In October 1986, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) issued “Guidelines: Peace, Freedom and Security Studies.” This seminal work articulated an evangelical perspective on an integrated quest for peace, freedom and security in a world filled with conflict and oppression. The document built on earlier resolutions, dating back to 1952, in which the NAE sought to develop a common evangelical approach to issues of war and peace.[i]
The world in 1986 was sharply divided between countries allied with either the United States or the Soviet Union. These two Cold War rivals possessed more than 65,000 nuclear warheads.[ii] Britain, France, China, India and Israel had also acquired nuclear weapons. The United States and the Soviet Union maintained many of their weapons on high alert, presenting an existential threat described by President John F. Kennedy as “a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.”[iii] There are several incidents where the world came perilously close to nuclear holocaust, and the danger is not yet averted.[iv]
The publication of the NAE Guidelines coincided with an historic summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, where President Ronald Reagan proposed negotiations leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.[v] President Reagan was committed to a strong national defense, but he believed, and frequently stated, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”[vi] While the summit ultimately foundered over the issue of defensive weapons systems, the Reykjavik summit laid the foundation for the first elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons, intermediate-range nuclear missiles. And it set the stage for substantial reductions in both Soviet and American nuclear arsenals over the next two and a half decades, pioneered by President George H.W. Bush and Russian Premier Gorbachev, beginning with unilateral-reciprocal steps toward nuclear threat reduction.[vii]
Few observers in 1986 predicted the ending of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact just a few years later. The world entered a potentially perilous period in which control of Soviet nuclear weapons and material was in doubt. Through a combination of diplomacy and economic incentives, three former Soviet republics agreed to cede the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal to the Russian Federation, averting further nuclear proliferation and potential disaster.
In 2007, the continued threat of nuclear weapons in the 21st century gained new attention when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece written by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn.[viii] This bipartisan group of elder statesmen called for a rethinking of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era, leading to a world free of nuclear weapons. They warned of new dangers of nuclear proliferation as well as the potential for nuclear terrorism, and they urged a joint, truly international enterprise toward verifiable multilateral reductions and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. They acknowledged that the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons will always be with us but argued that nuclear weapons, as with chemical and biological weapons, should eventually be banned. Their approach, which has been endorsed by President Obama and other prominent world leaders, is consistent with the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which the United States is a party, and which every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has upheld as a fundamental pillar of American security. In the NPT, existing nuclear powers pledged to “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to… nuclear disarmament,” and all other signatories agreed to use nuclear power only for peaceful civilian purposes and not for nuclear weapons.[ix] The obligation of the nuclear weapons states to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons is acknowledged by the United States in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.[x]
Now, on the 25th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit and the publication of the NAE’s Guidelines, we renew our call and pledge our support to national leaders who adopt policies and pursue negotiations that will contribute to peace, freedom and security at home and abroad, giving particular attention to the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Now, as then, we seek to be informed by evangelical values as well as the best prudential judgment. We approach these issues from a variety of doctrinal perspectives, but we remain united in our core convictions. As we said in our 1977 resolution,
While we represent a wide constituency in our views of the place and type of military preparedness for defense to protect the welfare and provide for our domestic tranquility, as a National Association of Evangelicals we unite in deploring the mind-set that assumes the way to solve problems is by might and power (Zechariah 4:6). We should never forget that we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).[xi]
Two years later, in 1979, the NAE issued a statement that:
recognizing the possibility of armed conflict and even mass destruction, declared that within the membership are those who are committed to peace through strength and those who renounce the use of force as a matter of conscience. There was a call to urge our government to exercise reasonable restraint in the production and use of its military capabilities and to encourage other nations to do the same.[xii]
Again in 1982, we reiterated our call:
The National Association of Evangelicals board of directors expresses its deep concern about the threat of a nuclear holocaust and urges our national leaders to rededicate their efforts to obtain a meaningful arms control agreement that will scale down the nuclear arms race.[xiii]
While the threat of armed nuclear conflict no longer captivates the public imagination as it did a generation ago, these weapons of mass destruction, now capable of being delivered in ever more sophisticated ways, continue to threaten humankind. Many argue that they weaken rather than strengthen our security. And so we prayerfully and boldly call on evangelicals to re-engage the national dialogue on nuclear peace and security in our globalizing age, making a distinctively evangelical contribution. We raise both biblical and pastoral concerns, and speak to policy issues, though with due restraint and humility.
