The Answer by the Lake: Faith in Nuclear Disarmament

By: Jonathan Frerichs

August 24, 2020

Keeping Faith in Nuclear Disarmament

How does one “keep faith” and “maintain hope” 75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There’s a good answer on a monument near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It’s just down the hill from the Palais des Nations, the site of tenuous triumphs in nuclear affairs and gross malfeasances too. But the answer isn’t trapped between nuclear rivals at the Conference on Disarmament or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Those forums meet year after year, as if in chains. The answer by the lake is an inspiring invitation to freedom and the hope of peace.

On ne me vole pas ma vie, je la donne” (No one takes my life, I give it), the inscription says. It’s on a monument to the first director of the International Labor Organization, a man named Albert Thomas. 

Ninety years later the witness is wearing well. With agencies addressing labor, health, human rights, refugees, humanitarian affairs and, yes, disarmament, Geneva hosts the human face of the United Nations. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, and other global associations committed to peace fill out the picture. Amid these multilateral institutions, Monsieur Thomas’ testament is that we give of our lives in the service of others. 

I hear prophecy in the inscription: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Susan B. Anthony, to name a few. As a Christian, I also hear Jesus. He gave his life for the good of others. He invites others to follow him and give of their lives in the service of peace. 

At this juncture in history, it is clear that more of us must give of ourselves. Millions of lives are held at risk by the subject here, nuclear weapons. We will be able to delegitimize nuclear weapons and eliminate nuclear arsenals only when critical masses of people give of their lives in coordinated actions to achieve this global common good. Yet there are signs of hope right now in the progress by states and civil society to outlaw nuclear weapons via the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

There is also no shortage of inspiration and wisdom. I am struck by teachings of Jesus 2,000 years ago that have implications for nuclear disarmament advocacy today. One example is this promise: You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. It inspires and sustains people who struggle for justice on many issues, including for a nuclear-free world. 

More specifically, new truth to free us from nuclear weapons has been revealed in recent years by evidence-based re-evaluations of their destructive impact. This is the core of the humanitarian initiative against nuclear weapons which achieved a milestone in 2017 with the new ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize. At the Vatican Conference that November, Pope Francis spoke the truth about the possession and use of nuclear weapons in ways that are helping to make us free. 

Shortly before the negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, I asked an official from a nuclear power about their reaction to the new evidence about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. “All this is well-known,” came the reply. Unfortunately, that was not true. New findings about the gendered impacts of nuclear explosions are sufficient, on their own, to disqualify standard assessments of casualties from nuclear weapons. The official shrugged as he spoke, as if successful evasions of the truth in the past had somehow also rendered any new evidence immaterial. The comment was especially telling in that none of the nine nuclear powers found the courage to negotiate the new treaty. If knowing the truth about nuclear weapons sets one free to get rid of them, denying the truth binds one ever closer to them—through delusion, dishonesty, and fear. 

Indeed, the good news during these 75 years of unthinkable threats is that most governments have not given in to the temptation to become destroyers of the world we all share. Most national leaders and most citizens do not accept that nukes are necessary for their or their country’s survival.

When it comes to knowing “nuclear” truth, survivors of the atomic bombings are the most compelling witnesses. They have lived the truth about nuclear weapons and survived. They have found the courage to speak the truth despite all odds. 

The terrible weapons that were used so furtively against Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and at such pains to avoid honesty and accountability – are faring no better under their nine owners today. To possess nuclear weapons is to be possessed by nuclear weapons. That possession manifests itself in what South Africa’s diplomats describe as nuclear apartheid. In a nuclear regime the opposites of justice, participation, and sustainability prevail. Its operating principles feature private logic, exclude the rights of other nations, demand self-centered superiority, and denigrate potential enemies. The nuclear regime depends on the bizarre belief that the mutually assured destruction of you and your enemies is a viable strategy for your own security. Choices first made with Hiroshima and Nagasaki have grown, decade after decade, into arsenals on continuous high-alert, poised to commit instant genocide—target city by target city. What is more, the nuclear postures of the United States and Russia demand the capacity, and require the will, to end life on Earth as we know it. 

There is no choice but to end the nuclear regime. What can we offer in faith? The will to give our lives, a commitment to things that make for peace, the conviction that we will know the truth and the truth will make us free, and much, much more.

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