REA: “My God, what have we done?”

Leah Gunning Francis opened the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. She introduced the plenary speakers, and informed us that unfortunately Gabriel Moran was not able to be present. Francis lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and given that the theme of this year’s conference is “Religion and Education in the (Un)Making of Violence,” she showed some of her photographs of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri — to the great interest of the conferees.

The first “speaker” was Andrea Bieler, Professor of Practical Theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany. Bieler did not appear in person; her presentation was a video, in which she spoke, and showed various works of art and other material.

Bieler’s video began with a statement by Theodor Adorno: “The principal demand upon all education is that Auschwitz does not happen again.” Bieler extended this to other instances of systematic violence, including systemic racism in the United States, the state terrorism and “disappearances” in Argentina and Chile, apartheid in South Africa, etc.

In the video, Bieler laid out a nuanced argument, beginning with theories of memory and winding up with a discussion of remembering violence through aesthetic art. I was most interested in her analyses of several site-specific art works in Berlin, particularly the Chapel of Reconciliation, built near the site of the Berlin Wall.

Using a process-relational theory of memory, Bieler said that we must understand memorial sites not as static objects, but as living and lived experiences; what is particularly important is understanding the activities that people engage in at a memorial site. Thus, it is important to understand that, e.g., at one public memorial at Auschwitz people not only come to grieve but also to have picnics. Remembering violence through aesthetic art is a complicated matter.

Roy Tamashiro was the next plenary speaker, and he spoke from his experience as a second generation Japanese American. He grew up in Hawai’i, and in 1965 at age 17 went on a government cross-cultural trip with his Scout troop to visit Japan. The trip to Japan was made on a Navy ship headed ultimately to Vietnam, and Tamashiro was very aware that in another year he would have to register for the draft.

“It was in this context that I was not prepared for what I was to see in Hiroshima,” Tamashiro said. “I basically had a meltdown [after seeing the exhibits at Hiroshima]. I basically shut down and could not talk to anyone for three days.” As a result of this experience, Tamashiro decided to register as a conscientious objector.

Tamashiro gave this as an example of a transformative learning experience. A transformative learning experience “changes everything,” he said, and provides an opportunity to transform our attitudes towards violence.

Tamashiro told how he worked to create a tranformative learning experience by introducing his students at Webster University to Koko Kondo, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Kondo was an infant at the time of the bombing, so she had no actual memory of the event. However, as a child she harbored hostile feelings towards Americans.

This feeling was transformed when she met Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. It was Lewis who wrote in the Enola Gay’s log the phrase “My God, what have we done?” as he watched the the atomic bomb exploding from the plane, and Lewish continued to have remorse at participating in the bombings the rest of his life.

“We are accountable for the actions we choose,” Tamashiro said, “which may annihilate the world.” He concluded by quoting the Zen master Kuono Taitsu: “When I change the whole world changes.”

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