Protecting human dignity and the sanctity of life. Scripture teaches that God made human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27). As bearers of God’s image, all people share in the divine dignity.[xiv] Human life and freedom are precious and should be defended from injustice and tyranny. While warfare threatens the dignity and sanctity of human life, many evangelicals believe that armed conflict may at times be necessary to defend the nation. Nuclear weapons, however, pose a threat to life many orders of magnitude greater than conventional arms. Their unique destructive potential raises unique theological questions. Nuclear weapons may serve certain military purposes, but they also kill large numbers of civilians. An unrestrained global nuclear exchange has the technical capacity to virtually destroy life on the planet.
Restraining evil and protecting freedom and security. Human rebellion against God quickly led to murder and compounded evil (Genesis 4:8, 23; Genesis 6:5). Scripture and human history testify to the extent of human depravity. In this context, government is a gracious gift from God for the common good to restrain the chaos and violence to which we would otherwise descend. Rulers are called to uphold justice and righteousness and to defeat the oppressor (Psalm 72:1-4), even to the point of bearing the sword (Romans 13:4). A long tradition of just war theory, to which many evangelicals subscribe, endorses but places strict ethical limits on the right of the state to wage war in defense of justice. A growing body of Christian thought calls into question the acceptability of nuclear weapons as part of a just national defense, given that the just war theory categorically admonishes against indiscriminate violence and requires proportionality and limited collateral damage. The very weapons meant to restrain evil could potentially destroy all that they were intended to protect, which begs the question whether they can be normatively employed toward a just end.
Promoting true peace and reconciliation. Jesus announced the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17) and called people to reconciliation with God and with humanity. He taught love and forgiveness of the enemy, a theme repeated in Paul’s writings: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). Paul’s counsel is tempered by Christian realism: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Jesus commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Evangelicals take the gospel message and mandate seriously and believe in the power of the gospel to transform enemies into friends of God. In this light even a limited nuclear exchange would be not only a humanitarian and social disaster. It would also be a spiritual tragedy for the gospel, foreclosing the opportunity for millions to hear and receive the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. Evangelicals seek to promote spiritual transformation leading to peace with God and neighbor. The nuclear peace that has prevailed since 1945 has been based on the threat of imminent and mutual destruction, thus falling far short of the peace that God intends for all people.
Respecting creaturely and generational limits. The ancient Hebrews were no strangers to warfare, but the Mosaic law prohibited gratuitous destruction. Soldiers were permitted to cut down trees needed to construct siege works. But they were prohibited from destroying fruit trees and orchards, which would be needed to feed future generations. Beyond their productive value, the text suggests that other parts of God’s creation deserve protection in their own right, asking rhetorically, “Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19). The devastation of nuclear weapons presents an inordinate challenge to post-conflict restoration. The radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons persists in destructive effect for generations, long after a conflict’s end. With their unique destructive potential, nuclear weapons profoundly threaten the lives and prosperity of future generations, and of all God’s creatures. The account of the tower of Babel, in which humans with ambitions of deity sought to “make a name for themselves” (Genesis 11:1-9) reminds us that human technological prowess can outpace spiritual and moral development and provide a false sense of invulnerability. Nuclear weapons may encourage human hubris and lead to an overreaching power beyond God’s will for any fallen human government to wield.
Promoting trust in God. The psalmist declares, “My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62:1). Pastors are called to guide their people into spiritual growth, leading them to put their trust and hope in God. Any competing foundation is misplaced idolatry that, unchecked, fatally compromises Christian discipleship. Jesus taught that “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:34). Scripture shows that national military might too often takes the place of trust in God. Witness, for example, ancient Babylonians, a guilty people “whose own strength is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11). When the national security strategy relies on maintaining a credible threat to kill millions of civilians, pastors are right to ask whether their people are trusting someone or something other than God. The prophet Isaiah challenged the kingdom of Judah when they sought a military alliance with Egypt, rather than trusting God: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it” (Isaiah 30:15). The psalmist is even more explicit. One might substitute “nuclear weapon” for “horse” without doing violence to the text:
No king is saved by the size of his army,
No warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
Despite all its great strength it cannot save (Psalm 33: 16-17).
