I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
… Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
… Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
… And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
[Bob Dylan : A Hard Rains a'gonna fall]
The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. [Revelations 8:10, 11]
We cannot say how the wind blows. From whence, towards where, how strongly, how varied, bearing good or ill omen. The wind remains, even in this proud scientific age, a profound mystery.
And so it is that the fateful events of April 1986 have been blown into my ambit. I have been reminded of something that is part of the wallpaper of the 20th century, something I saw from afar, the implications of which I clearly did not grasp at the time. I am in the grip of this tale of horror, and feel compelled to make some sense of it.
To be sure, the events surrounding the explosion on the 26th April 1986 of Reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, Ukraine, have been exhaustively analysed, down to the second. Books have been written, which I have yet to read. I scan the facts, and they fascinate me. I’ve been doing more chemistry this week that I have done for 30 years. I see the pictures and they revolt me. But I want my words here to be few, and my response if at all possible, succinct.
There are 2 points of view I have had the privilege of knowing. Firstly, the recent photoreportage of biker-journalist Elena Filatova. Her plain and yet highly lyrical English prose compliments her photographs perfectly.
And secondly, a short interview by author Svetlana Alexievich called “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future” .
As a planet we are experiencing a radical shift. Some offer names for this – the post industrial age, post modernity, and the like. Of course there are a torrent of reasons making up the chaotic fabric of this age. But it seems to me that the Chernobyl tragedy played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet empire, and shift of global power which resulted in the current wave of globalisation, with all its anxiety, it’s unknowing, its ill effects, as well as its promise. Alexievich makes some sense of this:
“We cannot read the sign of Chernobyl – it’s a foreign text. None of the great writers has dealt with this subject, nor has any philosopher. Chernobyl lies beyond the boundaries of culture.”
Key to this, she points out that rather that an event in the recent past, its effects are yet to be seen.
“Chernobyl changed space, Even a country that doesn’t build reactors will be hit by the fallout from another country… Chernobyl also changed time. Radionuclides take hundreds of thousands of years to degrade. This is too much for the human imagination. Chernobyl has only just begun.”
This shift from a well understood view on space and time, is profound.
Everyone deals with this sea change in different ways. For me, as one informed by scripture and faith, it places us in a particular mode of unknowing, not dissimilar to Abraham leaving all he knew on a hunch, the Israelites leaving Egypt on a promise, or of Jesus saying “nevertheless not my will but your be done”, and descending into the hiddenness of Sheol.
Maybe the size of the scope of the problem could help us to transcend the merely human response. Surely faith is about accepting that which lies beyond our event horizon. It is to quote the book of Hebrews, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
“What good are our helicopters here? An entire culture collapsed, the familiar culture of war… the worms had bored a meter and a half down into the earth. Nature had obviously received signals.”
“We are changing – from a civilisation of fear to a civilisation of catastrophes. Progress has become dangerous, for both humankind and nature.”
Svetlana Alexievich’s observation shows us how our myth of progress has suffered a mighty judgement. The illusion that we can dominate or control the natural process of life. The materialistic belief that life is about conquest, and mere survival. Are we learning?
Surely a new sense of being, a new spirituality is called for. One which throws off these delusions, and honours the creation as something holy, not a resource to be used. This is not a mere issue of ecology, a “green” issue. It is a fundamental challenge of the heart.
It’s immensely fascinating how “accurate” a representation of the Chernobyl event, is the Revelation text. According to Wikipedia the Ukrainian word Chernobyl means “black grass” and refers to the weed mugwort, also known as wormwood. The star falling from the sky, the bitter waters, are powerful and poetic representations of radioactive fallout.
But to reduce the event to the idea of “prophecy foretold” and a Nostrodamusised response of awe at that we can do nothing about, misses the point. In fact, prophecy is mostly about a personal challenge to change, rather than a piece of cosmic cinema which we watch, as detached and spellbound audiences, rather than active participants.
Elena Filatova, although not a theist, has this to say bout the temptations of Jesus:
“Jesus rejects them all, but mankind is too weak. Science knows how to turn uranium stones into both weapons and bread. The people embraced the vision with unbridled enthusiasm, lured by the tricks of nuclear alchemy. Never mind the penalties of Time’s usury and the violation of all natural principles, the people chased after those tainted miracles, marched with nukes in parades, and shouted – Hurrah!”
And perhaps displaying Ukrainian religious roots, she makes this point:
“Chernobyl is a vital icon for modern Christianity, and a bitter fountain of learning for us all.”