I just finished reading Kai Bird’s and Martin J. Sherwin’s magisterial American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage, 2005), and Ray Monk’s equally impressive Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (New York: Anchor, 2012).
Admittedly, these are unlikely readings for a UCC minister who is opposed to American militarism and U.S. nuclear policy.
Oppenheimer was the fellow who directed the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, which produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in August, 1945. The “father of the atomic bomb” and his team of scientists and engineers based their work on the seminal discovery in 1938 of nuclear fission: when the nucleus of a uranium atom is split into equal parts, neutrons are released which can break up many more atoms, in a chain reaction that yields tremendous energy and explosive power.
Bird’s and Sherwin’s title is apt. In Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, punished Prometheus for his transgression. Prometheus was “nailed to a mountain, and an eagle [was] sent to eat his liver”—which then grew back every night, only to be eaten again the next day (“Prometheus,” Encyclopædia Britannica).
This is pretty much what happened to Oppenheimer. After the war, his past political activism—during the 1930s “Oppie” had given money to several left-leaning organizations, and had attended communist party meetings—came under intense federal questioning. He was investigated and reinvestigated—and suspected of being a communist sympathizer, if not a Soviet spy. His phone was wiretapped, hidden microphones were placed inside his home and office, and he was followed everywhere he went. A shortlist of his governmental intimidators included the United States Army, civilian atomic energy officials, and the FBI (Monk, pp. 353-357). Finally, Oppenheimer was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, put through a harrowing four-week security hearing, and stripped of his security clearance.
Oppenheimer’s story reminds me of the overwhelming destructive power, not only of atomic weapons, but also of witch hunts; American history is replete with nativist attacks on Amerindians, people of color, women, communists, gays, Muslims, immigrants, and assorted others. I am also reminded of how quickly witch hunts can take on a life and an energy all their own, and begin perpetuating themselves like, well, like an atomic chain-reaction.
The anti-Communist hysteria that was launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950 became a powerful American narrative that swamped the institutions of the U.S. Government and subverted the due process protections of any American who was accused of disloyalty, including Oppenheimer himself.
And Oppenheimer’s story reminds me of current witch hunts—of President Trump’s anger, and of his attacks on the institutions of the American Government and against the American people.
Yet another lesson that these biographies teach us is the ease with which scientists—and inferentially, church leaders—can be flattered and seduced by political power. After his epic wartime accomplishment at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer gave up both his teaching and his theoretical physics work to become a governmental advisor and friend to the powerful.
Remarkably, something mildly similar happened to me in the early 1990s, when I was a U. S. Navy Chaplain, stationed in Washington, D.C., in the old Navy Annex, just down the road from the Pentagon. My job was hardly vital to America’s national security, and I was not hobnobbing with admirals and famous politicians; nevertheless, I was seduced—co-opted—by Washington, and by working in the U.S. Navy’s headquarters, and by my relative proximity to power. And I lost my ability to think honestly and clearly about U. S. militarism and about all the people who were getting hurt by the Navy and by American military policy.
The Cold War was ending during those years, and working in our nation’s capital was a heady experience. It was like living inside the pages of history, in Ancient Rome at the height of its power and influence as the capital of the Roman Empire. I had developed a bad case of “Potomac Fever.”
So, yes, I understand how Oppenheimer was seduced after the war, into becoming a government advisor and a friend to the powerful. And I understand how Evangelicals today are seduced by President Trump and by the false promise of influencing, and being near, the center of American power.
If the U.S. Government has the ability to seduce scientists and chaplains, it also has the power to destroy anyone who is not sufficiently obedient and docile to its dictates. Following the defeat of Germany and Japan, many scientists, including Oppenheimer, wanted the United States to share its atomic secrets with other countries in the interests of peaceful cooperation and the abolition of warfare.
