Hiroshima & Nagasaki - Culture can kill

We gather here together
Seekers of a better way
Yearning for more understanding, more compassion, and more peace
The strength we need is already in all of our hearts
Burning with a pure light of love
We gather together leaving darkness behind
We gather together to let our light shine


Let Us Be Midwives! by Hiroshima survivor Kurihara Sadako (translated by Michael R. Burch)

Night in the basement of a concrete structure now in ruins.
Victims of the atomic bomb jammed the room;
It was dark—not even a single candle.
The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death,
The closeness of sweaty people, the moans.
From out of all that, lo and behold, a voice:
"The baby’s coming!"
In that hellish basement,
At that very moment, a young woman had gone into labour.
In the dark, without a single match, what to do?
People forgot their own pains, worried about her.
And then: "I'm a midwife. I’ll help with the birth."
The speaker, seriously injured herself, had been moaning only moments before.
And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell.
And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood.
Let us be midwives!
Let us be midwives!
Even if we lay down our own lives to do so.

A time of silence for the dead and wounded of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, when the Japanese government had not surrendered, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed as many as 146,000 people in Hiroshima and as many as 80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

Message, by Andy Pakula

As I prepared for today, I reread first-hand reports about the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In our highly connected age where we can see images and video from almost any place in the world, we have all seen terrible things - all kinds of killing and maiming. We know about some of the worst things that human beings have done to each other.

So, I thought that maybe the feelings I remember from reading similar reports years ago reflected a different, more innocent time.

But that was not the case. The pure horror and pain of those attacks is unmatched by anything else I have seen. It is partly the sheer power of the weapons used. And although the number of people killed immediately was huge, what was worse was the many thousands who were horribly injured and died slowly in a city where most of the medical care was absent, doctors dead, infrastructure destroyed, no one available to help.

There has long been debate about whether these first and - thus far - only uses of nuclear weapons in war were justified. Some argue that they saved many lives that would have been lost had an invasion of Japan taken place.

If you accept that premise, you might feel it was horrible but justified or you might feel that no end could justify such a horrific, barbaric, assault on human life.

Today, I don’t want to pursue those kinds of ethical questions. There are no satisfactory answers and I doubt we’re ready to accept the premise in any case.

What we will explore is how culture played into these events.

Early in the 20th century, when the global effects of the great depression hit Japan, its fledgeling democratic system buckled under the pressure.

In the deep uncertainty, leaders from all sides turned to the past for inspiration. They seized upon ancient stories that told that the Japanese people and especially its Emperor were directly descendents of the Sun Goddess. The culture that emerged was one in which children were indoctrinated to worship the Emperor as a living deity. They were taught to that war was honourable and a holy undertaking. The special place of the Japanese people meant that all other races and nations were less worthy and of less value.

Japanese soldiers and even civilians were renowned for fighting to the death - to die rather than to surrender. The culture around emperor-worship and the glorification of death in service of the nation was part of this and it was reinforced by a military system that considered surrender a disgrace.

But it was also founded on the attitudes and culture of the enemies of Japan. The United States was a deeply racist and xenophobic nation at that time. That national culture fostered a wartime military culture where Japanese were simply to be killed. Capture was discouraged.
And so the cultures of the enemies brought out the worst in each.

Throughout the conflict, American propaganda portrayed the Japanese as less than human - as fearsome monsters to be destroyed.

And then, when the United States had in hand a horrible weapon and considered whether or not to incinerate whole cities and hundreds of thousands of human beings, these aspects of their culture came into play. The bombs fell.

Culture matters. When we consider whether we will have a world of conflict or a world of peace, there are many factors, but culture matters.  If we want to live in a world where all human life is valued equally - culture matters.  

It matters not just at the level of nations or peoples. It matters and it plays out in every one of our lives.

When we consider how we treat others in times of disagreement or conflict - whether we will try to understand or lash out - whether we are ready to forgive or seek vengeance - culture matters. Culture is not the only thing that matters, but it is part of the picture. For good and for ill, for peace and for conflict, we are shaped by all our experiences. But culture is a special kind of experience and influence. It is like the air we breathe - it is invisible and it is everywhere. It influences us without our noticing. It is part of us whether we recognise it or not. And if we don’t recognise it is there, culture has more power over us.

Each one of us brings with us a variety of cultural influences. You may be influenced by the cultures your parents passed down to you from their own lives. You may bear the imprints of many other cultures: the places you grew up, your schools, your friendship circles, workplaces, and professions. The cultures and subcultures that that shaped you may have been impacted by class, by race, by ethnicity, by consumerism, by sexual orientation, by gender identity, and many more factors.

Importantly, it matters that you are able to make culture’s invisible influence upon you visible. Your ability to use the good and put aside the bad influences of culture begins with knowledge.

I could go on and on and share my own personal perspectives. Instead, I want to broaden the discussion today. We each have experiences with culture - with cultures - with the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and our world views.

I’d like to invite you to talk about your culture influences with another person. What cultures and subcultures have shaped you?

Please, if you would, turn to someone near you that you don’t know well and take about two minutes each to list the cultures that have shaped you.

------4 minutes------

How many cultures and subcultures did you identify?

In a moment, I’m going to ask you to consider how those cultures and subcultures affected the ways you are in disagreement or conflict.  How did they make you more accepting of others and able to connect to people different from you? Cultural influences might have made you shy, reserved, direct, emotional, compassionate, or fearful. They may have caused you to be judgemental, condescending, obedient, polite, rude, or respectful towards other people.
Some of these influences will still impact you a great deal. Others you will have grown away from.

For myself, I was raised in a secular Jewish culture in a middle-class American suburb. I was influenced also by Unitarian values, by consumerism, and by a nationalistic American culture.
My ethnic culture taught me to be afraid and wary. It taught me that I was in danger from strangers and especially from Germans and Arabs. It taught me that educated and middle class people are better than others. These are influences I have struggled with and mostly minimised.

My Unitarian culture taught me to be compassionate and to try to understand and value every person.

I continue to live with the tension between these and other cultural influences.

How about you? Please turn back to that same person from before and take about three minutes each to share how cultural influences affected the way you are in disagreement or conflict.  

[a time of sharing at end of service]

When we have come to know the hazards that life has placed within us
Like mines along a contested border
When we have gently put aside the hardness we have learned
And opened our hearts without fear
Then we will live a way of understanding
Then we will be called peacemakers