Rebecca Brothers | 6 April 2021 |
About fifteen years ago, the Adventist Sabbath School Quarterly featured a story about the American bomber Bockscar, which was tasked with dropping an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Kokura on August 9, 1945. Frustrated by a layer of clouds that obscured the bomb’s target, the pilot of the Bockscar instead proceeded to the team’s secondary target: the city of Nagasaki.
“Some time later,” the story goes on to say, “an officer received some startling information from military intelligence. Just one week before that bombing mission, the Japanese had transferred one of their largest concentrations of captured Americans to the city of Kokura. Upon reading this, the officer exclaimed, ‘Thank God for that protecting cloud! If the city hadn’t been hidden from the bomber, it would have been destroyed and thousands of American boys would have died.’
“God’s ways are behind the scenes,” the story continues, “but He moves all the scenes which He is behind. We have to learn this, and let Him work.”
As the comedian John Mulaney says in his seminal work Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, “Now, we don’t have time to unpack all of that.”
We could talk about how an estimated 39,000–80,000 people died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. Among the people killed were 17,000–22,000 Japanese factory workers, including students; 1,500–2,000 Koreans, who had been brought in as forced labor; between eight and thirteen Allied POWs; and an uncertain number of undocumented workers and military personnel. After the bombing of Hiroshima on August 5, an estimated 200 Hiroshima residents fled to Nagasaki, only to be caught up in the bombing there four days later.
We could talk about how I’m apparently meant to value the lives of those American POWs over the lives of all those victims in Nagasaki. We could talk about how this troublingly American-centric story was featured in a global publication.
But for now, let’s focus on the constant push to classify all terrible incidents as “God acting behind the scenes,” fold our hands, sit back, and “let Him work.”
At its best, this philosophy is a comfort to those who feel helpless. At its worst, it serves as encouragement to pretend that we should do nothing about the many injustices in the world.
Over many conversations, I have begrudgingly come to accept that a reminder of God’s omnipotence can be comforting. However, I maintain my belief that telling grief-stricken folks “God’s in control” or “God has a plan for all of this” should be done with great care and sensitivity. Think of God’s omnipotence in the same way you think about your friends’ pregnancies. You don’t go around asking your friends, “Are you pregnant?” You wait for them to tell you they’re pregnant. You let them take the lead and set the tone for your response.
In a similar fashion, don’t go around telling grieving folks that God is in control of their horrible situations. Wait. Let them talk. If they say that God is in control, and that belief is giving them strength, then affirm that. Remind them of times where God was in control and made things work out all right in the end. Draw from the cultural resources they lean on, perhaps including the Bible, to shore up their strength.
“God’s in control” is a great conversation-ender. All too often, it can cut people off from a therapeutic rant. After you hear “God’s in control,” it can be difficult to reply, “Yeah, maybe, but right now, life is pretty awful. Can you just acknowledge that? Can you just sit with me, here in the awfulness, and center my feelings and grief in your response?”
And then there’s the other end of the spectrum … the places where a reliance on God’s omnipotence leads us towards indifference and inaction. For my part, I refuse to give in to that proclivity. I refuse to chalk up wars and earthquakes and forest fires to “signs of the times,” at which we can only sigh and shake our heads. I refuse to do nothing. I refuse to stop acting to prevent and resolve these acts of destruction. Activism does not demonstrate a lack of faith; it is a natural expression of a faith-filled life. It is a physical manifestation of a belief that things can be better — more equitable and more just.
To be clear, I understand why the American officer expressed relief at the news that the American POWs were spared. I understand that America was at war, and war isn’t possible without the dehumanization of the enemy. I understand that some enemies are worth fighting. I understand, especially in this town I live in that’s filled with federal contractors, that the military-industrial complex supplies a lot of people with high-paying jobs. I understand that the growth of those jobs funds the university where I work.
But gosh … seventy-six years after the end of that war with Japan, and several wars later, aren’t we tired of fighting yet? Aren’t we tired of dehumanizing our neighbors? When can we stop increasing military funding at the expense of funding schools and healthcare? When do we start prioritizing taking good care of the veterans we already have, over creating more? When does the “beating swords into plowshares” begin?
Before you start to wonder if I’m some sort of hippie, let me settle the matter up front: Yes, I am. I believe we are all equally and ardently beloved children of God. I ascribe to the philosophies held by comedians Jackie Kashian (“I support the troops. I support the troops’ finding other jobs”) and Mike Birbiglia (“I love the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops … I would be the troops. And I would be the worst troops.”). I believe the American POW is equal in the eyes of God to the Japanese factory worker. The American civilian has the same value as the Iranian civilian. And — dare I say it? — God looks with equal love upon the smallest child and the most hardened terrorist.
If this throws a kink in your theology or your voting habits, well … good. Maybe it should. Maybe God doesn’t have a favorite football team. Maybe God doesn’t even have a favorite church. Maybe Christians ought to be radically justice-seeking. Maybe Christ’s followers ought to be endlessly restless in their pursuit of equity and scandalously repentant for the harm they have committed by their unquestioning participation in unjust systems.
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Rebecca Brothers is a graduate of Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist School, Walla Walla University, and the University of Washington. She works as an academic librarian in Huntsville, Alabama, and serves on her church’s Vestry, Outreach Committee, Ushers’ Guild, and Altar Guild.