Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice Oppenheimer’s Choice

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Today is August 6th. 78 years ago, at 8:15 a.m. the American air force dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. A sudden flash, a fireball, then a shock wave consumed the city core. In a few moments, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, many vaporized by the heat, leaving ghostly shadows on walls where their bodies had been. Those who didn’t die instantly from the fireball were killed by the shock wave which knocked down buildings like a house of cards.[1] Radiation sickness killed tens of thousands more.[2] Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, with similar results. The bombs led to the surrender of Japan and the end of World War Two.   The bomb was designed by scientists working in Los Alamos in New Mexico. Their boss was this man, Oppenheimer picture the physicist Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Movie poster This year, Hiroshima day comes on the heels of the release of a film about Oppenheimer by Hollywood director Christopher Nolan. The film asks what kind of man could lead such a project, knowing that it would kill so many innocent people.  

Three weeks before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Oppenheimer and his scientists were in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico. They gathered to test the world’s first atomic bomb. No one knew if the bomb would even work. Scientists lay on the ground with welding glass in their hands to shield their eyes from the brightness of the blast.  

Trinity test 1 When the bomb explodes, it is as though the sun has appeared on Earth, followed by a massive mushroom cloud. As he watches the explosion,   

Trinity Test 2 Oppenheimer thinks of the words “I have become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” [3]  

It is a line from a Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita. The film mentions this in passing, in an earlier scene, but we don’t learn much more about it. But in real life, this text was a key to Oppenheimer’s philosophy of life. Since we gather as spiritual people at church, it seems fitting today to understand the spiritual and religious dimension of an event which changed world history. In time, Oppenheimer became known as one of the great statesmen scientists. His idea of what science could and could not do has seeped into our culture and continues to inform the way corporations and governments behave today.  

Oppenheimer J. Robert Oppenheimer was raised in New York by Jewish parents who had rejected Judaism. They believed in humanism. They sent their son to a school that stressed ethical action with no religious foundation.[4]   Stephen Oppenheimer was very bright and gifted in mathematics. He attended Harvard in the early 1920s to study science, but he was also hungry to find a philosophical system that he could live by. He wasn’t interested in Judaism or Christianity, but Hinduism fascinated him. He discovered the Bhagavad Gita in his undergrad and was inspired by its message. In time, he would learn Sanskrit so he could read it in the original. He had a copy with him everywhere he went, including in Los Alamos when he led the bomb project. He also often gave the book to friends. [5]   The Gita is the story of a warrior, Arjuna, who is struggling with indecision on the day of a massive battle. He is standing in his chariot.  

Gita 1  Behind him are thousands of soldiers, and his brothers waiting for his signal to attack. In front of him, stand thousands of soldiers led by his cousins and uncles. The battle is to decide who will become emperor. It is the culmination of a long family feud. But, like Hamlet, Arjuna is wracked by indecision. He confides to his chariot driver that he can’t do it. If the battle takes place, too many of his kin on the other side will die. He asks his chariot driver for advice.[6]  

Gita 2 He does this because he knows his driver is no ordinary man, but Krishna, the human incarnation of the creator god Vishnu.   Most of the Gita is composed of Krishna’s reply to Arjuna. This god tells Arjuna that the men who die on the battlefield today will be reincarnated, over and over again. Their death will not be final. Arjuna is told that it is not up to any human to decide who lives or dies, that is decided by the gods.[7] Arjuna, his brothers, his uncles, every human alive, are part of a vast cosmic system that humans do not control. To keep this vast system working properly, each person must do their duty. Merchants should sell their wares, kings should rule, and warriors should fight. Just do your job and all will be as it should be.  

Krishna explains that the only escape from this cycle of death and rebirth, is spiritual wisdom, which is attained by devoting one’s life to spiritual knowledge and devotion to Vishnu and the Hindu gods. One must attain a state where one is not attached to either pain nor pleasure, life, or death, good or evil. One should not worry about the results of a person’s actions, whether we will be congratulated or condemned. Just do the work, and let the gods take care of the rest. Arjuna finds this greatly consoling. He decides to go into battle after all. But before he gives the order, he asks Vishnu to show his divine self in all his glory.[8] Vishnu complies and appears brighter than a thousand suns [9], and states that he is Death, the Destroyer of worlds. He commands the cosmic cycle of the birth and death of entire universes. Arjuna launches into battle; confident he is doing the right thing.  

Oppenheimer knew this story well and lived his life by its lessons. He told his colleagues at Los Alamos that their job was to stick to the science, to just make the bomb.[10] When Germany surrendered, many scientists working on the weapon felt it was no longer necessary. They circulated a petition calling for the United States not to use the bomb against Japan without warning. 155 signed it. Oppenheimer was furious, and he refused to send the petition to Washington.[11] He told the scientists that how the bomb was used was up to the generals and politicians. Don’t worry about the results. In the end, Oppenheimer helped choose the city of Hiroshima as the target for the bomb because it was the right size to demonstrate the bomb’s destructive power. For Oppenheimer, his duty was to be a scientist, and not worry about the results of his work.  

