BOSTON — The question was: "Which is more dangerous, science or religion?" The debate took place a month ago in New York Mills, Minn., at the town's annual "Great American Think-Off," broadcast live on C-Span. The winner of the debate said "science." I wanted to agree with him, but I wasn't sure why.
Then India and Pakistan started going at it again, renewing the danger of nuclear war. I found myself thinking a lot about a friend of mine named Michiko Yamaoka, and wondered how she would answer that question.
Fifty-four years ago, half a mile from the hypocenter of the blast of a big bomb named Little Boy, Michiko was burned terribly. Her home of Hiroshima was destroyed, and close to a hundred thousand of her fellow citizens were dying.
A deformed outcast, the embittered girl wallowed in isolation and despair for a decade.
But to hear her tell it years later, Michiko communicates hope, not hate. I first heard her story when I was a teenager. I was profoundly moved by the self-sacrificing love with which she answers the suffering she endured at the hands of atomic science.
By the time the wounded Michiko was 23, nuclear science had perfected the hydrogen bomb, and America and Russia possessed weapons each 1,000 times more destructive than Little Boy. The political science of deterrence proceeded to escalate the danger for humanity into many hundreds of Hiroshimas.
A Japanese Christian minister found Michiko and inspired her with the idea that her suffering, like Jesus', might have spiritual significance. He encouraged her to travel to New York City for reconstructive surgery, by invitation of the Jewish community at Mt. Sinai Hospital. During 18 months of operations to repair her body with medical science, Michiko's soul was healed by religious good will. The pacifist Quaker host families who accepted her as a daughter revived the young woman's faith in life.
By the time I learned about pacifism at my Quaker high school, the science of destruction had again advanced, attaining the capability to end human existence. I was frightened by the notion of nuclear winter, by the realization that an exchange of thousands of missiles thousands of times more horrible than Little Boy could make us extinct.
Following Michiko's physical and spiritual reconstruction, she had striven for three decades to block the bombing from memory. But heeding the minister's admonition that she had a mission, Michiko recognized that to requite the love of the people who had redeemed her, she must now relive her suffering for the sake of others.
In 1985 Michiko met with Japanese Quaker students and described in vivid detail, for the first time, exactly what had happened to her. She shared with them the horror of nuclear war, but also the path to peace that had healed her. In 1986, she did the same for a group of American Quaker students who were visiting Hiroshima by invitation of a Zen temple. That group of Quakers included me, age 16.
I learned Japanese and became a volunteer translator for Michiko. She has become an anti-nuclear activist who speaks to thousands of students every year, both in and outside Japan. In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing, Michiko and I traveled together in the United States sharing her story with students of all ages.
People of faith healed Michiko and encouraged her to become a witness for peace. From working with her, I've come to understand that the unconditional forgiveness with which she responds to her personal tragedy arises from religion. That forgiveness has enabled Michiko to work past anger and retribution and to embrace instead the pursuit of peace. As a result, her message is as inspiring as it is disturbing.
Misuse of science and religion can cause death and destruction, and the best use of both can cause health and healing. Only science, if we're not careful with the technology of nuclear weapons, is capable of causing human extinction.
The young Michiko, a sacrifice for the rest of us, could hardly have imagined how she would be called upon to suffer in order to help bear this burden of our future. Her healing gives me hope that our religious capacity to love selflessly can counter our scientific ability to annihilate ourselves absolutely.
*Trevor Corson is a contributing editor at Transition magazine, in Cambridge, Mass.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society