The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Oppenheimer and the search for justice

At its heart, Christopher Nolan’s magnificent film – which scooped seven Oscars this week – is a courtroom drama for our moral crusading times.

Its emotional power lies not only in the race to beat the Nazis to the bomb, nor in the moral dilemmas of building a gadget that threatens the annihilation of humankind. Rather, its compelling contemporary resonance lies in its recounting of the vindictive annihilation of the reputation of a complex man whose moral qualms over the use of atomic energy threatened to undermine US policy.

Oppenheimer’s opponents, cynically harnessing the terror of communist threat in 1950s America, seek to remove him from public influence by calling into question his loyalty, his character, and his choice of friends. They need no proof, and none of the FBI’s 10,000 pages on him provides any.

In such a context, Oppenheimer has to ‘justify his whole life’ and, as his opponents twice crow, ‘Who would want to justify their whole life?’. Who of us could? Have we not all misspoken, had offensive thoughts, had views on some issue that are at odds with the prevailing moral opinion? All have sinned, all have fallen short of whatever ideology we may espouse.

Oppenheimer doesn’t have a chance. And, in our own unforgiving times, nor do we. There may be no one who’s without sin, but there are plenty who are ready to throw stones.

There’s a case, of course, for removing platforms from people who clearly have offensive or discriminatory views. As Oppenheimer knew well, actions have consequences. But, when it feels like our culture demands repentance but denies forgiveness, fear sets in. Fear that we’re only a clumsily expressed sentence or a politically incorrect opinion away from a call from HR, online abuse, or being shunned by our oldest friends.

But, in Oppenheimer’s case, fear didn’t paralyse him. He knew he would lose, and could have walked away, but he felt he had to carry on to make a stand for a different, internationally cooperative way forward in the use of atomic technology. It cost him, as standing up for the good and the true often does.

But it’s what Christ calls us to. And so, in our increasingly inquisitional culture, we need his help to resist judgmentalism, to hold onto truth, to know when to speak up, and to have the courage to do so with grace when that time comes. May it be so.


Mark Greene
Mission Champion, LICC 

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