never.
To remember both the good and the evil things in our history is a
way to have empathy with those who had to pay the price of our
wrongdoing. This is what I call deep remembering.(4) It leads to the
insight that the well-being of humanity transcends the particular
interests of particular peoples and nations. Deep remembering,
therefore, is a prerequisite of end-time politics.
It was an act of prophetic realism for the Japanese Constitution to
advocate, in its preamble, the right of all human beings to live in
peace and without want and, as a consequence, to commit Japan to an
antiwar policy. Sixty-one years later, this commitment is even more
urgent than it was at the beginning of the atomic age. It would be a
tragic error to reverse the pro-peace component of the Constitution on
the grounds that it is idealistic or impractical. On the contrary, it
was always realistic and practical. Rather, the return to policies of
national security politics and the emphasis on military solutions are
idealistic in the sense of illusionary and impractical. Under end-time
conditions, no nation can be secure without a global system of
Japan's Constitution should serve as a powerful antidote to the
recurrent tendencies of nations and their leaders to deny our end-time
situation. Its Article 9 is a healthy and much-needed reminder of the
heavy, indeed unacceptable, risk of self-destruction by modern warfare.
Japan has a powerful role to play in the world not simply in economic
terms or in the financial markets but also in the sense that the
immense suffering of Japanese civilians can best be honored by working
for situations that shield all human beings all over the world from
similar horrors. Peace is the precondition for dignified life.
It goes without saying, of course, that peace is more than the
absence of open warfare. Peace begins in the hearts of human beings and
protects them from self-destructive passions. Essential havens for
learning to live together in peace can be found in our close
communities, such as the families, the neighborhoods, the schools. We
also need to be on the alert with regard to the fascination with
violence in the world of "militainment," the war games and videos of
the entertainment industries. Furthermore, there can be no peace on
earth if we do not work for peace with the earth. Human beings are
"earthlings," and we need to learn how to be proper economists and
trustworthy keepers of the earth's resources.
With all of their various cultural and religious traditions, all of
the world's peoples are earthlings. All of us depend on the same clean
air, on the same pure waters, and on the Earth herself to yield her
fruit. In spite of all the forays into space, this Earth is and remains
our only home. The future of us earthlings depends on whether we have
the wisdom to develop and sustain economic and political systems that
remain safely within the carrying capacity of our earthly home. What we
need is a new empathic intelligence that enables us to create systems
of sustainable neighborhoods among the peoples, cultures, and religions
of this earth. Such neighborhood systems will not be without many
tensions. It would be naive to expect total harmony. Peace is the art
of keeping such tension productive. As the biologist A. L. Kroeber
said: "Peace is the highest state of tension that the organism can bear
Article 9 of Japan's Constitution points in this direction. It is a
piece of wisdom that all human beings, not just the Japanese people,
need to treasure.
(1) Jurgen Moltmann, Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), pp. 205-6 (italics in the original text).
(2) Robert. J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial
(New York: G. P. Putnam, 1995), p. xv. This study was inspired by the
way an exhibit planned in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institute in
Washington, DC, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the
bombing of Hiroshima had been censored and ultimately stopped by
associations of war veterans and officials of the Clinton
(3) I have addressed this in some detail in my book America's Battle for God: A European Christian Looks at Civil Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
(4) See Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz, The Art of Forgiveness (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997).
(5) Quoted in Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990), p. 219.
Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz is a German Protestant
theologian who has studied and worked in the United States, the United
Kingdom, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. Dr. Muller-Fahrenholz is now the
World Council of Churches' coordinator for the International Ecumenical
Peace Convocation scheduled for May 2011. His research is in the areas
of reconciliation politics, fundamentalism, and ecological ethics.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2008 issue of Dharma World.