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Politics and the bomb: a Christian perspective on nuclear weapons – Taylor Carey


‘To plan a strategy around such weapons is to be defeated by them. To threaten such an outrage against humanity and its world is to begin to lose one’s moral and human dignity. To work for a world free from nuclear arms is to work for the sake of that moral and human dignity’.

–        Rowan Williams, September 2009

What might a Christian contribution to the recently resurrected debate over nuclear weapons actually look like? All too often, believers are left stranded by an incoming tide of journalistic pronouncements, aware of an ethical heartland (‘Love one another as I have loved you’) but unsure about how such a principle can be applied to peripheral dilemmas awash with their own self-justifying jargon. Content to sail on the waters of established norms, Christians can quickly forget the inherently critical vocation of the Church. Yet, as Rowan Williams urged in 2002:

‘The church prays, the church studies, reflects, the church offers its worship, the church intercedes, and what’s more, on the basis of all that, the church asks good questions, because out of this prayer and this worship the church gradually matures its sense of what a human being is like in such a way that it is equipped to ask awkward questions of the society around’.

There seem to be few topics of greater importance to ‘ask awkward questions of’ than the received wisdom of nuclear deterrence. Whilst this article is not an attempt at an overview of nuclear stability theory (and its many related endeavours), some perspective on the mainstream orthodoxy which has dominated our thinking since the Cold War seems in order. Following that, I will try and explore with greater contextual awareness what it might mean to construct a ‘Christian’ answer to an ever-pressing ethical challenge.

Sketching the status quo

In his most recent article for the Daily Telegraph, the Prime Minister presents a classic argument for soft-edged realist orthodoxy:

‘The Soviet Union no longer exists. But the nuclear threat…has, if anything, increased […] [T]here is a real risk of new nuclear-armed states emerging. Iran continues to defy the will of the international community in its attempts to develop its nuclear capabilities, while the highly unpredictable and aggressive regime in North Korea recently conducted its third nuclear test […] Can you be certain how that regime, or indeed any other nuclear armed regime, will develop? Can we be sure that it won’t share more of its technology or even its weapons with other countries? […] My judgement is that it would be foolish to leave Britain defenceless against a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat’.

‘Soft-edged’, because it doesn’t quite say – though it really means – two things:

(1)  There is no cost too great at which the state must be preserved.

(2)  Nuclear deterrence provides a rational safety net, and guarantees (albeit uneasily) peace.

This is exactly the thinking which has prevailed in contemporary global politics. True, we have climbed down from the heights of Cold War paranoia; yet there remains fundamental mistrust, and a perception that cold rationality alone, regardless of its ‘human’ meaning, provides the ‘ultimate guarantee’ of safety, peace and prosperity. Everyone is worried about nuclear weapons in the wrong hands; the remedy is assumed to be as least as many nuclear weapons in the right hands. It seems Wayne LaPierre’s post-Newtown ideas have finally found a home.

The purpose of politics

How might a Christian respond? True, any state attends to its own military capability to protect its citizenry (or itself) from external threat. We have armies, tanks, planes and ships – and we find time enough to pray for our soldiers keeping us safe by way of killing Taliban militants in Afghanistan. Yet the briefest glance at a Christian conception of politics casts all of these situations in a new light.

Politics is fundamentally the activity of co-existence, stemming from the insight that humans find their fulfilment together. Christian justice is found in the community; our call to be ‘in the Body of Christ’ is the vocation to inhabit the properly ‘political’ sphere. In other words, there can be no action of mine which does not relate to the integrity of another. For such a co-existence to operate, there must be nothing less than the complete abandonment of private spheres of sovereignty – at least insofar as sovereignty is understood as my advantage against another. My body, my whole self, becomes political; to make sense of it, I have no choice but to bring it into the shared realm of language.

At its most profound, the Gospel attests to the inadequacy – indeed, the incoherence – of private truth. Nothing can be said to be ‘true’ if it is the product of my own ego, subsumed within this failure of self-understanding called isolation. I need the other to make sense of myself; ‘politics’ becomes the act of facilitating the conversation mandated by our very nature. Of course, that conversation will take patience, a commitment to the radical – even terrifying – difference of the other, in order to succeed; it means, above all, that it will need love. And it is that inseparable marriage of knowledge and love which constitutes the Christian political endeavour. Knowledge – information, private ‘truths’, my own sovereignty – without that most ‘unselfing’ phenomenon, that essentially kenotic reality of love, is corrosive to the very meaning of our humanity. It is dangerous, certainly; it is also what we might quite properly call ‘sinful’.

