As Hiroshima Day approaches, how does the Church reckon with the Nuclear Age?
August 6 and 9, 1945, are the days that the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing immediate and slower deaths in those Japanese cities in excess of 100,000. Ever since, most churches and many other religious and moral people have sought to prevent any further use of nuclear weapons. Remembering and mourning that initial devastation is part of the spiritual resistance of Christian obedience.
This article suggests a prayer for use in worship, printing, or posting on church websites, and then points to the action taken by the General Assembly this past June, which seeks to lift up nuclear disarmament as an active campaign.
Prayer for Worship Use and/or Sharing:
Eternal God, unending in your care for the earth and all that is in it, we still seek to end the nuclear threat to your creation. We remember the dead and damaged from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who have suffered from radiation exposure in the years since 1945. We wonder at the many near-mishaps and miscommunications that could have triggered horrific conflict, but did not. We are grateful for the conscientious negotiators behind the treaties that have been achieved, the conscientious objectors protesting year in and year out, the inspectors, and those who maintain nuclear safety.
We give thanks that no other atomic weapons have been used, and claim your providence present in our interconnected world, despite its many violent places. Yet we pray for your Spirit to make us impatient with the inertia of the nuclear nations that signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging movement toward abolishing weapons that only exist to threaten mutual destruction. For the four nations outside that treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan, N. Korea) and for possible non-state actors, we pray that the closest perceived enemies can be seen instead as fellow hostages, all captive to the nihilism of fear and hatred.
Give us the political will to use the social technologies of peacemaking to reduce threats, to build trust, and to strengthen the institutions that enable cooperation and enforce accountability. Be with our church as it seeks to live out a faithful and creative witness, and for each us to acknowledge the prophetic elements of our faith in Jesus, “prophet, priest, and king.” The Prince of Peace disarms the principalities and powers that seek to make us powerless; fill us with Your inexhaustible power of love that can move nuclear mountains.
In Jesus’ saving name and Spirit, Amen.
What PC(USA) General Assembly did and didn’t say about disarmament.
The 223rd General Assembly called on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to renew its commitment to nuclear disarmament by supporting the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, among other measures (https://www.pc-biz.org/#/committee/3000011/business). The Assembly action cites the giving of the Nobel Peace Prize to a small civil society organization, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (October 6, 2017), for its work advocating on behalf of the prohibition treaty. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was approved by 122 nations in July of 2017, after United Nations-related conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use in 2013 and 2014, and other international diplomatic actions.
The Assembly’s language is forceful, though as part of the consent agenda, none was heard on the Assembly floor:
1. Call upon all members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—in faithfulness to the God of justice, mercy, and compassion—to take actions in defense of God’s creation and our own security, which is inextricably bound to the security of the rest of the world, to take all actions such as might be effective in requiring full U.S. compliance with the obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
2. Renounce the false god of nuclear security with its promise of catastrophic consequences.
3. Renounce any policy that threatens the death of millions of God’s children in any land with a single command and a single warhead.
4. Join in ecumenical discussion at the highest level to develop a collaborative strategy with Christian and other faith communities to effect the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.
These statements’ implications for public policy are stated simply and directly:
7. Call upon the government of the United States of America to
a. immediately begin the process of complete, irreversible, and verifiable nuclear disarmament in compliance with our shared obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1969), the findings of International Court of Justice (July 1996), and the requirements of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017);
This is not a call for unilateral disarmament, although the hope is that the US will take the lead:
g. join in the international efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament, collaborating with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to seek full implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, beginning with a campaign to compel the United States to demonstrate global leadership to sign and ratify the treaty.
The rationale or background section to the resolution argues for the urgency of reviving disarmament efforts and draws on the International Court of Justice finding of 1996 for assessments of nuclear dangers. It also supports other recommendations that money designated for modernizing nuclear arsenals be spent on de-commissioning and de-contamination.
The ACSWP Perspective
The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) provided an Advice & Counsel memorandum on the overture that was intended to present an alternative viewpoint, but the A&C went too far in defending “deterrence,” and was not advocated before the GA Committee considering the resolution. ACSWP had wanted to maintain the 1988 policy of the church, Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age. That document, of which we provide an excerpt below, balances its clear condemnation of nuclear weapons (on “Just War” grounds) against an opposition to unilateral disarmament. The A&C was concerned that the overture was changing the 1988 policy, which still has some Realism in it, toward a more “naïve” position, particularly in a time of worldwide authoritarian currents, weakening verification structures, and unilateralism against cooperative treaties.
The ACSWP representative sought to amend the committee’s position to a single paragraph like this, which could have been added to the resolution instead of opposing it:
“b.) strengthen multilateral efforts involving our allies and existing treaties so that our country works with other nations on peacemaking, reducing arsenals, ensuring effective inspection capacity, preventing nuclear proliferation, and building the trust and respect for human rights necessary for truly shared security, consistent with the Presbyterian Church’s policy Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age.”
