07 August 2015

Hefenfelþ and Hiroshima

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

Yesterday, the fifth of August, was the feast day of Saint Oswald, King of Northumbria, who was killed at Maserfield on the fifth of August, 642, in battle against Penda, the heathen King of Mercia. Today, on the other hand, we remember the seventieth anniversary of the nuclear fire that was visited upon the city of Hiroshima, which incinerated ninety thousand people instantly and left perhaps another seventy thousand to die horrible lingering deaths from burns and radiation poisoning. And with this latter commemoration we always return to the questions of grim necessity within the evils of modern warfare, the justifications which were used then and since for these horrors. War is practically universally considered an evil, and yet how is it that Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans all can venerate on one day a warrior-king who killed thousands, and then spend the next in stunned horror at war’s wickedness? Is this not a grave inconsistency?

Well, first let us consider Saint Oswald. In truth, although Jessie and I named our son Albert instead, for the other great sainted royal Æþelberht of Kent, I’d always felt much closer to Saint Oswald, and not only because the Coopers hail from the same English north country. Raised in Scottish exile from his home country of Beornice, he took a small band of men to fight off the heathen king Cadwallon of Gwynedd who had laid waste to his homeland and treacherously slain his half-brother Eanfriþ. After seeing Saint Columba in a dream, he righted a cross in the ground at Hefenfelþ, knelt down with his small band and prayed for victory against the superior Welsh forces. In the battle that followed, despite their smaller numbers, the English and Scots under Oswald utterly routed the heathen Welsh – twelve hundred of them were slain as they fled, including Cadwallon himself. Oswald ruled the kingdoms of Beornice and Dere together as Northumbria for eight years, before he himself was slain in battle.

Saint Oswald has proven incredibly popular in English folk tradition. So much so, in fact, that he became J.R.R. Tolkien’s primary inspiration for Aragorn son of Arathorn, Gondor’s rightful-king-in-exile in The Lord of the Rings. This, with good reason: he was not only a just king but also remarkably openhanded to the poor of the English north, once holding an Easter banquet and distributing not only all the food but also all the silverware and all the wealth he had upon him to the destitute who came begging. At first glance it is difficult to reconcile this picture with the warrior-king who ruthlessly pursued the fleeing Welshmen for miles from Hefenfelþ, slaughtering them as they ran. But the point is precisely this: in each case we can imagine Oswald’s conscience, his convictions, his moral feelings running away with him – in each case we can imagine his purely human pity being aroused and outraged. Oswald beheld the poor multitudes around him on that Easter feast with such great pity that he couldn’t hold back from them the silver on the tables or the jewels on his fingers. And when he had heard how Cadwallon had treated his brother and his people, likewise it was his pity for them that turned to outrage against their tormentor.

Think on this, then. What is it about the threat of a nuclear explosion that most disturbs us and most discomforts us? Is it the sheer number of deaths it can cause? This would be the most obvious answer, and there is a great deal of truth in it: the thought of destruction occurring on a scale that takes hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of lives, in an instant, is so horrific that it defies even our best attempts at imagination. But that raises another problem. There is still something in human psychology which makes moral imagination more difficult as we have to intellectually process increasing orders of magnitude. (As Mother Teresa said, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’) Is it contemplating the horrific process of human flesh being turned instantaneously to ash, or the longer and arguably far worse deaths among the ‘survivors’ of the initial blast, from radiation poisoning and cancer? Actually, from the standpoint of minimising personal pain, I might personally prefer an instantaneous death in a nuclear fire, and the long, slow and utterly degrading process of death by radiation sickness and cancer is akin to that of starving to death, from siege warfare and from the torching of farmland, which was common to mediæval warfare of the sort practised in Late Antiquity. Is it contemplating the environmental destruction that would inevitably follow their use? Our concern on this score can’t be that great, given that it has taken a substantial change in climate for us to analyse the strain our own everyday industries are placing on our lived environment, and even this degree of strain is subject to a ridiculous volume of petty bickering within our political caste.

I submit instead, that in addition to the astronomical number of deaths a nuclear weapon can cause, what most disturbs people about nuclear weapons is that they are impersonal, that they are depersonalising, and that they disrupt the natural sympathies that come with identifying one’s enemy as of the same order one oneself belongs to. Warfare of the sort practised by Saint Oswald, Cadwallon and Penda – all of whom died in battle, it should be said! – requires throwing one’s own body in harm’s way, but also requires confronting the pain and suffering you yourself inflict, as though it could equally be inflicted back upon you. You are confronted directly with the image and likeness of God in your enemy, and your sin is not removed from your sight and your direct knowledge and awareness. Brutal as it might be, a certain level of human solidarity with the enemy is implied with such warfare.

Nuclear warfare is of a far different type. In all modern warfare (drones, aerial bombardment, missiles of every kind) there is a disruption of human solidarity, a warping abstraction, that occurs when one is not brought face-to-face with one’s own destructive capacities. But with nuclear weapons this contrast is brought to its greatest height: a grim pinnacle of destructive power, unparalleled in scale, wielded with a minimum of effort. A word from one man, the push of one button, means the extinction of unknowing, untold, innocent millions. When such great destructive power can be wielded so asymmetrically, the perpetrator is held in check only by the hypothetical threat of a likewise asymmetrical force being wielded against him. Mutually assured destruction does have an ironclad logic to it, but it is the sort of rarefied, Satanic logic that leaves itself open to precisely the sort of dark absurdist humour that produced Doctor Strangelove.

Literal blindness is one of the effects of exposure to a nuclear blast. But more troubling is the spiritual blindness that is one of the effects of considering the nuclear ‘option’, the sort of blindness which removes all the consequences and human costs of our sins into the realm of abstraction, of conjecture, of hypothetical doomsday scenarios that can be discussed calmly at the dinner table. If Saint Oswald sinned in his wrathful slaughter of the men of Gwynedd at Hefenfelþ, at least he had a visceral and personal knowledge of what he had done, and could thus repent of it (as he surely did!). But with Hiroshima and Nagasaki – where do we begin? Such an enormity was so far removed from any of the experiences even of the scientists who theorised the Bomb, of the engineers who designed it, of the President who ordered its use, of the pilot who dropped it… how could they even have begun to repent of it? How can we? Even today, we’re still left speaking of the grim necessity of the nuclear attacks. Of their inevitability. Of the hypothetical lives and suffering that they spared.

We have no other choice. Otherwise we’d run mad.

Though the move was derided by those who understand neither Russia nor her faith, the Orthodox Church consecrated Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and presented the 12th Chief Department of the Russian Defence Ministry with icons of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Was this only because the monastery Saint Seraphim founded was in the same city (Diveevo) where Soviet nukes were later developed? The choice of Saint Seraphim as the patron of a nuclear arsenal seems, at first glance, to be absurd on its face: he followed in the path of the hesychasts of old, and toward the end of his life developed such a profoundly personal and introspective spiritual approach that he stunned everyone who knew him with his meekness, his openness and all-welcoming grace. It was he who gave us the wisdom, ‘Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.’ What else, then, could the patronage of such a gentle monk be but a prayer that such weapons may never be used? Far from being the nationalist harbinger of an apocalypse of nuclear fire, the peaceful spirit of Saint Seraphim – it is to be hoped most fervently! – will save countless thousands, even billions, from the madness of a single push of a button.

On this day of sombre reflection, Saint Oswald of Northumbria and Saint Seraphim of Sarov, pray with us.

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