Adopted by the Governing Board, National Council of Churches USA
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10, RSV
“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Corinthians 6:2
Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, declared that He had come to bring “abundant life” to humanity. Nuclear weapons, which have the capacity to destroy entire cities and nations, and, indeed, all life on earth, represent the diametric opposite to this. In fact, the only thing that they are capable of producing is “abundant death.” The time has arrived to eliminate all of them, before they eliminate all of us. Be it therefore resolved that the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. hereby recommits itself to the total worldwide eradication of nuclear weapons.
For over sixty years, the United States has relied on the possession of an arsenal of nuclear weapons in order to impose world peace and deter attack. It has accomplished neither. Rather, it has siphoned off untold billions of dollars that could have been spent on far more just and productive means of ensuring global “security” through economic and cultural development and cooperation. It has poisoned our air, our water, and our children. It has produced toxic waste products that will remain radioactive for millions of years. Many believe it has also engendered a false sense of security coupled with inordinate pride, much resented by other nations. This has only served to degrade the status and esteem accorded to the U.S. by other peoples of the world, not to maintain or improve them. The same might be said of other nations that possess nuclear weapons.
Many expected that the nuclear menace would gradually disappear twenty years ago with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. While commendable progress was made towards reducing nuclear arsenals and defusing the tension between the two sides, these measures did not go far enough. Efforts have faltered, due in part to the perception that the “nuclear club” states believe that they are entitled to ignore commitments made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate their own weapons. But there is “a core hypocrisy” here: “The possession of these weapons and the readiness of a handful of countries to use them upgrades their perceived value and thus stimulates their proliferation and undermines efforts to control their spread.”1 This has provided a convenient opening for a growing number of nations to seek after these deadly weapons and thus threatens to ignite a second arms race. Even more frightening is the prospect that inadequately-secured fissile material will get into the hands of suicidal terrorists.
It is understandable that conventional wisdom would dictate that this is not the time for the United States to eliminate its nuclear shield. Rather, we should maintain a strong nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to attack. This reasoning breaks down for a number of reasons. As Jonathan Granoff puts it, “Nuclear weapons are of no value against terrorists, they’re suicidal to use against a country that has them, and it’s patently immoral to use them against a country that doesn’t have them. So why do we have them?”2 But what about “rogue states,” such as North Korea and Iran, which have recently acquired or may soon develop their own atomic bombs? Here, we must rely on the diplomatic weight of the entire rest of the world coming down on them, peaceably, in order to induce change. This will not happen, however, until the United States takes the lead.
The National Council of Churches has a long history of advocating for the restriction, control, and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons (see the select bibliography attached). This commitment is based on solid theological grounding, which goes back to the earliest years of the organization. Thus, in 1951, a year after the current formation of the Council was founded, the following was included in the seminal policy statement, “The National Council of Churches Views its Task in Christian Life and Work”:
History is purposeful and orderly because the world is in the hands of God, who made it. Cause leads to effect; and moral and spiritual factors are just as real as material factors – even more real. Man, in the exercise of his free will, can no more disregard the moral laws of the universe with impunity than he can disregard the physical laws of the universe with impunity. He does not break them; he breaks himself upon them when he disregards them.
Man, being a creature of God, has a destiny above and beyond this world. Hence his essential security and his essential freedom are not derived from this world. They are not for this world to give or destroy. It is equally disastrous either for the powers of this world to try to destroy them, or for the people to try to find them in this world. They are ends which this world should serve. But essential security rests only in the righteousness of God, and essential freedom only in His service. The state or society that presumes to bestow or withhold either assumes the prerogatives of God. The man who expects either from the world denies God and surrenders himself to certain frustration and defeat.3
While the non-inclusive language may sound jarring to our ears, there are important theological principles that emerge from these paragraphs which still guide this Council’s life and work. Two especially stand out: first, that the blatant violation of God’s moral law is ultimately self destructive: “He does not break them; he breaks himself upon them when he disregards them.” These words perfectly describe the suicidal result of any future deployment of nuclear weapons, because in destroying the enemy, the perpetrators would also ensure their own, and everybody else’s, annihilation.
Second, true security and authentic freedom derive only from our sovereign Creator. Consequently, when a state or society presumes to be able to bestow or ensure either, especially when based on the raw exercise of power, this is to assume “the prerogatives of God.” In other words, it is idolatry, and it will inevitably fail. A country may amass the greatest and most sophisticated military machine in history; it may extend its power and influence and economic might to every corner of the globe; but none of this – least of all, our nuclear arsenal – guarantees our “national security”. All it took was a small group of committed fanatics with nothing more deadly than box cutters and with commercial jets as their missiles to demonstrate this truth. Later in the same document, sound scriptural direction is provided, regarding the proper application of the concept of “security:”
Christ taught us to seek the well-being of our neighbors but He showed little concern for His own personal security. To seek security for others is a requirement of justice. It is ennobling. To seek security for ourselves at the expense of others is debasing and self-defeating for the nation and for the individual. The United States will not inspire the world by making its own security its chief end. It may even lose it by seeking it. “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”4
Considering how many trillions of dollars we have spent on nuclear weapons over the last seven decades, and how little we have to show for it, these words are sadly prophetic.