Although the GA Committee did not make any amendments to the overture (which became a resolution when adopted by the Assembly), ACSWP had several lingering concerns:
1. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has not been approved by a single nuclear power or by the bulk of countries (NATO, for example, Japan, Australia…) protected by nuclear umbrellas. The Treaty represents the frustration of the many non-nuclear nations, but experts seem to see little traction among the countries that actually would need to relinquish weapons. (See a Carnegie Endowment assessment. Similar views can be found from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and other more “establishment” arms control and disarmament organizations.)
2. Information provided in the ACSWP Advice & Counsel memorandum indicated that Russia is currently violating provisions of existing treaties, without serious US or International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) pushback. Treaties such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed with the then-Soviet Union in 1991 and coming into force in 1994 did reduce nuclear stockpiles, but no treaty polices itself.
To be prophetic is not simply to oppose something; it requires understanding how it works, and if the current system is to be dismantled, it needs to be done carefully.
3. The 1996 International Court of Justice opinion cited in the overture is worth reading. Although the Court did affirm an obligation of nations (as in the 1998 treaty that soon followed) to negotiate nuclear disarmament, it also found:
“the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law; however, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake” (Para 105).
The number of split and close votes noted in the opinion is also illuminating, even among jurists clearly committed to preventing nuclear war. Whether this complexity could be ascertained from the overture’s background statement, it suggests multi-lateral negotiation would be essential for disarmament progress.
The Position of Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age (1988):
From Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age (“CONA”), pg. 6:
“The 183rd General Assembly (1971) stated that nuclear deterrence is not morally defensible unless it is for the sole purpose of buying a little time to work for peaceful alternatives…
“Does this require immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament? Though some believe so, we agree with the report of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (1987), which states that mutual vulnerability and the existing policy of nuclear deterrence are conditions that cannot immediately or easily be changed. Sudden and unilateral change in any “stable” relationship could in fact be dangerous.”
From the study guide to Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age, beginning pg. 33…
“20 Minutes: Nuclear deterrence is the belief that possessing nuclear weapons will prevent other nuclear nations from using theirs. Some leaders of nuclear nations believe that possessing these weapons “deters” or prevents their use.
“Describe three major views of nuclear deterrence:
1. Nuclear deterrence has prevented nuclear war and conventional wars between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. during the last forty years. It has therefore been a moral force in international politics.
2. Nuclear deterrence poses a real threat to the survival of God’s earth since it implies the willingness to use nuclear weapons. Therefore, the only moral alternative for a nuclear nation would be to begin to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
3. Nuclear deterrence ‘has been in danger of being regarded as an adequate, permanent means to national security rather than an interim means of self defense.’ This view agrees that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral but rejects unilateral disarmament. It argues for multilateral reduction and the cessation of developing more.
This is the position of CONA.”
The GA’s basic call—to renew the push for nuclear disarmament—is right. But many questions remain in terms of the United States’ moral course.
The resolution passed by the Assembly suggests that the 1988 policy, Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age, needs updating after 30 years. As the prayer reflects, it has been miraculous that deterrence has not broken down, even if deterrence is itself indefensible in terms of just intent. Has deterrence contributed to relative stability, or are there other factors, and is stability a good in itself?
The possession of nuclear weapons has not prevented wars of other kinds, and we are also responsible for seeking peace on these other fronts. As this is written, a new President is elected in Pakistan: a former cricket star backed by the military and opposed to the US use of drones. Would he accept US military aid that has been linked to Pakistan’s nuclear bombs as much as to their sheltering Taliban along their Afghan border? What would it take for Pakistan and India to disarm—an agreement in Kashmir first? Elsewhere in its actions, the Assembly called for de-escalation with Iran, if not restoration of the agreement for Iran not to go nuclear. The point here is that nuclear weapons are not an abstraction for the countries that possess them, even though they are also symbols of status and reinforce a national security mentality.
Getting to disarmament without a grievous mistake or escalation of a “conventional” war is a major task. If progress can be made in North Korea, however, with cooperation from the Chinese, then perhaps there is hope.
In the meantime, the U.S. will spend billions each year to keep its finger on the button of human annihilation.
Author Bio: General Editor Chris Iosso has been ordained (Elizabeth Presbytery in NJ), inducted into General Assembly Mission Council service in NYC, and educated (Johns Hopkins—BA, Princeton—MDiv, and Union (NY)—PhD, Seminaries) in the print dispensation. After serving as a pastor and parent of three in Westchester County, NY, he returned to the PMA as Coordinator of the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy. He is married to chaplain Robin Hogle.