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Bending the arc of history towards peace

Bending the arc of history towards peace

Jesus is the Prince of Peace who, in the Sermon on the Mount said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yet we Christians generally act as if working for peace is like tilting at windmills or that peace will arrive with no action required on our part. Both responses betray our identity as Jesus’ followers. Consequently, we live in a more heavily armed and militaristic world than is morally or spiritually justifiable.

We best fulfill our vocation as peacemakers when we identify concrete steps that will move us closer to peace and then join with others to turn those steps from dreams into reality. Pushing the United States toward partial nuclear disarmament is one such step, once a seemingly impossible dream that now seems increasingly possible.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were in a protracted nuclear standoff, neither nation willing to attack the other, both having subscribed to a policy of mutually assured destruction, convinced of the utter folly of a nuclear attack against the other, an event certain to trigger a war that would result in an uninhabitable planet.

The United States, for its part, invested heavily in a nuclear triad of land-based, submarine launched, and bomber launched nuclear warheads. The military justification for this triad was that it assured deterrence of a Soviet attack. A Soviet first strike might destroy one or two legs of the triad but could not destroy all three legs.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. No hostile nuclear-armed adversary now confronts the United States with a threat of similar magnitude. Furthermore, although the number of nuclear-armed nations has slowly risen, only Russia, which possesses significantly less military power than did the former Soviet Union, could seriously threaten, if it chose, the United States in a nuclear war. China critically lacks the systems (missiles, etc.) capable of delivering nuclear weapons to targets in much of the United States.

The diminished capacity of any potential foe to initiate a nuclear attack requires less of a nuclear deterrent. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush ended the 24/7 ready alert status of U.S. strategic bombers and many land-based missiles, effectively dismantling one and a half legs of the nuclear triad. Post-9/11, no subsequent president has reversed that order.

The threat of a terror group using a nuclear weapon against the United States is greatly overblown. Nations – think North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran – need years, spend billions of dollars, and utilize the efforts of thousands of people, some very highly educated, to develop a nuclear weapon. No terror group has similar resources. A terror group might conceivably steal a weapon, but would still face the daunting double challenge of getting the weapon to a target and then detonating the weapon. No terror group has even stolen a nuclear weapon. Any nation that has developed nuclear weapons values those weapons too highly to permit the theft of one.

Realistically, the only type of nuclear weapon that a terror group could either acquire or build is a dirty bomb, a conventional weapon that, when exploded, scatters a heap of collected radioactive material. A dirty bomb poses little actual threat. A conventional explosion would scatter, even in a stiff wind, radioactive material over a VERY limited area, probably a few acres and almost assuredly less than one square mile. The most easily obtained radioactive material (e.g., waste from medical and dental offices) emits relatively low levels of radiation that, when dissipated across an open area, is unlikely to cause significant harm. Authorities by moving quickly to control access to the contaminated area, decontaminate exposed individuals, and clean up radioactive material would limit direct harm. A dirty bomb’s greatest cost would be from any public fear and panic that the attack caused, effects similar to what happened post-9/11.

Terror groups, unlike nations, do not have assets (the military forces and bases, industrial complexes, transportation hubs, etc.) that offer suitable targets for nuclear retaliation. The U.S. nuclear triad – regardless of whatever risk of nuclear attack that a terror group might pose – represents neither a deterrent nor a possible means of retaliation against non-state terror groups.

In the absence of any arguably valid national defense requirement, the United States continues to fund, maintain, and operate its nuclear triad. Doing so makes the world less safe, directly harms the United States, and keeps the earth and us from moving closer to the peace that God intends.

Quite simply, the world is less safe because nuclear weapons are dangerous. In general, the fewer nuclear weapons that exist, the safer the world is (e.g., terrorists cannot steal non-existent weapons). Entrusting nuclear weapons to military personnel who engage in the types of personal and professional misconduct recently disclosed in the media – behaviors symptomatic of widespread low morale, high levels of stress, and a dead-end career field – seems especially unwise. From my service as a military chaplain, I know that these problems are indicative of a broken system and not isolated cases of individual miscreants.