State, system and status quo

The proper practice of politics is the natural realisation of our communal obligations. The conversations which ensue are of vital importance, not despite differences between us all, but entirely because of them. The formal structures and frameworks which facilitate this conversation are thus purely instrumental, and always in the process of change and refinement. The sovereign state, viewed in the abstract, cannot be so reified as to constitute the fundamental and unalterable building block of human interaction. Rather, it exists justifiably insofar as it tends to reconcile and provide for those conversations essential to the basic realisation of our humanity. (Rather uncomfortably for some, the same could be said to hold for the ‘classic’ model of the human family…).

The implication of all of this is points away from the tacitly realist outlook espoused by Mr Cameron; there clearly is a point at which the cost of preserving the sovereign state is too great. If securing the survival of the state precludes the meaningful exercise of politics – understood as we have defined it – then it cannot be said to be justifiable in any sense. In turn, this furnishes us with an ethical landscape in which to consider the morality of any ‘state’ action; be it the subsidising of food prices, or the launch of a nuclear missile.

The immorality of nuclear weapons

If the justification for the state rests in its ability to reconcile or provide for the conversations of human co-existence, anything which has a tendency to shut off the possibilities for such intercourse cannot find a place within the Christian ethical landscape. It is with such a framework that we might say boldly that it is always wrong for a state to kill, be it with regard to an isolated individual (for example, a terrorist), or a larger group. This doesn’t discount the need, in so many harrowing cases, to choose between the lesser of two evils; but in each case, the picture must remain open to, and able to resonate with, the reconciliation of that conversation at the heart of authentic human politics.

Nuclear weapons tolerate no such perspective. The grotesque and wanton destruction which they can deliver with terrifying efficiency constitute a fundamentally anti-political phenomenon. There is simply no way of squaring the massacre of civilians, the elimination of whole cities and (potentially) the mutual destruction of whole states, with a justifiable political agenda. If – however imperfectly – conventional warfare can be subordinated, as Clausewitz suggested, to political ends, then nuclear weapons make warfare an end in itself.

Here it is worth dealing briefly with the common claim that deterrence can guarantee us an uneasy peace, and that the disincentive at any one point for a state to initiate nuclear hostilities is sufficiently great to keep us all safe. This works on a game theorist’s chalk board, but it rests on faulty logic. The construction of a credible threat presupposes the willingness, in some scenario or set of circumstances, to launch a nuclear missile. If we all knew that no nuclear weapon would be fired, then there would be no aggravation over accumulating them – nor any need to do so. Clearly, we do believe that the United States, or North Korea, or Russia, or our own government, would, in some nightmarish scenario, take the decision to initiate a nuclear strike. At the point that this becomes a possibility, all justification for the state is lost; there can be no way in which a state’s nuclear deployment can be said to facilitate ‘politics’ at all. And before we rush too quickly into denouncing ‘occasional lunatics’ and ‘isolated politicians’ for upsetting our otherwise pacific rationality, we ought to remember a message or two from John’s Gospel; no one can truly see the madness of a system in which he or she is colluding. Furthermore, the act of accenting to a nuclear strike is the supreme rejection of our political nature; our spheres of sovereignty are hastily fortified, and we find ourselves quite unable to bring ourselves into the shared realm of language. This is to claim that, at the moment of agreeing to a nuclear strike, we must by definition have renounced our political, communicative and relational capacity. Thus we lack the ability to speak the truth, or see it, even when – as the Gospel reminds us – it stares us in the face, nailed to a tree.

Time for a rethink

These brief remarks probably beg more questions than they answer. Certainly, a great deal more needs to be said before anything like a watertight case can be made. But already, the beginnings of a coherent ethical landscape, which makes continuous the central mandatum of the Christian faith and its application to specific moral dilemmas, can be witnessed and turned towards. It seems abundantly clear that any authentically Christian conception of politics has to commit itself to the common good, served through the facilitation of conversations between us and the rejection of our private spheres of sovereignty. Insofar as the existing frameworks of the international state system provide for this, they find sufficient (though not uncritical) justification. And whilst the choices of a fallen world are often between the lesser of two evils, there can be no mistaking the litmus test of permissibility: the openness to political reconciliation, and – even if not without tragic suffering – the rediscovery of a humanising conversation. There must be, in other words, the possibility of love. The maintenance of a nuclear arsenal, and the ensuing possibility of destruction on an unprecedented scale, allows for no such reconciliation.

