by Art Laffin, Teacher of Peace
The recent military crisis between the U.S. and North Korea, with both countries threatening to use nuclear weapons against each other, has demonstrated to the world that the prospect of nuclear war is a very real and present danger. The 10-day joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began on August 21 only exacerbate already heightened tensions. How much longer can the world tolerate living on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe?
In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists turned its “Doomsday Clock,” meant to convey how close we are to destroying civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making, to two and a half minutes before midnight to reflect the current dangers posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. “The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” The Bulletin Science and Security Board warned, “and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” Thus, the urgency of the moment requires the absolute necessity for nuclear weapons to be abolished.
Nuclear weapons are immoral, illegal, anti-God, anti-life, anti-creation and have no right to exist.
Fr. Richard McSorley, SJ, the renowned peacemaker and teacher of Gospel nonviolence, wrote: “It’s a Sin to Build A Nuclear Weapon!” Pope Francis is very clear: The total elimination of nuclear weapons is “both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative” of our time. And the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known as Hibakusha, plead to the world: “Humankind can’t coexist with nuclear weapons.”
With the advent of the Nuclear Age, Albert Einstein declared: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our mode of thinking and we, thus, drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein, who had been instrumental in persuading President Roosevelt to build the atomic bomb, knew history had been forever changed. He realized that, for the first time ever, humans possessed the capability to destroy the world. He warned that we could avoid that outcome only if we drastically changed our way of thinking and banned nuclear weapons.
Thankfully, increasing numbers of countries have heeded Einstein’s advice, and that of many others, and have now acted to ban these weapons. On July 7, at the conclusion of a special “UN Conference To Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons,” 122 countries voted in favor of a historic treaty to legally prohibit nuclear weapons. This treaty bans nuclear weapons and establishes a framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons programs — including warheads, materials, delivery systems and facilities.
This is a most encouraging and hopeful sign. However, the U.S. and other countries that bear nuclear arms, and as well as those nations that either come under their protection or host weapons on their soil, boycotted the negotiations and have thus far refused to endorse this treaty.
And now we have an unpredictable president who is committed to upgrading the nuclear stockpile and who, at a moment’s notice, can order a nuclear attack.
Today the U.S. possesses nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are on hair-trigger alert, and it proposes to spend around $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its existing nuclear arsenal. This money is in addition to the estimated $10 trillion the U.S. has already spent on its nuclear weapons program over the last 75 years. The exorbitant amounts of money and resources that have been, and continue to be, misused on nuclear weapons and other war preparations constitutes a direct theft from the poor.
It is hypocritical for the U.S., the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons and the leading nuclear superpower which refuses to disarm, to call on any other country, including North Korea, to give up their nuclear weapons. The U.S. can never request that another country disarm until it first apologizes and atones for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, endorses the treaty on the “Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” and totally dismantles its nuclear arsenal. Only then can the U.S. legitimately ask other nuclear nations to disarm.
In 1987, I wrote the following in the book that I coedited called Swords Into Plowshares:
“Spawned by a deep-seated violence that since the beginning of recorded history has possessed the human heart, nuclear weapons have in fact become and idol in which many people place their trust. The words of the prophet Isaiah describe well our situation: ‘The people follow foreign customs. Their land is full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures…there is no end to their chariots [weapons]. Their land is full of idols and they worship idols made by their own hands.’” (Isaiah 2:6-8)
In short, the nuclear idol is a product of a society that has placed its complete trust in military power and material security, rather than in God.
What would Jesus have us do? His commands are clear: You cannot serve both God and mammon. Love one another. Love your enemies. You shall not kill. Put away the sword!
And the prophets Isaiah and Micah proclaim: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more.” (Isa. 2:1-4)
Thomas Merton declared that the most urgent necessity of our time is to not only prevent the destruction of the human race by nuclear war, but to refuse our consent to this greatest of crimes.
On September 4, 1989, I was blessed to be part of a symbolic act of disarmament to nonviolently resist this “greatest of crimes.” Through God’s amazing grace, six peacemakers and I sought to enact God’s dream for the human family by literally beating nuclear swords into plowshares in New London, Connecticut.
We were able to swim and canoe to the docked U.S.S. Pennsylvania, the 10th Trident nuclear submarine, a weapons system that could destroy much, if not all, of God’s creation. We then proceeded to carry out a “plowshares” action on the Trident, which the Pentagon has described as the “ultimate first-strike weapon.” After hammering and pouring blood on the hull, three of us were able to climb onto the submarine. After reading aloud chapter 15 of John’s gospel, I prayed on top of the Trident for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
From aboard this most destructive weapon, I believed then, and I believe now, that if human beings have the faith to believe that disarmament is possible, and act on that faith, it can occur. We, along with other plowshares activists and many other peacemakers, know this can happen because we were actually able to begin the process of true disarmament! To date there have been over 100 plowshares actions, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mindful of the extreme perils posed by the nuclear threat, warned the world in 1967: “The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or non-existence.”
In light of the ongoing nuclear posturing between the U.S. and North Korea, existing conflicts between other nuclear nations, and the continuing danger of nuclear proliferation, will the U.S. and the other nuclear nations choose nonviolence or nonexistence?
Every possible nonviolent action and political and diplomatic measure must be taken now to eradicate the nuclear threat, abolish war, and create a nonviolent world. The very future of human survival and our planet’s existence is at stake.
Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and son. For nearly four decades, Art has been an organizer, writer and speaker in the faith-based nonviolent movement for peace, social justice, and eradicating poverty and war. He has been imprisoned for his involvement in the Trident Nein and Thames River plowshares actions, as well as for other nonviolent protests, including ending U.S. military intervention in Central AmericaSince his brother’s murder in 1999, he has been actively involved in campaigning against the death penalty with the Journey of Hope.