Thursday, August 21, 2008

Blessing the Bomb - Father George Zabelka

I'm felt compelled to post Father Zabelka's speech as a follow-up to my previous post. I hope that his words can reach out to the hearts of the Chirstian community, and call them back to Christ.

Blessing the Bombs
by George Zabelka
Father George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Air Force, served as a priest for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and gave them his blessing. Over the next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been terribly wrong, that he had denied the very foundations of his faith by lending moral and religious support to the bombing. Zabelka, who died in 1992, gave this speech on the 40th anniversary of the bombings.

The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing. As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan.

I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. (To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.) I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.” I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie. War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. The morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

For the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community. Yet the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning
to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. (When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, “Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”)

As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. I was there, and I was wrong.

Yes, war is Hell, and Christ did not come to justify the creation of Hell on earth by his disciples. The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. I was wrong. And to those of whatever nationality or religion who have been hurt because I fell under the influence of the father of lies, I say with my whole heart and soul I am sorry. I beg forgiveness. I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for myself, for my country, for my Church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked
forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

All religions have taught brotherhood. All people want peace. It is only the governments and war departments that promote war and slaughter. So today again I call upon people to make their voices heard. We can no longer just leave this to our leaders, both political and religious. They will move when we make them move. They represent us. Let us tell them that they must think and act for the safety and security of all the people in our world, not just for the safety and security of one country. All countries are interdependent. We all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world holocaust.

Each one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to realize we all become responsible. Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.

The bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima. By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still dropped it. We knew that agonies and sufferings would ensue, and we also knew – at least our leaders knew – that it was not necessary. The Japanese were already defeated. They were already suing for peace. But we insisted on unconditional surrender, and this is even against the Just War theory. Once the enemy is defeated, once the enemy is not able to hurt you, you must make peace.

Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus. As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier, centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And yet I said nothing. Thank God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.

This article was originally published by It is an excerpt of a speech Fr. Zabelka gave at a Pax Christi conference in August 1985.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meaningful Sacrifice - Christ's Gift to Humanity

I'm over half way through Gandhi's autobiography, "The Story of my Experiments with Truth", which is available in pdf on the web at

What has struck me over and over again is his continuing effort to gain control of mind and body through bramacharya vows (celibacy), changes in diet, and changes in lifestyle. Gandhi was Hindu, but only after doing an extensive evaluation of other world religions including Christianity and Islam. He discusses his exploration of Christianity thoroughly in this book and his insights have spurred me to reach out to the Christian blog world in search of Christians that live by the example and teachings of Christ. I am glad to report that Christ's teachings do still live in our world, and people are acting in accordance with them, but sadly you won't find examples on the Fox Network. To see some great examples visit my blogroll.

Before I continue, let me describe what I mean by living in Christ's example. In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount provides humankind with instruction for living in the manner that lead to the kingdom of heaven (much like the eightfold path Buddha provided for reaching nirvana). The concepts are simple, do not resist evil with evil, anger must be controlled, killing is wrong, give up all care for the self (material/pleasure seeking) and use that energy in the service of God by caring for others. Do not judge other humans. If you would feed your children, give also the same loving attention to all humankind. Take no oath except to God. And the most famous line of turning the other cheek. With regard to turning the cheek scholars have noted that during the time of Jesus a slave or subordinate would be struck with the back of the hand. It is suggested that when we were instructed to turn the other cheek it meant to meet the blows with dignity, forcing the oppressor to strike you as an equal. Regardless of some slight variations in interpretation it is clear that this sermon was instruction for living nonviolently in service to God. And yet, of all the thousands of sects of Christianity, only a handful remain true to these ideas. The others seem to have either deemed these steps too idealistic for our complex modern world, or they have reverted back to the Old Testament in an attempt to live as if Christ was never born or worse they focus only on the large metaphor that is the book of Revelation, believing that they will ascend without having lifted a finger to help others. They also fail to recognize that he gave the ultimate nonviolent sacrifice, his life. He could have rallied his followers, he could have run, he could have taken up arms and died fighting, but instead he went to his torture and death with peace and dignity so that others may live. He was modeling what he expected from us, not giving his life so that we could live in the reckless pursuit of pleasure and money.

