Religion and Nuclear Weapons

Someone recently asked me if any religious groups were working to bring change to our nuclear weapons strategy. Given the significant role that religion plays in American policy, I thought my reply might be of more general interest. So here it is.

1. As a Jew, and especially when talking at synagogues, I note that we say “never again” will we allow a genocidal holocaust. How then can we acquiesce to our nation having nuclear war fighting strategies that would make Hitler look like a schoolboy?

2. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is a young, Evangelical minister who has made this issue his life’s work. He describes his conversion experience on this issue in “A Merciful White Flash,” and an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists describes his Two Futures Project.

3. The American Catholic Bishops had a far-reaching 1983 “Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.” Here’s a short excerpt:

In the words of our Holy Father, we need a “moral about-face,” The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say no to nuclear conflict; no to weapons of mass destruction; no to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and no to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment but by our Lord Jesus. The content and context of our peacemaking is set not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by the teaching of his Church.

More recently the same group came out with a Catholic study guide for the Nuclear Tipping Point DVD – the video that features George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn.  The study guide references a number of relevant statements by the Pope.

3. A colleague of mine at Stanford, Materials Science Prof. Richard Bube, is an Evangelical Christian who has been very concerned with these issues for many years. In 1983, he wrote a wonderful article examining Christianity’s just war theory in light of nuclear weapons. Here’s a short excerpt:

 It appears that there are only three responses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as far as a Christian’s response to evil through physical violence is concerned. One is that Jesus was simply wrong about this, as He is supposed to be wrong about other things as well (e.g., the events of the future and the time of His own return), and that His ideals can be treated with respect but cannot be responsibly put into practice here and now. A second is that we misunderstand Jesus if we argue that His teachings and example demand Christians to refrain from physical violence in response to evil; what He taught and did were unique examples of ideals that we should strive to put into practice but to expect them to actually work in a sinful world is foolish utopianism, not worthy of responsible Christian living. Instead of taking Jesus’ teaching and example at face value, we must interpret them in the light of other passages such as Romans 13 which justify the use of physical violence by organized society and hence by Christians as participants in that organized society. The third is that Jesus was right, that He said what He meant, that He lived what He said, and that our difficulty is that His life and example are so incredible we cannot bring ourselves to accept their simplicity-much as we have difficulty with the simplicity of the Gospel of salvation by grace since it so completely appears to contradict our everyday experience.

4. Father George Zabelka, the Catholic chaplain who blessed the Enola Gay before it dropped its atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Boxcar before its Nagasaki mission, later had an epiphany that he describes in a speech he gave to the Catholic organization, Pax Christi. Here’s an excerpt:

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. … I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.” I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie. War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. … 

All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong!

5. On the other side of the ledger are groups with apocalyptic visions of The Second Coming, some of whom welcome even nuclear war as a sign, prophesized in the Bible, as preceding Christ’s return to earth. An example is a conference by Christians United for Israel. This is very scary, especially given that Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay starts it off! Senator Lieberman’s appearance is also disturbing. The video embedded there is also accessible on YouTube. Watch at least the first 30 seconds — that’s where DeLay drops a real bomb — but I suspect you’ll be hooked and watch it all.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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3 Responses to Religion and Nuclear Weapons

  1. Thanks for sharing this video about CUI, Marty. You were right, … watched it all–twice. These people are meshuganah!

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thanks Bruce. Of course craziness is not restricted to those people. It’s just more subtle in society as a whole. At a meeting today, I showed a clip from Dr. Strangelove in which the Soviet ambassador divulges the existence of their “Doomsday Machine” — fictional of course. In the story, it is a huge number of nuclear weapons buried in the ground and wired to a device that sets them all off if any Soviet city is attacked, thereby destroying the biosphere. Once turned on, it cannot be turned off without destroying the world. At first the American president (played by Peter Sellers) asks what madman would build such a device. But then Dr. Strangelove (also played by Sellers) explains how it is the ideal, totally credible deterrent: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.”

    I then asked, “What’s the difference between the fictional machine and our strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction?” Not much.

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