Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 11) transports me to an anxious group of skywatchers, scanning the clouds and forecasting a phenomenon not yet experienced by humanity: the heavy downfall of fiery rain. Scorching winds will spread the downpour of blazing coals and sulphur far and wide. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time. All signs point the meteorologist poet to that proverbial next time. The Psalmist describes what is fueling God’s furnace of anger, the same twin troubles that plagued Noah’s time: sinful hearts and sinful conditions, wickedness and violence.
It took twenty-plus centuries for humanity to get impatient with God, to take on the divine prerogative of vengeance and bring fire and brimstone down on our enemies, raining terror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know the arguments for the action, that it ultimately saved more lives than it took, or that the Germans would have soon developed a similar weapon. I find those arguments to provide a convenient rationale, because they will never be proven or dis-proven. We don’t know what would have happened if other strategies had been followed, as General Eisenhower advocated. What we do know is that the decision-makers threw any semblance of just war principles out the window, as countless innocent lives were vaporized in the blast of mushroom cloud. Many victims left nothing but imprinted shadows on the steps and sidewalks where they exited this world. I think about those shadows when I read the Psalmist’s description of the sharpshooters who bend their bows and shoot at the upright from the shadows. From the glorified position of the victors, who always write the history, the shadows of Hiroshima represent wickedness that deserved its fate. Yet the victims were surely not all wicked. There must have been many faithful and loving people there that day, seeking refuge in the arms of the Almighty. And now the arrows of the lives taken from them continue to follow a trajectory into our world of experience, pricking the conscience of those who want to make violence a righteous act, who want to make war holy.
There’s a book on my shelf, called The Road from Hiroshima, that uses imagination to give voice to some of those shadowed victims. Here’s a short excerpt: There was a wave of heat that reached under my clothes and scorched my skin. The sky held its breath; trees broke into flame. There was a blank in time, then a huge boom came thundering toward the mountain. A violent rush of air took my body and flung it to the ground. The hubris of those who assume power reserved for God, who seed the clouds of destruction, makes such exercises in imagination necessary. Author Jonathon Schell says that it may be only by descending into this hell in imagination now that we can hope to escape descending into it in reality at some later time. The unleashed power of the atom will never be leashed again. Dismantling the last B53 doesn’t dismantle the know-how to make even more insidious weapons. Once humans know something, they can’t un-know it. And that knowledge has to change the way we read Psalms like this. We can only hope to gain the wisdom to re-leash our arrogance, though, and resist the temptation to play God again, the temptation to shower those we deem wicked with fire and rain. Won’t you look down upon me Jesus, you gotta help me make a stand.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.