Condemnation of the use of atomic weapons was first expressed in an American ecumenical context in 1945 by the predecessor organization to the NCC, the Federal Council of Churches, shortly after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.5 It is clear that these church leaders were horrified by the indiscriminate death caused by such a weapon of mass destruction. Such misgivings soon gave way to a cautious acceptance of their “defensive” use, however, as the Cold War got underway. Nevertheless, we already see a call for an end to the arms race by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches in 1951. At that time, they stated the following: “History offers convincing evidence that the kind of peace for which Christians pray cannot be achieved by piling gun upon gun and bomb upon bomb. We warn the people of our churches that the civilization which they treasure may be destroyed unless the nations agree on a plan for the control of armaments on a global scale.”6
Control and reduction of armaments was called for in 1957 and again in 1958, in response to the beginning of the “Space Age,” which presented such dangerous implications for the use of space for purposes of nuclear war.7
In 1960, we see the first mention of the need for “enforceable agreements to eliminate weapons of death,” clearly referring to those “ultimate weapons, which threaten victim and aggressor alike with mutual suicide.”8 This was coupled with a strong message of support for the United Nations, as the most appropriate body in existence for overseeing the enforcement of any future arms agreements, and for creating a stable international order.9
While the decade of the 1960’s was primarily preoccupied with pronouncements expressing concern about or opposition to the War in Vietnam, the issue of the nuclear threat was not ignored. In “Imperatives of Peace and Responsibilities of Power,” the Governing Board recognized that, “in order to avert nuclear holocaust it is imperative that limits be imposed upon the use of military might, and that the inherent limitation of force in the solution of human and social problems be recognized.”10 Here, we hear echoes of the warnings about political hubris from 1951. The world is in God’s hands; we cannot compel the rest of humankind to do our willbased solely on the sheer magnitude of our military power. The document, furthermore, called for a reassessment of our country’s foreign policy assumptions and goals based on a more realistic acceptance of our true place in the world as one nation among many, rather than either the world’s savior or the world’s policeman. It again called for an increased reliance on the United Nations and other international bodies in order to foster peace with justice.
In that same year, the Governing Board published “Defense and Disarmament: New Requirements for Security.” This remarkable document, far-reaching in its vision and clear headed in its understanding of the larger issues regarding peace with justice, combined sound theological principles with practical, detailed prescriptions for the changes which, if they had been heeded, would surely have resulted in a quickening of the pace of nuclear disarmament and the consequent reduction in tensions between the great powers. It emphasized instead the need for international development and dialogue as the most appropriate and effective means for achieving lasting security for our nation and, indeed, the entire world.11
During the following two decades the NCC weighed in on all the major controversies of the day regarding the nuclear threat (see the Bibliography for the documentation):
- Opposed to the anti-ballistic missile program (1969)
- Supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1971)
- Supported United Nations conferences on nuclear disarmament (1975 and later)
- Opposed nuclear fuel reprocessing because of the threat of proliferation (1976)
- Called for the complete cessation of all explosive nuclear testing (1977)
- Declared total opposition to the possession or use of nuclear weapons and called for their complete elimination (1977
- Called for a nuclear weapons freeze (1981)
- Declared that the 1980’s escalation of the arms race was “utterly in conflict with the Gospel of Christ” (1981)
- Celebrated the excellent work of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in their 1983 Pastoral Letter on the nuclear crisis, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and our Response,” while also using this as an opportunity to recognize the serious “unresolved questions” that confront all Christianswith regard to this difficult issue
- Expressed excitement and hope at the time of the Reagan-Gorbachev Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, that almost achieved a breakthrough with regard to the elimination of both country’s nuclear arsenals (1986)
- Congratulated the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. on achieving an agreement in principle (later carried out) to eliminate intermediate nuclear forces from Europe (1987)
In 1999, the NCC General Assembly adopted “Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century, A Policy Statement on the United Nations.” It enunciated the following Bible-based principles:
1) the transcending sovereignty and love of God for all creation and the expression of that love in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whose mission was to reveal understanding about that divine presence, to proclaim a message of salvation and to bring justice and peace; 2) the unity of creation and the equality of all races and peoples; 3) the dignity and worth of each person as a child of God; and 4) the church, the body of believers, whose global mission of witness, peacemaking and reconciliation testifies to God’s action in history.12
These formed the theological foundation upon which seven “pillars of peace” were affirmed. Among them was “Peace and Conflict Resolution,” that called for the “end of the unrestrained production, sale and use of weapons worldwide.”13 This document formed the basis for then-General Secretary Bob Edgar’s presentation “Ecumenical Witness for Peace, Justice and Sustainability” at the Millennium Peace Summit at the United Nations in 2000, and it still informs our work today.
