This Sunday is the Second Sunday of Advent, and we will light the candle of Peace. It’s appropriate, then, that in Oslo, Norway, on that same day, Setsuko Thurlow will join the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Thurlow has been an advocate for banning nuclear weapons for more than seventy years, ever since August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb exploded over her hometown of Hiroshima, Japan.
Thurlow, then Setsuko Nakamura, was thirteen years old and just starting a job at an army base in Hiroshima. She and a group of about thirty other teenage girls had been recruited to serve as decoding assistants for the imperial army. It was a Monday morning, and the girls were assembled for an orientation and pep talk from the major in charge of the program, when they saw out the window what she described as a “bluish-white flash.” The base was one mile from Ground Zero, and Thurlow said the next thing she knew she felt herself floating in the air as the concussive wave swept through the city, flattening all the buildings, including the one she was in.
In an interview from last year, replayed on NPR’s All Things Considered this afternoon, Thurlow told Kelly McEvers her harrowing story of survival amid the horrific aftermath of the bombing. You can listen to the story online, but be warned: her descriptions are graphic and unsettling. 80,000 people were killed instantly, with another 80,000 dying a slower death in the days and weeks to come. Still more would suffer from radiation poisoning for years, dying of cancer and other diseases in the decades after the war’s end.
Thurlow survived, and became an outspoken activist on the disarmament front. After marrying a Canadian national in the 1950s, she worked for years from her home in Toronto to organize events and protests, start various anti-nuclear groups, and travel the world to tell her story and educate new generations about the threat of nuclear weapons. She has been a leading figure in ICAN since its founding in 2007, and at age 85 she continues her active role in the disarmament effort. She was instrumental in crafting a landmark treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons that was approved by 122 member states of the United Nations this summer. (None of the nine countries known to have or suspected of having a nuclear arsenal—the US, Russia, the UK, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel—participated in the vote.) Thurlow explained her passion by saying that she and other survivors “have worked all our lives to make sure that no other human beings should ever again be subjected to such an atrocity.”
As she returned to consciousness that awful day in 1945, Thurlow found herself in total darkness and silence, and she knew she was facing death. Gradually she began to hear some of the other girls whispering in the dark, “Mother, help me. God, help me. I am here.”
What a poignant testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit! What a declaration of defiance in the face of evil and death! I am here. You may drop your bombs, you may destroy my city, you may do your level best to kill me, but I am here. After her unlikely survival that day, Thurlow spent her life speaking those words for herself, for her dead friends, and for everyone who has been marginalized, discounted, and declared expendable throughout the world and throughout history: I am here. We are here. Acknowledge us. We are human beings, and we deserve better.
Toward the end of the NPR interview, McEvers asked Thurlow if she thought she could imagine ever ceasing to tell the story she has been telling for seven decades. She replied, “I won’t feel the need to keep talking about [my] painful past experience when we achieve nuclear disarmament.” Then, with the hope and determination of a true peacemaker, she added, “And it’s going to happen. People will wake up. It has to happen.”
Lord Jesus, in these days of Advent waiting, as we long for your coming and the day of peace that you will bring, when the lion will lie down with the lamb and the nations will not learn war anymore; as we look around at a world that looks so dramatically at odds with that prophetic dream, and feel tempted to despair that any change will ever happen; in these days grant us the faith and tenacity of people like Setsuko Thurlow, who see the vision in striking clarity and say with confidence, it will happen. It has to happen. And lead us into the company of the last and the least, the forgotten ones, the ones on the margins, the victims, and let us take their hands and say with them, I am here. Amen.