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The Interfaith Community and Nuclear Weapons

Calling All Nations, Calling the Faithful

The Interfaith Community and Nuclear Weapons

by William Swing


This speech was given on April 30, 2014 at the United Nations at a conference titled “Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass.” Though written five years ago, the issue has not changed much except in magnitude.

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What do the following tragedies have in common? 

1 - The Columbine High School shooting of April 1999.

2 - The Virginia Tech mass killings of April 2007. 

3 - The Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013.

4 - The Jewish Community Center murders of April 2014?

And the answer isn’t April. What do they all have in common?

In each instance there was an interfaith service that was held immediately for everyone, together, in these communities. Just as there was an interfaith service here in New York in Yankee Stadium following 9/11. That fact deserves a little reflection.

Here we had religions with ancient feuds and, in many instances around the world today, deadly religious rivalries. Nevertheless, when entire communities here needed to grieve, they wanted all of the religions to come together to allow that to happen. And the religions obliged. The arc of history regarding the predictability of religious competition was bending. Religions, coming together, discovered that they had a common vocation for the good of the total community. Thereafter, communities across the nation had an interfaith resource to serve the common good in their futures.

Today we gather to take a further step. Our focus is on nuclear weapons. It would be absurd to imagine in the future an interfaith service after the nuclear holocaust that has already been planned and triggered for this city, for instance. No faiths would be left to collect the mountainous grief. Just a first strike, just a first strike of the weapons that are aimed at us today might annihilate 280 million people.

At least that is how many human beings we have targeted today in other parts of the world with our first strike, and I assume there to be some sort of reciprocity of numbers. 

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

In the face of a catastrophic nuclear Armageddon or the possibility of suitcase bombs or the prospect of rogue states with nuclear designs or individual madness linked with black-market fissile material and all of the retaliations, what has interfaith got to do with these threats? Is the only vocation for interfaith a defensive one after the fact of tragedy, or is there something unique and helpful that the interfaith movement could do up front, beforehand to challenge the nuclear assumptions that have gotten us to this moment . . . to humanize the calculation ... to prompt believers in God to face up to the abominations that we conspire to commit?

I would like to submit that the genius of interfaith is its ability to gather together people of a wide range of differing and conflicting persuasions in order to do something creative and deeply needed for the total community. Translated into nuclear disarmament terms, I believe that the interfaith movement could mobilize and energize a far greater team of advocates than now exists.

I was just listening to the folks at Ploughshares who say that they get 90% of their funds from people who are over 65 years of age. Young people just do not care about the nuclear threat hanging over their heads. I hear college professors and clergy say that their young people are simply not interested in the nuclear issue. Yes, parliamentarians are doing their bit ... motivated policy people are stepping up to the plate ... the “Quartet” writes op eds that catch momentary attention ... faiths and interfaith groups issue declarations of gravity and highest purpose ... petitions signed by tens of thousands circulate from time to time, yet when all is said and done, most every entity operates in a silo. We, who are silent colleagues, simply do not work together. 

I am not advocating that we only coalesce the forces that presently exist. All of them are good and needed, and yes we could come together and make a little more of a difference. But ... what I propose is that interfaith resources by used to unleash a much wider imagination.

Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age 2, by Berta Rosenbaum Golahny – Phot0:    Wikimedia

Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age 2, by Berta Rosenbaum Golahny – Phot0: Wikimedia

We need artists and filmmakers, hip-hoppers and storytellers. We need to point out that the nuclear issue is THE environmental issue. We need to compete with apocalyptic movies to state that the apocalypse is not entertainment; it is a real threat that needs the good guys to overcome the bad guys. 

We need to mine the mother lode of stories of nuclear accidents and close calls and heroes and victims and nuclear greed and insane claims of security and the myth that a super race of people should decide who should be armed and who should be disarmed. We need to tell the whole truth about the financial price being paid and the length of the clean-up and who will be left holding the dump. We need to heed the scientist telling about “the Big Bang” of Creation and face up to our homemade Big Bang that could smash it into destruction. We need to make this issue available to young people with all of the fear and all of the hope that accompanies nuclear possession and nuclear responsibility. 

And why? Because the people who control nuclear issues have full media range to tell their myths and mute the real figures and keep the voice of the people and the conscience of the people and the vote of the people far removed from difference making. Why shouldn’t “We the People ... ” have a say in forming “a more perfect union.” We could if the door to reality and imagination about the nuclear threat could be unlocked.

I propose that the interfaith enterprise, which, in many ways, has been born in grief, might well be positioned to unlock the door to nuclear awareness among the young. It is high time for fresh air to come into that stale room of doom.

Header Photo: Pixabay