“A Knowledge Which They Cannot Lose”

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In 1938 three German scientists working in a laboratory in Berlin made a discovery that altered the course of history: They split the uranium atom. The fear among scientists was that Adolf Hitler would create a mega-bomb and use it against Europe. This was significant enough, but what followed truly changed the world.

A year later, and seventy-four years ago this very week, just before the beginning of World War 2, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing him of these developments in Berlin. The letter urged the President to prepare for this possible, if not unavoidable outcome.

The United States began the serious undertaking known then only as “The Manhattan Project.” Simply put, this Project was committed to expediting the production of a viable atomic bomb. That bomb was, of course, successfully produced and then dropped on cities in Japan. Einstein, upon hearing the news of the Hiroshima bombing, was reported to have dropped his head in his hands and cried, simply, “Woe is me!” Though he never once worked on the production of such a weapon, it was his scientific discoveries and ultimately his words that created this new scenario.

In a later interview with Newsweek magazine, he said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing. I would have never [written that letter].” Yet, that one letter has changed all our lives, and possibly the lives of every person on the planet since. Today, there are some 20,000 active nuclear weapons on the planet. All of us, and our children, will live in the shadow of this threat for the rest of our lives. The Hebrew proverb says, “There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.” Eugene Peterson’s rendering is even more forceful. He translates the proverb: “There’s a way of life that looks harmless enough; look again – it leads straight to hell.”

We can never undo or unlearn so many of the dangerous technologies that now fill our world. As Robert Oppenheimer quipped about the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, “[They] have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” But just because we now have this destructive knowledge, does not mean we are required to employ it or even stockpile it. Just because we now know where “death” is located on the map, does not mean that is our final destination. We can turn around.

The biblical word for this type of “turning around” is the word “repent.” Those of us raised in the revivalistic tradition have other pictures in our mind when it comes to the word, “repent.” As I heard Bill Leonard say, “Some of us were saved hard, sweating like we had been to hell that morning and come back to the revival to tell about it that night.”

But repentance can be far less emotional and far more practical, for the word “repent” is not a word reserved for private morality, like an angry evangelist preaching at a camp meeting about lying, cheating, stealing, card-playing and smoking. Repentance is about giving up our agenda for living in this world and our plans for the future, and trusting God to bring us a tomorrow. Possessing the most terror-inspiring weapons or thinking that redemptive violence will bring peace to the world is sheer madness. These ideas must be abandoned, certainly by those who follow the one known as the Prince of Peace. No, I’m not so adolescent to think we can idealistically “change our world.” But we can begin to change our minds.

Returning to Oppenheimer, after the development and utilization of the first atomic weapons, he quoted from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But destruction is not mandatory. There is another path, a true and living way; a narrow way of repentance and redirection that leads to life.