Seventy-one years ago, the atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped from Colonel Paul Tibbets’ payload onto the citizens of Hiroshima. A blinding light shredded across the landscape on August 6, 1945, instantly incinerating nearly a third of the city’s population. Within a few months, over 120,000 people were dead from radiation poisoning. Those left alive were marked—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and culturally.
August 6 also happens to be the day the Christian church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. Having ascended the holy mountain with three disciples, the figure of Jesus is physically transformed and he is joined by Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ face changes; his clothes become a blinding light. While Peter, James, and John don’t know what to make of this, they hear a voice from heaven affirming Jesus as the beloved Son of God. The liturgy for the day asks believers to pray, “Lord, transfigure and heal.”
As Jesus was on the holy mountain his body was physically altered. He became a vision of humanity remade in its perfect form. Hiroshima’s destruction was the ultimate unmaking—people were literally evaporated, leaving only irradiated shadows where they last stood.
In 1946 an American journalist named John Hersey traveled to Hiroshima and interviewed some of the hibakusha. In an account that was hailed by the New York Times and Time as one of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century, Hersey tells of a different sort of hell than ever before imagined. Through his interactions with hibakusha—from a local doctor to a widowed mother of three to a German Jesuit—Hersey wove together facts and imagery to “stir the conscience of humanity.” His mission was to tell a story of Hiroshima’s devastation so that the world might know the true cost of war in the atomic age.
The story he tells is brutal. “Thousands of people had nobody to help them,” Hersey wrote. The riverbank was piled with bodies of those who died in the blast or were too weak to escape from drowning. As a fire broke out after the blast, the wounded limped as quickly as they could to safety past the screams of those trapped in rubble. “To distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open.”
The sense of helplessness is palpable as he describes a conversation between two doctors about the level of injury necessary for treatment. “In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand,” Hersey wrote, “nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” The more seriously a patient was wounded, the more they were ignored.
The story and legacy of Hiroshima is carried on, physically and emotionally, by the hibakusha. The horror of Hiroshima was not just the bomb, but also long and painful deaths from radiation that took months or even years. Those who did survives became physical reminders of the transformative power of war and hate wrought by a people they would never meet. They were broken and discarded.
Less than a decade after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my grandparents left rural Michigan to start what would become a three-decades placement in Japan as Christian missionaries. From Osaka to the suburbs of Tokyo, their lives were to be a particular Christian response to the particular devastation that war, and America, had wrought. This was somewhat unintentional. They had applied to be sent to India, but an administrator at the mission agency had rendered the decision to instead send them to Japan. My grandparents arrived in the early 1950s, the wounds of war still open, their mission to help spread the gospel.
My grandma died last year, and my grandpa preceded her by several years. I never asked either of them what they thought about Hiroshima. I don’t know if they would have seen their work as a correction or penance for the horrible devastation wrought by their countrymen. They were just trying to be faithful.
I don’t know a lot about the exact nature of their work. I know they worked with other missionaries, both Japanese and American, in a compound. I know they raised three children in a post-war Japan, teaching all three to speak fluent Japanese. They took the call of the gospel seriously, and even as their mental capacities diminished, they still prayed lucidly. They saw a healing power in the gospel and they dedicated their lives to it.
“Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21
This text from Revelation has deep meaning for those broken by war. It imagines a world in which broken things are remade into precious works. In Japan, there is a word for it: kintsugi. Simply put, kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing pottery with precious metals. Literally meaning “to patch with gold,” kintsugi is a tradition dating to ancient Japan which held that a piece of salvaged, broken ceramic or pottery could become even more valuable than it had originally been. The melted gold infuses a paradoxical combination of strength and fragility, and gives previously useless items new life. Broadly speaking, kintsugi is the art world’s equivalent of reconciliation—making broken things new through the injection of unexpected beauty. Art critic Blake Gopnik has called kintsugi “a tiny moment of free jazz played during a fugue by Bach.”
Yet, seven decades after Hiroshima there is still innocent bloodshed. In Paris, Syria, and Orlando lives are snatched away while the church still prays for transfiguration and healing. Those left alive after terror attacks and warfare are similarly marked. They are, in their own way, hibakusha. The church is called to inhabit these spaces in order to affect a different sort of transformation, and to counter the world’s modus operandi through acts of service and love.
Two months ago, President Obama made the first visit by a sitting American president to the site of the bombing. He told an audience that included hibakusha, “death fell from the sky and the world was changed.”
Obama did not shy away from the horror of the attack, and rightly described it as a transformative moment in world history:
“A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself. Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not so distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 in Japanese men, women and children; thousands of Koreans; a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
While President Obama’s remarks were noteworthy in calling for a moral revolution, he did not apologize for the bombing. The visit should not be misconstrued as an act of reconciliation. Strength has and will continue to be measured by force and the capability to wield destruction, and the United States continues to possess thousands of nuclear weapons. This wasn’t true healing; kintsugi cannot be produced through state visits.
Jesus’ transfiguration is an eschatological vision—that is, a glimpse of the world as it should be, a proclamation of a reality counter to the one of this broken world. The vision of the transfiguration comes with an invitation, an offer to participate in a different sort of power, the power of kintsugi.
That power is displayed in Father Kleinsorge, the German Jesuit chronicled by Hersey who sought to serve the hibakusha and the help rebuild Japan. Fr. Kleinsorge was the true embodiment of kintsugi because through his service he was unmade. At once hibakusha and kintsugi, Kleinsorge dedicated his life so fully to the care of survivors that he became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Father Takakura. His service sapped his strength, and he died in 1977 from lingering health issues caused by radiation. He was called by his German brothers rücksichtsvoll—overly regardful—and enryo by those he helped—self-sacrificing.
I’d like to think that kintsugi is part of my grandparent’s legacy. Their task was to mend the spiritual wounds of Americans and Japanese through the work of the gospel, making something even more precious than before. While they were white Americans raised in the Midwest and formed by a conversion-centric evangelical theology, I still remember my grandma making Japanese meals for us, teaching us snippets of Japanese phrases, and recounting my grandpa’s sermons in front of a Japanese congregation. They allowed themselves to be shaped and molded by a country and people considered their enemy. They wanted to be a light.
The work of kintsugi bestows new life and meaning to things that were broken, scattered and deemed worthless. That the Day of Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6 challenges the notion that broken things must remain broken, and suggests that no one—not victims of conflict nor those guilty of the horrors of war – are beyond healing.