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Putting a Face on The Bomb
Have you heard the news? A new treaty to reduce American and Russian nuclear arms is in the Senate Foreign Relations Committeeis waiting on bipartisan support in order to get a super-majority in the floor vote. This gripping fact will no doubt capture the passion of all those to whom God has “given a heart” for nuclear disarmament.
I can almost hear the crickets chirping.
To be sure, the
New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
(New START) is tremendously important, both as a step in the right direction for nuclear security and for the sheer firepower represented in the arms cuts. But it can be hard to get Christians excited about news like this because we are fundamentally personalists. That is, we don’t fight abstractions. If we want to fight poverty, for example, we sponsor this kid from this country and get her picture to stick on our refrigerator. This tendency to bring systemic issues down to the level of the individual is an intuitive manifestation of sweet, scriptural truth:
For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made
(Isaiah 43:3, 6-7, TNIV).
Of course we know that our true struggle is “against the powers of this dark world” (Ephesians 6:12) rather than visible flesh and blood—but it sure helps when we can catch a glimpse of what we’re fighting for.
The rub comes when problems like nuclear weapons are impersonal, defiantly faceless. Even the imagery is pervasively inhuman: from the sleek, sterile profiles of bombs to the roaring mushroom cloud caused by their detonation. The only “face” that nuclear weapons have is that of the famous
Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
, which marks our proximity to global nuclear disaster.
So, if Christians are going to engage the nuclear issue, does it need a “face?”
Countdown to Zero
, a new documentary about the nuclear danger, might be considered a providential act of timeliness. The film was screened at the Q gathering in Chicago earlier this year and opens nationwide just as the Senate considers ratifying New START, and it gives a human view of the nuclear issue.
One of the closing sequences is a montage of laughing celebrants in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Their cheers and “I love you’s” are faintly audible in the background, interspersed with footage of missiles launching and bombs falling. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays gently in the background while the audience is assaulted with narrative descriptions of what a nuclear blast actually does to human bodies. As the music fades, director Lucy Walker lingers on one emblematic shot: a young woman in Times Square, barely a girl, her dark hair swept under white knit cap, upturned eyes locked and shining, fixed on that falling New Year’s Eve sphere. It’s worth the price of the ticket.
We need this image, lest we forget the burning truth that these bombs are about people, not policy. The audio-visual incongruity of
Countdown to Zero
holds our faces to this fact. Right now we’re sleepwalking toward disaster, lulled by the dream that this legacy of the Cold War vanished with the last century. But the reality is that our launch procedures still mean that hundreds of millions of people are perpetually less than 30 minutes away from nuclear destruction—and that the risk of nuclear terrorism is only increasing.
This is the reason that
is an alarm bell for a country—and a church—in need of a great awakening.
pulls the curtain back on these dangers. It shows us how to take the concrete steps that can and will hold the destruction at bay. And it gives us faces to remember why this is a struggle worth the fighting.
Two Futures Project’s
Countdown to Zero
to find showtimes, watch the movie trailer, sign a petition to ratify the New START treaty, get links to movie clips and a discussion guide—and get
for opening weekend.
Editor's Note: The image above is the Doomsday Clock
of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
A powerful post, Tyler. Thanks for stepping up and leading the way. I heard Sami Awad, a Palestinian Christian non-violent activist, recently say, "Speak the truth when you see violence happen." That's what you're doing here. Keep speaking truth in the midst of violence. We're with you.
Thanks for the encouragement, Russ, and for drowning out those crickets! And thanks for all the work that y'all at Compassion have done and continue to do in showing us (literally) the thousands upon thousands of faces, made in the image of God, which cry out for our faithful discipleship.
How do you judge which military and policy experts to follow? Many have taken the position that the treaty will do precisely the opposite, according to several of the details in the treaty. According to one expert the Russians have fewer than 700 launchers but the treaty authorizes 700. They can increase their number. The Russian press is claiming that their own government will game the system to maintain 2100 strategic nuclear weapons. I am for the reduction of nuclear weapons, just not through this current treaty. Certain details are very troubling and could make the world less safe. I would encourage those interested to become more informed of the details before calling your Senator. As you all are aware, this is serious stuff and can not be taken lightly.
