Jesus and the Nuclear Football

“Jesus and the Nuclear Football”

Greg Thielmann

Dumbarton United Methodist Church

 August 12, 2018

On this coming Wednesday, August 15, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will be celebrating the “Feast of the Assumption.”  This marks the day when Mary, the Mother of Jesus, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” as Catholic doctrine puts it.

August 15 also fell on a Wednesday 73 years ago.  And in anticipation, on the Thursday before, the largest cathedral in Asia was crowded with worshippers attending mass and making confessions.  Suddenly, at 11:01 am, the services were interrupted by a blinding flash of light from 1600 feet overhead.  On that August 9th morning in 1945, all of those present at Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral were incinerated or crushed by the detonation of an American atomic bomb.  Within a few days, more than two-thirds of Urakami’s 12,000 parishioners had completed the course of their earthly life as a result of the second nuclear attack on Japan, following the bombing of Hiroshima 3 days earlier.

(I know that large numbers can be numbing, but I wanted to note that more than twice as many Japanese Christians were killed in Nagasaki than the number of Americans killed at either Pearl Harbor on the “Day of Infamy” in 1941 or in New York and Washington on 9/11/01.)

I was inspired to use the tragic story of Nagasaki’s Christian community as an introduction to my sermon, remembering an insight I gained from my political science mentor in college.  Professor Magee taught us that, “if you feel a sense of irony in learning about an historical event, you are getting close to the truth.”

There is more irony ahead; I hope it illuminates some truth.

Fallout from the Atomic Bombs

The Japanese surrender, which ended the bloodiest war in human history, has long been attributed to the political shockwave from the atomic massacre of some 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  However, recent research into Japan’s previously secret archives, offers strong support to an alternative hypothesis:  It was the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan on August 8 rather than use of the atomic bomb, which persuaded Tokyo that there was no longer any hope of avoiding complete defeat.

The absence of a Third World War more than seven decades after the end of the Second has also usually been explained as a consequence of the destructive power demonstrated by those two bombs – and of the willingness of the two nuclear superpowers emerging from the war to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against each other.  It took some forty years before Superpower Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev could jointly declare that: “A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.”

So now we are left with another conundrum.  The security of our nation rests on the credibility of our threat to use nuclear weapons if we are attacked, a use which we freely acknowledge would result in our mutual annihilation.

During my professional career in the State Department, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and in the Arms Control Association, I have spent a lot of time “thinking the unthinkable” – about how we would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, and imagining the unimaginable -- how such weapons could not only be controlled but eliminated.

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the confession of faith I uttered in my Disciples of Christ church at age 12 and the similar one I declared some 14 years later at Dumbarton – making pledges to “serve as Christ’s representative in the world,” “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

Taken together, these commitments have brought me to what is colloquially known as: “schizophrenia” -- “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.”

My job as “Preacher:”  Too easy and too hard

You’re familiar, no doubt, with the old saying about the preacher’s duty – “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Well, I’m a little anxious about preaching on nuclear weapons, because the “affliction” part is too easy and the “comfort” part is too hard.  I don’t think there are very many members of this congregation who are comfortable living in a world with 15,000 nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert.

The discomfort is heightened when contemplating that the more than 5,000 nuclear warheads contained in the active (deployed and stockpiled) U.S. nuclear arsenal are at the disposal of America’s “nuclear monarch,” Donald Trump.  My sermon title draws attention to the briefcase carried by a military officer, which accompanies Trump at all times.  Nicknamed “the nuclear football,” this device enables the president to communicate launch orders to those who command and operate our nuclear forces.  The only thing that must happen for nuclear weapons to be unleashed is for the president to give the order and for the “football” to be used to convey the authenticity of the order; the decision does not have to be well-informed, consistent with the rules of war, or in any way sane. 

            I suspect that many of you have read the reports that even a limited nuclear war on the other side of the globe – between India and Pakistan -- would result not only in more than 20 million fatalities there within a week, but up to two billion more from starvation worldwide within a year, due to climate effects.  (And by the way, I have long regarded South Asia as the region of our world where nuclear war is most likely to break out.)

Our religious imperative

As for “comforting the afflicted,” I’m not sure my meager theological insight can offer much solace to those so afflicted.  But I will try to explore the existential political and spiritual crisis posed by our reliance on nuclear weapons.  And I will recite both the guidance from scripture and from contemporary leaders of our church.

Reconciling the Christian Gospel’s renunciation of violence with its call for the pursuit of justice and for care of the community is a two-thousand year work-in-progress. 

