Why are we so passive these days when it comes to the prospect of nuclear annihilation? This week, scholars from around the world addressed this question at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Boston.
Their findings are especially relevant today as hundreds of millions of people on the planet observe the last Sunday of the Christian year with biblical readings about the end of the world.
Brian Palmer of Uppsala University claims that scholars of religion contribute to this discussion in three ways. First, he points out the religiously inflected language of nuclear war with its talk of apocalypse and Armageddon.
Second, religious thinkers have a long history struggling with the meaning of the end of everything, the death of even death. For Robert Oppenheimer, the first nuclear explosion brought to mind a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Finally, these scholars are familiar with addressing questions of great moral extremity. Nuclear war is not just a more extensive form of regular war, but something altogether new to human experience. Twenty million people could die in an afternoon. One billion would die within a month.
Nuclear war could destroy all of human life. It lies beyond the edge of our ethical thinking. What could any person or society do that would justify retaliating with a nuclear strike?
Furthermore, in contrast with every other form of warfare, only a tiny number of actors would decide the fate of the earth. Conventional war requires the consent of thousands of participants. A nuclear attack could be set in motion by a single person.
We now know of about a dozen occasions when American presidents have considered using nuclear weapons. Today, Russia has 7,000 nuclear warheads, and the U.S. has another 6,800. Each of these two arsenals (about 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons) can be unleashed by a single man.
With such high stakes, why do we act as if there is nothing we can do?
Gandhi said, “You can wake a man who is asleep, but you cannot wake a man who is pretending to sleep.” Why are we pretending to sleep?
Elaine Scarry of Harvard University attributes this to what she calls “the mental architecture” of nuclear war. Supporting the physical infrastructure with its missile silos, attack submarines and airpower is a frame of mind that makes eradicating nuclear weapons seem impossible to us. We have an irrational fear that without our nuclear weapons others will use their weapons against us. This is the reason why we act as if nothing can be done about this problem, as if in her words, “We do not know where the on/off switch is.”
The Southern Hemisphere is blanketed with treaties creating nuclear-free zones. In contrast to the complexity of global climate change, which requires coordinating the actions of nearly every person on Earth, nuclear weapons are relatively easy to dismantle. A study on what it would take to decommission nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom shows that dismantling nuclear triggers takes a matter of hours, recalling submarines would take days and the whole process could be accomplished in two to four years.
We are responsible for the weapons that have been assembled in our name. All warfare depends on the consent of the governed. We need to wake up and take responsibility.
Gen. John Hyten recently made news stating that he would disobey an illegal order to launch a nuclear strike. While I appreciate this, no decision to launch should fall to only a handful of people. Only Congress should have the authority to declare war or launch nuclear weapons.
But changing our system of governance is not enough. Without delay, we need to begin dismantling our own nuclear weapons and pursuing diplomatic discussions on this issue with Russia. Religious people need to move beyond merely contemplating the end of the world and begin working harder to preserve it.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.