Hi Steve -- I'm glad that nuclear treaties don't raise crickets for everyone!
In response to your question about which experts to follow: when it comes to this particular Treaty, the two sides aren't really comparable. In support are top representatives from every Republican administration since Nixon (with none opposing), as well as the U.S. military leadership, including the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Here's a partial list:
On the opposition, there's basically Obama's likely 2012 opponents and a handful of people who are ideologically opposed to treaties. The Heritage blog post you mention, for example, cites "critics" but can name only one, a relatively junior former State Dept official.
I agree that people should become more informed of the details. However, people should know that the resource you cite makes arguments which have been thoroughly discredited, including the concerns about missile defense and rail-mounted ICBMs (see this systematic dissection by Fred Kaplan:
Regarding the Russian launchers/missiles: we have more launchers and they have more missiles, and treaties are all about give and take. The Russians do not have the money or incentive to increase the number of launchers for a nuclear war that nobody wants to fight. The same goes for their strategic warheads -- they have no reason to "game" the system, so I'd take reports from "the Russian press" with a grain of salt!
Thanks for this substantive and civil engagement -- I'm glad to continue it if you have more questions about New START.
First, Kaplan does himself no credit to insult the intelligence of critics as he does through out that article. It makes him seem like he is an elitist.
Some comments, clarifications, and questions on a few things on your web site (Two Futures), trying to understand your thinking better.
“...the logic of deterrence, which governed nuclear policy throughout the Cold War, is undone in the post-9/11 era, because nuclear terrorism by a non-state actor cannot be deterred by the threat of retaliation.” Web site
You imply the logic of deterrence is no longer valid, but Kaplan, in rebuttal to the critics of the treaty, says they do not understand deterrence, implying that it is still valid and an important part of the way the treaty works. Is Kaplan and the treaty stuck in Cold War thinking?
“Iran flirts with nuclear capabilities because of the two-tier world of nuclear haves and have-nots; it is presently able to flaunt international will because the U.S. and Russia cannot preach nuclear temperance from the atomic barstool. If the nuclear powers demonstrated good-faith leadership toward a world without nuclear weapons, global pressure on Iran would increase substantially. Such a position would de-incentivize nuclear breakout, and stimulate the development of technological and diplomatic safeguards that would make our world safer.” Web Site
Does Iran what nuclear weapons simply because we have them and they don’t? Why do they want them?
Are countries that posses them bad or sinful?
Do you believe a nuclear weapon is sin?
In 1964, when I was ten years old and America was in the grips of a cold war with our Soviet adversaries, then President Johnson’s election campaign ran the following television ad:
With its frightening apocalyptic vision of a nuclear war and the clear inference that candidate Barry Goldwater would take us there, Johnson can be heard intoning at the end of the ad, “we must either love each other, or we must die.”
Almost exactly twenty-three years later, my firm hired the recently retired Senator John Tower as a spokesperson (see link below). Senator Tower, as you may recall, led the United States delegation that negotiated the first START treaty with the Soviets. Our company, Micronyx, had developed an information security product and arranged for a large media event at the huge, annual computer trade exhibition, COMDEX, held each fall in Las Vegas.
After the event, we invited several members of the media to join us for dinner. One of the invitees, an editor for Computerworld, asked a question many would have liked to ask such a prominent US official: “Senator, why don’t we just ban nuclear weapons? They are so destructive, so harmful, and so dangerous.”
The Senator, an archconservative and hawk, provided a surprisingly insightful response. “Ma’am, the American people want a strong defense. They value their freedoms and want their way of life protected. However, the American people also want to pay as little for that as they can. The cost of maintaining a standing Army, a blue water Naval Fleet, and wings of Air Force bombers and fighters is very expensive. It turns out that nuclear weapons are the most taxpayer efficient weapon ever invented. So, by maintaining a strong nuclear deterrence, we can reduce the size of our conventional – and more expensive forces – and keep the peace.” Strong defense; limited government; low taxes.
