Culture At Large

The wobbly theology of Obama’s Hiroshima speech

Stephen Woodworth

On Aug. 6, 1945, Col. Paul Tibbets piloted an American B-29 bomber over the southern edge of of Japan. The plane, named “Enola Gay” in honor of Tibbets’ mother, carried in its belly one of the most fearsome weapons ever unleashed on humanity. When the ash and fire finally settled in the city of Hiroshima, an atomic bomb ironically named “Little Boy” had killed 80,000 people. Thousands more would die of radiation exposure in the following weeks.

President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of anxious spectators last week in the shadow of Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The first sitting president to visit the site, he was clear not to apologize for the bombing. His brief speech instead addressed “humanity’s core contradiction” — our great potential and our utter depravity. The message echoed deep, Biblical truths in some ways, while falling short of that wisdom in others.   

The souls of Hiroshima’s dead “speak to us,” Obama urged. “They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.” And who we are is a rather frightening reality. Obama reflected that “on every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war … graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.” Surprisingly, Obama named religion as a primary culprit behind our penchant for evil, observing that “every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.”

Perhaps this is the language a president must use in a pluralistic society.

And yet, Obama suggested that the solution to our global ills lies in deeply held religious beliefs, including a recognition of our “common humanity,” born from “the very spark that marks us as a species” and sets us “apart from nature.” Extoling “the irreducible worth of every person,” Obama reminded the audience that “every life is precious … part of a single human family … members of one human race.”

Despite his recognition that we have been “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights,” Obama wavered from a Biblical understanding of human nature in his closing remarks, where he suggested that the hope of the world rests in a “moral awakening” and “moral revolution.” Perhaps this is the language a president must use in a pluralistic society, yet it suggests that humanity is both the problem and the solution. Despite his best efforts, however, even the eloquent leader of the free world couldn’t reconcile the two. If centuries of human civilization — including the Hiroshima Peace Memorial — have taught us anything, it is the stark reality that we cannot save ourselves.

Indeed, the most important step on the path to lasting peace was absent from Obama’s speech: the humility to ask for forgiveness. Perhaps from Japan. Certainly from the King who sits enthroned over every nation. Isaiah prophesizes a day when a leader will rise that will set the entire world back to rights: “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” I believe Obama’s view of a peaceful utopia will indeed come to fruition. But it will never come by way of human hands.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, History, World, Politics