Interview with rabbi jack bemporad
“There Are No Winners in Nuclear War”
by Lidiia Batig
Our post-modern world is full of challenges, innovations, and opportunities. One of the most important is nuclear disarmament. Recently I interviewed Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Co-Director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and Professor of Interreligious Studies at the Angelicum University (Rome) to get his insight on the matter.
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What are your personal feelings and involvement in nuclear disarmament?
When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th, 1945, I was 12 years old. I must say that I was totally horrified. I could not believe that anyone would use a bomb that will kill so many people. And especially not people who were soldiers, but civilians. From that terrible moment I started to think about how priceless life is, how important peace between nations is, and how many efforts we should make to build this peace and to create different practical initiatives.
Later when I grew up, I asked myself a lot of questions: “Do we really not see that it is madness to use trillions of dollars to produce nuclear weapons yet not feed the hungry? And why we do everything to destroy the civilization, when the first real prophet Amos said basically that a society that neglects the poor, the widow, the orphan, the needy, the hungry, society that engages in wars – is the society that will not last.”
The moral issue here is how do the world nations use their resources. For example, you cannot spend all of your household money for guns or weapons and bullets and in the same way you forget to buy food for your children. That is absolute madness. That’s why for me nuclear weapons become the symbol of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ that gives no sense to human existence.
How much energy do you think has gone to nuclear disarmament and what possibilities do you see for work that could be done?
In fact, when we talk about nuclear bombs, we use the term MAD (mutually assured distraction). It is actually mad. But the real problem is that nuclear weapons create a totally new situation, that has never existed before. The nuclear weapon can destroy any human being. It is the first time ever that we have enough power to destroy not just the countries, but all civilization, all humanity. I am sure that we all should be involved in the process of nuclear disarmament, especially religious leaders, who can give the spiritual and moral value to this movement.
In your article “Norms of War in Judaism” for World Religions and Norms of War, you talk about how some countries have resorted to the creation of nuclear weapons out of self-preservation more than a desire to use them offensively. They feel too vulnerable without them. Given this, what do you think the process of nuclear disarmament needs to look like in order to actually work?
In that article I basically say that you cannot really claim that any war is just. The best you can say is that it may be necessary. But once you start a war, you have all unforeseen consequences. And these unforeseen consequences occur in all wars because you are always functioning on these three levels: you do not have enough knowledge about all things that can happen; second, you do not have enough control over all those things; and third, you are always going to have consequences that are unintended. That’s true in my opinion for all wars.
As I mentioned before, nuclear weapons create a totally new situation, a situation that has never existed before. Why? Because in all prior wars since the beginning of time, even in tribal wars, then when in wars between empires, the situation is like this: even if you lose a war you will continue to exist. But with a nuclear war we will get the death of every human being. What you have now is the increasing manufacture and upscaling of nuclear weapons. What you have now is the danger of nuclear war actually taking place unintentionally.
There is an incredible movie, “Dr. Strange Love,” that also speaks about this question. We do not have the kind of “safeguards” that guarantee that we will not have a nuclear war by accident. When Reagan and Gorbachev came to the conclusion that we have to limit nuclear weapons and eventually destroy them, they understood that there are no winners in a nuclear war.
You’ve done amazing work in interfaith dialogue in a variety of places and positions. Is there anything we can learn from interfaith dialogue about how to approach conversations around nuclear disarmament?
I was very active in the 80s in this question. And I am still trying to do all I can. For example, when Benedict XVI was Pope, I tried to find some way in which he and other world religious leaders could cooperate together in this question. And we as religious leaders should become a conscience of society, the voice for humanity. Perhaps when the religious leaders would say that we will not tolerate these kinds of things, such as nuclear weapons, we can change a lot and stop this horror. I am sure we should mobilize the religious leadership and take it as a significant issue.
I am convinced that we all should understand the difference between irrelevant goodness and relevant goodness. What is relevant goodness? Irrelevant goodness is when you get together, you have a meeting, conference, you say nice things, you write a paper, you say compliments to each other, but the result is absolutely nothing.
Relevant goodness is when you try to mobilize people who have some power, influence, voice, and go to the people who have the authority to do something and try to convince others to do that. But today we live in a society where people are much more interested in condemning each other, destroying one another rather than understanding others. In this, interreligious dialogue is really important. Because what we have to say is that basically, you have to understand others at all levels – religious, social, daily basis – only then through dialogue and mutual understanding, through compassion, you can prevent any war, even nuclear.
Do you see any intersection points between the Center for Interreligious Understanding (CIU), which you direct, and efforts to promote nuclear disarmament? Has CIU done any work related to this issue in the past?
Only indirectly. One of the main goals of our Center is to get religions to work together for peace. I did get people who are religious leaders to speak out for peace. For example, I brought the head of 20 million Buddhists in South Korea to the national prayer breakfast where he spoke about how Buddhism could be a source for peace. We have had conferences to try to indicate how religions can be used as a source for peace.
We have now on the agenda a conference in December in Dallas on Scriptural Resources for Peace; in other words, how our Scriptures can be used for peace. In that sense, the purpose of our Center is not only to show that religions should understand one another, but also work together for peace. For example, when Pope Francis went to Israel, I mobilized almost 500 rabbis to congratulate him and welcome him, because he was there to speak for peace.
In the best of all worlds, how can world religions contribute to the effort to keep humankind alive?
I think we need to speak with the admirals, the generals, and the military people and work with them. And another example is to have classes or seminars or study guides programmed for every single congregation. Every single Jewish congregation, Catholic congregation, Protestant congregation can develop study guides, programs, and resources. In other words, it is not enough to just have a conference and say, “How wonderful it is!” We will take the results of that conference, translate it into different languages, publish videos, study guides, lesson plans, and an army of individuals will go and teach about the danger of nuclear weapons all over the world. These are the most important practical initiatives that should take place.
For example, in the Catholic Church one of the great insights of Pope John Paul II, and that man was a genius you know, is that it wasn’t enough to have documents in the Vatican. He wanted to make it something that everyone will understand, so he came up with a new Universal Catechism that was sent to every bishop in 80 languages all over the world. It basically had all the transformative teachings of the Vatican II. And so, in a sense he did is just what I am saying. He took something, gave it authority, made it available in all these languages, sent it to the bishops, and then the bishops started studying and seeing ways they can adopt it and implement it. We should follow his steps and eventually it will help us to deal with the problem of nuclear disarmament.
Header Photo: Wikipedia