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    aerial photo of the destruction of Hiroshima

    Blessing the Bombs

    As an Air Force chaplain I blessed the men who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All I can say today is that I was wrong.

    By George Zabelka

    August 9, 2022

    Available languages: Español

    • Lawrence Brazier

      Jesus did get angry, on occasion (the moneylenders at the temple). Thus, He opposed evil, but did not kill. The greatest indictment against us is that in the Ten Commandments "we actually had to be told" that killing was wrong. We had sunk so low that all sensitivity was lost. One may suggest that we don't "feel" any of our decisions. It is all done mentally, coldly. When I was a small boy I had a slingshot. I was one day all fired up with the thrill of a hunting instinct. I shot and killed a sparrow. The "thrill" element in my inner world drained away and I cried my heart out. I guess I was still young enough to get saved. Perhaps that is what He meant by "being as little children".

    • Russell Kendall Carter

      I strongly and emphatically believe that war is bad - all war! However, as a former history professor, I cannot blame you or President Truman for the deeds you performed prior to the terrible bombings of the Japanese civilians. Truman, a practical Christian, weighed the number of US and Japanese soldiers who would have died in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Add to these, the number of civilians who also would have died, I believe that you two cannot be blamed or held responsible for your action 77 years ago. May God walk with you.

    • Dan Malcore

      I think that many can embrace the principles of non-violence but it begs an answer to the question of how does one defend itself against violence, aggression and death. When you have countries like Russia, China, Afghanistan and Syria or going back to the Nazi's in World War 2 who would kill everyone in order to conquer and rule - what do you do? Do you stand there non violently and protest the slaughter of your countrymen, women and children or must you retaliate and confront your aggressors with weapons? As much as I wish I did, I for one do not find the answer to this in the Bible. I do see in the Old Testament where God directed his people to rise up and attack those who oppressed his people. This meant death in large numbers. I compassionately understand those who have the terrible mission to defend and, looking back ask for forgiveness for what needed to be done to protect their country. The deep sorrow that comes from that, particularly when children were involved must be difficult to reconcile. God help us all.

    • Cathy Gately

      War is profitable that is why the United States and now Russia engage in it. Evil autocrats send other people’s children to kill perceived enemies of the state. Putin needs to go in the trenches with his soldiers instead of spending time with his young mistress in his mansion. As an older woman I can see the futility of it all. Humanity has a chip loose in its DNA, that is why God sent Jesus in the world to show us a better way, BUT, we killed him too. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

    • Heather M Peterson

      I just can't understand pacifism in light of the Old Testament. I understand being a Spirit-led Christian and repenting of all actions that were not led by the Spirit of the Living God. I am thankful for his humble admission that his decisions to bless the actions of war were led more by following the patterns of the culture he lived in than by the leading of the Holy Spirit of God.

    • Casey Meester

      After Okinawa it was decided, to reduce casualties on their side and ours, to use the bomb. If you can find a video documentary I suggest watching that. This guy was spiritually weak.

    • Karen Brettschneider

      God forgives all sins. He has already forgiven those sins of war. Remember, however, that the Japanese military at that time were cruel, indifferent soldiers. The people, civilians, of Japan did not know much about the war going on around them. Yes, the bomb was cruel, but killing our sailors at Pearl Harbor was also cruel. I strongly believe God was with us during the war. Battles won, Resistance fighters helping to defeat the enemy, all were covered with God's grace and mercy. We are, once again, living under the threat of nuclear war. But I try to remember daily that Christ asks us to trust Him and place our lives in His care. Why worry, why be sorry so many years later? You are forgiven (if forgiveness is necessary) and Christ has you covered. Be at peace. I appreciate our military who fights to keep freedom from disappearing. Don't look back, look forward. God bless all of you who served in all the wars.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      As Zabelka notes, indiscriminately bombing civilians is a blatant violation of just war ethics, but I can't agree with his pacifism. Imperial Japan was as brutal and maniacal as Nazi Germany and needed to be defeated. Roughly 250,000 Asian civilians were dying every month under the Japanese boot. A pacifist response to such wholesale slaughter is an affront to humanity.

    • Michael Linkenheil

      About the best account of what was an event of pure evil. More shattering is that the god of Judea-Christianity revels in such slaughter, and is responsible for the slaughter of more people/other creatures than such wars combined. There is no excuse; least of all as Mr Zabelka makes clear: Goddunnit. Man is capable of Evil, and the ONLY agency capable of good.

    • Janette Harper

      i think he is very humble it takes courage to admit that one is wrong and i wish politicians could read this

    • Mike Dedrick VFP 92 seattle

      Chaplains are not the voice of Christ and his compassion. Their job is to get soldiers back in battle. Zabelka's voice is a powerful one that is relevant today when we are planning a $1.6 trillion overhaul of our nuclear forces. Like Jim Welch I live with the huge civilian casualties I saw during Tet in Cholon, Saigon, 1968

    • Ramone Romero

      I don't think this is well known in Japan. So a friend translated Zabelka's speech and I posted it on Facebook. Please share with any Japanese friends.

