Noverim te, noverim me – “May I know you, may I know myself” – said Thomas Merton, quoting Augustine. This is the proper summation of our prayers, but so often they are quite otherwise—I choose ignorance over knowing because deep down I know what it is about me that I do not want brought up to the surface where I will have to face God with it. I . . WE have a stupendous capacity to lie and then to believe our own lie. We tell ourselves that our lives are meaningful, and that we have attained fellowship with God rather than facing the reality that we are mere nothings, bloated full of pride, blown up like a blowfish – and it is all a facade. The only self we know is a false self, and therefore we do not really know God. Even the idea of “imitation of Christ,” Merton says, becomes for us mere “impersonation” [Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1971), 67-69].
I read these thoughts of Merton’s while flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on July 3, 2006. In particular, it was during the part of the flight in which we were over Japan, flying from north to south. As I read, I kept one eye on the navigational map on the screen in front of me, and I noticed that we were approaching Hiroshima. Indeed, we flew directly over it. I wondered if one might still experience the affect of the radiation set off there sixty years ago while flying overhead. What is the half-life of a nuclear holocaust? I felt the eeriness of confluence – of two unrelated but corresponding things that come together coincidentally: there I was, reading about our deep capacity for self-deception and selfjustification, while coincidentally passing 36,000 feet above the site of an event that, like THE Holocaust, ought to cause us to shudder and to resolve: “Never Again.”
I didn’t weep. I actually moaned – moaned out an apology to God on behalf of the human race, myself included. Thinking in cliches: “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?” God does, not The Shadow. And we do, if we’re willing to look inside ourselves.
How is it that we can hate other human beings to the extent that we are willing to incinerate them? I know the answer, because I know how I have hated – how I have contributed to the total conglomerate of hate and violence in the world. I’ve never physically killed, but: a butterfly flaps its wings in Australia. . . . What “domino affect” has my hate had on others? Have I despised another who, after being despised by others again, has escalated the level of hate to the point of killing? How many degrees of separation from my hate are necessary before I am no longer implicated?
Of course, I can justify my actions: those I have treated rudely have (well, for the most part) deserved it. They had to be taught a lesson. Did I teach it? Was it the right lesson? Or did I teach them that the right way to respond to others’ rudeness, mistakes, unthoughtfulness or even hate, is to hate or be rude in return? If I have returned an eye for an eye, what did I teach?
We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan because, so it has been argued, it had to be done to save American lives – as if saving American lives is worth killing Japanese lives. Of course, that argument has been questioned: were fewer people killed by incineration than would have been killed in battle on South Pacific islands? Maybe, maybe not. But a more fundamental question is, which lives are worth more, American or Japanese? Can I really argue that killing Japanese people is morally good if it saves Americans? Did it also save Japanese lives? Again, the utilitarian argument could go either way. What is clear is that in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki (especially the latter) the mass killing of noncombatants was thought worth the price. Nagasaki has been described as a “sleepy little fishing village.” Unsuspecting innocents, beginning their day, going about their daily, mundane tasks, preparing for work, school, the opening of the shop, perhaps taking their breakfast after feeding the livestock, and then . . . the unspeakable. For some, just a flash and an instant death; for others, a deafening concussion, the building falling in, pinned beneath rubble, perforated by flying debris, wonder of what had happened, wonder of where the children are, or the wife or husband or mother or father, and then perhaps a slower death – but yet more merciful than the deaths that followed from radiation poisoning – the agonizing pain of burns from the radiation, the passing of strength to weakness to death. I dare not attempt to imagine.
Of course, we want clean consciences, and so we have conjured up our best defenses to justify such torture of fellow human beings – and each defense reduces them to something less than human – something it is ok to kill, as we kill a bug that has wandered into our path. We do this to protect our human (and humane) status. But this reduction of humans to less-than-human has another affect: it reduces ME, the defender, as well. When we degrade, we are also degraded. It is not just the degrading of enemies, it is the degradation of the human, and so I am included.
