Emily Welty is an associate professor and the director of peace and justice studies at Pace University. She also serves as vice moderator of the World Council of Churches and the main representative to the United Nations for the International Peace Research Association.
Working on nuclear disarmament feels like the intersection of two ventricles of the human heart awash in equal amounts of despair and progress. The whir of panic about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the encouraging movement towards a nuclear-free world both feel accelerated during these first weeks of 2020. Nuclear saber-rattling and a political assassination that escalates violence both latent and overt between the United States and Iran. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock forward to one hundred seconds before midnight. Nuclear states show little introspection or shame about their stockpiles of horrific weaponry.
Nonetheless, rousing symbols of prophetic hope of a more generous, interdependent, trusting, and creative world abound. New York City, one of the largest cities in the world, had a hearing on January 29 to consider divestment from nuclear weapons and reaffirm the city as a nuclear weapon-free zone, joining other major cities taking local action on nuclear disarmament such as Toronto, Los Angeles, and Melbourne. The majority of millennials support banning nuclear weapons entirely according to the latest poll from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Some days it feels difficult to hold both of these truths in one human heart—the devastating risks and the courageous progress made by ordinary citizens to ameliorate these threats. For religious people, holding these tensions together in our souls and addressing them with our work is fundamental to our identity as people of faith who manage to live amidst suffering while not losing sight of the ultimate expectation that the world is beloved and meant for sublime goodness. Pope Francis’ visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki embodied the delicacy and skill of addressing both impulses. The pope’s denouncement that the use as well as the possession of nuclear weapons is a “crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home” acknowledges the serious moral violation of these weapons. The most terrifying threats to human existence do not respect the borders of nation-states, and the most promising movements to address these dangers are also transnational. While some instrumentalize religion to promote division, at its core, religion remains a global reservoir of justice, selflessness, humility, and liberation.
Religious people always maintain loyalties that supersede our allegiance to country. We are called to be faithful not to the ideology of any particular political party but to an ethos of compassion, generosity, and service. The vision of religious leaders, whether ordained or laypeople, should exceed national boundaries. Our obligation to love our neighbor does not end at any human-made border.
In the face of the unimaginable destruction of everything we love, it feels like any individual action is meaningless. I felt overwhelming despair when I first learned about how widespread and dangerous nuclear weapons continue to be. Encountering religious organizations like the World Council of Churches, which have advocated against the testing, development, and use of nuclear weapons since their inception, offered me hope. Joining the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and working on our Nobel Peace Prize-winning movement to establish the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons convinced me there is always another alternative to resignation.
I attended the 2017 Vatican conference on nuclear disarmament which included an audience with Pope Francis. I was surprised by how meaningful I found meeting the pope, despite my Mennonite/Presbyterian religious background which eschews hierarchy. The pope inspires people beyond the borders of Catholicism with the humility and sincerity with which he approaches each person. This depth of presence embodies love in a borderless world. Religious leaders like Pope Francis can change the global conversation on nuclear disarmament because their reach supersedes national and ecumenical borders.
Borderless threats also offer new openings to partner across denominational and religious lines to speak with one voice about the world we desire. Last spring at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee at the United Nations, I delivered a statement on behalf of 53 faith groups from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist organizations, representing the voices of millions of people of faith worldwide. The statement highlighted the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, denounced their production, development, stockpiling; called for recognition of the suffering of victims of nuclear testing; and urged diplomats to engage in constructive dialogue on nuclear disarmament. The diversity of groups including the World Evangelical Alliance, Pax Christi, the Islamic Society of North America, World Council of Churches, and Soka Gakkai International demonstrated that despite theological differences, common ground can be found in our obligation to act against threats to our shared humanity.
People of faith can—and must—take every action they can for nuclear disarmament on every level. We can neither defer nor delay our moral responsibility to end one the most devastating threats of our lifetime. The good news is there have never been so many opportunities to work for a nuclear-free world. Individuals can work at the most basic level to ensure their own finances and investments (and those of their congregations) reflect their values using resources like Don’t Bank on the Bomb. Local mayors or political leaders can commit themselves to promoting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by signing ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge. Courageous acts of protest and civil disobedience are avenues to prick the conscience of our fellow neighbors, friends, and family into a greater commitment to a nuclear-free planet. Teaching and listening to young people restores intergenerational solidarity and offers opportunities to imagine new expressions of love and resistance.
I am currently on sabbatical, backpacking around the world for a year. Even as I carry a passport stamped at the border of each new country, I am reminded of the increasingly borderless threats we face. Right now, I am in Australia and have shared the panic of breathing the charred reality of climate catastrophe revealed in the bushfires. The borderless nature of our collective drive towards consumption wreaks havoc on our planet. But I also see the fundamental goodness of the human spirit as Australians open their homes to those who lost everything. Spending time in Maohi Nui/French Polynesia was a reminder of French nuclear testing and the devastating impacts on people, animals, and plants far beyond their own borders. Visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a few weeks before the pope’s historic visit was a sobering reminder of the responsibility I bear as a citizen of the only country to use nuclear weapons in war. But beyond my obligation as an American, my time in Japan reinforced my human responsibility to work for good, to acknowledge atrocity, and to ensure no one ever again has to endure the horror of nuclear detonations.