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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





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