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Act of Remembrance at the epicentre of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki

The Archbishop lays flowers at a memorial in Nagasaki

Thursday 24th September 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, currently visiting the Anglican Church in Japan, today took part in an Act of Remembrance at the epicentre of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki. During the Act of Remembrance, Dr Williams laid flowers at the memorial and spoke about the pressing importance of working for a world free from nuclear weapons.

The Archbishop also paid a visit to the memorial to the 26 Christian martyrs who were crucified in 1549. Dr Williams offered prayers alongside the Most Revd Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nagasaki.

The Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan refers to a group of Christians who were executed by crucifixion on February 5th, 1597 at Nagasaki.

On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier (later canonized by Gregory XV in 1622), Fr. Cosne de Torres, S.J. (a Jesuit priesy), and Fr. John Fernandez arrived in Kagoshima, Japan, from Spain with hopes of bringing Catholicism to Japan. On September 29, St. Francis Xavier visited Shimazu Takahisa, the daimy of Kagoshima, asking for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan. The daimyo agreed in hopes of creating a trade relationship with Europe.

A promising beginning to those missions—perhaps as many as 300,000 Christians by the end of the sixteenth century—met complications from competition between the missionary groups, political difficulty between Spain and Portugal, and factions within the government of Japan. Christianity was suppressed. By 1630, Christianity was driven underground.

The first Martyrs of Japan were canonized in 1862. They are commemorated on February 5th when, on that date in 1597, twenty-six missionaries and converts were killed by crucifixion. Two hundred and fifty years later, when Christian missionaries returned to Japan, they found a community of Japanese Christians that had survived underground.

Archbishop of Canterbury's Address

There are no victories in human history without their element of tragedy. Victory in human affairs always means that someone has lost. And this usually means that life or welfare, hope or security has been lost.

But sometimes the victory has been gained at the price of such violence that we have to say that everyone has lost. Those who have won the conflict have lost some dimension of their own life, their own welfare and integrity.

To see the effects of the use of the atomic bomb here in Nagasaki is to see how this degree of slaughter and violence leaves everyone defeated. The wholesale killing of the innocent and the destruction of an entire environment, natural as well as cultural, the long-term effects, physical and psychological, on those who survived – all of this constitutes a wound that affects the attackers as well as the victims.

The Catholic writer Ronald Knox, commenting in 1945 upon the events that took place in August that year, said that the bomb was an attack on faith, hope and love – an attack on the central virtues of Christian existence.

That attack will continue so long as weapons of mass destruction like nuclear armaments are used as threats in international conflict. They are necessarily indiscriminate; that is, they will always kill the innocent. They destroy the living environment; they have long-term effects on every aspect of the material and organic world. To plan a strategy around such weapons is to be defeated by them. To threaten such an outrage against humanity and its world is to begin to lose one's moral and human dignity. To work for a world free from nuclear arms is to work for the sake of that moral and human dignity.

It is tempting to think that the task is too difficult. Once we have discovered this destructive technology, we cannot pretend it does not exist. Yet equally we cannot – if we are serious about our human dignity – behave as though we had no choice, as if we were the slaves of what our own hands had made. That would be a kind of idolatry: a sin against the God who has made us free to choose between life and death. However precisely we seek to make real the hope of a world without nuclear arms, we should not lose sight of the need to make real moral choices about them. Even a small step is an act of witness.

Dr Takashi Nagai, the great saint and sage of Christian Nagasaki, wrote in his remarkable book, The Bells of Nagasaki, that in the age of atomic energy humanity had grasped hold of a 'two-edged sword', hidden by God in the fabric of the universe and at last put into our hands: but, he went on, 'to turn to the left or the right' as wee hold this sword 'is entrusted to the free will of the human family' (p.116). His book ends, unforgettably, with the sound of the cathedral bells ringing for the Angelus – the call to prayer that is heard three times each day in the bells of Catholic (and some Anglican) churches. It commemorates the moment when the angel tells the Virgin Mary that she is chosen to be the mother of the Saviour. And it commemorates Mary's response – her choice to accept that calling.

Human freedom can start a process that transfigures the whole world. Mary's acceptance is the beginning of God's action in renewing the creation through Jesus. You could almost say that it sets up a 'chain reaction' through the human race. And even now our free actions of turning to God and doing his will have effects greater than we can see or understand – though we see a little of how such processes work when we look at the lives of Christian men and women who say yes to God's call in the most terrible and demanding situations – just as Takashi Nagai said yes, and helped to bring hope and meaning back to so many lives.

Freedom matters. And the free choice that unleashed destruction on this city also started a chain reaction – literally in the massive force of an explosion, less directly in the long-term devastation caused by radiation, symbolically in starting the age of atomic and nuclear rivalry between nations. It is like a negative image of the creative impetus of freedom turned towards God.

Our prayer must be that this creative impetus will break through the chains we have fastened on ourselves, so that we can live in the certainty that there will never be a repetition of the terrible fate visited on this city, and that we shall discover by God's grace and guidance how to live together without the threat of mass killing.

'Choose life', says God to his people in the Bible. May his own free love set us free to make that choice. 

© Rowan Williams 2009

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