Nuclear Weapons and the Moral and Spiritual Compass
From left to right: Jane Goodall, Jonathan Granoff, and Bishop William E. Swing. Photo by Barbara Hartford.
Parliament of the World’s Religions – October 17, 2015
Nuclear Weapons and the Moral and Spiritual Compass
Speakers: Bishop William E. Swing, Jonathan Granoff, Jane Goodall
Presentation by Bishop William E. Swing
(Jane Goodall had just completed her remarks to a mountainous roar of applause and a standing ovation. Since I had been introduced earlier, I just got up to speak.)
“Wow! Following Jane Goodall! Now this a daunting challenge. I feel like the man who had lived through the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1936. He talked about it constantly and got pretty good at speaking on the subject. So he spoke as an after dinner speaker around Johnstown and around the county, always rehearsing the events of the Johnstown flood of 1936. Eventually he died, and when he met St. Peter, he mentioned that he was a terrific after dinner speaker and would be glad to help out at a heavenly banquet. Several months went by and finally there was a call from St. Peter. There was going to be a banquet on Thursday night, so St. Peter invited him to speak. He readily agreed….then inquired. ”When will I come on the program?” St. Peter said, “Oh let’s see…you follow Noah.”
Like the rest of you in this auditorium, I read news about nuclear issues wherever and whenever I can. And as I read, I try to place the new information into the old categories that I have structured in my mind. And when I am not trying to archive it all, and usually when my eyes are closed, involuntarily little pictures tease my brain. Today I would like to bring out into the open, three of these pictures that hang on the wall of my unconscious and my conscience.
In the first picture, as a citizen of the Earth, I see myself standing there, thanking the Pakistanis for not nuking the Indians and vice versa. I am thanking the Russians for not nuking the USA and vice versa. I am thanking China and Israel for not nuking their neighbors. And on and on! I find it astounding that these bombs have been around for decades and no one has unleashed them. Thank you….whoever you are….with nuclear weapons at your fingertips, for not deploying them. And furthermore, thank you to all of the individuals and agencies that spend twenty-four hours every day, in silos and submarines, in all of the nuclear countries safeguarding these obscene weapons. Thank you to agents, especially in Eastern Europe, who track and block the black market sales of radioactive materials to ISIS. Thank you to citizens around the world who care deeply and meet regularly and advocate vociferously trying to curb and eliminate nuclear weapons. Thanks to the agencies in nuclear countries that spend 99% of their time trying to figure out how not to use your nuclear weapons. Thanks to the countries that have resisted the temptation to create nuclear weapons. And thanks to the countries that had nuclear weapons and then got out of the business altogether. In the first picture in my mind, I see myself as a citizen of the world thanking so many for having prevented grotesque tragedy.
In the second picture in my mind, as a priest, I picture myself pronouncing absolution, forgiveness of sins, on all of the people who have the blood of nuclear complicity on their hands. With a stole around my shoulders, I would be saying….. “Sinner, you have been forgiven for creating the science of this monster. Sinner, you have been forgiven for building this obscenity. Sinner, you have been forgiven for using this demonic terror as leverage for your political agenda. Sinner, you have been forgiven for paying taxes that sustain and proliferate these agents of ultimate plague. Sinner, you have been forgiven for cheating on nuclear treaties by playing word games.” Absolution for you all! Let’s start all over again fresh.
If……for just a moment… all of us who carry around nuclear kinship and shame could be thanked for our attention to safety and, at the same time, be forgiven for our subtle and insidious nuclear guilt, then in that special moment of grace, maybe we could behave like human beings. Presently our nuclear weapons control us, and we behave like frightened slaves. But in a grateful and absolved moment, we might turn the tables and get in charge of nuclear weapons. We can do exactly what we all know in our heart of hearts is the right thing to do, that is eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. This is the second picture that dances past my brain.
In the third picture, the scene of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac keeps jumping up in my mind when I think about what nuclear destiny awaits us. And always with sober hope. At the beginning of that story it says that Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The story says, “……Isaac, his child, his only son, whom he loved.” With these few words the ultimate tension is established. Do you obey the clear call from God or do you rely on your parental instincts of nurture? Do you love God more than your family? Once the story says Abraham “loved” Isaac, the stakes grow higher. It becomes a love story…… put to the ultimate test.
Perhaps, the possession and use of nuclear weapons are, in the end, an ultimate love story put to the ultimate test…….whom do you love most and how far are you willing to go to be loyal to that love? My family? My tribe? My nation? My religion? My God? In the nuclear weapons realm, security is always love in action. We say, “I want my beloved to be secure.” Undoubtedly, nuclear weapons are about power, control, “Becoming a force to be reckoned with” (as Putin said last month), about pride, status, and a desire to overcome vulnerability (as Japan opens a plant next spring that could process enough spent reactor fuel to make a 1,000 nuclear bombs a year). Anyone who toils in the arena of nuclear weapons has to be, at all times, deeply frustrated, and that is because, in my opinion, the Cuisinart of nuclear motives and strategies is always spinning. But the greatest of these motives is love, just like Abraham, who was told by God to prepare to kill his son, whom he loved! But where there is love, there is always hope.
The final part of the story that captures me is when Abraham is standing over Isaac…. who is tied down on an altar about to be stabbed to death and burned. I don’t know why extreme violence is built into the experience of religion. Perhaps because it is built into the experience of life and we just have to deal with it. “God told me to do it” is an alibi or a testimony that echoes down through the centuries …with persecutions, beheadings, crucifixions and holocausts…. right up to today.
But….at the achingly tense moment of violence and love, “the angel of the Lord called out from heaven and said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy.” That was the moment when the curtain was pulled back, and we glimpsed the raw, tested and exquisite love that the Lord and Abraham had for each other. If the angel of the Lord isn’t heard, then all there is, is slaughter. But if someone is listening for an angel, the world tilts on its axis.
Today we have the child, we have all the children of the world tied down on the altar of sacrifice of our nuclear fetish…….and the people who have the weapons in their hands aren’t listening for an angel. The cult of human sacrifice didn’t disappear thousands of years ago with Abraham. It just morphed and is alive and evil today.
You…..you are the angel. The only voice left at this achingly tense moment of violence and love. You are called to say to custodians of nuclear insanity a simple message. ”Do not lay a hand on the girl….do not lay a hand on the boy.” This is what Abraham heard and the world turned on its axis. If you say it, there can be a tomorrow.