Cultivating love of enemy. Jesus taught his followers to live by the ethic of radical love for God and neighbor, whether the neighbor is friend or foe (Luke 6:27-36). Jesus was God’s example par excellence of love that reaches out when we are estranged from God (Romans 5:8). Most evangelicals acknowledge that biblical mandates meant for individuals do not necessarily apply in identical fashion to nation states. The state is specifically authorized to bear the power of the sword on behalf of justice (Romans 13:4). Nonetheless the state should not cultivate a spirit of hatred or violence among its people. When a state relies on nuclear weapons for its security, it may dehumanize citizens of other countries by targeting noncombatants for threatened nuclear destruction.
Providing ethical guidance to those employed in the nuclear weapons industry. The discovery of how to split the atom was a groundbreaking scientific and technological achievement involving large numbers of scientists, engineers and workers from many disciplines using their God-given talents. Today hundreds of thousands of Americans, both military and civilian, are directly or indirectly involved in the design, manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons. Many of these people are members of our churches. They seek to use their gifts and skills to serve their nation. Some are troubled by the ethical ambiguities of participation in an enterprise that involves producing weapons of mass destruction. Chaplains and pastors should avoid simplistic answers, but should rather guide their members in prayerful reflection, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they wrestle with issues of profound moral consequence.
We write as church leaders, not military strategists. We speak because nuclear weapons, with their capacity for terror as well as for destruction of human life, raise profound spiritual, moral and ethical concerns. We urge our members to become informed about the issues raised by nuclear weapons. Churches may sponsor or participate in dialogues where moral as well as prudential concerns related to the possession, threat and potential use of nuclear weapons may be discussed in an atmosphere of respect for different points of view. Individual citizens are encouraged to communicate their views to their elected representatives. We believe a thoughtful application of evangelical principles supports:
Re-examining the moral and ethical basis for the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In the Cold War era there may have been some pragmatic justification for the strategy known as “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), but even then, the threat to annihilate large civilian populations was morally problematic. In an age where the most likely nuclear foe is not another nation state with property and people to protect, but a terrorist group with no specific location that could be targeted for retaliation, the very existence of nuclear weapons may be a liability rather than an asset.
Maintaining the taboo against nuclear use. There have been many wars and conflicts involving nuclear armed states, but since 1945 no nation has used nuclear weapons in battle. Nuclear arms are recognized by treaty as a distinct class of weapons. Leaders recognize that any first use of nuclear weapons could result in resounding condemnation by other nations. The taboo has provided an additional layer of protection against nuclear war. Once broken, it would be very difficult to re-establish. This argues against the deployment or use even of tactical nuclear weapons.
Achieving verified mutual reductions in current nuclear stockpiles. Even those who believe that some form of nuclear deterrence is inevitable may acknowledge that the current arsenals of the United States and Russia are more than what is needed for deterrence. The world’s two leading nuclear powers possess between them some 19,500 nuclear warheads, approximately 95 percent of the world total.[xv] The recently ratified New START treaty makes modest further reductions but still leaves the two parties with many times more warheads than their nearest competitors. Most analysts believe that further bilateral reductions are a necessary prelude to eventual multilateral negotiations. Such reductions would reduce the world’s capacity for a cataclysmic nuclear exchange and would encourage non-nuclear powers to honor their commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Acknowledging and ratifying the de facto ban on new nuclear testing. As of October 2011, 155 nations of the world have taken an important step toward reversing the arms race by signing and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.[xvi] Another 28 countries, including the United States, have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it. The United States and eight other countries must ratify the treaty for it to go into force. While some concerns remain, there have been substantial advances in verification technologies, adding confidence that countries seeking to cheat on the ban would be caught. The United States, for its part, has held to a unilateral nuclear test ban since 1992, even though the treaty still awaits ratification by the U.S. Senate.
Increasing safeguards against accidental use. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still have thousands of missiles on high alert.[xvii] The risk that a nuclear exchange could occur due to operator or computer error or human miscalculation is probably low, but the consequences of error are unthinkable. While pursuing additional threat-reduction steps, nuclear powers should adopt mutual reductions in alert statuses and other safeguards to provide a greater margin for error and an extra cushion of safety.