And with that, we turned to our salads.
While America did invent the nuclear bomb, we did not invent nor were we the first to use weapons of mass destruction. If the stories in Genesis are factual, then God Himself used a flood as a weapon of mass destruction (Genesis 7:21-24) as well as fire and brimstone raining from the skies (Genesis 19:24-25). And for those who believe that Jesus renounced all violence, read Revelation 15-16. Again, if you read the text as a prophecy of a literal future, you read how Jesus will use of weapons of mass destruction including calamities that resemble chemical, biological, environmental, and nuclear destruction.
Far from renouncing violence, the Bible is saturated with it, much of it from the hand of God Himself. But the subtext for much of this is that the victims of God’s destructive power deserved to die. The use of this calamitous destructive power is morally justified.
Christians in America live in a political system that has no Biblical precedent. We are not slaves nor are we voiceless citizens of a totalitarian regime, monarchical or otherwise. As Americans we are empowered to vote for representatives who in turn define the power of the state and its use of violence as a means to keep order within our borders as well as outside of our borders. We have authorized the state to use violence and power to enforce the law, punish lawbreakers, and preserve our economic hegemony in the world market.
If we follow the Jesus of the Gospels, then perhaps we should renounce the use of violence in all matters of state. The Quakers take this position. But, if we look to the entire Old and New Testaments for guidance the judicious use of violence is not only appropriate, it is godly. It can be justified within interpersonal relationships as well as between the state and its subjects.
However, if we recognize that this issue is post-Biblical in nature, then perhaps our guidance is not to be found in the Bible but elsewhere. The over seven decades that have passed since military and political leaders rationalized the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction against civilians have taught us much. Should we anguish over the death of an innocent in a war? Should we seek to develop efficient means of death and destruction as a responsible use of taxpayer dollars? I think as Americans we should wrestle with these issues; they define our nation’s moral character. But trying to bring a “Biblical perspective” to this problem set requires one to engage in a monumental proof-texting exercise which thoughtful people will recognize as less than helpful in resolving these difficult problems.
Mark and Steve,
Thanks for your comments. Some quick responses below, along with links to writing where I've addressed these issues in greater depth than this space offers.
Mark, that's a great story about Senator Tower. And his reasoning might have worked during the Cold War. I dare say he wouldn't say the same thing today, which is why his contemporaries, like George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger, are leading the charge for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons (see their WSJ op-ed, linked below).
On the theological note: I agree with you completely that the nuclear issue is post-Biblical in nature. The lack of prooftexts about nuclear weapons does not mean, however, that a biblically-grounded theology has nothing to say on the matter. I find the Just War tradition to be helpful in this regard, which is what I write about in a First Things blog post (link below). I've also spoken specifically about the implications of the violence-saturated Biblical text for contemporary attitudes toward nuclear weapons (link to video of sermon at The Well Tallahassee, below).
Steve, in my Just War analysis of nuclear weapons (First Things link, below) I offer my take on your questions @ whether nuclear weapons are inherently sinful, as well as the relationship between our policies and potential breakout nations like Iran. (I should note here that I think a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, full stop.) On deterrence, see a very short piece I wrote for Capital Commentary (below), which is grounded in the work of Shultz, Nunn, etc.
Also, I'd gently point out that "sounding like an elitist" might be impolitic, but it doesn't mean that Kaplan is wrong. He is elite: he's a military reporter who's been writing on this stuff for decades. I don't agree with everything he says (we probably differ on the long-term viability of deterrence) but he did the most comprehensive dissection of the Romney op-ed that's out there, and that op-ed lined up with the arguments from the blog you cited from Heritage, so I thought it might be relevant.
Thanks again, fellas -- I hope this is helpful.
First Things blog (Just War/sin/Iran):
Well sermon (Biblical violence):
"A World Free of Nuclear Weapons" by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn (Wall Street Journal, 1/4/07)
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