    • Peter Franz

      "Father forgive them for they know not what they do", taken from the Bible, is the caption of the 1954 Anti Nuclear War editorial drawing, with Christ on the Cross and the nuclear bomb, mushroom cloud, in the background, by Paul Martin Butkovich. He attended the Corcoran School of Art in DC in 1939-1940. For 4 decades, he warned against nuclear weapons. Each year, his artwork is part of the Hiroshima Remembrance Day Event in West Hartford, CT. And, I am proud to say, "he is my dad." Pete Butkovich

    • Jim Welch

      Why is it always after the fact, after retirement or separation from the military or the war machine, that men come forward seeking redemption for their role in the on-going slaughter of innocents? As a Vietnam vet I include myself in this group---and wish every night as I spend countless sleepless hours confronting the memories of my experiences that I had just refused to go up front, gone to jail or whatever instead of having to live the lifetime of shame I have lived for killing two men and witnessing the burial of hundreds of men, women, and children---many of them innocents slaughtered during a number of days of intense combat---in two mass graves near Bien Hoa AFB after the TET offensive of 1968.

    • Rev. Steve Plank

      I am moved, I am shamed by the things I just read about Fr. George. We all have stood by, giving silent assent and verbal blessing to the push for and sustenance of war. There might be all kinds of good reasons to pursue war against terrorists... but they are not Jesus reasons. May God forgive me and us all, and help us to stand up and speak out for that which we know to be true about our Lords teachings.

    • Timothy Wright

      Jesus tolds us to turn the other cheek, we can turn our own but the President is responsible for the cheeks of all the people in the country. He is not commanded to turn the cheeks of others. Each person has to choose.

    • Jason Ramage

      There is definitely a fine line that we walk as citizens of the United States, the worlds military superpower, and as Christians, a people called to humility and peacefulness. Is it practical to avoid war in an evil world? There are many valid reasons for criticizing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when you consider most of Americas past wars, when we ruthlessly killed Native Americans and drove them out into the desert (an injustice "solved" by gambling casinos), this war is not much of a departure from the pattern of our past (just in case anyone wants to suggest that our forefathers were generally good, wholesome Christian folk... ). Should we trust God to protect us from terrorists, rather than shoot them? Most Americans are not Christians, so how can we say that America should trust God alone? I guess the answers arent clear, although Zabelkas article makes the answers seem very clear and maybe Im unwilling to accept it that simply.

    Father George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Air Force, served as a priest for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and gave them his blessing. Days later he counseled an airman who had flown a low-level reconnaissance flight over the city of Nagasaki shortly after the detonation of “Fat Man.” The man described how thousands of scorched, twisted bodies writhed on the ground in the final throes of death, while those still on their feet wandered aimlessly in shock – flesh seared, melted, and falling off. The crewman’s description raised a stifled cry from the depths of Zabelka’s soul: “My God, what have we done?” Over the next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been terribly wrong, that he had denied the very foundations of his faith by lending moral and religious support to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Zabelka died in 1992, but his message, in this speech given on the 40th anniversary of the bombings, must never be forgotten.

    The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.

    I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my church’s leadership. (To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.)

    I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.”

    I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

    For the last 1700 years the church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.

    War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

    The morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

    So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

    For the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

    Yet the church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians. Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic.

    Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

    destruction of Hiroshima

    Hiroshima, Japan, 1945, Atomic Bomb Aftermath UpNorth Memories.Don Harrison

    Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the church refuses to be the church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

    Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. (When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, “Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”)

    As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

    All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt.

    I was there, and I was wrong. Yes, war is hell, and Christ did not come to justify the creation of hell on earth by his disciples. The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. I was wrong. And to those of whatever nationality or religion who have been hurt because I fell under the influence of the father of lies, I say with my whole heart and soul I am sorry. I beg forgiveness.

    I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for myself, for my country, for my church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

    All religions have taught brotherhood. All people want peace. It is only the governments and war departments that promote war and slaughter. So today again I call upon people to make their voices heard. We can no longer just leave this to our leaders, both political and religious. They will move when we make them move. They represent us. Let us tell them that they must think and act for the safety and security of all the people in our world, not just for the safety and security of one country. All countries are inter-dependent. We all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world holocaust.

    Each one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to realize we all become responsible. Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.

    The bombing of Nagasaki means even more to me than the bombing of Hiroshima. By August 9, 1945, we knew what that bomb would do, but we still dropped it. We knew that agonies and sufferings would ensue, and we also knew – at least our leaders knew – that it was not necessary. The Japanese were already defeated. They were already suing for peace. But we insisted on unconditional surrender, and this is even against the Just War theory. Once the enemy is defeated, once the enemy is not able to hurt you, you must make peace.

    As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier, centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And yet I said nothing.

    Thank God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

    We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.

    This article is excerpted from a speech George Zabelka gave at a Pax Christi conference in August 1985 (tape of speech obtained from Notre Dame University Archives). The first two paragraphs are from an interview with Zabelka published in Sojourners magazine, August 1980.

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