Ed. Note: Today, August 21, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen’s birthday. Archbishop Hunthausen was a long-time Pax Christi USA bishop and strongly supported all of our work. We give thanks for his leadership and witness and recommend reading Frank Fromherz’s book, A Disarming Spirit: the Life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.
By Leonard Eiger
“I am grateful for having been invited to speak to you on disarmament because is forces me to a kind of personal disarmament. This is a subject I have thought about and prayed over for many years. I can recall vividly hearing the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. I was deeply shocked. I could not then put into words the shock I felt from the news that a city of hundreds of thousands of people had been devastated by a single bomb. Hiroshima challenged my faith as a Christian in a way I am only now beginning to understand. That awful event and its successor at Nagasaki sank into my soul, as they have fact sunk into the souls of all of us, whether we recognize it or not.” ~Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen
Those are the opening lines of the “Faith and Disarmament” speech given on June 12, 1981 by Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Hunthausen had become active in resistance to the U.S. stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the new Trident submarine-based nuclear weapons system, which included the Bangor Trident submarine base in Puget Sound just 20 miles west of Seattle. In that same speech Hunthausen referred to the Trident submarines based there as “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” In context, it was both a profound and prophetic statement of fact. As Hunthausen said, “Trident is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound because of the massive cooperation required in our area – the enormous sinful complicity that is necessary – for the eventual incineration of millions of our brother and sister human beings.”
Bill Moyer of the Backbone Campaign (dedicated to a world “where life, community, nature, and our obligations to future generations are honored as sacred”) once spoke to Hunthausen’s controversial statement, bringing it into the context of our work to abolish nuclear weapons: “In his [Hunthausen’s] comparison of Trident submarines to the ‘Auschwitz of Puget Sound,’ which everybody quotes, it wasn’t so much that they are a tool of genocide, which, of course, they are… but it was that they are invisible; the neighbors of Auschwitz didn’t want to know what was going on; they felt more comfortable when it was under the surface.” Essentially, Hunthausen made the invisible visible so that people would be forced to bring it into their consciousness and address its moral implications.
Well before his 1981 “Faith and Disarmament” speech, Hunthausen was gaining a deep understanding of, and respect for, the activist community developing in nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons, especially Trident – the Pacific Life Community and Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. These were people of deep convictions who were engaging in nonviolent civil resistance, literally putting their bodies on the line, and were fully prepared to accept the legal consequences of their actions. They were essentially attempting to make the invisible visible through their actions.
War tax resistance became a personal action Hunthausen felt he could take. He redirected a symbolic portion of his income tax as a protest against nuclear weapons, placing it in an escrow account benefiting the World Peace Tax Fund. He shared his vision of war tax resistance in his “Faith and Disarmament” speech, saying, “I think the teaching of Jesus tells us to render to a nuclear-armed Caesar what that Caesar deserves – tax resistance. And to begin to render to God alone that complete trust which we now give, through our tax dollars, to a demonic form of power. Some would call what I am urging ‘civil disobedience.’ I prefer to see it as obedience to God.”
At a time when the United States is engaging in the largest buildup of our nuclear arsenal since the Cold War, and when we are increasing the risk of nuclear war with not only Russia but also China, we would do well to learn from Archbishop Hunthausen who died in July 2018 and whose hundredth birthday would be August 21, 2021.
Hunthausen’s views on a number of issues, including nuclear weapons, did not sit well with the Vatican, and Hunthausen suffered the consequences. He did, however, have the support of some of his fellow priests and bishops. One of them was Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, and I recently had a conversation with him about Archbishop Hunthausen and how he speaks to us today.
Gumbleton told me he was “proud to have been a friend to Ray Hunthausen, and supportive of what he did.” Gumbleton wrote a Tribute to a Colleague in a recent book about Hunthausen in which he concluded, “Ray Hunthausen is a role model and hero for me because of his integrity and total commitment to leading the Church in its mission to transform our world into as close an image of the Reign of God as possible. I am a better person and bishop because I knew him.” (A Disarming Spirit: the life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, by Frank Fromherz, Copyright 2018)
Gumbleton spoke of then and now: “He [Hunthausen] was clear in his condemnation of nuclear weapons and the absolute evil they represent, and he made that clear through his actions and words. At that time when there was a deepening awareness around the country he was one of the people making that awareness present. Right now there isn’t an awareness. If you were to go into a grocery store and interview people at random you would find that almost no one knows anything about our nuclear arsenal, even though we spend fantastic amounts of money. Right now there is fighting over an infrastructure bill in the senate, and you could easily take half the military budget and take care of everything in terms of human needs. But no one would ever suggest that, and for me it is a profound and moral evil.”
For Gumbleton, as with Hunthausen, beyond the evil of building and deploying nuclear weapons, it is an absolute sin to commit to their use. He spoke of how every crew member on a trident submarine has taken an oath, and must be prepared and committed to obeying the order to launch the trident ballistic missiles that would incinerate millions of human beings in a nuclear war. That, in itself, he said, is an “absolute sin.”
Gumbleton remembered Hunthausen, in his Faith and Disarmament speech, quoting Father Richard McSorley who wrote a 1976 article titled, “It’s a Sin to Build a Nuclear Weapon.” McSorley wrote: “The taproot of violence in our society today is our intention to use nuclear weapons. Once we have agreed to that, all other evil is minor in comparison. Until we squarely face the question of our consent to use nuclear weapons, any hope of large scale improvement of public morality is doomed to failure.”