There are many problems with Oppenheimer’s moral stance. The Gita is addressed to a warrior – but Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist.  If he had really stuck to his duty, he never would have been drawn into weapons production. In the Gita, the death of people in battle is considered trivial because they will be reincarnated. But Oppenheimer didn’t believe in reincarnation.[12] He believed that the people he killed in Japan would be dead forever, with no afterlife. So, his adoption of the Gita’s ethical stance looks like a form of self-serving justification rather than devotion to a spiritual discipline.   

Oppenheimer became known as one of America’s most famous scientists, a sort of elder statesman. He had shown how science could be employed in the modern world. And his approach has spread throughout our society, even if its Hindu roots have been forgotten. Cigarette companies have knowingly sold cancer-inducing products, claiming that their primary duty was to make money for shareholders. They deliberately suppressed research showing the danger of tobacco since that would be bad for profits. [13] Oil companies have spent millions denying the reality of climate change, setting up fake citizen groups to make it seem like there was a debate over the merits of the science.[14] And even now that the weather has made it clear that fossil fuels have changed the climate, they continue to drill for more oil and gas.[15] Recently, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times declared that our society has wasted too much time expecting oil companies to act like responsible citizens.[16] They don’t care about the results of their actions, they just want to sell oil and make money regardless of what happens to the world.  

Corporations often claim that their duty is to their shareholders, and if this is not in the public interest, then governments should intervene to impose regulations. Yet, governments have their own Oppenheimer response. Governments often claim that their duty is to serve the people who elected them, their base, who often make up less than the majority of the population. Here in Ontario, the provincial government has opened up natural gas plants to generate electricity. They shut down hundreds of clean energy projects when they were first elected, since members of their base complained about local wind farms. Now, Toronto will have a natural gas plant by the lake, due south of this church, pumping carbon into the air to make electricity.[17] This is not in the public interest or the interest of the planet, yet that it not what the government cares about. Its concern is keeping its base happy and getting re-elected. The long-term results of its actions are not considered important.   We all live in Oppenheimer’s world now. We have created a world with over ten thousand nuclear weapons [18], and an industrial system which may destroy our civilization and the entire ecosystem. We have sinned against ourselves and creation. So how do we find hope in any of this, or a way forward?  

Today’s scripture reading provides a clue. It is the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel all night long. Jacob is a liar and a cheat. As a young man, he conned his older twin brother Esau out of his inheritance, and conned his father, too, to get even more. He has deceived his family and had to take off fearing his brother’s wrath. He found a beautiful woman to marry. But her father was a con man too. He tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter. He keeps stringing Jacob along, working for him for years until he can marry the daughter he loves.

Then he cons him some more. Now Jacob has escaped with his wives, children, and his father in law’s animals. But this con man has been told his brother Esau is waiting for him, with four hundred men, probably to kill him. Jacob splits his family into two groups so that if Esau attacks one, maybe the other half will survive. He sends them off, expecting a battle the next morning. But unlike Arjuna, he has no army to help him in this family feud. He will have to face his brother alone.  

Jacob has sinned and now expects to lose his life for his sins. And then as he quakes in fear, a man shows up. Jacob has a sense he must be sent from God, the same God who promised Jacob he would be the father of a great nation. So, this sinful, deceitful Jacob spends the night wrestling with this angel. Before daybreak, the angel decides to win the fight by touching Jacob’s hip, dislocating it. It is in Jacob’s weakness, his forced humility, that Jacob asks for a blessing. The angel grants it. He announces that Jacob will now have a new name, Israel, which means one who has wrestled or struggled with God.   The next day, Jacob gathers up to courage to meet his brother and his army. Much to his surprise, Esau greets him like a long-lost brother, with love. Jacob goes on to have twelve sons, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.  

This story tells us that even when we have completely messed up, conned others, and conned ourselves; even when we have sinned against humanity, and sinned against the Earth - we can still turn to God and ask for help. We can still ask for a blessing. But it only comes when we realize we are weaker than God, that we are not in charge. When we feel our weakness, our mortality, when we limp.  

For a time, we thought we had the power of the gods, that we had become the destroyer of worlds. That has been a mistake. We need God’s help now more than ever. We need that blessing. We need to ask for God’s help on Hiroshima day and every day. We need help to think beyond our narrow duty, and to consider the effects of our actions on each other, on strangers, and on the world. We need to have a conscience and to act on it. To be followers of the God who has saved sinners over and over again, showing them another way. We have the right to wrestle with God, to ask for a blessing we do not deserve. We still have a chance to find a way out of this battle with the elements and each other. We have been given the gift of hope, which we can live by and share as we go forward into this century of so many uncertainties. Our faith tells us God will be with us, cheering us on as we limp forward on God’s path, not as gods, but as humans on God’s good Earth. We don’t need to wait for everyone else to ask for this blessing. It is enough that even just a few believe it. For from one can come many. And that is indeed a blessing.