Nagasaki: St. Mary’s Church was “ground zero”

Christians sometimes survive terrible disasters. Naturally enough, they give God the credit for their survival. (I would, too.)

I used to have an audio recording of one Christian’s account of a miraculous survival. He survived the worst civil aviation disaster in history. He made it out through a jagged hole in the roof of the plane. He is convinced it was humanly impossible for him to get up there and out through the hole.

Such stories confirm the truth of the Christian faith, at least in the mind of the survivor. But not so fast! They also give rise to a big question:  what about the people who didn’t survive? Were they any less deserving of life? Do Christians worship a God who blesses only the faithful?

Today I came across an even darker story:  of Christians who were at the epicenter of a terrible disaster.

Sixty-two years ago this month, the USA dropped its second atom bomb on Japan:  on the city of Nagasaki. In an ironic twist, the bomb wiped out a minority Christian community which had previously survived two centuries of persecution.

The story is told by Dr. Gary Kohls, an associate of Every Church a Peace Church. Hat tip, Doug at Doug’s Darkworld. Here’s an excerpt:

Nagasaki is famous in the history of Japanese Christianity. Not only was it the site of the largest Christian church in the Orient, St. Mary’s Cathedral, but it also had the largest concentration of baptized Christians in all of Japan. It was the city where the legendary Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, established a mission church in 1549, a Christian community which survived and prospered for several generations.

However, soon after Xavier’s planting of Christianity in Japan, Portuguese and Spanish commercial interests began to be accurately perceived by the Japanese rulers as exploitive, and therefore the religion of the Europeans (Christianity) and their new Japanese converts became the target of brutal persecutions. …

250 years later, in the 1850s … it was discovered that there were thousands of baptized Christians in Nagasaki, living their faith in a catacomb existence, completely unknown to the government — which immediately started another purge. But because of international pressure, the persecutions were soon stopped, and Nagasaki Christianity came up from the underground. And by 1917, with no help from the government, the Japanese Christian community built the massive St. Mary’s Cathedral, in the Urakami River district of Nagasaki.

Now it turned out, in the mystery of good and evil, that St. Mary’s Cathedral was one of the landmarks that the Bock’s Car bombardier had been briefed on, and looking through his bomb site over Nagasaki that day, he identified the cathedral and ordered the drop.

At 11:02 am, Nagasaki Christianity was boiled, evaporated and carbonized in a scorching, radioactive fireball. The persecuted, vibrant, faithful, surviving center of Japanese Christianity had become ground zero.

Dr. Kohls comments, “The above true (and unwelcome) story should stimulate discussion among those who claim to be disciples of Jesus.”

Why does God allow bad things to happen to believers? You won’t get any facile answers from me … or any profound ones, either. Christians persist in faith, hope, and love despite the troubling fact of undeserved suffering.

One can only draw some honest, humble conclusions:

  1. God doesn’t promise to spare Christians suffering.
  2. Christians shouldn’t overreach in their claims; we shouldn’t point to Christian survival stories as proof of our faith, ignoring the associated problems.
  3. The death of Christ is a symbol which insists that innocent suffering does not render life meaningless.
  4. The resurrection of Christ is a symbol which insists that death (however it comes about) is not the last chapter of a human life.
  5. Dr. Kohls may be right:  every church should be a peace church. Even a supposedly just war claims a great many innocent victims.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Aug 13, 2007 @ 21:43:21

    I’ll admit that this is one of the things that pisses me off most about religious people. Star Jones, for example, was in the area devastated by the Tsunami in Asia a couple of years ago a week before it happened. When someone pointed that out to her on the air, she just said, “God blesses.”

    Jon Stewart ran the clip and said something like, “God just killed 10,000 people and all you can say is God blesses??!?!?!”


  2. juggling mother
    Aug 14, 2007 @ 02:47:16

    “Christians sometimes survive terrible disasters”

    yeah, and……?

    Muslims sometimes survive terrible disasters. Satanists sometimes survive trrible disasters. Atheists sometimes survive terrible disasters. In fact, if you rsearched it I expect people of all faiths and none sometimes survive terrible disasters. Probably at much the same proportions as those faiths were represented in those disasters.


  3. MaryP
    Aug 14, 2007 @ 12:41:12

    People naturally tend to see reality through a particular structure. Maybe their structure is faith, Maybe humanism or rationalism or a particular philosophy, maybe some other set of preconceptions. ‘Tis only normal.

    What’s offensive in the “overreaching” you cite is, as you note, the complete disregard of the value of those outside that one particular structure.

    (FWIW, I would assume many Muslims who survive a terrible disaster attribute it to Allah – it would be a logical part of their structure.)


  4. juggling mother
    Aug 14, 2007 @ 14:59:34

    I am sure that each person who survives a disaster attributes it to whatever they believe in. i guess in my case I would attriute it to “luck”:-)

    doesn’t make luck real:-) Nor does it mean I can tell everyone else how to gain luck!


  5. Stephen
    Aug 14, 2007 @ 16:46:50

    • Juggling Mother:
    You’re flogging a dead horse. At least, on this post it’s a dead horse:

    2. Christians shouldn’t overreach in their claims; we shouldn’t point to Christian survival stories as proof of our faith, ignoring the associated problems.

    As for your own position, you’re quite right. You may interpret your survival as luck, but that doesn’t make it luck. Personally, I’ll continue to hope. If my life ends tragically, I’ll take comfort in the icons of my faith.


  6. Random
    Aug 15, 2007 @ 05:22:44

    With the greatest of respect to Dr Kohls, but his article is so full of inaccuracies that it’s difficult to engage with his main point without feeling that he’s already undermined it. To take one obvious example –

    “And what the Japanese Imperial government could not do in over 200 years of persecution, American Christians did in 9 seconds. The entire worshipping community of Nagasaki was wiped out.”

    Not only were the Nagasaki Christians not wiped out but they managed to rebuild St Mary’s Cathedral within 15 years and worship there to this day (the surrounding grounds are a peace park with displays of statuary damaged in the bombing).

    But whilst I’m sceptical about Dr Kohls’ points, I fully agree with Stephen’s – although the true story of St Mary’s Cathedral is a moving parable of death and resurrection, we should be wary of seeing any special sign of God’s grace in it. The grace of God doesn’t work that way.


  7. Stephen
    Aug 15, 2007 @ 10:18:52

    Thanks for correcting the record, Random. According to this site, there were “some 20,000” Christians in Nagasaki as of 1873. According to this site, 8,500 Christians were killed in the atomic blast.

    I can’t verify the figures. But you’re quite right, the Cathedral was rebuilt, so obviously a sizeable number of Christians did, in fact, survive.

    The Cathedral was built on the very site where the persecutions were carried out, according to a Wikipedia article:

    The atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 detonated in Urakami, only 500m (1640 ft) from the cathedral, which was completely destroyed. A replacement was built in 1959, after a serious debate between Nagasaki city government and the congregation. The city government suggested to preserved (sic) the destroyed cathedral as a historical heritage, and offered alternate site for a new church. However, Christians in Nagasaki strongly wanted to rebuild their cathedral on the original place for their historical reasons.

    It’s a fascinating story.


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