Serving the God We Know, Knowing the God We Serve

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: "What does the shape of my service look like? If I cannot save the world, what can I do in it?"

The Nakazawas and the Taodas

Seeking after God has transformed my anti-nuclear work. I used to think about the horror of nuclear weapons as fundamentally quantitative—that is, these bombs, even more than other bombs, kill lots and lots of people. So these bombs were dropped, and this many people died, and the badness of the act is measured in the number of digits in the death count.

What I have discovered in seeking the God who saves the world is that the horror of nuclear weapons—for they are horrible—is qualitative. The wickedness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not that hundreds of thousands of people died, but that innocents were killed—period. The number of innocents simply illustrates and magnifies the transgression. This is the inherent offense of nuclear weapons: as weapons of indiscriminate death, whose unique capacity is to destroy entire cities in a single action, they trespass against the God who made human beings in his image and who holds life and death in his hands.

So consider Hiroshima from close up, instead of our usual vantage point, which is big enough to frame miles-high mushroom clouds and six-figure casualty statistics. Consider it intimately—from the perspective of the trespass—and you will find that it becomes a story about God.

There is a little boy named Keiji Nakazawa standing in front of the gate of his elementary school in Hiroshima on a hot August morning in 1945, speaking with a friend’s mother. Then there is a blinding light and deafening roar, and he is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he sees his friend’s mother’s charred body and realized that he has been protected from the heat blast by the school wall.
Dazed, he makes his way home and discovers a smoking ruin. He continues to wander the city. Later in the day, he finds his mother, who holds an hours-old infant girl—his sister.

What had happened was this: When the bomb exploded, his mother, in her third trimester of pregnancy, was at home with his father, sister and brother. Then there was a flash and a roar, and the house collapsed.

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When his mother dug herself out of the rubble, she saw a carbonized human shape where her daughter had been sitting. She heard the voice of her son, crying out under a pile of roof timbers. She heard her husband from under another pile, asking, “Can’t you do something for him? Can’t you do something for him?” These three things barraged her stunned brain through her eyes and ears: her daughter’s burnt corpse, her son crying out, her husband pleading.

She tried to pull the wreckage away to free her son, but her hands were burned, and she lacked the strength. Then she saw that houses nearby were on fire and that the blaze was approaching their house. A neighbor passed by, and she begged his help.

But he replied, “No, we must go! We must go, for the fire is coming!”

“No!” she said. “I will stay and die with my family.” But for her sake he forced her to leave. “No, no, no!” As she was pulled away from her home, she heard, over the roar of the fire, the sounds of her husband and son being burned to death under the roof timbers.

The shock drove her into early labor, and hours later she gave birth to a baby girl. The baby died two months later from radiation sickness and malnutrition.

After her husband, two daughters and son had been killed, Mrs. Nakazawa lived another two decades. She cared for and educated her remaining son, Keiji. He became a famous author of manga, Japanese comic art, and wrote the Barefoot Gen series based on his experiences.

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I heard the story of Keiji Nakazawa’s family from his own mouth. He told it in hallmark hibakusha fashion, without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality—and perhaps understandably so: what verbal affect could add to the bare truth? But our translator, a mother of young children, wept and wept and wept with the cruel labor of making his words her own.

Or let us go even closer, to a point so intimate it is obscene. While walking in Hiroshima’s A-bomb museum, I encounter a Plexiglas case containing a tiny pair of linen shorts, mottled tan and brown and rust-red, and a photograph of a laughing, impossibly chubby little boy. The exhibit card labels it as “Son’s underpants.”

It tells the story of Ren Taoda, a 30-year-old mother carrying her 2-year-old son, Hiroo, when the bomb exploded. She was terribly burned, except for the Hiroo-shaped patch on her back where her son absorbed the blast, likely saving her life. They fled. Hiroo, scorched, was desperate for water, but Ren had heard that drinking water would kill him. (The sudden shock of cold water killed many people in Hiroshima desperately trying to soothe their burns, and a rumor rapidly spread that this bomb had made water fatal.) The exhibit card said that, for the sake of her son, “Ren hardened her heart and didn’t give him any.” He died hours later.

And here, right before me, are the underpants in which he died, stained with the blood and ichor that dripped from his terribly burned body, and which were saved by a mother left with nothing but guilt and remorse. I stand there, transfixed, thinking of my three small nephews.

Son’s underpants. I stare at the bloody folds and recognize, like a dog with its nose shoved into its own sick, what we have offered up to our Master.