Published January 3, 2018 in the Ames Tribune
By Eileen Gebbie
I had a bad cold on New Year’s Eve so I headed to bed around 8:30 p.m. As I did, my phone flashed an alert (why I don’t have the Do Not Disturb function start earlier is something I need to think about).
It was a newspaper app, letting me know of the North Korean leader’s assertion of his nuclear power, the button of mass destruction on his desk.
Happy New Year, everyone, I thought.
While I was in seminary my ethics professor, The Rev. JoAnne Marie Terrell, spent an entire unit with us on nuclear war. As a child of the 1970s, with still-vivid memories of 1983′s “The Day After,” I had no problem being convinced by her of the threat of nuclear war to creation — the same creation that all faith traditions believe God has asked us to protect and steward (or at least not actively destroy).
During that time I watched another movie, from 1959, called “On the Beach.” It’s a star-studded movie, with performances by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire. Like “The Day After,” it is a story about the world in the aftermath of nuclear war.
But unlike it, “On the Beach” is very quiet and has no special effects. It merely tracks the movements of the final humans on Earth as nuclear wind reaches and annihilates them and how some of the humans choose to respond to that inevitability.
One family, a couple with a young baby, is unsure whether to kill their baby and then let the wind take them or just all take pills together. They choose the latter. Fred Astaire’s character was a race car driver who decides to kill himself by way of car fumes in a closed garage. Those moments read as a testament to a desire, even though the outcome will be the same, to leave this world on one’s own terms, not those of whatever human beings unleashed such indecent and irrational power.
There is also a series of religious rallies. In the first, a large crowd gathers to sing songs, pray and hear a preacher, on a public square.
Over the course of the film, the rallies grow smaller and smaller. You can feel the despondency and the lack of answer for what the point of all the God talk has been if such talk will not stop the breath of the nuclear reaper.
But the scene I’ve come back to time and again, having only seen the film once, nearly 10 years ago, was of a man swimming from a submarine to San Francisco harbor.
Although no transmissions had been heard from North America in some time, a U.S. Navy submarine pops above water to try one last time.
A sailor from San Francisco is desperate to know if his parents, if anyone he loves, may yet live. So, he abandons ship.
His choices are to stay on the sub, knowing that they will eventually run out of food and water and so have to dock and die from radiation, wherever that happens, or, like so many other characters, face the death sentence, of which he and all people are innocent, under his own power.
We never see the man reach shore. We don’t know if he ever found some holdouts — one or two people who had found a way to protect their skin, their hearts, their water, their food and their lungs. But I wanted that so badly I could feel the pressure in my own heart and lungs, feel tears on the skin of my own face. Maybe. Maybe the end did not really come. Maybe there is still hope.
Our own country’s leader, predictably, responded to that of North Korea with his own assertion of nuclear prowess. The exchange was an insult to the billions of human residents of Earth, not to mention the countless plants, animals and molecules on this, our one and only home.
It is clear that the responsibility we have to the literal masses of life on this planet is of no concern to these leaders. Their short-sighted and falsely inflated egos seem to outweigh every single one of our concerns. And that we are no check on a trigger finger.
So, what do we do? We can plan our deaths. We can stockpile pills or guns so that, when the nukes blow up the world and alerts about it blow up our phones, we do not have to live to see our children and elders suffer. We can go to rallies and yell and ask why and then give up because without organized people and organized money, rallies are merely catharsis, not action.
Or we can swim for shore. Unlike our world leaders, we can listen to the love we have not only for our friends and our families, but for life itself. We can jump out of the vessels that represent the world as it used to be, when mutually assured destruction really was a deterrent, and into the choppy waters of rule-breaking hope-seeking.
All nations, to quote political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson, are imaginary: they are passing constructs that allow us to have a sense of organization in an inherently chaotic existence. As a Christian priest, I am obligated to care for the planet and all life (and matter) on it, regardless of politics, regardless of those imaginary boundaries.
But, really, all of us carry that same obligation by virtue of the air we breathe and the soil on which we tread. Not even a wall can block Mother Nature from connecting us.
May we all be resolved in 2018 to remember our mutual obligations and interdependency and insist, though it may feel like a solitary swim in the vast ocean, that all of our leaders do the same as well.
Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