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Why We Need JFK's Peace Legacy
Image: John Rous / AP
President John F. Kennedy sits behind microphones at his desk in Washington after finishing his radio-television broadcast to the nation on the nuclear test ban agreement initialed by negotiators in Moscow.

As 20 jet-lagged, absentminded Christian college professors and I toured Hiroshima, Japan, this summer, our senses led us to August 6, 1945. We were there on the 68th anniversary of the first dropped atomic bomb, to tour the scars and remnants of a small sun exploded on a city.

We heard our own footsteps scuffling across the T-shaped bridge, the original aiming point for Enola Gay. I viewed the pocket-watch that died at 8:15am, lifted scorched roof tiles in my hands, and saw the lunchbox whose black meal would never get eaten. I saw the dress with burn marks in the shape of characters, as its black dye conducted atomic heat and branded its wearer. I encircled the grassy mound the size of my own backyard that held the bodies of 70,000 people. And I stood in the shadows of the famous Genbaku Dome—the only structure left standing in Hiroshima after the bomb—its hollow palace crowned with melted, twisted metal.

We met Seiko Ikeda, a woman who lived through the horror. She and other survivors are called hibakusha; their last names are now the number of kilometers they stood from detonation. Seiko, 1.6 km, told of the flash, the heat, the rubble, and the bodies. She told of victims who looked fine but were being killed inwardly by radiation. She told of fleeing Hiroshima with her friends. When she paused to look at them, she could not recognize their faces, bloated like pumpkins from the burns. She told us that her own face melted, too, to the point her desperate parents hid all the mirrors in their house. When she finally found a mirror and aligned the glass in her hands, she didn't recognize herself. The clear view of it changed her forever.

Today, as we remember John F. Kennedy's presidential legacy 50 years after his death, I think of Ikeda and everything we saw in Hiroshima. And I think of how JFK worked to ensure that Hiroshima would never happen again. After taking a stand against nuclear-weapons testing in his 1960 presidential campaign, JFK went on to secure the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963, considered by many to be his greatest foreign policy achievement, and hailed by Japan as "a great joy." JFK was seeking, as he said in his famous American University speech earlier that summer:

genuine peace—the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living—and the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

What does JFK's vision of peace have to do with the peace Christians seek?

A Second Survivor

For most of us, the bomb seems far across the ocean in both time and space. A few Christians notice nuclear headlines in the paper, but they assume the longstanding nuclear strategy of the United States will keep things in check. Some theological traditions teach that an atomic battle would merely announce the end of the age, trumpeting our long-awaited escape to heaven.

But I believe these views keep us from taking the actions that call to us. They keep the mirror of reality hidden away in a drawer. Humanity's face, meant to reflect the image of God, is badly scarred. It is our face, and we are accountable. Yes, we eagerly await the lasting peace of heaven, where the Prince of Peace reigns. But in our time, we are called to do all we can to reflect that peace on earth.

To contemplate the scale of nuclear devastation is staggering. The first atomic bomb instantly, in grotesque fashion, wiped out 70,000 people. Some survivors lasted longer, but purple spots, hair loss, bubbled skin, and various cancers finally took their toll. Now, with decades to perfect the weaponry, Hiroshima is but a tear-drop. A bomb today, on a modern city, could kill hundreds of thousands in an instant, make a large land-area uninhabitable for generations. It would bring economic, social, ecological, and spiritual upheaval across the globe. Given this, can we Christians act as if there is nothing wrong, that there is nothing for us to do?

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Why We Need JFK's Peace Legacy