Christians have been arguing about pacifism for a long time.  The nearly identical words appearing in Matthew’s account of the “Sermon on the Mount” and Luke’s account of the “Sermon on the Plain” are almost as startling today as they must have been when they were first received.

“Love your enemies”

“Pray for those who persecute you”

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”

That’s pretty clear, but is it serious?   Surely what might work for individuals, cannot work for countries – or at least that’s what history suggests.

            How exactly does one “resist evil, injustice, and oppression” without violence -- “putting [one’s] whole trust in [God’s] grace?”  How exactly does one “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s?”   How does one reconcile individual morality with collective responsibilities?  Is refusing to protect oneself from violence the same as refusing to protect one’s family or one’s fellow citizens?”  Or, as American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr formulated it in his seminal 1932 book: How can one be a moral man (or woman) in an immoral society?

Ever since Constantine officially “Christianized” the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, the dominant strain in Christianity has buttressed the notion that violence in the service of legitimate authority can be justified and that civic duty requires citizens to pay taxes for a military and/or to bear arms themselves.

Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, condemned war as “the product of human depravity,” but he was also ready to commit himself to the Church of England’s declaration that “It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of their magistrate to wear weapons and serve in wars.”

Recall the dramatic story from the American Revolution of Lutheran pastor John Muhlenberg.  While addressing his parishioners in Woodstock, Virginia, Muhlenberg concluded his sermon with the litany from Ecclesiastes, “for everything there is a season” -- then, declaring “a time to fight,” opened his clerical robe to reveal a military uniform underneath.  (Muhlenburg is honored today with a bust on Connecticut Avenue and a statue in the U.S. Capitol.)

Despite significant opposition among British Methodists to the Boer War at the birth of the 20th Century, most Methodists fell in line behind their government in opposing German and Austro-Hungarian aggression in 1914.

 But the slaughter of World War I produced a profound backlash against the resort to war among the democracies of Europe.  With the passage of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, war was officially outlawed by the international community for the first time.  Before then, war was regarded as a legitimate means of righting wrongs.

  The combination of pacifism and isolationism in the United States was an important component of the “America First” movement seeking to avoid the sins of the Old World (and the Old Order).  Ultimately, the growth of pacifism in the interwar years was only reversed by the failure of appeasement to stem the blatant aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

My Quaker brother and I sometimes discuss the tension between the Christian Gospel and the requirements of U.S. security policy.  He is drawn to the absolutism of Quaker pacifism.  This interpretation regards all killing as incompatible with the teachings of Christ and therefore as unacceptable behavior for any individual professing to be a disciple of Jesus.

The Christian realism of Niebuhr leans heavily on the demonstrable failure of the world to deal effectively early-on with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  It does not necessarily condone all of the tactics ultimately used in defeating these nations.  We can imagine an effective response that would still have avoided Britain’s “de-housification” bombing campaign against German cities or America’s second atomic bomb attack only three days after the first.  But must we also condemn the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944 or the liberation of the Philippines, because these actions resorted to violence?  Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to posit an alternative, peaceful path to avoiding the Nazi conquest of Europe and the Holocaust.

Wrestling with the pacifism modeled by Jesus and the non-pacifistic demands of our world caused me to suggest today’s bulletin cover.  The metaphor of Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the story from Genesis seems apt – partly because I haven’t been able to figure out the moral of that story either.

From Saving Souls to Saving the Species

However we come down on the spiritual struggle between pacifism and realism, the nuclear age has created a tectonic shift in the underlying foundation for the argument.  What seemed before to be a debate about saving our souls has now become also a debate about saving human life on Planet Earth.

Thus the introduction of nuclear weapons by the United States at the end of World War II introduced an entirely new theological argument to the issue of pacifism:  Nuclear war doctrine not only imperils the individual soul, as does all war, but it jeopardizes survival of our species.

We have had a number of close calls during the Cold War and beyond – when leaders moved deliberately to the brink and when leaders moved inadvertently to the brink --  either unaware that nuclear weapons were actually involved or mistakenly believing that a nuclear attack was imminent.

Ever since the Methodist Council of Bishops came out with their 1986 statement, “In Defense of Creation,” our denomination has been, institutionally, very close to the traditional “peace” churches, “rejecting war as an instrument of national foreign policy.”  And condemning not only the “use” of nuclear weapons, but their “production” and “possession” as well.

The Roman Catholic Church has only recently caught up with the full embrace of nuclear pacifism reflected in the Methodist Bishops’ groundbreaking statement.  In 1983, Pope John Paul II declared that “[nuclear] ‘deterrence,’ based on balance, not as an end in itself, but as a step on the way to progressive disarmament, may still be acceptable.”