Focusing attention on resolving regional conflicts. While the danger of a nuclear exchange between former Cold War rivals has receded, there are worrisome regional tension in several parts of the world that could conceivably escalate into nuclear conflict, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. Even a third party nuclear exchange could have catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world. New research suggests that even a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could have climatic effects that would shorten the growing season by forty days, causing a famine affecting up to a billion people.[xviii]
Preventing the unauthorized spread of fissile material. While the world’s major powers have profound incentives to avoid any nuclear conflict, terrorists groups and rogue nations may not be similarly constrained. Much can be done to better control and regulate the flow of nuclear material, including those used for energy and other peaceful purposes, so that it does not fall into the wrong hands. The Nuclear Security Summit convened in 2010 is a positive step forward, as are the planned follow-on conferences.
Continuing dialogue on the effects of possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons. Current military doctrines contemplate the possible use of nuclear weapons but limit such use primarily to defensive roles (e.g. the U.S. 2010 Nuclear Posture Review[xix]). Increasingly, however, many knowledgeable observers argue that the mere possession of nuclear weapons decreases rather than increases national security. Continued possession undermines the nonproliferation regime and commitments by the nuclear powers to actively pursue nuclear disarmament. The very existence of nuclear weapons and weapons grade fissile material increases the possibility that some of these weapons and materials may fall into the hands of terrorists. This debate raises technical and strategic questions requiring specialized knowledge. As church leaders, we simply urge that the debate continue. We call on evangelicals to consider these issues in light of their faith and to pray for our leaders and all who are charged with protecting our nation from external aggression.
[i] Use of Force 1977. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/use-of-force/ Accessed September 2, 2015.
Nuclear Holocaust 1982. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/nuclear-holocaust/. Accessed September 2, 2015.
[ii] “Table of Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles, 1945-2002.” Natural Resources Defense Council. Available from http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab19.asp. Accessed September 13, 2011.
[iii] Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 25, 1961. Available from http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/DOPIN64xJUGRKgdHJ9NfgQ.aspx. Accessed February 4, 2015.
[iv] Tiwari, Jaya, and Cleve J. Gray. “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents.”
[v] U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Final Meeting, 12 October 1986, 3:25 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – 6:50 p.m. See esp. p. 11. Available from http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB203/Document15.pdf. Accessed October 14, 2011.
[vi] E.g. 1984 State of the Union Address. Available from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=40205#axzz1anMg6PaD. Accessed October 14, 2011.
[vii] Woolf, Amy F. “Arms Control and Strategic Nuclear Weapons: Unilateral vs. Bilateral Reductions.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, December 17, 2001, pp. 9-10. Available from http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/7946.pdf. Accessed October 14, 2011.
[viii] Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Wall Street Journal. January 4, 2007. Available from http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6109. Accessed September 19, 2011.
[ix] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, esp. Article VI. Available from http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/Others/infcirc140.pdf. Accessed September 13, 2011.
[x] Nuclear Posture Review Report. April 2010. Page v. Available from http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf. Accessed September 13, 2011.
[xi] Use of Force 1977. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/use-of-force/ Accessed September 2, 2015.
[xii] Nuclear Holocaust 1982. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/nuclear-holocaust/. Accessed September 2, 2015.
[xiii] Nuclear Holocaust 1982. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/nuclear-holocaust/. Accessed September 2, 2015.
[xiv] For the Health of the Nation: an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility 2004. Page 16. National Association of Evangelicals. Available from http://nae.net/for-the-health-of-the-nation/. Accessed September 2, 2015.
[xv] “Status of World Nuclear Forces.” Federation of American Scientists. Available from http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html. Accessed September 13, 2011.
[xvi] Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. Available from http://ctbto.org. Accessed October 14, 2011.
[xvii] Blair, Bruce. “A Rebuttal of the U.S. Statement on the Alert Status of U.S. Nuclear Forces.” Available from http://lcnp.org/disarmament/opstatus-blair.htm. Accessed February 4, 2015.
[xviii] Robock, Alan, and Owen Brian Toon. “South Asian Threat? Local Nuclear War = Global Suffering.” Scientific American, January 2010, pp. 74-81. Available from http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/pdf/RobockToonSciAmJan2010.pdf. Accessed October 14, 2011.
[xix] Nuclear Posture Review Report. April 2010. Page viii. Available from http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf. Accessed September 13, 2011.