Christian nuclear weapons opponents carry on as debate wanes

(Photo: Sister Megan Rice's Facebook page)Sister Megan Rice

Since the U.S. federal trespassing and sabotage conviction of three American Catholic activists – including an 83-year-old nun – much media attention has been given to the Christian argument against nuclear weapons.

In July 2012, Greg Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, which produces nuclear weapons, in Knoxville, Tenn.

They waged a protest with hammers, spray paint and blood for which each of them now faces up to 30 years in prison following their May 8 conviction. Sentencing is expected in September.

But the Transform Now Plowshares activists – as the trio calls themselves – are neither singular nor novel in their faith-based argument against nuclear weapons. Indeed, Christian opposition to such weapons is almost as old as their use.

In 1946, just one year after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declared that "life abundant involves seeking international disarmament and arms control measures."

In 1955, British Quakers denounced the possession of nuclear weapons as sin in, and their American counterparts were holding prayer vigils at nuclear test sites in the Nevada desert around the same time.

In 1958, the German Confessing Church incorporated the rejection of nuclear armament into its statement of faith.

As the arms race took off in the late 1970s, Christians, again, were at the forefront of disarmament measures.

The Plowshares movement, of which Obed, Rice and Walli are a part, has been waging protests like theirs at nuclear facilities since 1980. In 1983, the ecumenical Nevada Desert Experience was formed with the goal of ending nuclear testing.

Some might argue the heyday of nonproliferation activism has passed.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of religion and public life at Harvard University, said at an April commemoration of "Peace on Earth," a Catholic peace encyclical, nuclear weapons no longer hold the centrality they once did in international defense policy.

But as the Transform Now Plowshares have demonstrated, that doesn't mean Christian activists have given up.

At the end of April, the United Nations held the second preparatory committee meeting for the 2015 Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The Review Conference, held every five years, reassesses the implementation of the NPT – the 1970 international treaty committing signatories to the discouragement of nuclear weapon manufacturing and use.

The London-based Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament sent a five-person delegation to Geneva for the preparatory committee meeting, where they co-hosted a panel discussion about the Teutates Treaty, a 50-year Anglo-French nuclear energy research alliance.

"Christian CND and others believe Teutates offends the spirit of the NPT and probably its letter," wrote Catholic delegate Michael Pulham in his post-meeting report.

All five members of the delegation are veteran nonproliferation activists who adamantly believe nuclear weapons are a moral issue that still ought to be of the utmost importance to Christians.

"I think there's a need for Christians to re-approach this issue without looking at it through the Cold War-lens of deterrence," said Angela Rayner, an Anglican member of the delegation and an executive committee member of Christian CND.

"I'd like Christians to understand that reconciliation is not an optional extra … but an activity to which every Christian is called."

At the Geneva April meeting, Christian CND delegates were happy to see an increase in faith-based discussion.

Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations offices and international organizations in Geneva, and Jonathan Frerichs, the World Council of Church's progam executive for peace building and disarmament, held a joint session on the moral need for disarmament – the first time, said Christian CND delegate, Patricia Pulham, that morality and ethics had been discussed at a preparatory committee meeting.

Additionally, members of the delegation were encouraged by an Iranian paper detailing the Muslim argument against nuclear weapons.

"One wonders … [if] there might be some international, joint interfaith positioning on weapons of mass destruction," Michael Pulham wrote in his report.

Yet, the delegates – like many other activists – expressed feelings of frustration at the slow pace disarmament work seems to take.

In the nearly 70 years that Christians have been speaking out against nuclear weapons, some progress has been made.

Activists are quick to point out, however, that the United States has still not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that bans nuclear test explosions for any reason; Iran is openly defying the NPT with its nuclear enrichment program and North Korea continues to conduct nuclear tests.

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