‘Deterrence’ relies on credibility; credibility relies on the very real possibility of deployment. There politics stops, and there the Christian must name Hell for what it is.

The illustration is copyright: Oleksiy Mark via Shutterstock





8 comments on this post:

Fr. Robert Miller said...

The use of nuclear weapons is insanity, for will result in universal destruction and death. The detonation of a number of nuclear bombs has long been thought to possibly ignite the atmosphere, leaving Earth a dead planet.
Years ago I worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and met a number of physicists who had served on the Manhattan Project. In the debates over the use of nuclear weapons, most had deep regrets over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and regarded the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by this country and others as a present danger.
The author is correct in showing that the threat of nuclear weapons is contrary to Christianity (essentially “might makes right”) and has no place in a peaceful world. Ways must be found to help world leaders to seek the common good of us all rather than their political and military ends. It is governments that conduct wars, and our youth are swallowed up in the grinding of the conflicts, our homes and lives destroyed.

06 April 2013 09:12
Stephen Heard said...

Taylor Carey is to be thanked for this timely re-examination of the Christian response to the recently revived debate about nuclear weapons. It is a fairly serious bit of academic theologising; and I start from the position of not being an academic, nor indeed a theologian beyond what is properly to be expected of any Christian, and of a priest and deacon of the Church of England. Perhaps because of that, I am unfamiliar with – and I have to say, uncertain of – some of the definitions on which the piece is based. I’m also conscious that this response is more political than theological, and by no means addresses all the points raised.

Let me begin with his critique of David Cameron’s article in the Telegraph, and Taylor’s inference from it that “there is no cost too great at which the state must be preserved”. I venture to suggest that is not what is implied at all, and I doubt Mr Cameron would assent to it. He, I imagine, would say that his first duty as our political leader is to defend the people he was elected to serve. For him, defending you and me (rather than any nebulous “state”) from aggression is a key aspect of serving us. That may, when developed, present the Christian with uncomfortable questions; but it seems not a bad starting-point for a Prime Minister.

And here I think is the key to my doubt. The word “state” or “sovereign state” appears many times in Taylor’s article. If it is replaced by “governed people” or similar, things start to look a bit different. Ironically, “state” is a dehumanised concept, and it is fairly easy to speak of its legitimacy and justification in the way that some do of the Church – forgetting that it is a community of people before it is an institutional construct. The state is you and me. It is we, rather than it, who claim “sovereignty” over our own territory and society and who expect to be protected against any who threaten it.

He says that politics is “fundamentally the activity of co-existence”. I’m not sure I agree with this, either. Politics, it seems to me, is the contention for and exercise of the power necessary for the government of a specified community of people. It is therefore, I suppose, an activity of co-existence, but that is not its definition. I expect my government to engage with those of other countries and to “actively co-exist” with them as peaceably as it may, while recognising that it and they are armed against aggression. The mutual possession of nuclear weapons does not prevent peaceful co-existence between the UK, France, India or the USA: relations between and among them are generally far from dehumanised or shut off. Nuclear weapons only become a problem in a relational sense when one appears to threaten another. That is what is currently happening with North Korea and what, I assume, occasioned the Cameron article. Indeed, we probably would not be having this conversation now were those events not taking place. In addition, it’s been noted that the USA could effectively destroy North Korea using only conventional weaponry: we need to consider on what moral basis that capability is to be preferred.

I believe the true theological argument against nuclear weapons is strongly associated with the sort of courage Archbishop Justin spoke of in his enthronement sermon. The courage Peter needed (but ultimately lacked) to get out of the boat and walk across the water to the Lord is allied to the courage needed to disarm yourself in a violent and dangerous world, trusting that faith will in some way sustain you. That was too much to ask of Peter and it may be too much to ask of us. Our lack of faith will not permit it. But we do not lack it entirely. We know instinctively that jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, and most of the time obviates it. We are a fallen race, but we are sometimes better than we might be.

Thanks to Laura for hosting this.

Robert Miller said...

