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Sarah Smith Conference addresses security, nuclear weapons, and the way forward

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

Talk about morality, nuclear weapons, and the way forward dominated the Sept. 18-19 Sarah Smith Conference hosted by Yale Divinity School's Center for Faith and Culture on the topic “Are We Safe Yet? Vulnerability and Security in an Anxious Age.”   The question was not answered definitively—not that anyone expected it to be—but the conference did seem to reach a critical mass with respect to raising some of the key issues relevant to the discussion in an increasingly globalized age.

The conference was marked by distinctly global dimensions, not only because of the subject matter but through the presence of players on the international stage such as Sergio Duarte of Brazil, the United Nations’ high representative for disarmament, and Canadian diplomat Douglas Roche, chair of the Middle Powers Initiative, as well as lesser-known figures from overseas such as Raag Rolfsen of the Church of Norway’s Council on Ecumenical and International Relations.

Sarah Smith ConferenceAmong other things, there was engagement on security as a moral question; the role of the faith community in the debate; the complexity of the situation; American exceptionalism; divestment from industries manufacturing nuclear weapons; what can or should be done; and reasons for hope.

Roche, who along with Duarte was one of the keynote speakers, told conferees that, in the age of globalization, a “new understanding of human rights” is emerging that sets the stage for demands to end nuclear proliferation. Using words like “fundamentally immoral,” “illegal,” “insult,” and “outrage” to describe the world of nuclear weaponry, he called on people of faith to claim a “sacred right to peace” and work toward disarmament.  “It is about God’s planet,” said Roche. “ ...I don’t see how this agenda can be divorced from religious concern.”
Other speakers also made the connection between questions of security and the world of religion, and also of ethics.

Underscoring the links between nuclear weapons and possible extinction of humanity, Jonathan Schell of The National Institute and author of the seminal book The Fate of the Earth described extinction as something “new and different” that “damages life on a whole new scale and at a level and therefore demands new thought and new response.”

An offense offered to God

Said Schell, “To put it in religious language, I’d say it’s more and more as if through our actions we are flinging the creation back in the creator’s face, as if to say,  ‘This wasn’t good enough for us; we expected something better’ ...This is an offense offered to God.”

Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, suggested that, for most people, it is too difficult to consider the implications of a world armed with nuclear weapons.  “And that’s one of the reasons,” he said, “why it’s so significant and important that theologians give people the spiritual, psychic capacity to deal with this, because I believe that the only way of overcoming evil is through love, and nuclear weapons represent the ultimate quest of the love of power.

“The theological message has to be that we believe in the power of love, despite the evidences of our time and our senses ...despite the fact that history may appear to deny the possibility of redemption. And that’s what faith is about in my opinion, and nuclear weapons are a total denial of that faith.
Granoff concluded that integration of nuclear weapons into conventional war-fighting strategy renders “morally acceptable the use of nuclear weapons, and if that is not an abomination that every minister in this country should address, then I don’t know what is.”

While some of the speakers condemned nuclear weaponry in no uncertain terms, others cautioned that the complex nature of the globalized world calls for a more nuanced approach.  John Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale and an expert in the Cold War and international studies, suggested that we live in “complex and paradoxical” times that call for “a certain humility.” 

Gaddis pointed to the H-bomb tests in the early 1950s as a kind of “miracle” that created a heightened sense of the vulnerability of the world and gave rise to warnings against the use of nuclear weapons.

God moves mysteriously

“How do you weigh these things?” asked Gaddis.  “Was it a terrible thing that H-bombs were developed?  Yes, absolutely. On the other hand, H-bombs created a sense of this common morality that transcended nationality and ideology in a way that A-bombs never did.  And I think that’s fairly important.  I think that paves the way for some of the other people who then came later.”  Quipped Gaddis, “As we all know, God moves mysteriously.”

In his keynote address, Duarte noted that “spiritual and religious convictions” can play a critical role in reinforcing the foundations of moral leadership, pointing out that the UN secretariat has “actively reached out to religious groups for their support in this great cause of nuclear disarmament.”

Paul Bracken, professor of management and professor of political science at the Yale School of Management, said the power of the religious community to influence policy makers should not be underestimated.  “If the Catholic cardinal calls,” Bracken observed, “you will pick up the phone. And if the Catholic cardinal was on the pastoral letter on war and peace in the early 1980s it will make a difference.”

Indeed, it was clear that many of the speakers and participants saw the conference as an opportunity to help strengthen the collective voice of the faith community in the nuclear disarmament debate.

A matter of life and death and God

The Rev. Tyler Wigg Stevenson ’04 M.Div., who leads the Two Futures Project and is policy director of Faithful Security: the National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Weapons Danger, chided churches for not taking a more active role in the discussion, arguing that engagement in the disarmament question—like slavery, civil rights or sex trafficking—is not optional for the religious community but a “theological imperative ...a matter of life and death and God.”

Sarah Smith ConferenceHe called on the Christian community to demand a reversal of what he termed “the hegemonic direction of America’s foreign policy.”  Said Stevenson,  “Christians who fail to note what is happening in plain sight—or worse, who recognize this blasphemy but fail to name it as such—are without excuse.”

Moving forward, speakers underscored the need for continued conversation and dissemination of facts, and engagement with political figures and institutions that set policy.  And divestment of stock in companies involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons—following the tactic that is often seen as pivotal in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa—was cited as a particularly promising course of action for proponents of disarmament.

Granoff held up what he described as “The divestment challenge ...in which our major institutions that have moral legitimacy would say, ‘We can’t on the one hand advocate saving the planet on Monday, and then on Tuesday invest in companies that are planning the destruction of the planet.’”

And Roche, while endorsing a divestment strategy, warned that proponents should expect hostility from the “major powers.”  “Yes, we certainly should do it, but we should do it with our eyes wide open ...and it would require penetrating studies by responsible organizations within society, of which, again, religion is certainly one.”

Paul Hodel ’92 M.Div., a Quaker and member of the YDS Alumni Board, said, “I think the Divinity School should send out a call to all graduates, clergy and lay people ...and we should be having dialogues within our local communities to do local organizing to expand our movement.”

“Also, I think calling for a divestment from nuclear weapons and all militarism would be very good,” said Hodel.  “I think a nationwide divestment movement would be a wonderful creative idea.”

Facing an uphill battle

Proponents of disarmament acknowledged that they face an uphill battle but pointed to what they said are signs of hope that the political winds might be blowing in a more progressive direction.  Several cited the call for a world free of nuclear weapons in widely read articles written by four eminent U.S. policy makers—former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn—in a pair of Wall Street Journal Op-Eds in January 2007 and 2008.

Naila Bolus, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, described what she called “a totally radical and dramatic conversation and thinking among conservatives and among unusual allies about how we achieve security in this new environment, namely, the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world, or making progress towards a nuclear weapons-free world.”

Schell noted that even many military people do not like nuclear weapons because they are unusable.  Said Schell, “There’s a sort of colossal futility about the whole thing ...The door is swinging open, so how do we get somebody to walk through?”

Stevenson encouraged supporters of disarmament not to expect immediate results:  “If we’re coming at this from an explicitly faith perspective, is faith about quick results? Or is the job that we’re called to do a parallel creation of a culture that finds nuclear weapons untenable such that when the issue finally comes to a political head ten years from now, say, we have slowly changed the culture

“It is a comprehensive task, and I think it requires avoiding the laziness of wanting an immediate political result, which is frankly impossible.”

Revised: 9-25-08

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