Pope Francis signaled early in his tenure that the church’s qualified tolerance of nuclear deterrence was being reconsidered.  By November 2017, he had declared that “the threat of [nuclear weapons’] use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”  I would judge that from his prominent perch in the Vatican and based on his credibility with the general public, the current Pope is now the leading Christian opponent of nuclear weapons idolatry. 

And little noticed in the United States is evidence that the Pope has ecumenical allies in other faiths.  In March 2014, a small group of Catholic Bishops met for discussions with four Iranian Ayatollahs in the Shia Seminary town of Qom.  All seven of the senior Muslim and Christian clerics participating in this dialogue agreed that even the threat to use nuclear weapons was “immoral.”

 But are the Christian faithful following their own leaders?

In the U.S. Congress, Catholics are over-represented;  30% of members are Catholic, compared with 20% of the US population.  (Methodists, by the way, are also over-represented; we are 8% of the congressional membership, but only 5% of the population).  Yet I not only see little correspondence between the voting of these members and the more demanding “requirements” of their faith, as defined by their own religious leaders; I do not see the majority following even a minimalist path of reason and decency.

Climbing out of the pit

In my view, that path would include (but not be limited to) the following:

-- First, immediate ratification by the U.S. Senate of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  (In the mid-1990s, the United States was instrumental in negotiating this treaty, which not only prevents radiological contamination from testing, but most importantly, inhibits the development of new nuclear devices.  Although the United States was one of the first countries to sign on (and has ceased all nuclear testing), the U.S. Senate refuses to join Russia, Britain, France and 163 other states in allowing the treaty to enter force.)

-- Second, adopting a policy that our country will never again be the first to launch a nuclear attack.  (This is both critical for reining in our “nuclear monarch,” and essential for achieving nonproliferation objectives.  If the most powerful country in the world cannot pledge no-first-use, there is little hope in persuading others that nuclear weapons are not legitimate and necessary tools for defending national sovereignty.)

-- And third, significantly reducing the 1.7 trillion dollars the Pentagon plans to spend on nuclear weapons during the next three decades, replacing every element of our bloated nuclear arsenal.  In 2010, President Obama received the assurance of the senior U.S. military leadership that it could still cover all of its assigned targets even if a third of U.S. strategic warheads were unilaterally eliminated.  Yet our politicians hold on to the obscenely redundant nuclear triad as if they were Medieval Bishops defending the Holy Trinity.)

These three steps are not the radical policy positions of nuclear pacifism.  I stop short of even offering an unqualified endorsement of the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty, which seeks to remove nuclear weapons’ claim of legitimacy.  (This a favorite cause of many arms controllers and a policy embraced by a majority of the world’s governments.)

I certainly cannot argue that my policy recommendations are patterned after the life that Jesus modeled.  They are more Niebuhrian than Nazarene.  But I do believe the common sense steps I’ve listed are both necessary and urgent to further reduce the risk of nuclear war.  Such “realism” certainly falls short of the glory of God; but it does not preclude beseeching God’s forgiveness and God’s help in moving humanity closer toward the realm of God.

It does not prevent us from puncturing the absurdity of pretending that nuclear weapons can be used without violating the just war principles of proportionality and discrimination.  (I’ve often witnessed Dumbarton’s Howard Morland doing this brilliantly at public presentations by nuclear security experts, asking pointed questions regarding the details of nuclear targeting.)

It does not prevent us from painting a vivid picture of the realm of God, as the Dumbarton congregation did in performing “Alice in Blunderland” around Washington in the early-1990s.  It does not prevent us from urging our congressional representatives to beat swords into ploughshares for the benefit of the hungry -- or to demonstrate at today’s “Standing Together Rally” on the National Mall.

And a realistic bent does not preclude us from feeling a sense of awe and appreciation for things that give us a glimpse of the face of God:

-- One such occurrence was described last year in Pastor Mary Kay Totty’s sermon about the “Göttingen 18” – when Germany’s most renowned nuclear physicists signed a manifesto in 1957, asserting their refusal to work on nuclear weapons – stopping in its tracks an incipient West German program for going nuclear.

-- Another momentous transformation (akin to a slow-motion “Damascus Road Experience”) was the evolution of Andrei Sakharov -- from Father of the Soviet H-Bomb in the 1950s to dissident activist for disarmament and human rights in the 1960s, ultimately earning him the Nobel Peace Prize.

In our darkest hours, a light still shines!

Let me leave you with the words of a Baptist Sunday school teacher, who previously served in the nuclear navy and in the White House as the 39th President of the United States.

According to Jimmy Carter:

War may sometimes be a necessary evil.  But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.  We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.





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