In my thoughts about Remembrance Sunday has been the use of modern mass warfare against civilians. Syria is a recent example. We sometimes forget that only one in ten who die through war will be combatants. So whilst it is right that we remember today the heroes who have fallen in battle and the survivors who are mentally or physically scarred, we should also remember the women, children and men(not in active service), who happen to get in the way of weapons of mass destruction. Realists airbrush this horrific reality as ‘collateral damage’.
In the desert of New Mexico is the site of the first atomic explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945. Dr Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw the building of the first atomic bomb, called the test site Trinity, in honour of a sonnet by the seventeenth century poet John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. Twenty years later he couldn’t remember exactly the reasons why. Perhaps he was influenced by the words “break, blow, burn, and make me new” describing in simple terms the sequence of events in a nuclear explosion.
Here is the full text of Donne’s poem,
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
John Donne was deeply divided between religious spirituality and a physical lust for life. Many of his poems, mix the language of the spiritual and the carnal; or the holy and the secular. In this sonnet, the poet is in a passionate conversation with God. Donne asks the “three-personed God” to “batter” his heart, for as yet God “knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend.” He needs God to overthrow him and bend his force to break, blow, and burn and make him new. Like a town captured by the enemy, he seeks unsuccessfully to allow God into his heart. Reason, like God’s viceroy, has been captured by the enemy, and proves weak or untrue. Yet he says that he loves God dearly and wants to be loved in return; but this self-proclaimed false lover is betrothed to God’s enemy. He asks God to divorce him, “untie, or breake that knot againe” to take him prisoner; for paradoxically, until he is God’s prisoner, he will never be free, and he will never be chaste until God ravishes him. Extraordinary stuff from a Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The nuclear test at ‘Trinity’ is the subject of “Doctor Atomic,” an opera, with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars. In the final scene of Act 1, Oppenheimer is alone and the bomb is behind a veil, a white curtain, with the shadow of the bomb projecting onto it. Oppenheimer can hardly look behind the curtain. He tries to reason with God, attempting reconciliation and forgiveness. The librettist uses the words in John Donne’s poem.
We live in a technological age, homo sapiens has become homo technologicus. A creature that is now counter-nature or even anti-nature. Technology has become anchored in the idea of the unfettered will displacing all transcendent frames of reference that might have limited technology’s influence. A contemporary of John Donne was King James’ Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. Bacon claimed that the development of the ‘useful arts’, a medieval term, which included the “mechanical arts”, was growing and becoming more perfect. He said that humankind’s mission to remake the world was in reality “but the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”
In his book, The Religion of Technology, David Noble says that the atomic engineers and scientists viewed the ‘Trinity’ project and themselves in an almost divine light and as saviours of mankind. They believed that the atomic bomb signalled a beginning as well as an end, “a weapon of death that might redeem mankind”. Mesmerised by their achievement the atomic pioneers behaved as if they were walking in the footsteps of the Creator towards divine-likeness, as much redeemers, as redeemed; the illusion of ultimate and unlimited power, like being God. Oppenheimer, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, part of Hindu scripture, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The realist tries to argue that the ownership of nuclear weapons by rational governments, prevents the world from becoming destroyed. But what if these apocalyptic devices were to fall into the hands of irrational people, like terrorists, would they be used and with what consequences? And should we worry about the inherent instability in regional conflicts such as Israel and the Arab nations, India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea?
Whilst the momentum towards abolishing nuclear weapons has increased in recent years, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and missile defence technology such as drones have increased. But even if this gives super powers such as America confidence to reduce its arsenal of nuclear weapons, other states may feel even more vulnerable. So nuclear weapons remain the ‘great equalisers’ in global strategic relations.
The realist may argue that war and violence is rational but there is nothing rational about a nuclear bomb even if today it acts as more of a deterrent. There is something hugely cynical and morally unacceptable in the belief that the choice is between being ready to will the deaths of many millions of civilians or give up our concern to keep world security and peace.
For a thousand years, the imago die, the divine likeness, has been a vision that has impelled technological advance, the vocation to be co-worker with God in the establishment of God’s kingdom and in sharing God’s dominion over the earth.
But the kingdom of God is justice and peace. It has to do with right relationship. The kingdom of God is about collective well-being.
Whilst the identification and advancement of the ‘useful arts’ towards the politics of perfection is a part of Christian history, the Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’, [Proverbs 1.7]. Scripture counsels treating God with utmost seriousness, that is, being attentive towards God. Biblical wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in deep reverence for God. It is not just about intellectual capacity. Intellectual capacity needs to be counterbalanced with discipline, practicality and common sense. Wise people make a difference for good in the world by the way they speak and act; by their honesty, hard work, faithfulness and reliability, tempered by thoughtful insight and generosity of spirit. Not by making bombs.