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Louder Than Bombs

Recently, RELEVANT had the opportunity to speak with Jessica Wilbanks of the organization Faithful Security. Her organization works to partner with religious groups to educate individuals about nuclear disarmament. Wilbanks explained why disarmament is such an important political issue and how twentysomethings can get involved in activism.

For people who may not be familiar, what is the mission of Faithful Security?
Most people are surprised to know that there are still more than 27,000 nuclear weapons spread across nine countries world-wide. The vast majority are in the U.S. and Russia; the others are in global hotspots stretching from the Middle East through the Indian subcontinent, to China and the Korean peninsula. Even one nuclear explosion, like an isolated terrorist attack, would constitute a human catastrophe beyond imagining. The only way to shut the door on such a possibility is the global abolition of nuclear weapons, and the only way to do that is through American leadership.

Faithful Security is a national, multi-faith coalition that leverages the moral willpower of America’s religious communities toward that goal. This takes a number of different forms. We actively oppose any policy that promotes a long-term reliance on nuclear weapons for security. We push cooperative security measures, especially those that encourage nuclear weapons reductions, such as the recent diplomatic success in North Korea. In everything we do we bear witness to the moral standard of total nuclear weapon abolition.

Even more than disaster prevention, though, our mission is about hope: What’s it look like to hope for a world that’s had the moral courage to renounce self-destruction in this way? It’s about the vision of waking up someday and the fear of nuclear annihilation has been banished even from the deepest corners of our subconscious, because there aren’t any more of these things. That’s worth working towards.

Faithful Security works particularly with religious organizations. How do you raise awareness and support among Christians?
We do it a couple of ways. Faith-based anti-nuclear work has typically been rooted in common-cause activism across different religious traditions, because this is an issue that all of us need to be concerned about. Christians, as the majority in America, are obviously an integral part of that coalition-based effort.

We’ve attempted to take that heritage and further it, while strongly encouraging theological integrity. We don’t want some syncretistic stew of do-goodism; we want people of faith articulating their moral convictions from the richest depths of their traditions. During the Cold War, most of the mainline denominations, the peace churches (Quakers, Anabaptists, etc.) and the Roman Catholic Church developed theological statements of conviction about the imperative of nuclear disarmament. These groups are current and active partners in our coalition.

At the same time, we’re currently beginning much-needed outreach to more conservative and evangelical churches. As John Stott notes, the historical silence of the evangelical church on this issue is a scandal. (Some individuals and groups have been noteworthy exceptions, like Jim Wallis and Sojourners, Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action, and Glen Stassen through Peace Action.) So, in an effort to reach these groups, a big part of what we’re doing now is articulating why nuclear weapon abolition is a gospel issue. Because, really, you don’t need to love Jesus not to want to be blown up. If you just dress up political positions with some God-talk, the in-authenticity of that shows through really quickly.

But there’s an alternative: If you start at the cross, where does the way of Jesus Christ lead you in terms of conviction about nuclear weapons? There’s an effort called the Biblical Security Covenant being launched later this spring to foster just this kind of theological thought and action. We think there’s a huge well of potential gospel passion on the nuclear issue that’s just waiting to be tapped. It’s an exciting time. Also, because the two of us who lead this organization are both evangelically-leaning Christians, that particular group has a personal significance for us.

Why is this a particularly important issue for twentysomething Christians?
There are so many reasons, it’s hard to know where to begin! But let’s distinguish between why it’s an important issue for young Christians, and why young Christians are important for the issue.

With the former, it’s an issue of complicity and Christian witness. The great theologian Karl Barth, who with Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pillar of Christian resistance to the Nazi cooption of the German church, declared in the 1950s that nuclear weapons had confessional status; that is, Christians could neither support nor remain neutral toward nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons are anathema to gospel conviction. A nation that has accepted the authority over life and death intrinsic to nuclear weapons is a nation that has usurped the authority of God. Think about it: Jesus Christ embodied perfect submission to God; nuclear weapons are the closest thing we’ve got to wholesale rebellion. The kingdom of God and the nuclear weapons state are antithetical visions.

Yet how many American Christians pay any attention to this spiritual cancer at the heart of our country? How many American Christians give a thought to what this country is prepared to do in the name of its citizens, a majority of whom claim the name of the Lord? If, God forbid, we ever again used nuclear weapons and the Church was silent, that would be the death of the gospel in America for a generation or more. Consider the sickliness of the Church in Japan, on whom we dropped the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war—where they still refer to nuclear weapons as “the Christian bomb.” That’s why the issue ought to be important to younger Christians.