In a perfect world, governments represent the interests of the people they serve. One of their functions is to protect them from violence and anything that would threaten their security. However, in the course of our lifetimes we have seen governments that become self-interested and which have taken measures against their peoples when the community they governed has demanded change. The conflicts in Egypt and Syria are two examples.
Extended members of my family lived in Germany under Hitler’s government during World War II and refused to participate in and support the Nazi movement, and yet that government theoretically represented the entire German people.
Americans have been enduring a seemingly never-ending conflict between political parties since the inauguration of President Obama, with voices of the Tea Party and others party calling for defeat of any step forward out of the economic and political tensions that have been created–none of which is in the interest of the common good of the American people. These groups are purchasing newspapers, television stations, and radio stations and so control the media in an effort to influence elections and debates.
If Christianity is to be relevant in today’s word, we must address the problem of politics and the self-interest of political parties and governments when they drift from serving their peoples.

07 April 2013 08:31
06 April 2013 15:06
Taylor Carey said...

Many thanks for these reflections, Fr Heard. I’m pleased to say that I think we’re in less disagreement than might first appear to be the case. To respond to your points in order:

1. Whilst ‘no cost too great at which the state must be preserved’ is indeed on the extreme end of the realist spectrum, Cameron’s thought tacitly points to this conclusion in as much as this is seen as a problem for the ‘state’ in that abstract sense with which you so correctly disagree. (Just to recap, my reasoning as to why this is a problematic is that it allows a self-justificatory understanding of the state, which quite forgets its conditional justification, dependent on its tendency to reconcile and facilitate the conversations arising in our politics).

2. I think that it is precisely because of the Christian refusal to assent to ‘the state’ in the abstract that a critical perspective on security is enabled. Viewed in the terms that you suggest – what theorists might call ‘human security’ – nuclear weapons constitute an insane and unreasonable risk. Nuclear weapons make very possible the irreparable termination of those conversations and those communities which constitute what we understand as the state. Furthermore, this ‘termination’ need not only occur when nuclear weapons are deployed; in our very possessing them, we have closed the doors to the interactions we might otherwise have. In other words, we have removed ourselves from the political sphere the moment we contemplate possessing nuclear weapons, and constructing a ‘nuclear peace’.

3. Now to that tricky definition of politics. I think I’d agree with you that mere ‘co-existence’ fails to capture the true essence and purpose of politics. I arrived at it out of attempting a normative definition; that is, I wanted to argue that politics – how we want to ‘live in community’, to return to its classical roots – only happens properly when we understand its ultimate source and grounding in human nature. That is, when we understand that the proper exercise of our humanity mandates our participation in the ‘political’ or shared sphere. That conversation has, quite literally, to be a co-existence, for we only find our life and existence in that collective (sacramental?) body. Certainly, politics cannot just be one side shouting out its preferences against another. Rather, to borrow an analogy from Mike Higton, it needs to resemble a properly balanced orchestra, as if experimenting for the first time with what harmony and sound it might produce, to the equal involvement and benefit of all its members.

Seen in this way, I think, like you, that we have little choice but to at least try and climb out of the boat, recognising that the falsehood and comfort of safety we build within our world today will only blind us to the Truth which discomforts us for all eternity.

06 April 2013 16:12
UKViewer said...

This is an excellent debate with some good research and theological and political pondering’s which are both informative and helpful. I come from a simpler, military background, who’d never really thought to deeply about something that was a fact of my active service life for 43 years – if we needed nuclear, we’d use it – wouldn’t we?

I enter the debate from the point of view of first being an Ex-Soldier, who was very well educated about the need for a Nuclear deterrent and why we needed to maintain it. And for some 30 years of military service I tended towards agreeing with that theory.

As part of NATO we sat in Germany waiting for the Russians to deliver the killer blow that never came, we knew that we were on a suicide mission because the overwhelming superiority they had in equipment and manpower meant that we would fight a brief battle, before some form tactical nuclear option would be needed to effect the course of battle, something we would rely on our allies to deliver as we only had a strategic delivery mechanism once the RAF ability to deliver bombs with nuclear warheads was removed.

Off course, once the Iron Curtain came down, we understood that it had been a huge game as the communist block were never politically united enough nor did they have sufficient troops or equipment or munitions available and ready for use on the scale that they would have needed to deliver such an attack. But their political game worked to hold us to ransom for 45 years until it all fell apart.

After the early 90’s, I truly anticipated that their would be some political will on both sides for a formal nuclear agreement on disarming all sides, but by that time other powers became players. Israel, India and Pakistan had joined the Nuclear race, with Iraq and Iran also being suspected of trying to develop a Nuclear Capability. At the same time the break down of the Soviet Union implied that there was a real possibility of Nuclear technology or even munitions might well fall into the hands of terrorists or nations which were not allies and potential enemies. North Korea was one country which had openly declared that it wanted it’s own independent nuclear deterrent and would seek to develop it. That story is ongoing right now.

