July 20, 2016
The collective gasp at new British PM Theresa May articulating clearly her willingness to do the will of the people by murdering multiple thousands in a nuclear strike “if necessary” is a bit of a surprise. The reminder that deterrent threats are a real part of US, British, and NATO defense strategy and useful only if articulated and believed is always bracing. But let’s not be moral fascists or hypocrites.
Is there anyone today who does not know what nuclear deterrence is for, what it threatens? The £40 billion Britain is spending on new Trident subs is not for mere window dressing. Is there anyone who does not understand what the principle common to democratic society, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” implies? As a matter of policy, deterrence in the West is periodically reinforced openly and is always voiced early in the administration of new leaders, but it should not shock anybody when it is or that it is about the shared willingness to obliterate hundreds of thousands of human beings in one go.
Clearly specified in all the highest level national and military defense documents guiding US, British, and NATO policy (Russia's too), nuclear deterrence rests squarely on the credible threat to hold an enemy’s most valuable assets at risk without ever specifying exactly what could trigger a strike or what is being targeted. The goal is to instill debilitating, irrational, convincing fear so that an enemy does not do what we do not want them to do. The philosophical foundation of deterrence is that a threat without willingness to execute it is not a threat and might invite an attack or other costly action against us. Included in 21st century deterrence theory is the concept of “denial,” the notion that we will—quite euphemistically—not strike first but strike preemptively to destroy capability we believe would otherwise be used against us.
There is no relief in the secret hope that the threats our leaders make in our names are not sincere. What virtue is there in making unvirtuous threats, especially if they are made only to cripple with fear? “If you take one step closer, I’ll kill you” only works if the person threatened believes he’s dead unless he goes away. Where is the Christian virtue in knowing there are millions of people in the world who live under our collective threat to incinerate them? What would be a reasonable response from a British or US citizen who prayed regularly “Lord remove from the daily lives of Russians the fear that they may die in a nuclear holocaust unleashed by their enemies?” I’m pretty sure many of us pray that for ourselves. Our thoughts toward the citizens of Moscow are more likely, “If they don’t want to die that way, they should do something about their own ungodly government.” I’m pretty sure few of us think that way toward ourselves.
If Theresa May—or Barack Obama—pushes the button to launch a nuclear missile, it will be you and me who have willed it and done it. The blood of hundreds of thousands of lives will be on our hands. In a constitutional democracy, an authorized act by the government is an act of the people. According to law, a conspiracy to commit murder is as culpable as an actual murder. According to the Gospel, a threat made in the heart has the weight of an act already committed. Murder intended stains and darkens the heart like a murder done. Passivist support that lacks the courage, honesty, and integrity to oppose nuclear deterrence, voting for those who would “push the button” (ask any candidate to clearly say they would not), and merely living in a constitutional democracy all spread the responsibility evenly and widely.
Those who always, inevitably, attempt to shut down any conscientious attempt to expose this simple truth are not behaving out of either patriotic or Christian virtue. Blinded by fear and crippled by the lack of a peacemaking imagination, they employ the languages of patriotism and theology to describe nuclear mass murder as a good, hide their pretended innocence under the cloak of obedience to authority or duty to country, obfuscate with a feigned “what else can we do?”, or simply blame the enemy for doing it to himself. But it will still be murder. Don’t think so?—then how will you describe the deaths of countless children in a US city if they launch a missile against us?
Through nuclear deterrence, we arrogantly seek to emulate the worst caricature of God by threatening hell in order to bend our enemies to our will so that they submit to serve our self-interests—through fear or love, we don’t care. We may act like we don’t understand, but James 4:1 (ESV) describes normal life not submitted to God: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” The Greek for quarrel here is translated “war” or “battle” every other occurrence in the New Testament. A literal translation would read: “Where does war come from, and where do conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your pleasures at war within you?”
How many Russian, Muslim, or Chinese (all currently in US targeting protocols) children is your fear—of losing pleasure, comfort, safety, or your own life—willing to annihilate today? Go ahead—say the number. Do not be fooled, no nuclear missile distinguishes between innocent and guilty—their fiery embrace is more far reaching and inclusive than we like to think about. A nuclear blast wave does not stop politely at the periphery of a military target.
The only consonant response for a Christian citizen of a nuclear power to the “news” yesterday that the leader of a nation possessing such weapons would actually use them is repentance. Then come the fruits of repentance: humility, prayer, faith, hope, love, works of mercy, love of enemies, forgiveness of others, self-sacrificial love for all, peacemaking, etc. These are not passive; they are vigorously borne only by the courageous and strong in the face of what we fear.
editor, In Communion