As the clock ticks closer to Inauguration Day, I’m waiting to see if the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are going to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.
Since 1947, a small group of scientists have monitored the threat of global nuclear annihilation and posted their findings by setting the hands on an imaginary apocalyptic clock. The closest we have come to midnight — that fatal hour — was in 1953 when the US and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear bombs within a few months of each other.
At the end of the Cold War, the hands moved as far back as 17 minutes from midnight, but since then, there has been a slow inexorable ticking … In 2015, the scientists set the hands at 3 minutes to midnight, which is where it sits today.
But a few weeks ago, I think we all sensed the clock was ticking again, or should I say “tweeting”? After hearing Vladimir Putin reaffirm his commitment to strengthening Russia’s nuclear triad (weapons on land, in submarines, and on long-range bombers), Donald Trump tweeted one of his most disturbing tweets yet — and that’s saying something! He posted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
There are so many things wrong with this statement that it boggles my mind, both from a purely secular, citizen-of-the-world perspective, as well as from the point of view of someone who is trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.
First of all, note the urgent tone of Trump’s statement. The US “must greatly strength and expand,” he claims. Actually, the US has 7,100 warheads, which is second only to Russia with 7,300. Technically, this means that we are NOT the greatest nuclear power, I suppose, and perhaps that is what worries Trump. Gosh, Russia is beating us by 200. Though I really doubt that there will be much of the world left after each of us have distributed 7,000 nuclear blasts each. The rest of the nuclear-armed countries fall far behind. France is a distant third at 300, so I feel confident that we could take them, not to mention China at 260 and the UK at 215.
What exactly needs to be strengthened then? Do we need better delivery systems, more efficient planes to carry them, or bigger and brighter red buttons for Trump to push?
How many nuclear weapons are enough anyway? Let’s do a little math experiment. What kind of damage could be done with our arsenal? Well, according to a 2009 report to the UN, a nuke could kill “several hundred thousand people” in a big city. Let’s conservatively estimate that number at 250,000, give or take a few ten thousand souls. Multiply by 7,100, the number of weapons we currently have in our stock piles, and voila! The result is roughly 1.775 billion victims. Given that the world population is currently 7.4 billion, the US alone could take out roughly a quarter of all humans, not to mention what this would do to the planet’s climate, ecology, and Trump’s hairpiece.
Isn’t that enough? When exactly is enough, “enough”? At some point, it makes no sense to make more nuclear bombs, nor even to make them more destructive.
Stupid naive sucker that I am, I thought nuclear weapons were on the way “out.” Obama announced in 2009 that we were well on our way to a world free of nuclear weapons. A treaty with Russia promised a reduction in nukes. Furthermore, we have expended considerable moral energy in lambasting the nuclear hopes of small authoritarian regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
And let’s not forget that, for all our pious talk about wanting to prevent the proliferation of nukes, the US is STILL the ONLY country that has ever used them in war. TWICE!
Never mind military strategy, the fantastic costs associated with a nuclear weapon program, or the hopelessness of surviving a war that included nukes, let’s instead focus on our souls. Can Christians even permit the talk of using nuclear arms?
I’m taking a deep sigh here, because I thought this issue was already determined decisively in the previous century. Every major (and minor, for that matter) Christian denomination in the world, as well as all of the other faith traditions, has said clearly and in no uncertain terms that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral.
To quote my own tradition, an otherwise fairly conservative church, the United Methodist Church, declares in its Social Principles that “the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? There are no exception clauses.
In fact, United Methodist Bishops came together and adopted a clear statement on nuclear weapons in 1986. In a document entitled “In Defense of Creation,” the bishops said, “We say a clear and unconditional No to nuclear war and to any use of nuclear weapons. We concluded that nuclear deterrence is a position that cannot receive the church’s blessing. We state our complete lack of confidence in proposed ‘defenses’ against nuclear attack and are convinced that the enormous cost of developing such defenses is one more witness to the obvious fact that the arms race is a social justice issue, not only a war and peace issue.” (The forthrightness of this position should be contrasted with the bishops’ failure to speak clearly and consistently on many other social issues.)
And not just we Methodists have come to this conclusion: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a strong statement against nuclear weapons in 1993. Similar sentiments have been expressed by American Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, just to name a few. You can find all of the various denominational anti-nuke statements here at the Friends Committee site . Heck, even the Southern Baptists are getting into the act!
Listen, it’s hard to justify going to war at all as a Christian, because Jesus said some pretty tough things about how we ought to treat our enemies, namely, that we should love them. Oh, and don’t forget that stuff about turning the other cheek.
But I know how hard it is to adopt the pacifist stance. That’s why Augustine came up with a theory of the “just war,” meaning that there must be some wars that it’s OK to engage in. Ever since, most Christians have agreed that some wars are immoral while others might be moral (jus ad bellum), and not only that, but that there is a right and wrong way to engage in a “just” conflict (jus in bello). There are “rules,” so to speak.
Two of the agreed-upon, longstanding Christian rules of fighting a just war are distinction and proportionality; both of these rules are broken — no, shattered! — by the use of nuclear weapons. The rule of distinction says that, as much as possible, non-combatants must be distinguished from combatants, and protected from violence. The sheer destructiveness of a nuclear weapon renders any such distinctions useless; indeed, the reason such weapons are so frightening is because they destroy large regions and entire populations at once.
The rule of proportionality insists that the harm inflicted on the enemy cannot exceed the harm done by the enemy. If the cause of fighting is just, then justice must be maintained in the response. Nobody would argue that the crime of shoplifting merits capital punishment; the ends does not justify the means. What exactly would justify the killing of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants?
In the end, I cannot understand how a Christian could support the production, maintenance, or use of nuclear weapons.
But here we are. We simply haven’t come to our senses about nukes yet.
And that’s a shame. Because all it would take to reach midnight is … a really, really, ill-advised tweet.