The reason why twentysomething Christians are so important to the issue is because of the strength of their convictions. Nuclear weapons are hard to work on because they’re so non-present to most of our day-in, day-out lives. Even worse, they’re all or nothing. It’s not a gradual concern like global warming, or a persistent one like poverty, where there’s time—however limited—to see how bad the problem is and mobilize. Once even one nuclear weapon is used, it’ll be too late. Millions will die. And for a variety of reasons, we’re at a tipping point right now. If we don’t act, we’re likely to see an explosion of nuclear proliferation in the next 10 or 15 years, with an accompanying exchange or terrorist attack. But there’s also the opportunity to act now toward a nuclear weapons-free world, and it’s a more realistic possibility, historically, than it’s ever been before.

This is why young Christians are so vital. They’re young enough not to be paralyzed by Cold War fears and preconceived notions. They’ll take action based on nothing more than their belief of what’s right and wrong. They’re driven by gospel concerns that lead them beyond narrow self-interest. And—not insignificantly—they have the hope of eternal life that gives the spiritual strength to tackle such a grim and dark issue.

With nuclear weapons, this is make or break time. And if twentysomething Christians managed to graft a commitment to nuclear weapons abolition into the evangelical conscience, they could be the group that turns everything around.

Like many issues, nuclear disarmament can easily be politicized; with so many traditional evangelicals still aligning with the right is it difficult to find broad support from American Christians?
No, actually, for two very timely reasons. First, the evangelical social conscience is blowing up all over the place, and we’re seeing a serious weakening of the old guard who want to maintain the two- or three-issue platform that dominated the public consciousness over the past few decades. And we’re finding that where people are willing to consider the gospel implications of environmental stewardship and of care for the poor, to take a couple of examples, there’s a tremendous open-mindedness to our message. It’s not that Christians are opposed to what we’re doing—it’s just that, like the general public, they haven’t really thought about nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. So there’s amazing room for growth.

Second, nuclear disarmament itself is increasingly depoliticized. In January, 2007, two former Republican Secretaries of State, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, joined two conservative Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, in authoring a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” These are not naive men, and the Journal is not a liberal paper. But there in those pages was this urgent call for the pairing of bold vision and concrete actions toward the deliberate abolition of nuclear weapons. And, in addition to its authors, the op-ed was endorsed by 16 top foreign policy staffers from the Reagan Administration!

This document has completely re-framed the issue of nuclear weapon elimination. What used to be dismissed as some left-wing, pixie-dust fantasy is now the reasoned opinion of very serious, pragmatic policy experts. And the work this op-ed catalyzed is being carried out at the very conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which resulted in a just-published follow-up piece.

So, even if your faith leads you to a politically conservative party line, you’re going to find fellow partisans who are committed advocates of nuclear weapon abolition as the only possible nuclear future. Heroes of conservatism, like Ronald Reagan, are documented abolitionists. At 87 years old, George Shultz, a committed conservative and an architect of the end of the Cold War, is choosing to spend his retirement working full time on this issue. That’s something we need to pay attention to.

Recently, President Bush signed a spending bill that eliminated the funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. Why was this a significant move (in terms of national defense)?
First, it’s worth noting that while President Bush signed the omnibus spending bill, he’d have liked to have seen funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program in it. The fact that it wasn’t there was due to responsible, bi-partisan oversight from the Congress.

The RRW program was originally intended to help reduce the size of the nuclear weapons arsenal by ensuring the reliability of nuclear weapons without future underground testing. Unfortunately, the administration and the Department of Energy used the program as a blank check to create manufacturing capabilities for brand-new warheads. The original Congressional sponsor of RRW, Republican Congressman David Hobson of Ohio, was so horrified by what the program had become that he cancelled the funding completely this past year, and the Senate appropriations committee followed suit.

This is significant for national defense because it’s a very good check against destabilizing policies that could provoke nuclear buildup from other countries. In rejecting RRW, Congress called for a “comprehensive nuclear weapons strategy for the 21st century.” Rep. Hobson was disturbed that the administration’s plans to build new nuclear warheads—and earlier plans to manufacture a nuclear “bunker-buster”—ignored the long-term consequences of such a move.

I read in an article that you wrote that said the nuclear weapons policy hasn’t been updated since the Cold War. Where does it currently stand, and why is that so dangerous?
Basically, our nuclear stockpile was a tool uniquely suited to Cold War dynamics. Now those dynamics have changed, and we’ve got this outdated tool laying around— like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets a gun to protect his family but they leave him because it scares them so much. Left by himself in the house, he starts using this revolver like a universal remote control: shooting the lights dark at night, shooting the television on and off. Similarly, we’ve got this Cold War arsenal, and without any real rethinking about our new situation, people are starting to propose insane new uses for it.