Preserving its nuclear triad directly harms the United States because the triad is costly. A nuclear submarine, for example, costs $4.9 billion to build – real money by anyone’s reckoning. Personnel and operating costs for Strategic Command (the military command responsible for the nuclear triad) are tens of billions of dollars annually. Eliminating one or two legs of the triad, or dramatically scaling back all three legs, would substantially cut defense spending, freeing those funds for education, healthcare, infrastructure repair, other needed programs, or deficit reduction. As President Eisenhower publicly remarked, spending one more dollar on national defense than is essential hurts the nation, depriving it of the good that spending the money in another way would achieve. I, for one, find it impossible to believe that the U.S., to be secure, must spend more on national defense than the next twenty nations combined spend.

Throughout the Bible, the word peace denotes not just the absence of armed conflict but also the fullness of well-being and prosperity. Whether one is a Christian pacifist or believes that in our present brokenness nations, particularly free and democratic nations, have a right to self-defense, spending money to develop, procure, maintain, and operate weapons not needed for defense is immoral. Christian peacemakers – and that should include all Christians – can faithfully unite in lobbying our government to eliminate nuclear weapons and delivery systems that no longer contribute to national defense.

Opposition to any reduction is strong. President Eisenhower warned of an emerging military-industrial complex. Today, the nation is in the firm grip of the political-military-industrial complex. Defense industries that build and maintain nuclear weapons wield much political influence. They give large sums to political candidates and employ people at facilities in a majority of congressional districts. Trimming the nuclear triad will eliminate jobs in defense industries, the military, and the civil service. Some defense hawks unfortunately object to any reduction in defense spending, ignoring the fiscal imperative to shape today’s Department of Defense to counter today’s threat, the moral imperative to care for the most vulnerable, and the spiritual imperative to work for peace.

Conversely, peace advocates wield relatively little political influence. In part, this is because peacemakers contribute relatively little to political campaigns. More importantly, peacemakers exert little political influence because they have not mobilized successfully.

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, through its local chapters and national organization, offers people who have heard Jesus’ call to be peacemakers and who want to obey opportunities to join with likeminded individuals in working for peace. Together, we can accomplish far more than the sum of our individual efforts. The arc of history is swinging toward peace and we, with God’s help, can accelerate the pace at which it is bending.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings .


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Donald Schell


Thank you for this well-reasoned piece. I particularly appreciate it coming from you as a retired Navy chaplain.

Just a couple of months ago I read Kurt Karlansky’s “Nonviolence, the History of a Dangerous Idea.” I read at the suggestion of a non-church going friend from my Aikido dojo who asked me to read it because he wanted to know what I thought of Kurlansky’s account of the church’s early history in standing for peace and the when, how, and why church history shifts toward the phenomenon of allegedly Christian nation states at war with each other and praying God’s blessing on their war. I found the book both compelling and disturbing. I knew most of the bits and pieces of the history he told of the church’s first centuries, but was troubled at how readily and plausibly he documented our shift in from being a strong advocate and practitioner of peace in those early centuries to being a decisive advocate and rationalizer of war in the ensuing centuries.

I appreciate your call for Christian pacifists and what we might call Christian military pragmatists to talk and work together. What we’re doing now is neither making peace nor is it pragmatic and I think we’ve got good witness that Jesus cares deeply about both peace and truthfulness about how nature, community, and how we work together (or fall into conflict).

You touch on the toughest part of this question, but I think it serves us to speak it loudly and repeatedly. The deep question here is whose interest is served in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, weapons to wage war, and weapons for domestic and neighborhood violence. We may not be exporting nuclear weapons to the rest of the world, but we do supply nations and insurgencies with serious heavy weaponry and our national policy (and the manufacturers’ economic interest) continue to confirm the anti-Gospel so neatly summarized by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA – “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Thanks also for reminding us of the steady work of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. And most of all thanks for your conclusion, “Together, we can accomplish far more than the sum of our individual efforts. The arc of history is swinging toward peace and we, with God’s help, can accelerate the pace at which it is bending.”

Let’s act and pray on that truth.

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