Interfaith Service for Peace—Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament Initiative: Chaplain (Major General) Kermit D. Johnson, USA (Ret.)
We come together today from various religions in the common conviction that God acts and speaks into human history. This is the character of the revealed religions we represent. Our faith is rooted in God’s self-revelation, not human autosuggestion. It’s not like the signs that read, “Made in Texas by Texans.” If there is any validity to our faiths at all, it is because we are responding to a light that we did not invent or create.
We all stand under the searchlight of God’s presence. Under that blinding scrutiny we say with the psalmist, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).
The light that emanates from our revealed religions is not only able to unmask all forms of human perversity, but we also look to that light to show us a better way.
Again, with the psalmist: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me” (Ps. 43:3). We look to the light of God’s presence for direction and encouragement so that we may have the wisdom, strength and courage to make the choices we ought.
Today we stand together as stewards of creation and of the whole human family. But the moment we say this, the light that shines from our religious backgrounds compels us to come in a spirit of confession. We confess that we have not always been faithful to the transcendent God of creation. Too often we have been seduced by earth-bound loyalties that have prevented us from seeing the world as God sees it, as one humankind. Too often the innocent have been disappeared, tortured, assassinated, incinerated or starved without anyone coming to their defense.
Before we stand together in defense of creation and the human family, we must first take seriously those who would say, “Physician, heal yourself.”
We can still hear the French philosopher Pascal say, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” In fact, when Arnold Toynbee surveyed the landscape of human history, he found a frequent convergence between the interests of the state and of organized religion, so he called war “an act of religious worship.” No wonder he also said, “Human nature without God’s grace is not enough.”
What do we say about all of this?
What do we say about all of this shrapnel in our collective religious bodies? Should we hire a bunch of clever spin doctors to write revisionist histories of our religions so we can put a stop to this worst-case analysis, so we can hide and cover up these self-inflicted wounds?
No, in the integrity of our faith we retain this imbedded shrapnel to remind ourselves, not only of our fallibility, but that, at best, we are halting prophets and in Henri Nouwen’s phrase, “wounded healers.” We confess: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”
To be sure, the religions out of which we come are very realistic in facing up to human finitude and failure. But we must be careful to distinguish between a realism that points to hope and a realism that breeds despair. Even Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the fathers of modem political realism, was able to say, “Despair is the fate of the realists who know something about sin but nothing about redemption.” The light that comes from our religions not only exposes sin but points the way toward redemption, deliverance, a change of direction and hope that brings life and not death.
But we have been told repeatedly, for over a-half century now, that this way of hope is not possible with respect to nuclear weapons–at least that’s what the secular shibboleths imply. We’ve heard them over and over again:
Nuclear weapons can’t be disinvented.
The Bomb is here to stay and our National Security depends on it.
You don’t mess with National Security.
The implication is that the events of human history have unfolded in such a way that significant human choice is no longer possible–the gods of fate have taken over. Woody Allen put it this way: “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. I pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.”
Recall also Reinhold Niebuhr’s familiar prayer: “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Kurt Vonnegut’s comment about one of his hapless characters was that “among the things he [Billy Pilgrim] could not change were the past, the present and the future.”
The larger question, then, is whether God is still working in human history and whether human beings can still make significant moral choices that align with that higher purpose.
Gratefully, this day, we come together as military professionals and religious leaders to seek the wisdom and the courage to change the things that should be changed. We are signatories to a statement on nuclear reduction and disarmament that has a heavy dose of realism to it. But this realism does not condemn us to fatalism and pessimism. Rather, it moves us in more hopeful directions.
There are no illusions about nuclear deterrence. The statement recognizes the early insight of Winston Churchill when he said that safety was based on “the sturdy child of terror and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” To “deter” means literally “to frighten” or “to strike terror.”
I realize there have been some clerics who have attempted to provide a moral justification for the nuclear deterrent–”provided it is never used.” This is what I call “clergy deterrence,” otherwise known as “the bluff.”
But we know that real-world deterrence is based on the actual willingness to use nuclear weapons, commonly called “credibility.” We depend on the rationality of an enemy to conclude that no political goal is worth the cost of a nuclear war. Yet, at the same time, we must convince them that we would be willing to take that irrational step. Nuclear deterrence depends on an enemy who believes we would be willing to do what they should not be willing to do. Appropriately, our Joint Statement reads, “We say that it defies all logic to believe that nuclear weapons can exist forever and never be used.”
But the reality is much deeper than this and more hopeful. The call for outlawing and prohibiting nuclear weapons worldwide is not a reckless or dangerous venture into the dark. The requisite conditions must be met: universal in scope, verifiable and enforceable. This is sober and responsible. It is not a precipitous decision. This path of hope calls for steady resolve, patience and persistence.
In 1957, General of the Army Omar Bradley gave a prescient speech near this Cathedral at St. Alban’s School. He said this:
If I am sometimes discouraged, it is not by the magnitude of the problem but by our colossal indifference to it. I am unable to understand why–if we are willing to trust in reason as a restraint on the use of a ready-made ready-to-fire bomb–we do not make greater, more diligent and more imaginative use of reason and human intelligence in seeking an accord and compromise which will make it possible for mankind to control the atom and banish it as an instrument of war.
One path before us is to build Fortress America without regard to the rest of the whole human family. The other path is to accept what in the providence of God is self-evident, that our country should be a leader and a light unto the nations, embracing the entire human family in a secure and just peace.
In the words of our Joint Statement:
We call upon our own country to do so.
We call upon our political and military leaders, our faith communities and all concerned citizens to mobilize in support of this noble cause.