catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 11 :: 2010.05.28 — 2010.06.10


Dust to dust, bone to bone, nothing to nothing

I dropped high school physics in the first week of my senior year, because I could be with more friends if I switched to anatomy/physiology.  So when I reflect upon the issue of nuclear technology, I don’t feel any authority to compare its useful and harmful qualities from a scientific perspective. 

I do have hazy recollections of classroom history lectures about how the nuclear bombs dropped upon Japan at the end of World War II somehow served the noble cause of preventing further wartime destruction. At the time, those justifications made sense to me.  And I have vivid memories of a history video we watched in eighth grade which described how huge sections of Nagasaki and Hiroshima immediately became nothing but a burst of light and sound. Annihilation.  Nothing there anymore.  I remember watching the footage scanning mutilated bodies of survivors, deciding to myself that being near the epicenter of the weapon would have meant less suffering than being on the outer edges where the burns and deformities of nuclear damage worked their death at a slower pace.  If I had to be there, I would have wanted to be gone in a flash rather than experience a tortuous radioactive kind of dying. 

Thinking about my current perspective on nuclear weapons brings me to muse on this question: Why is the technological possibility of WMD or MAD more terrifying to our imagination than the provincial style of keeling over a few at a time due to sudden illness or violence, or slowly withering away from old age or self-destructive ways?  I think it is because we humans who can increase our stature through achieving wealth or uprightness have collected several props that can be hauled out at our personal time of death, to make it less “THE END.”   We have embalming fluid.  We have engraved marble in the grass and ceramic urns on the mantle.  We have casket-side niceties like, “She’s in a better place now,” or, “It’s not really him anymore, only a body.”  We have a plan to pass on our life torch through such acquisitions as progeny, estate, legacy, heritage.  We have obituaries that can go to press, photos that can be preserved in lignin-free paper, reputations that can live on in community memory. 

A widespread cataclysm of nuclear destruction would destroy both our bodies and our consolation of having an abstract human existence beyond that last heartbeat.   Mass annihilation does away with children and grandchildren, vaporizes marble and ceramic, cuts off that virtual world of legacy and inheritance we established with so much effort.   The “nothingness” of death is complete, no more props of reassurance that we would somehow live on in the loving memory of those who survive us.  That is too much finality at once.

The Bible is known for confronting us with our origin and destination as humans who are in a perpetual condition of mortality.   The phrase “from dust to dust” prompts each of us to keep in mind where we came from and where we go.  We learn that once upon a time we were formed from mud and bone, and granted a sustaining breath.  We also learn that the time must come when breath will leave us and we will be laid into the Pit to again be returned to mud and bone.    Tradition also has it that we creatures and our habitats were created ex nihilo, from nothingness.  That tradition seems to have had some foresight into our nuclear age potential of imploding ourselves into a plutonium Pit.  Maybe the matter of our primary origin, whether dust, or bone, or seed, or ash, or even nothingness, becomes the matter of our mortal destination. 

But there is also something subversive in our Bible which invites us to resist all fates of mortal destination, by allowing us to protest that a genteel demise at a ripe old age is quite as intolerable to us as death by nuclear weapon.  That there really is no prop or ritual or euphemism which helps us say when it is time to die, “I suppose I can live with that.”  That we don’t ever have to acquiesce to the final state of death, but can instead indict it every day as a fundamental trespass against the mystery of life. 

There is a child I know and love who lives in extreme poverty and squalor not very far from me.  Various interventions that people have made to aid his family have not improved his living conditions, restored his physical wholeness, or given him reasonable hope for a future of successful integration into our complex network of mainstream society.  That child and I, even when enjoying an occasional afternoon in one another’s company, are heeding the command to quietly accept the status of my abundance and his need.  When I think about the deadly power of injustice woven into his existence a mere twelve miles from me, I get really worked up about the entrenchment of disparity between his resources and mine — more worked up, I admit, than I can get about the threat of a day which would see rich and poor, strong and weak, going out en masse as victims equalized by a nuclear disaster in this region.  

I guess that considering the nightmare of large nuclear scale destruction forces the wealthy and upright to identify our willingness to tolerate death under certain conditions.  Do we welcome death as natural and manageable, and not all that horrifying, as long as it happens invisibly to the poor, or punitively to the enemy, or gently to us, a funeral at a time, rather than to all without regard for status, in a big bang of light and sound?   The prospect of a nuclear ending also requires us to admit that we are investing more hope for our future in descendants and legacies than in resurrection of the body.  And it challenges us to seek out the kind of Creator and Redeemer who not only can restore the functions of anatomy and physiology to dry bones and breathless corpses, but who also has an incredible mastery of physics, enough to name the whole shebang back into existence if the hopeless or careless among us were to annihilate it into a chaos of particles.

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