Are we our sisters' keepers? When it comes to atom bombs the world is saying 'yes'

Jonathan Frerichs deposits flowers on August 6, 2015, at a memorial in Hiroshima, Japan, that commemorates the victims of the atomic bombing of the city by the United States in 1945. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/WCC

On his visit to Japan last November, Pope Francis defined nuclear weapons as a “crime”. Two crimes, actually, folded into one. He named “the dignity of human beings” and “any possible future for our common home”. The pope added a critical qualifier in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The crime is committed not only by using nuclear weapons; it is also committed by having nuclear weapons.

75 years after the atomic bombings and a 75-year commitment to the most dangerous and costly weapon in human history, the truth about nuclear weapons grows stronger and stronger. It began with the first bearers of truth, the hibakusha survivors of 1945. The truth is thriving today because of advocacy and diplomacy using interdisciplinary research about the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.

This new light shines alongside timeless wisdom. If mass destruction is the high-tech raison d’etre for nuclear weapons, mass murder is the age-old atrocity in which the weapon is supreme. This facet of nuclear truth invites us back to the Bible story about the first murder.

In the book of Genesis, after Cain killed Abel, God asks Cain where his brother is. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain replies. The decision to drop the atomic bombs in 1945 suggests a similar denial of responsibility. But it is on an unthinkable scale and it accrues to every nuclear weapon made.

God’s next words – “What have you done?” – echo through the cries of the hibakusha and their descendants in our day. “Listen. Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” God says, as do they.

We can hear God in them. They and their descendants recognize the collective responsibility of keeping our sisters, our brothers, and ourselves from the mass murder which a nuclear weapon is.  If more and more of us strive to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, nuclear weapons have less and less ways to survive.

I heard such witnesses in a pre-dawn visit to the memorial site in Hiroshima with a Korean Japanese church leader. It was during the 2015 World Council of Churches pilgrimage of church leaders from countries that rely on nuclear weapons (see Bishop Bedford-Strohm’s blog in this series). As we walked, cicadas sang a great chorus in the darkness. It was as if the whole forest was saying ‘Listen, we are alive’.

Then in the distance we heard a sustained scream. It rose from the direction of a mass burial site. It seemed to combine both horror and conviction. The scream apparently came from a monk keeping vigil over the ‘sisters and brothers’ in the grave.

As dawn broke the church leader told me a Cain-and-Abel story with a difference. He said that, although he was born long after the war, he had always felt guilty about the destruction of Nagasaki. This is because the designated target for that second atomic bomb was the city where his parents lived, Kokura. But the US bomber crew had found Kokura covered in cloud, so an alternate target, Nagasaki, was selected instead. He said he is only alive today as a result.

Even the sun beating down on the ceremonies seemed to bear witness that morning. As the sun rose it came to the place 600 meters above the city where the atomic bomb had actually exploded. The detonation had generated temperatures of 3,000 degrees Celsius. The sun bore down, as if from that spot barely one kilometer away. It struck the frail ranks of atomic-bomb survivors and the polished ambassadors of countries which rely on The Bomb.

Did God’s question to Cain prick the conscience of the small circle of leaders in Washington who decided for the bomb? Did the Holy Spirit trouble the secretive circles in other nuclear capitals? Surely she did, and still does, and will finally prevail.

The evidence of things hoped-for is already available elsewhere. During these past 75 years of unthinkable threats most countries have adopted a de facto position as their sisters’ keepers. They have not given in to the nuclear temptation to commit murders which cannot be denied or to destroy a world which all must share.

Only five already dominant states succumbed to that temptation initially. However, when leading nations blame their own unacceptable behaviour on their enemies, the door stands open and four more states also developed nuclear weapons. Thirty-one others – US allies – rely on or help in the use of nuclear weapons without having their own.

The good news on this 75th anniversary is that more than 150 countries do not have or rely on nuclear weapons, 122 countries negotiated a treaty to ban them, 82 states have signed the ban treaty and 40 have ratified it.

Member churches of the WCC can help implement a long-standing ecumenical goal by calling for their governments to support the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapon. This is a long-sought covenant to become one-another’s keeper. It is well on its way to becoming international law.

This text is the eighth of a series of blog posts highlighting different reflections and experiences of those who are calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Learn more:

"75th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: has your country ratified the UN treaty?", by Jennifer Philpot-Nissen (15 June 2020)

"Kiritimati and the Bomb: A Tale of Two Churches", by Becky Alexis-Martin (6 July 2020)

"Recollections of an ecumenical pilgrimage to Japan, for the 70th anniversary of atomic bombing (2015)", by Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (15 July 2020)

"Japan’s churches urge nuclear-free world", by Rev. Renta Nishihara (20 July 2020)

"Nuclear weapons are no good for the Pacific—and no good for the world", by Rev. James Bhagwan (27 July 2020)

"Open wounds: French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa, Ma’ohi Nui 1966-1996", by Francois Pihaatae (3 August 2020)

"Practicing the interfaith discipline of hope", by Emily Welty (10 August 2020)

About the author :

Jonathan Frerichs recently retired from the World Council of Churches where he had been the programme executive for peace building and disarmament. In the summer of 2015 he prepared and accompanied a WCC church leaders' pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mark the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on these two Japanese cities.

Jonathan Frerichs is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.