Seeking Hope in Nuclear Disarmament by Escaping Our Limited Context

By: Nate Van Duzer

August 5, 2020

Keeping Faith in Nuclear Disarmament

Unlike other contributors to this topic, I do not currently live in the world of daily advocacy for nuclear weapons abolition. Whether this distance from the joys and disappointments of the day-to-day struggle makes it easier or harder to find hope for nuclear disarmament, I am not sure.

I do know this: Six months working with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons last year opened my eyes to the possibilities of a world free from nuclear weapons. Both what I saw and how my perspective changed during that time gives me hope. 

Hope for progress on disarmament may be hardest to find for those of us living and working in the U.S. context. Nuclear weapons programs in this country receive nearly $100,000 every minute. Nuclear deterrence—and its implicit threat to target and murder civilians on a mass scale —remains unquestioned policy. Passionate and dedicated advocates fight uphill for modest policy changes like no first use. Context shapes our understanding of the possible, the realistic, and the naïve.

But context is limited and limiting. Step outside of a given context and the view changes, sometimes dramatically. Step outside U.S. policymaking circles and one sees that more than two-thirds of states support a nuclear weapons ban. Even in some European countries that host U.S. weapons, large majorities support the ban despite their governments’ opposition to it. These countries and populations see the devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons—and they reject them outright. Organizations like ICAN and leaders like Pope Francis exhibit what peace scholar John Paul Lederach calls “moral imagination”: While not ignoring present reality, they have changed the landscape of future possibilities by shifting the conversation from security to humanitarianism. Instead of focusing on abstract theories of deterrence, they have turned attention to the real-world consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. These efforts give me hope. 

Returning to the U.S. context, the biggest hurdles to nuclear disarmament may be apathy and cynicism, and perhaps the fact that we have many other pressing issues of justice and peace before us. To overcome apathy, we need powerful storytelling from our creative communities. To overcome cynicism, we need religious leaders to speak out. Interdisciplinary efforts seem vital.

As I was in this place myself 14 months ago, I can write confidently that most Americans simply do not know enough about nuclear weapons to understand their danger. We do not know the history of nuclear weapons testing on lands claimed by indigenous and colonized peoples, from the American southwest to the Marshall Islands to the Australian outback to Algeria. We do not understand the devastating health impact of this testing, or that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study estimating that 11,000 additional Americans have died of cancer because of nuclear weapons testing. We do not internalize the scale of human suffering of the more than 340,000 victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor do we question the perhaps false notion that these attacks on civilian centers ended World War II. We do not see the connections between roughly 50 colleges and universities and the nuclear weapons complex. We do not know that as taxpayers we will pay about $500 billion over 10 years for our country’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In his treatise on the moral imagination, Lederach quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Nuclear weapons abolitionists do not ask for a simple, reactionary “no.” Instead they have engaged with the devastating history and science of these weapons of mass destruction, and they have emerged from that complexity with a simple answer: We must abolish them. 

Once people know the truth about nuclear weapons, their minds and hearts will change. Their focus will shift from the security questions to the humanitarian ones. I believe this because mine did. This gives me hope.

As a person of Christian faith, I know that I cannot be limited by my national context and questions of national security. American Christians are particularly susceptible to the lure of idolatrous nationalism, but our worldview should be shaped on a different plane. We are called to live and act in solidarity with the underprivileged, the poor, the indigenous, the colonized—those same populations who have experienced disproportionate harm from nuclear weapons development and testing. Yet they still rise up in forceful opposition, uniting a two-thirds majority of nations around a nuclear weapons ban. And this too gives me hope.

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