Hiroshima 75th Anniversary — “You stand; I bow”

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Smiling East-West spirit,
You move with sun and Son,
Shining Peace on us.

Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Towering poet.

Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.

— In memory of Kosuke Koyama, Peggy Shriver, NY, NY

Bombing of Hiroshima, 75 years ago today

Meeting Kosuke Koyama

One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.

Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Firebombing of Tokyo

The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.

During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, a sullenness came over him when I would ask him for stories. All these years later I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to him, the 15-year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.

Neighbor-Love — “Even the Americans”

The pastor who baptized him took Ko’s face in his hands to instruct him: “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies…even the Americans.”

For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?

The Sin of American Exceptionalism

At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.

In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.

Hiroshima Day in Minneapolis 2006

Fourteen years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:

“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself.

“Then, dear friends,”” he said to make his point to his American listeners,do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”

Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:

“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006). Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”

This Hiroshima Day I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times.

“You stand — and I bow.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2015

My Father’s Voice

I lied. I can’t keep quiet! One more post — a follow-up to “Memorial Day 2018” — before retreating to the north woods.

Dad on board ship

Rev. Kenneth Campbell Stewart, my father the chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, World War II.

My father was the Army Air Force Chaplain leading worship for the troops on board ship on their way to the South Pacific in World War II. Dad is buried in Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, Pennsylvania.

He was honored with a 21 gun salute, which, years later, I blamed for my hearing loss.
“Have you worked around loud noises? You have the ears of a forty-five year-old jack hammer operator,” said the audiologist. “No,” I said, “my mother’s deaf as a post.”

But my mother and I did listen to Dad’s preaching after he returned from the war. His words were soft-spoken. Peaceful and comforting. But there were times when his words from the pulpit afflicted the comfortable and rattled the saber-rattlers who glorified war and militarism. He preached the gospel, and, because he did and I heard it, I chose to follow in his footsteps. I chose to preach the gospel.

On Memorial Day 2018 on my way to the Minnesota wetland, I hear the echo of Taps from a bugler at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery and remember Dad and the fallen he buried. Sometimes the dead still speak.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 29, 2018.

 

Every head was bowed

A reader of yesterday’s “On the Ship and on the Train” left a comment. The post featured this photograph of my father and his Army Air Force unit on board ship on the high seas on their way to Saipan in World War II.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

Karin wrote:

“I clicked on the picture which made it large enough to fill my screen… I was amazed. Every man’s head was bowed. That brought a realization that they all knew what they were headed towards. Profound.”

My father was the Chaplain leading the prayer. Indeed, EVERY HEAD WAS BOWED.

Prayer came naturally to him. My brothers and I were blessed by his prayers every night at the dinner table. His head would bow. My mother’s head would bow. Our heads would bowed. There was a short, reverent silence – a time for centering, as we would call it today – followed by words. He addressed the Divine as “Thou”, not the familiar “you”. Antiquarian by contemporary standards, there was never any question that the “Thees” and “Thous” were not spoken to another one of us.

A remnant of his prayers – a sample of the kind of prayer by which he led the soldiers on the ship – was left in my possession in his old Bible.

God our Father, who hath commended thy love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us: worthy was the Lamb that was slain to receive honor and glory and blessing.

Remembering once again him again whom we have pierced by our selfishness and folly, we acknowledge our sins and beseech thy forgiveness. We would learn of thee to forgive,  with thee to suffer, and in thee to overcome. Lord, in thy great mercy we ask that thou remember us now in thy kingdom – confirm our faith.

Forbid that we forget among our earthly comforts the mortal anguish our Lord Jesus endured for our salvation. As we behold him following the way of faith and duty even to the crown of thorns and the cross, grant us grace that we may learn the sterner lessons of life.

So endue us with power from on high that taking up our cross and following our Savior in his patience and humility we may enter in the fellowship of his sufferings and come at last to dwell with him in his eternal Kingdom.

I learned to pray at my father and mother’s table. Over time his theology changed in many ways, but his faith in Divine Goodness never waned.

In my last conversation with him before he died, I asked, “How are you doing with your faith?”

“Good,” he said with the heartiest smile his Parkinson’s would allow. He died two days later. His head was bowed.