So while limited agreements were reached, both the Russians, Chinese and Western Countries exercised their option to retain the nuclear deterrent – to meet these new threats that were increasing.

Events since than have done nothing to dispel the fear that nuclear technology and capability might be developed by the unfriendly countries and new concepts such as the ‘DIRTY BOMB’ meant that almost any group might be able to put together sufficient nuclear material (even nuclear waste) to create such a device which might be used in any scenario, anywhere. This threat still exists and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

But something happened personally with me in the last few years. I had become a Christian and had begun to question lost of the assumptions that had previously guided my thinking about the morality of holding nuclear weapons as a deterrent, even if we never anticipate using them?

I questioned the morality of holding such weapons, which were so destructive to the whole world, could we really justify on moral grounds that they were a legitimate response to an attack on us? I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t justify them on any moral grounds and I certainly could not justify the huge costs involved and the enormous damage that nuclear technology does to the world, particularly the storage of the bye products of the nuclear industry. I became an opponent of nuclear in any form, not just in the form of weapons.

I’d not really considered the politics to any great extent and this than became a personal issue for me – as a serving soldier I was expected to comply with government policy and not to speak out in public against it – this gave me an ethical issue to debate. Luckily, I was able to contain myself until I retired in 2009 and was than free to voice my opposition and to join a political party which has a policy opposed to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and any ambition to use them.

So, I oppose the holding of nuclear weapons on ethical grounds. I am unable to accept that we are able to justify even considering using their destructive power and that while they are held and available there will always be a temptation to use them, even as a last resort. Who knows what dangers the world faces in the future, but while nuclear weapons are held, it remains a much more dangerous place than it might otherwise be.

06 April 2013 20:02

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09 April 2013 12:50

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11 April 2013 15:08
Nathan Dale said...

I’m a late comer to this party, perhaps I’m going to write here to aid my own reflections.

Politics is certainly about the other but in that case it demands reciprocity and it demands a landscape in which the parties can agree. Politics becomes nonsensical in a monological context. And where diametrically opposed views coincide any dialogue is reduced to monologue. Pre-supposing this landscape is an arrogance the secular world displays; based on the assumption of universal human norms that in reality grew out of 1500 years of European Christian inculturation. That’s not to say other global worldivews always diverge but clearly on certain points they do, often definitively and occasionally comprehensively. Nuclear weapons do not, per se, close the possibility of reciprocal dialogue but MAD certainly would but then so would a diametrically opposed worldview. Strategic use of nuclear weapons, the threat of potentially enormous but restricted destruction could be argued to be a means of ensuring dialogue when the desire is to collapse into monological ravings. On most counts human beings will agree on the desire to live, though not always. The threat of nuclear attack at least reveals this most basic of foundations for dialogue which may otherwise be ignored if the threat is not deemed sufficient and realistic.

The maintenance of the sovereign state as a moral end in its own right does in abstract form seem irrational but when given concrete meaning: a coherent culturo-political expression of ethnically, wilfully, religiously or linguistically inter-dependent peoples; then undermining the sovereignty of such inter-dependent people is to argue against their coherence and against their communal life. To argue that this is not sacrosanct, especially in a secular context, is to argue against the only coherent form of communal living that we have – this certainly is anti-political. It is only then in the grasping desire to maintain coherent structures and relationships amongst families, communities and nations that politics can be meaningful for without that desire then the art of relationships (politics) becomes an end in itself, rather than a means for achieving human flourishing.

Moreover, we have clear Biblical precedent in the scattering of the nations at Babel as to God’s opinion of empire building, in antagonism and independence of God. To submit to an aggressor in this context, especially one in antagonism to God, is to wilfully collude in the dissolution of boundaries that God himself instituted. This would also be an argument against deeper integration of the EU as a means of promoting inter-dependence, independently of God. It would seem that post-Babel God instituted nation states as a means of limiting humanity’s propensity for collusive evil. It seems to me that the church is the appropriate cross-national structure to promote humanity, bridge divides and expound the Lordship of God whilst maintaining the boundaries He specifically determined. Other structures that undermine these categories should therefore be seen as evil.

That’s enough for now.

01 December 2015 00:26

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