There are a number of compelling reasons why it is appropriate for the National Council of Churches to revisit the issue of total nuclear disarmament at this time:
- While the Council has a long history of involvement with this issue, it has not spoken directly about it since 1988. Much has happened since then to change the world. There is a strong consensus among experts in the field, that, given developments already underway towards acquiring or perfecting nuclear weapons in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere, now may be the last time that the world can realistically come together to ban the bomb through diplomatic measures. However, influence can only be brought to bear on the “rogue” states if those who already have the bomb agree to fulfill the binding agreement made under the Nonproliferation Treaty–(emdash)to accept a gradual but constant draw-down of their nuclear stockpiles until none are left. As Brazil’s former Ambassador Sergio Duarte said in 2005: “(O)ne cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect.”14
- There is a growing movement both worldwide and here in the U.S. to move towards elimination of nuclear weapons. It has gathered a lot of momentum because of the prominence of some of the key figures, such as George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. It has strong support in the religious community as well as among various non-governmental organizations. World leaders, such as Presidents Barack Obama and Demetri Medvedev (Russia) have taken notice and have spoken favorably of this prospect. Public pressure is key to the success of this effort, however, since it is reported that there is significant resistance to this campaign being exerted, especially from the military.
- 2011 will mark the end of the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence. A strong NCC witness, based on action for education and advocacy here at home, would be a most welcome contribution.
Is it possible to put the genie back in the bottle? Yes, because, once the current worldwide stockpile of weapons is eliminated, it will become extremely difficult to assemble the raw materials to make a new one without the rest of the world taking notice and forcing an end to such efforts. This would require continued support for the U.N.’s international inspection system. This would also keep nuclear devices out of the hands of terrorist organizations–the technology and construction of a nuclear device is so extremely complicated and energy intensive that it is not feasible to imagine that a terrorist group could actually make and employ one on their own successfully.15
The prospect for what might happen if we do not act is too terrible to contemplate: nuclear winter, the end of all human life on earth, and the transformation of much or all of our planet into a radioactive hell. This far outstrips the potential damage that could be done by any other environmental threat. The end of the Cold War did not make the world safer; quite the opposite. It is time to finish what Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev began in Reykjavik. It is time to realize that we cannot ensure our own security by force of arms, even if they be the most powerful weapons ever created. Our lives are in God’s hands. For once, let us put our trust in those hands as well. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Therefore, let it be resolved that the member communions of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., speaking together through the Council’s Governing Board, hereby reaffirm the goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons and commit themselves:
- to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress and the White House;
- to participate fully in the remaining programs and events of the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence.
- to support the work of the NCC staff and the appropriate working groups/committees in carrying out an effective program advocating for nuclear disarmament, including but not necessarily limited to: 1) producing new educational materials; 2) designating this issue for special attention at future Ecumenical Advocacy Days; 3) drafting a letter from council and church leaders to the members of Congress and the President; 4) sponsoring a special conference, including the publication of the proceedings for wide dissemination. The Justice and Advocacy Commission will be charged with oversight responsibility for these efforts.
- to provide the financial support needed in order to carry out this mandate as well as to assist the Council in obtaining funding from outside sources.
Be it further resolved that the President and the General Secretary of the NCC be instructed to communicate this commitment to the President of the United States and Congressional leaders.
- Jonathan Granoff, “The Call to a New Moral Imperative,” in Reflections, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Spring, 2009) – “The Fire Next Time: Faith and the Future of Nuclear Weapons,” p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- NCC Policy Statement, “The National Council of Churches Views its Task in Christian Life and Work,” May 16, 1951, p. 9.1-2.
- Ibid., p. 9.1-3.
- David Cortright, “Transcending Ambivalence: A History of Religious Engagement with the Bomb,” in Reflections, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Spring, 2009), p. 35.
- NCC Policy Statement, “International Regulation and Reduction of Armaments,” November 28, 1951, p. 5.1-1.
- NCC Policy Statements, “Some Hopes and Concerns of the Church in the Nuclear-Space Age,” December 5, 1957 and “The Churches Concern in Policies Related to the Control of Armaments and of the Use of Space,” June 4, 1958.