The attempt to rescue my humanity from the specter of insane cruelty is void because I am still degraded. I am still brought down, still reduced to less-than-human, and as a result I will find it easier and easier to disregard the value of human life: as less-than-human, my life is not so valuable after all, and neither are the lives of those around me. And as less-than-human, I cannot be held responsible to the “lofty” standards of humanity. Those standards seem idealistic, unreal, outdated, antique and irrelevant. They just no longer matter. We are no longer human.
What happened on those two days in August of 1945 was not just the killing of a million or so Japanese, it was the killing of humanity. Certainly there had been previous calamitous cruelties – THE Holocaust, for instance – but was this event the final nail in the coffin? We used to think that humanity was rising out of the swamp, climbing higher and higher, becoming more and more dignified. At least that is what the nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers and theologians believed. There were no heights we would not reach, no mysteries of the universe we would not fathom, no worlds we would not conquer. We were becoming, in Nietzsche’s terms, ubermenschen, “supermen” who could and should set our own ethical codes. World War II shattered that vision of humanity. It revealed that the “new man” we thought we had become, the result of centuries of progress, was still mired in the swamp of sin and evil. Our technological conquests had only made us capable of greater evil on greater numbers of our fellow human beings, all at once.
This weapon of mass destruction was decisive, perhaps, in human history, because we now knew that we possessed the power of absolute self-destruction. While abject cruelty had obviously existed before 1944, never before had such self-hate been set loose in the world. More than just tribal warfare, more than nation against nation, this was the power to do away with the entire human race. “Suicide” is not a big enough word; neither is “genocide." Would “humanicide” do? We didn’t completely destroy ourselves; we tried to cut a cancer out of humanity, but left ourselves crippled as a result of the radical self-surgery. More than simply blowing up a few hundred thousand human beings, we blew out our collective brains – the very soul of humanity as a whole. Humanity, true humanity, was destroyed. It was burned beyond recognition, transmuted at the sub-atomic level. Evolution was replaced by devolution. Was it the apex of sin? Dare we hope?
Can we ever recover? If so, how? How can we recover a lost humanity? The answer is one we all know, but do not want to hear or say. The answer is: we cannot. Humanity is more than chemicals in a test tube. We may, in time, be able to align the chromosomes and DNA correctly to produce a human body that lives. But doing so will not restore humanity. The body thus produced will still find itself part of a less-than-human humanity, a sub-humanity that continues to wallow in self-hate and take morbid pleasure in self-degradation and self-destruction. Recovery is beyond our power. How can we stop hating ourselves? Our self-hate leads to more and more self-degradation, leading to more and more self-hate, thus more self-degradation. . . . The vicious cycle to end all vicious cycles. Perhaps.
Though recovery is beyond our power, it is not impossible. Do we believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Do we believe that he conquered the powers of death and sin? Do we believe that God the Father “made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21)? What does this mean? Is it “just a metaphor”? Or did something on the level of creation (God “made” so we could “become”) occur on the cross? Perhaps even something “beneath” the subatomic llevel, at the place where humanity meets human bodies. And even deeper – at the place where God’s identity resides: Jesus, the Son of God and God himself, was made (though not forced) to “be” sin. He did not, it appears, simply “deal with” sin; nor did he merely “pay the price” or take sin “on” himself, though these things are also true. In the person of God the Son, God took sin into himself. This was no external transaction or business operation. This was God himself becoming me, becoming every human being who ever lived, every human being who deserved to be on that cross. The “deal” struck was not between God and some other being; it was internal to God. Sin was “dealt with” by God not as something impersonal to him, but as something which he felt, by which God himself was scarred and pained.
Did God become sinful? The text does not go so far. The only result it states of God’s action is that we can become God’s righteousness. There is no explanation of how that occurs. However, scripture does give us some hints, in other places, of how the “deal” went within God. If we follow for a moment the metaphor of light in scripture: Jesus, the light of the world, is the Son of God who is himself light (John 8:12; 1 John 1:5). Psalm 139:11-12 says: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” What happens, then, if the darkness of sin meets up with the light of the world – with the God who is light? To paraphrase John 1:5, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Light dispels darkness. God’s presence dispels darkness and sin.
This is the only hope sub-humanity has. Only God can restore our lost humanity that we so willingly threw away. To know this about ourselves is to begin to know God.