But the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations did just the opposite: where the scientists wanted an open and honest dialogue with Moscow about the bomb and its dangers to humanity, the Government tried “to prevent the Soviets from acquiring its atomic ‘secrets.’” Where the scientists insisted that atomic weapons had made war “obsolete,” Washington officials believed that atomic weapons [had given] the United States a decisive advantage in war (Monk, p. 414). In the end, the U.S. government’s secrecy regime, and its cold war competition with the Soviet Union, came to define America and American patriotism. The scientists were marginalized.
The implications of Oppenheimer’s loss of his security clearance were enormous. All scientists and academic institutions with defense contracts were put on notice that there could be serious consequences for those who challenged Government policies (Bird and Sherwin, pp. 548-549).
In trying to make sense of the charges against Oppenheimer, Monk distinguishes between the Caesar’s-wife concept of justice and the whole-man, or whole-person concept of justice. The former derives from the time [when] Julius Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, was suspected of adultery. Caesar divorced her, not because he believed her to be guilty, but merely because the question of her guilt had been raised. ‘My wife,’ he famously declared, ‘ought not even to be under suspicion.’”
The Caesar’s-wife concept of justice held that if the Government heard any derogatory information at all about Oppenheimer, his security clearance should not be re-issued—“and there was no need to waste time and money in [determining if] the information was accurate. The whole-person approach, on the other hand, maintained that it was unfair to [revoke Oppenheimer’s] security clearance merely on the basis of derogatory information, without giving [him] an opportunity to set the record straight, [or examining] favorable information that might outweigh the blemishes,” or considering his importance to America’s atomic program.
“Caesar’s wife” justice assumes that where there’s smoke, there must be fire. One is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. “Whole person” justice is just the opposite. It assumes that people are complicated and that rigid rules and behavioral codes do more harm than good. The Atomic Energy Commission’s suspension of Oppenheimer’s security clearance reified the triumph of Caesar’s-wife justice over whole-person justice in U.S. atomic weapons policy (Monk, pp. 630-631).
By definition, American witch hunts—McCarthy’s virulent search for communists in the early 1950s, and various earlier and subsequent inquisitions and persecutions—have all been based on Caesar’s-wife justice. The same is true today of the Trump Administration’s attacks on people of color, immigrants, and various other national, ethnic, racial, and religious populations.
The Caesar’s-wife and whole-person standards of justice have broad implications for the church. Jesus forgave, befriended, and commissioned very imperfect people into service. At times, the church has given second chances—and third chances and fourth chances—to great sinners, who somehow were transformed, despite themselves, into great saints. One thinks of Paul, Augustine, and others. At other times, the church has employed an unfortunate Caesar’s-wife kind of justice toward assorted free-thinkers, iconoclasts, and religious miscreants—as well as toward gays, people of color, women, and immigrants.
All this has worked hand-in-hand with seduction and co-optation. Throughout much (although certainly not all) of our nation’s history, the church has identified closely with the Establishment, with people of wealth and privilege, and with official government policy—and condemned the poor, the powerless, and those lacking influence.
At one time, many Protestant churchgoers embraced a Caesar’s-wife approach to personal morality—and, of course, some still do. If any personal behavior or activity merely looked inappropriate—even if there was nothing really wrong with it—it was to be avoided. Thus, “real” Christians did not play cards, drink, listen to rock-and-roll music, or go to movie theaters. Similarly, ministers did not form close friendships within their congregations, frequent bars, go dancing, or drive fancy sports cars. Everyone tried to avoid the appearance of evil, and everyone became spiritually frozen and legalistic.
My sense is that today, many Protestant churchgoers and ministers have adopted a healthier whole-person approach regarding issues of personal morality. They are realizing that they cannot live defensively, and they are loosening up.
Today, in these uncivil times, we need a new Prometheus. Because the only antidote to our anger and hostilities is a rediscovery of fire. Not the incendiary fire of an atomic explosion, but the fire of love. “Someday,” Jesuit priest-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.