August 2020


This is the text of my article in the Yorkshire Post today to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of VJ Day.

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is not just a day for celebrating the end of a cataclysmic global conflict. It is also a stimulus for reflection, humility and courageous self-reflection. For, in the famous words at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’, pointing to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Not elegant, but inescapably powerful. The sort of idolatries and dehumanising perversities that led to two world wars have not gone away, and there is great danger in thinking that we have since then just “moved on”.

One of the most remarkable things about what followed VJ Day in 1945 was the ability of so many victims of Japanese military brutality to face the horrors they had endured and still forgive. Not everyone, clearly. And no one can point a finger at those whose suffering took them into silence, withdrawal or, even, hatred. Yet, many did recognise the complex nature of human identity, allegiance and obedience. (One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the film ‘The Railway Man’ in which Colin Firth plays ex-POW Eric Lomax as he confronts the tortures he had endured during the war.)

This is not easy stuff. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before the Nazi surrender, addressed this when he rejected any notion of what he called “cheap grace”. You can’t just “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with appalling cruelty or suffering; but, the beginning of any healing is to be found in facing the offence with courage and clarity.

A Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama did just that in 1984. Soaked in Japanese tradition and culture (though by then teaching in New York City), he wrote what he called a “pilgrimage in theology’ in which he went from Mount Fuji to Mount Sinai – from the heart of Japanese emperor worship back to the formative place of encounter in the Judeo-Christian narrative with God. What this meant for Koyama was not just some interesting historical study from which he could maintain academic distance, but an open facing up to personal challenge and failure. In a nutshell: how did he find himself seduced by a cultural worldview that led to unimaginable cruelty (as an exercise of power) while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ?

I mention Koyama because his account is not one that should be restricted to Japanese or Germans in the wake of a world war. It was a failure to recognise early enough the perversity of idolatry (of Hitler, the Reich, the Emperor) or the consequences of a thinking that dehumanises people that led to fifty million corpses across the planet in 1945.

An uncritical obedience to the Emperor cult led not only to extreme violence, but also to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where national identity and racial personality were reduced to ashes beneath the mushroom clouds of technological progress. Worship idols of national identity or racial supremacy and it will end in violence. Do we never learn from history?

Koyama came to the conclusion that Japan’s collusion with emperor worship was a form of idolatry – giving ultimate worth to a dehumanising ideology. He pleads that every culture is prone to similar idolatries and that these are easily colluded with. The challenge for us, learning from his experience, is how to critique the values of our own culture … in order to avoid unthinkingly slipping down a slope that leads inexorably to violence.

Self-criticism is not something that most of us find easy. Especially when we are asked to expose to external critique something as fundamental as our worldview: that is, our assumptions about the world, its people and what ultimately matters. It takes courage to look through the lens of others at the essence and drift of what we hold to be essential about our own collective values. The moral questions that lead us to condemn war crimes are the same as those we bring to bear on current challenges such as illegal immigration: what is a human being worth? And why?

I can’t go with Koyama from Mount Fuji back to Mount Sinai where the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition is rooted (the Ten Commandments and the shaping of a just society), but I can at least see in Sinai some fundamental encouragements and warnings: to love God and neighbour; to avoid coveting and killing; to avoid idolatry and build justice; to tell the truth.

VJ Day celebrates the end of a particular dehumanising brutality and the cost of resisting it. The values that led the world to oppose tyranny must be the ones we hold onto as they come under pressure in every generation.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

I am probably not alone in being haunted by film of the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday evening. The fearful images are powerful in themselves, but they also provoke a terrible sense of awe – at the destruction and death wrought by the apocalyptic suddenness of such a violent event. Observing from a distance is bad enough; being there must surely be appalling at every level.

As the shock turns yet again to musings about meaning, every witness will have their own vocabulary – their own associations – as they try to articulate the impact on their own sense of mortality or fragility.

I was probably also not alone on Tuesday in associating images from Lebanon with those from Hiroshima 75 years ago today. I remember seeing film of that first atomic bomb and reading John Hersey’s harrowing account from 1946 of the aftermath. Even at the time this provoked both scientists and ethicists to question whether technology had once again outstripped morality. In the light of our proven technological ability to do something, how do we then ensure that the question as to whether we should do it is properly addressed – and in which terms?

This is not easy. In the real world things don’t happen tidily or sequentially. But, I think there are other images that might help in the search.

In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This recalls when Jesus took three of his friends up a mountain where his appearance was transfigured by light before their eyes. They were dazzled. But, they didn’t quite get what they had just witnessed. Jesus had to explain to them, but also urge them not to rush around telling everyone what they had seen. Don’t leap to judgment when you don’t have the full picture or you haven’t had time to think it through.

What is also significant here is that Jesus leads them back down the mountain and they head towards Jerusalem where he knows that horrors await him and them. No fantasy idealism. No seduction by an ideological dream. Just – how to live with the vivid experience as cold, unpredictable (and perhaps incomprehensible) reality unravels before them.

The question whether we should do what we can do has not gone away since Hiroshima. Nor has the warning not to rush to judgment or blame simply because of a prior association. And nor has the need to share fragile humanity by prayer and practical care for those who suffer what they might never understand.