By Matt Reffie
There is a curious piece of World War II history many people don’t know that might cause us to see this period of history in a slightly different light. When the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, it destroyed the largest Christian church in Japan, along with a Christian orphanage run by nuns, in a small area called Urakami. This is not typically what we envision when we think about the climactic end to World War II. We tend to envision tanks, airplanes, and military bases being neutralized, not women and children, and certainly not God-fearing Christians. Most people also don’t know that both the atomic bomb and its flight crew were also “blessed” by a Christian military chaplain before taking flight. As a chaplain at the time, Father George Zabelka didn’t think he was doing anything other than his patriotic duty as an American citizen during wartime by asking God’s blessing on what was about to happen. Truly, the horrors of World War II were a uniquely challenging time in our shared global history, and there is much to be thankful for in its coming to an end. But knowing these two details should cause us to reflect on this history just a bit differently.
In a 2005 Gallup poll, 57% of Americans approved of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, and 80% of those polled believed that “dropping the atomic bombs saved American lives by shortening the war.”1 Anecdotally, I learned in a recent online discussion amongst Christians that many today still feel that the Japanese “got what they deserved,” that the atomic bombings were not only necessary, but ought to be celebrated. Whether the use of atomic weapons was necessary or not, polls like this show us that, as Christians, we have some significantly tricky identity issues. Are we taught in Scripture that some lives are more valuable than others? Or are we taught that “all are created in the image of God,” as in Genesis 1:27? The wording of this fairly recent poll reveals that the emphasis on whether the bombs were good or not rested on the valuation of “American” lives rather than “lives” in general. That some lives matter more than others is definitely a part of our American culture (and many other cultures), but it is not something that fits our Christian culture. The identity issue we have is that we often fail to see when and where our Kingdom Citizenship should trump our earthly citizenship.
This was true for Father Zabelka. When he asked God to bless the atomic bomb destined for Nagasaki, he did so with his identity as an American at war with Japan, rather than a Christian indwelt by the peace of Christ. It wasn’t until after he had seen the destroyed church and orphanage that he later came to regret embracing his patriotic duty above his Kingdom identity.2 Both back then and today, the truth is that American lives are not any more worthy of preserving than Japanese lives. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul dispels the idea that there is to be any real distinction between Christians when it comes to cultural identity, saying, “...there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”3 Christian identity is always foremost about being “in Christ” and “Christ in us.” That means our earthly culture should always be interpreted and expressed through our connection to Christ. Historically, we have been quick to interpret and express Christ through our various cultural lenses, but much less inclined to let Christ reshape and renew our cultures. In this way we sometimes make Christ into our own image, rather than us being made into his.
So how can we pursue Kingdom culture while we are still entrenched in our earthly culture? For starters, our earthly cultures aren’t all bad. In Scripture we’re told that it was God who confused the languages of the world at the tower of Babel. He made us different and I think the vast array of differences created by people groups across the world present us with a unique opportunity. We are all created equal, but not the same. There is so much more to this world because of our differences. No one person or culture could have produced the same richness we enjoy from the world’s cultures today. Every culture has something truly great to offer and we miss out on the fullness of the Kingdom when we limit ourselves to the comfort of our home culture. The trick seems to be in discerning which parts of your own culture are to be celebrated and which are to be left behind (or rather, renewed in Christ) in your pursuit of the Kingdom. As a small example, eating a lot of food is a part of my Italian-American culture. I can remember that when I was a kid, my dad would make a pound of pasta for us kids and then make a second pound just for himself. We like to eat, as do many other cultures, but my wife’s Swiss-Mennonite culture is exactly the opposite. While Italian families tend to eat extravagantly, Mennonites tend to do everything frugally, and take their meals in smaller portions. The shift toward a Kingdom culture in our eating has been for me to eat more modest portions and for my wife to forgo frugality at times in order to be extravagant when we are feeding others. In the marriage of our cultures, I think we have moved towards accomplishing this well. Our shared Kingdom culture doesn’t negate our earthly cultures, but when it comes to God’s teachings, like not being gluttonous or treating guests extravagantly, it certainly trumps them.
Most cultural renewing is much harder though. Because we have been raised within our earthly culture, we tend to think it is largely correct in all that it promotes. To further compound this, we also tend to think our culture is supremely correct, as though there is only one right way and it is always right for all peoples. In order to pursue Kingdom culture, we have to acknowledge we don’t already have everything figured out. Much of Jesus’ teaching was spent pointing out to his listeners how they were mistaken in some aspect of their beliefs. If we are honest with ourselves, we are wrong about the world at least as often as we are right. Knowing this can help us keep an open mind and a listening ear. When someone says the sky is purple we shouldn’t launch into explaining why they are wrong. If we listen long enough to why they see it that way, we might see things in a new light that may never have occurred to us otherwise. The Kingdom is vast, and likely much different from how we imagine it!
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a small seed that grows into a big tree with many branches.4 These branches might represent the different cultures of the world as they have been renewed and conformed to Christ. Each one is unique, with its own shape, but all still connected to each other by the strong trunk that is Christ. When we look at world cultures in this way, we may be quicker to recognize each other in spite of our cultural differences. We may pause and rethink the value in arguing too strongly over a minute piece of theology or discounting someone’s faith in Christ just because it looks different from ours on the surface. We might get to know one another long enough to see the common core in our shared beliefs and shared identity as Kingdom citizens, leaves on branches of the same beautiful tree.
1 Moore, David W. 2005. Majority Supports Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan in WWII. http://www.gallup.com/poll/17677/majority-supports-use-atomic-bomb-japan-wwii.aspx.
2 McCarthy, Emmanuel Charles. 1980. Fr. George Zabelka: A Military Chaplain Repents. Center for Christian Nonviolence. http://www.centerforchristiannonviolence.org/data/Media/Fr.%20George%20Zabekla%20Interview%20%5b02%5d.pdf. 3 Colossians 3:11 (NIV)
4 Mark 4:30-32