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I’m 1 for 2 so far this summer.
Of course, I’m talking about Barbeheimer, the blockbuster movie event of the summer.
I’ve seen one of the two movies everyone has been talking about. Last week I saw the Barbie movie; I haven’t seen Oppenheimer yet. I do know it’s a movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who helped develop the atomic bomb. Until now, I haven’t been ready for such heavy material, no pun intended.
Today might be the right day to see it, though – August 6 is the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a bomb developed by Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project. Knowing what we know now about how destructive the atomic bomb is, it’s hard to believe there was a frenzied but top-secret urgency in 1942 to form a project whose purpose was to develop it, and develop it for use.
And yet, the Manhattan Project did just that.
On July 16, 1945, a test of a bomb took place in New Mexico at a site ironically named ‘‘Trinity.’’ The bomb worked beyond all possible calculations.

The responses of the physicists on the project are striking. Here is the physicist Isador Isaac Rabi’s description of that first detonation:

“We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly. Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced. Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one. A new thing had just been born; a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.”
(from Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York, 1987, p. 672).

Another physicist on the project, Emilio Segre, saw it like this:
“The most striking impression was that of an overwhelmingly bright light … I was
flabbergasted by the new spectacle. We saw the whole sky flash with unbelievable
brightness in spite of the very dark glasses we wore … I believe that for a moment
I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the earth,
even though I knew that this was not possible.” (from Rhodes, p. 673)

It’s hard to hear the fascination, awe, fear, pride, and even identification with power and beauty in these responses and not see the eerie juxtaposition with the responses of Peter, James, and John when they beheld the transfiguration of Jesus into dazzling white. “Master, we are flabbergasted by this spectacle. We have never seen a light this bright. It is good for us to be here. Let us build temples and dwellings and structures of adoration for this monumental event.”

There is further disturbing juxtaposition when we consider how Moses’ face shone – one might say it radiated – after he encountered the bright light of God on the mountaintop, with the toxic radiation emanating from the hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who encountered the bright light of the atomic bomb, and suffered from its disastrous health effects.

This feast of the Transfiguration brings to light (pun intended) the immense difference between the power and light of God, and that of man-made instruments of death.
And it begs us to examine why we keep getting it so wrong.

I don’t relish this comparison, but in some ways, both God and nuclear weapons are fascinating, powerful, mysterious, grandiose, and seductive. Fascinating because they constantly open us to new worlds and new possibilities. Powerful because of their ability to either build up or destroy. Mysterious because we will never fully comprehend them. Grandiose because of their ability to capture a global imagination. And seductive, because to be in possession of such power can so easily corrupt our good intentions, better judgment, and best character.

And we don’t have the voice of God booming at us from the sky warning us to pay attention to good, just, right teaching. While there were plenty of nerves and caution surrounding the Manhattan project, none were strong enough to override the urgency our country felt to be the first to build an atomic weapon. There was no one to warn them in 1945… at least no one powerful enough to listen to. No warning that made them tremble in fear – not even devastation of the test bomb.
Oppenheimer himself saw the bomb test and recalled to himself this piece of Hindu Scripture from the Bhagavad Gita:
I am become death, shatterer of worlds.
As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The voice of God booming over the dazzling brightly lit Jesus was enough to stop the disciples in their tracks. Aaron and the Israelites were afraid to approach Moses when they saw his radiating, shining face. The disciples were enthusiastic about the transfigured Jesus until God stepped in and made a ruckus. I wonder what made them so fearful after encountering the absolute power of God that they didn’t want to proceed any further. I wonder why they kept silent and told no one what they had seen.
Was it because it terrified them?
Was it because they weren’t so sure about the command to listen to Jesus? That if they told people what they had seen and heard, they’d actually have to take this Jesus seriously?

I wonder, What voice of God would cause us to tremble in fear, to really reconsider what we’re doing and where we’re going? As a society, we aren’t doing so well at listening to the warnings of climate scientists or the common sense that partisan identity politics is tearing this country apart and literally killing people. As individuals, our ego often overrides our humility or our curiosity, and we end up doing things that are ill-advised at best, cruel and destructive at worst. On a day we commemorate and remember the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost due to the seduction of absolute power, how are we listening to the warnings, from then and now, any better?

We know that to create and possess the ability to play God with innocent people’s lives is an invitation to destruction. And in that, we have forgotten the providence of God. And there is where God comes in and says, “This is my son. Listen to him.” Listen to the life of Jesus that shows us how to put down weapons instead of picking them up. How to be generous, and remember the least of these. How to love, how to forgive, how to heal, how to break bread and grow community, how to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. How to be faithful, even when it’s hard. How to suffer, with trust that God will not leave you to carry your burdens alone. How to sacrifice, how to care, and how to follow where God leads.

When we remember that God provides, we are freed to accept our responsibility for our actions and to repair our world. That is the moral and spiritual legacy of August 6, 1945. That is the life that Jesus invites us to live. A life transfigured, changed, by the brightness and power of Jesus the Light of the World. How will you listen, and where will you follow?

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York, 1987.

with thanks to the Rev. Curtis Hart for his article on the topic, “Hiroshima and the King of Tyre,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2006 ( 2006)
DOI: 10.1007/s10943-006-9056-3

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