The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the latest issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York. With a president about to be inaugurated who favors intensifying the nuclear arms race, Zak’s book is even more timely than it was when he wrote it. And God knows, we need to be inspired to go out and resist all the madness..
Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. By Dan Zak. New York, NY: Blue Rider Press, 2016. 336 pp. $27.00 (hardback); $13.99 (eBook).
In the coverage of the death of Fidel Castro in November, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis came up again and again, but always as if it were part of ancient history. No mention at all that today there are 15,375 nuclear weapons on the planet, or that the Doomsday Clock, indicating how close we are to nuclear catastrophe, is at three minutes to midnight.
What’s to be done about this massive public obliviousness to the threat of nuclear weapons? One strategy is to educate people, as Dan Zak does to astounding effect in his 2016 book, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. But the education Zak undertakes in his book is not of the policy-wonk kind. It’s education through storytelling, the kind of storytelling that mesmerizes the learner.
At the heart of Almighty is the saga of the July 2012 infiltration of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee by three Transform Now Ploughshares activists, Sr. Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli. Y-12 was (and still is) a site where thermo-nuclear warheads are overhauled and upgraded. Already in the book’s prologue, Zak has the Ploughshares activists preparing for their incursion into Y-12, baking bread to share with their captors, pouring the human blood they will spread on Y-12 walls into baby-bottles, and setting out. And in the last chapters, he has Sister Megan, released in 2015 after two years of imprisonment, back tying a peace crane onto the gates of Y-12 to protest the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In the chapters between, the author weaves, with extraordinary finesse, the whole story of nuclear weapons production and use by the United States. He begins with the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II, where the secret research took place that led to the development of the first atomic bomb. The subject of this segment of Zak’s story is Selig Hecht, the Columbia biophysicist who was deeply involved in the secret research, but who later joined with Albert Einstein and other scientists to denounce the bombings and stress the horrific future nuclear weapons made likely. Zak’s nuanced description brings Hecht alive in an unforgettable way.
But Hecht’s story and the dozens of others that comprise Almighty are by no means mere beads on a string. In Hecht’s case, as in many others, the stories are woven together with mastery. Who, for example, do you think lived across the hall from Hecht and his wife during the Manhattan Project? Dr. Frederick Rice and his wife, Madeleine Newman Hooke Rice, and their daughter, Megan. Sister Megan Rice cited the secrecy around Hecht’s work as one of the causes of her concern about nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories in Almighty that will not leave me for a long time, that of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands is sure most unforgettable. Within a year of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. had removed all of the residents from the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, to a “sparser atoll” 125 miles away and began testing nuclear weapons there. As the U.S. military removed the people, they told them that they had been “chosen by God” because testing the weapons was “for the good of mankind.”
Ultimately, the radiation from U.S. tests on the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, if parceled out evenly, would equal that of 1.6 Hiroshima-sized detonations a day for twelve years. The U.S., upon granting the Marshall Islands its independence in 1986, settled all claims for $150 million dollars. The story of Tony deBrum, who was nine years old when the first nuclear weapon was tested on Bikini, and those of other Marshall Islanders gravely affected by the testing, only makes U.S. actions all the more horrifying. And this is but one of the multiple galvanizing narratives throughout Almighty’s 300-plus pages.
Readers of this blog who live not too far from New York may be interested to know that Sister Megan Rice, one of Almighty’s pivotal heroes, will be leading the annual retreat of Pax Christi Metro New York this year ( nypaxchristi.org ). It’s taking place on the weekend of March 10 to 12, at the Maryknoll Sisters Center, near Ossining, NY. Zak’s book is a terrific introduction to the retreat, but if you can’t get there, read the book anyhow. At a time when each of us needs to be stepping up in the face of new threats of nuclear disaster, Almighty provides much-needed inspiration.
Tags: 9/11, Christmas, cruccifxion, Ground Zero, myrrh, The Three Kings, Thomas Berry, World Trade Center
As I was going through stacks of articles and reviews that I’ve published in years past, I came across this one, written soon after 9/11 and published in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. I lived in Berkeley, California at the time. I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and unfortunately, much of it can be applied to this Christmas as well, with different men from the East–and the West–bearing new but no less grief-laden gifts.
One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. The next issue of one publication I write for is coming out in December, so the editor wishes I would write something about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But today is October 11, 2001, and everywhere I turn I find bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.
In this conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a secular construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but all those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a while, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.
Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story. In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter. John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight” (19:38-39).
A week or so after the September 11 attacks, the writer Karen Armstrong had a conversation about Islam with NPR’s Terry Gross. At the end of the interview Gross asked Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience. Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation. If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer. We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.
“American Catholic” is a complex term, amalgamated from the optimism of America’s Enlightenment origins and the suffering of immigrant Catholicism. Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three. I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.
In recent years Catholic feminists have joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross for Christianity, and particularly for women. In Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that the cross can be of no further use for women because it leads them to identify with victimization and self-sacrifice.
In Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects, as do Brown and Parker, the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin. But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross. For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves. In my own research, I find that some American Catholics, at least, know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears. Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.
In many respects, I am a New Yorker. My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city. As an adult, I loved every minute of the decade I lived in New York, identifying with its energy—at last I was someplace where being in a hurry isn’t a failing! —and relishing the sense that everything I could want was a subway ride away. When I try to explain my perpetual homesickness to my California colleagues, they who are forever on their way to the redwoods or the Pacific, I invariably speak of my longing for skyscrapers, the ones in Philadelphia, but even more, those in Manhattan.
The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility. I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends. But like a lot of other Americans, I didn’t pay enough attention to the first bombing of those towers in 1993. When I called the Windows on the World the following year, to see about reserving space for my wedding dinner, I got a tape announcing that due to the recent terrorist attack, the restaurant was closed.
Today when I look at photographs of what remains of the World Trade Center, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree at all. The shards of building that are left standing look to me a lot more like a severe, modernist crucifix with jagged ribs piercing the sky. I imagine they won’t look that way for long, though. Given the wealth and arrogance of this country, skyscrapers will probably rise again on that bombed Golgotha-like landscape. And who knows? I may even come to love them. But I will never love them as optimistically as I did their predecessors. .
Even this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, it is likely that a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols. Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation. But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something our recent history has taught us all too well:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.
Perhaps this year we will be better able than we have been in the past to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.