That is not to say that nuclear weapons policy is not routinely evaluated. The Nuclear Posture Review evaluates the U.S. nuclear forces and the instances in which nuclear weapons might be used, but it can hardly be called a strategic reassessment. The most recent Nuclear Posture Review in 2002 opened the door for the pre-emptive use nuclear weapons—a move that was then downplayed by administration officials when members of Congress reacted incredulously.

See Also

In a world where two superpowers no longer wrestle for dominance, we’ve kept a Cold War-level nuclear arsenal and relied on Cold War-era excuses for doing so. Congress’s recent push for a new comprehensive strategy seeks to remedy this. At a moment in which the administration seems bent on developing new nuclear weapons, no one within the administration has given serious attention to the long-term role of nuclear weapons in a world in which non-state terrorist actors threaten security.

It’s not that comforting that at the end of that Simpsons episode, Snake steals Homer’s gun and turns it on him, which is a pretty good metaphor for a nuclear terrorist scenario.

Right now there’s a lot of international tension with nations like Iran and North Korea in constant talks about nuclear development. How do you respond to critics who say that it is dangerous to disarm when there is so much global tension?
First, it’s important to understand that disarmament is not going to happen overnight. Former Senator Sam Nunn rightly refers to the move toward disarmament as the climb to the top of a very tall mountain—maybe we can’t even see the summit from where we are now. The disarmament process takes time, money, commitment and verification. We’re never going to see a situation in which nuclear weapons states immediately disable their nuclear weapons, only to be held hostage by one holdout or cheater. The world’s leading experts on nuclear issues have laid out a gradual plan for disarmament that takes all of these concerns into account and ensures security during the disarmament process. We have the know-how—what we need now is the commitment.

Second, many people fail to understand that nuclear weapons are a fundamentally different animal than conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are seen as a status symbol—a way for a poor nation to achieve international dominance without conventional forces or alliances with other nations. Who are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council? France, China, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States—the only nuclear powers legitimated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As long as nuclear weapons exist, countries will want to join the “nuclear club.”

But what if the threat of nuclear attack was no more acceptable than the threat of releasing the bubonic plague against another country or committing genocide? What if we got to the point where admitting you had the bomb would turn you into an international pariah facing the united hostility of every nation on earth? That’s why we talk about nuclear weapon abolition in terms of prohibition, accompanied by verifiable elimination.

The only way that we can ever come out from under the nuclear shadow is to do what leading experts recommend—partner with other nations to ensure multi-lateral disarmament. In other words, with today’s tensions over the Iranian nuclear energy program, the weaponization of North Korea, and instability in Pakistan, the only way to prevent a nuclear weapon from being used over the long-term is to move toward disarmament.

How can twentysomethings get involved and learn more about the issue?
If you’ve read through to this point, you’re well on your way to knowing more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens!

Unlike us, most normal people do not spend their days thinking about how many nukes are targeting their city. They haven’t drawn a chalk circle in their minds around where the radiation fallout will be in their hometown, and they don’t consider that chalk circle when they decide where to live. Sometimes we feel like dressing up in sackcloth and ashes and holding up signs to let other people know that we’re in deep trouble if we don’t change our ways, but that’s an urge we try to resist.

And even if people do become educated, not just about the dangers, but also about the opportunities—it’s not as if we can organize a meet-up on MySpace, order pizza, and start taking weapons apart. Maybe that’s why disarmament activism in the past has taken the form of lobbying, marching and advocating. It’s not as satisfying as cleaning up a river or volunteering at a homeless shelter, but it’s still important.

If we can tweak your question a little bit to what can Christian twentysomethings do about this, it becomes a little easier to answer. Because frankly, religious people are some of the only folks who cut through all of the wonky, bureaucratic jargon and say, “Nuclear weapons are 100 percent immoral, 100 percent of the time. We’re followers of Jesus, and a nuclear weapon is 100 percent contrary to everything that Jesus stood for.” In a nation where some people are afraid to say the word “nuclear” because they’re afraid that they might mispronounce it, simple testimony about the immorality of nuclear weapons is probably one of the most important things we can do to lift this threat. And we need your conviction that this is a top-tier moral issue for our day.

As we mentioned earlier, we’re launching an initiative this spring that seeks to give evangelicals a new way to give voice to this issue. We’ve got some ideas: student chapters, out-of-the-box public activism, media monitoring, etc. But if this issue is really going to break out, it’s going to take more than us. So if anyone out there in Internet-land is reading this and feels the twinge of conviction, and has some concrete ideas for how and where we can get this message out there to people like us—people who are worried about making ends meet and following Jesus’ path—please email us at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you.

Rev. Tyler Wigg Stevenson also contributed to this interview.

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