Gumbleton elaborated: “The impact of our nuclear weapons is beyond description. It’s the destruction of the planet as we know it. Once we’ve made that moral decision, then we can make any kind of moral decision and use violence. So you have a peace officer who can kneel on the neck of a man for 8 ½ minutes – and he died – and feel that’s OK, that kind of violence. And in a sense that’s nothing compared to what we are preparing for each and every day [with nuclear weapons]. So there is no issue that exceeds this in its evil.”
“In the Catholic tradition there is a lot of controversy over whether President Biden should be given holy communion because of his stance on abortion, and yet anyone serving on a Trident ballistic missile submarine can receive communion from a Catholic chaplain. If anyone were to be refused communion, it would be for taking an oath to obey lawful orders to launch nuclear-armed missiles against other human beings. And yet you never hear a Catholic chaplain talking about this. They reinforce these enlisted people wherever we have these weapons, essentially giving their blessing and that of The Church. You have Catholic chaplains supporting the military people who have the intention to use nuclear weapons.”
I asked Gumbleton if he is hopeful about the church taking a leading role in abolishing nuclear weapons.
“Its clear that that the ancient formula that some of the early church leaders used is still true. ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’, or ‘The church must always be undergoing reform.’ That is true now; we need deep reform, and we need to contend with the deep evil that is going to destroy this planet. The two main ways are through war and environmental destruction of this world that God has given us. Right now we need a profound conversion within the church if we are going to speak God’s word with any type of authenticity. And we do not have it; that is not going on right now. If you follow the leadership of the Catholic Church you are not engaged with these issues. So that is very disappointing and makes someone like Ray Hunthausen stand out all the more. If we had 300 of the Bishops speaking out like Ray Hunthausen, we might be getting someplace.”
I then asked Gumbleton, whose homilies were published for many years as “The Peace Pulpit” in the National Catholic Reporter, how we move forward now, honoring Archbishop Hunthausen’s legacy and moving people to action.
“To start, we need people to truly start listening to the gospel, the message of Jesus; not just in a formalistic way but in a very genuine way; listen deeply to the word, and you discover that there is no way for violence to fit in with the message of Jesus. You don’t overcome evil by evil; you overcome evil by good. In the garden when they came to arrest him he said [to his followers] ‘put away your swords’ even when they came to take his life. I’m not going to let you defend me by killing someone else. We don’t take that in deeply enough. The message is so clear. God is a god of love, not murder, hatred and violence. We just have to keep trying to refine our methodologies and our way of bringing the word of god into the life of people; a constant challenge, but we have to keep trying. You just have to keep going one day after another, and find the opportunities wherever you can.”
Bishop Gumbleton’s deep understanding of the revolutionary Gospel message mirrors that of Archbishop Hunthausen who was convinced that, “The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers, to practice a divine way of reconciliation.” He understood that to follow the way of Jesus is both “subversive and revolutionary.” When he called on us “to take up our cross in the nuclear age,” Hunthausen made a compelling argument that, “To ask one’s country to relinquish its security in arms is to encourage risk – a more reasonable risk than constant nuclear escalation, but a risk nevertheless. I am struck by how much more terrified we Americans often are by talk of disarmament than by the march to nuclear war.”
Hunthausen understood then what remains true today – “that there is a connection between wealth and [nuclear] weaponry.” We are so afraid that “if we don’t continue to arm ourselves, if we’re not the most powerful country, we’ll be vulnerable.” That is the central issue confronting our inability to give up nuclear arms – our worship of false idols in the name of false security and greed.
As for the Trident base in the heart of Puget Sound and the Seattle Archdiocese, it continues to be invisible, all the while posing its omnicidal threat to humanity. Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent
Action and the Pacific Life Community are still at work to make it visible. Time is not on our side; a new Cold War continues heating up, and construction of a new fleet of twelve Trident ballistic missile submarines is already underway, setting the stage for the inevitable. The only way to prevent the unthinkable is to abolish nuclear weapons, and as the only nation to have used them against another nation, it is our responsibility to lead the way to complete and total disarmament.
Forty years since Hunthausen called Trident “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound,” and nearly 100 years since his birth, he continues to call us to make the invisible visible, to state clearly that killing is simply wrong, and that nuclear weapons, which are omnicidal by design, are truly an abomination in the eyes of God.
So then it comes down to our individual choice of how to engage the issue. Archbishop Hunthausen did not tell us what to do; he told us what he was going to do and why. His spirit lives on in his words and actions. He still calls us to take up the cross in the nuclear age. How will we join him?
Archbishop Hunthausen, Presente!
Author’s Note: A Disarming Spirit: the Life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen is available from Tsehai Publishers. The author has designated that “All profits from the sale of A Disarming Spirit will be given to Ground Zero Community, a nonprofit organization established for the educational work related to the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.”
Leonard Eiger coordinates communications for Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Poulsbo, Washington. Ground Zero offers the opportunity to explore the meaning and practice of nonviolence from a perspective of deep spiritual reflection, providing a means for witnessing to and resisting all nuclear weapons, especially Trident. We seek to go to the root of violence and injustice in our world and experience the transforming power of love through nonviolent direct action.