- NCC Policy Statement, “Toward a Family of Nations Under God: Agenda of Action for Peace,” June 2, 1960, 25.2-1- 25.2-2. (hyphen, not dash)
- NCC Policy Statement, “Imperatives of Peace and Responsibilities of Power,” February 21, 1968, p. 25.6-3.
- NCC Policy Statement, “Defense and Disarmament: New Requirements for Security,” September 12, 1968.
- NCC Policy Statement, “Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century: A Policy Statement on the United Nations,” November 11, 1999, p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Quoted in Granoff, “The Call to a New Moral Imperative,” p. 15.
- See “This is Humanity’s Climactic Moment – An Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala,” in Reflections, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Spring, 2009), pp. 46-47.
NCC Statements Related to Nuclear Disarmament Statement on the International Situation (NCC General Board Policy Statement; Jan. 17, 1951)
The National Council of Churches Views Its Task in Christian Life and Work (NCC General Board Policy Statement; May 16, 1951)
International Regulation and Reduction of Armaments (NCC General Board Policy Statement,Nov. 28, 1951)
Some Hopes and Concerns of the Church in the Nuclear-Space Age (NCC General Board Policy Statement; Dec. 5, 1957)
The Churches’ Concern in Policies Related to the Control of Armaments and of the Use of Space (NCC General Board Policy Statement; June 4, 1958)
The Churches and the Use of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes (NCC Governing Board Policy Statement; June 2, 1960)
Toward a Family of Nations Under God: Agenda of Action for Peace (NCC General Board Policy Statement; June 2, 1960)
Resolution for a Special Emphasis on Peace (NCC General Board Resolution; June 5, 1964)
Imperatives of Peace and Responsibilities of Power (NCC General Board Policy Statement; Feb.21, 1968)
Defense and Disarmament: New Requirements for Security (NCC General Board Policy Statement; Sept. 12, 1968)
Background Paper for Study on “Defense and Disarmament: New Requirements For Security” (NCC Department of International Affairs Study Document; 1968)
Resolution on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (NCC General Board Resolution; May 2, 1969)
Resolution on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (NCC Department of International Affairs Committee Resolution; June 4, 1971)
Resolution on Military Force and Foreign Policy (NCC General Assembly Resolution; Dec. 6, 1972)
Resolution on Senate Resolution 67 on Suspension of Nuclear Testing (NCC Governing Board Resolution; Oct. 14, 1973)
Resolution on a United Nations Conference on Nuclear Disarmament (NCC Governing Board Resolution; Oct. 12, 1975)
Resolution on Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Resulting From Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Technology (NCC Governing Board Resolution; Oct. 8, 1976)
The Complete Cessation of All Explosive Nuclear Testing (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 4, 1977)
The United Nations and World Community (NCC Governing Board Policy Statement; May 4, 1977)
Resolution on Nuclear Weapons (NCC Governing Board Resolution; Nov. 10, 1977)
Swords Into Plowshares: The Churches’ Witness for Disarmament (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 10, 1978)
Resolution to Curtail Supply of Anti-Personnel Weapons by U.S. to Israel and Other Nations and Restrict Use of Existing Supplies (NCC Governing Board Resolution; Board May 12, 1978.)
Resolution Concerning Follow-Up Action to the Consultation of the Churches on Disarmament (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 9, 1980)
Resolution on Congressional Committees on “Security and Terrorism” (NCC Resolution; May 13, 1981)
Resolution on a Nuclear Weapons Freeze (NCC Resolution; May 14, 1981)
Action on Escalation of the Arms Race (NCC Governing Board Action Statement; Nov. 5, 1981)
Swords Into Plowshares: The Churches’ Witness for Disarmament II (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 13, 1982)
Peacemaking and Ecumenism: A Celebration of the Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 13, 1983)
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 23, 1986)
A Message Concerning Arms Negotiations following the Reagan-Gorbachev Meeting at Reykjavik (NCC Governing Board Document; Nov. 6, 1986)
Resolution on the Agreement in Principle between the USA and the USSR on the Elimination of Intermediate Nuclear Forces (NCC Executive Committee Resolution; Sept. 18, 1987)
Disarmament (NCC Governing Board Resolution; May 26, 1988)
Commending President Bush for a Dialogical Approach to the Current Crisis in the USSR (NCC General Board Resolution; May 18, 1990)
Resolution to Endorse the Call for a Complete Ban on Anti-Personnel Landmines (NCC General Board Resolution; Nov. 17, 1995)
Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century: A Policy Statement on the United Nations (NCC/CWS General Assembly Policy Statement; Nov. 11, 1999)
After September I I, 2001: Public Policy Considerations for the United States of America (NCC/CWS General Assembly Resolution, Dec. 16, 2002)