To "love our enemies as ourselves" is a high standard. How many of us even considered for a moment taking the place of Saddam in the noose? How is it that we can even go so far as to judge who deserves to live and who to die, when clearly this ultimate judgment does not behoove us in the eyes of the Divine. Our entire legal system is based on retribution and revenge, clearly against these teachings. The death penalty is even worse in that we hand off our responsibility to the state and allow it to kill in our name, for our protection or to rid ourselves of those very souls we should be caring for. American's have their children recite an oath to their country (hand over heart in reverence to a flag) each day in school and those that volunteer for the military must take an oath to kill on command, ignoring any moral or ethical sense. Jesus directs us to stand opposed to all these things and to use our body and our blood, which he shared with us by his death, for the care of those in need - without judging why they have need.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by these instructions for right living and just throw our hands up in desperation, pick up a bottle of wine, light another cigarette, go to a game, watch Hollywood's latest thriller, or bury ourselves in material things that ease our dis-eased ego. It wasn't easy for the first Christians living in the Roman Empire, refusing to participate in state sanctioned murder, but they did it. They often died for these principles, practicing meaningful suffering. Is the challenge that different today for those of us living in the new Roman Empire of America. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish seem to be able to resist the temptation to participate in endless hunger for money and war. Thanks to Constantine and the concept of "Just War", Christians have been able to put their minds at rest and take up the submachine gun, drop the cluster bombs, use depleted uranium, causing unimaginable pain and suffering to millions on this planet while at the same time using God's name in vain on currency, in the pledge of allegiance and in the war cries leading into invasion and occupation for cheap oil and cheap labor.

As far as Gandhi's other vows I'd like to add a comment. Gandhi, like Mother Teresa, Jesus, Buddha and countless other saints and sages of all traditions, the constant striving for perfection in God was the ultimate driving force in life. In order to be the perfect servant we must control our thought, bringing it into union with our words and our action. Every act and word begins in the mind. If your thoughts are focussed on good food and drink, so will your actions. If you are overwhelmed with sexual desire, your actions will follow. If you're consumed with anger and jealousy, violence in word and action are likely to follow. I think this striving is good for all of us. To renounce some of the material world, as we are willing and able, will take us down the path to perfection in baby steps. Gandhi shares his baby steps in his autobiography. I'm sharing some of mine on this blog. I'd love to hear from others so that we might support each other in community as we strive toward union with God, in whatever terms we are able to understand that.

Friday, August 8, 2008

On Death and Dying

My three year old daughter looked at me with her bright blue eyes and asked if I would ever die. Her Grandfather died last year and she understands that now he only lives in her heart. My dedication to truth (except in the case of Santa Clause and his annual voyage) led me to admit to her that yes, indeed, I would one day die. I added that we all eventually die, just like the flowers we pick for our home, and that one day after many many years (I hope) even she would die. Maybe this reality is too much for a three year old, as she responded by stating clearly that she did NOT want to die. I gave her a big hug and assured her all was well.

Her statement reminded me that this is part of what drives all of us to search for meaning in this brief existence. We know that death will come. It's arrival and method are unknown to us until the end. Life itself is ever changing and uncertain. Yet, for those of us that meditate regularly we find a place that seems to remain unchanged. It's the same calm place time and time again. There's a moment between the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, where thought is suspended and we feel an awesome unity with some vast unknown. Is this our true Self, this blissful Self that seems boundless? Maybe this is a glimpse of the Divine. Enlightened ones seem to have found a way to stay in this place even while participating in the mundane activities of this physical, space and time constricted, world. In that place there is no fear of dying or anything else. It's moment of both power and humility. I believe that Gandhi worked from this place. When you're no longer afraid of dying, or losing those you love, or losing your material belongings you can do amazing things. And when you've contracted yourself down to nothing you can expand your love to every sentient being equally. It's from this place that nonviolence grows. I believe that this concept, ahimsa, is the ultimate truth. This is where I find meaning.

Like my daughter, I don't want to die. I still have desire and fear. But I will continue my experiments with truth so that when the time arrives for me to travel that last moment alone, shedding this old coat of a body, all of my loved ones and all my possessions, I will be ready to donne the next or simply enter that blissful place where no breath exists - in the loving arms of God.

Human Smoke

I've started reading a book emphatically recommended to me by a physician from Iran that has taken refuge in our lovely city of Portland. The book, Human Smoke The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) by Nicholson Baker, is filled with quotes by world leaders and excerpts from govement transcripts. There are first hand accounts from journalists and others speaking from all possible perspectives as this war unfolded.
If you're interested in history, power, politics or peace, this book is a must read. There are also numerous quotes by Gandhi, adding insight into the Indian struggles and success against the British Empire.
The opening quote of the book is by Alfred Nobel of the Nobel Prize. Speaking to his friend the Baroness Bertha von Suttner (a founder of the European antiwar movement)regarding his expolsives factories, they "will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses. On the day that two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."
But the weapons continue to grow in number and magnitude of destruction. The targets of these evil machinations are no longer military but almost entirely peace loving, tax paying civilians. It seems that the goal of modern warfare is to see who has the most civilians left at the end as a determination for winning. The weapons not only maim and kill the living, but pollute with radioactive waste such that those left surviving will suffer for many generations levels of cancer and deformation in their young previously unknown. To kill even one person, guilty or innocent, is the deepest crime against the human soul. May we learn to save lives and save ourselves.