03/29/2011 09:38 am ET Updated May 29, 2011

Japan, Nuclear Power, and a Sense of Shame

"I've been experiencing a bit of déjà vu watching the scenes in Japan.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked with a nuclear disarmament group -- the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race -- and we spent considerable effort educating religious folks about the dangers of nuclear power plants, the horrors of nuclear war, and the mostly unknown reality of radiation sickness caused by our bombs dropped on Japan in August of 1945 and the ensuing tests in the Pacific and the southwestern American desert.

We showed people film footage taken in Japan in the earliest days after the August 6 bombing of Hiroshima and the August 9 bombing of Nagasaki. We used materials from the keen scientists at Union of Concerned Scientists. We brought in bold doctors from Physicians for Social Responsibility. We prayed prayers of confession for the evil unleashed in those bombings of 1945. We lit peace lanterns and folded origami peace cranes. We taught people how to write letters to the editor -- this was back in the day of print media.

But the stockpiles grew. The nuclear plants got built. And here we are in 2011, with the consequences we used to imagine now streaming a daily reality through our computer and TV screens. Japan is once again a horror story.

So I find myself remembering a day in the early 1980s when I was discouraged, feeling that it was futile to protest the nuclear arms race when the nuclear stockpiles rose higher each day and the weapons budgets swelled bigger each day, and every day our country sold more and more weapons to more and more third world countries. I went to speak with a rabbi, one of the founders of our organization, a wise man who always listened to my questions with care. "Why?" I asked him. "Why do we bother to keep working for social and political change? Our efforts are so puny and nobody cares, nobody listens, nobody can change anything."

Rabbi Beerman listened, as he always listened to my questions and complaints, and in his gentle, quiet way reached into his desk and brought out a picture of his new grandson, Matthew Benjamin. He asked to see a picture of my new baby son Benjamin Michael. He told me to think about these two little boys who would graduate from high school in the year 2000. He told me to think about what we owed them. And then he asked me: "If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?"

The rabbi's words have been resonating within me with every news report I see from Japan, especially with two bits of news:

One, a report about something that is referred to as "the Japanese spirit," the notion of group responsibility called yamato-damashi. This is the notion that the common good matters more than my personal well-being, that is, that "we are all in this together." Or, as the rabbi said, "If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?"

And a second bit of news I heard on the radio -- a report I'm hoping is not true: within hours of the news of the radiation leaks in Japan, all of the iodine tablets in the United States were bought. American pharmacy shelves were empty. But American home medicine cabinets from California to Kansas to New Jersey were amply stocked, just in case. Meanwhile the Japanese, in serious need of these iodine tablets, had none left. We've kept it to ourselves.

"If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?"

So I'm having a little déjà vu. I'm seeing again the scenes of suffering I've seen before. I'm feeling again "how could we?" And I'm asking again the rabbi's question:

"If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?"