The Other Existential Threat - and What to Do About It

Protesters in London taking action locally for nuclear disarmament

Protesters in London taking action locally for nuclear disarmament

By Jerald Ross

We know we are facing an existential crisis with the advance of climate change; and what about the other existential threat? Nuclear weapons. Unless we arrest climate change, it will fundamentally change our civilization in a matter of decades, maybe threaten life on this planet. Nuclear weapons could wipe out civilization in a matter of hours, maybe even life on this planet. These are not competing issues; they both demand our attention.

Many people believe nuclear weapons went away with the end of the cold war. They did not. There are still over 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, most of them owned by the United States and Russia, and many still on “cold war” style alert. Though we would like to believe nuclear weapons are safely under control, we cannot be confident of this belief. There have been many accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculations that have brought the globe to the brink of unimaginable disaster. Some leaders still threaten to use these monstrously destructive devices on the innocent citizens of other nations. And now we are facing the prospects of a new nuclear arms race. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the “Doomsday Clock” to 2 minutes to midnight, warning the world we are closer to Armageddon than at any time since the beginning of the atomic age.

Many UUs in congregations across the nation are working to raise awareness of this “other existential threat,” and taking actions to address it at their local level. But wait, is it really possible to take actions on nuclear weapons at the local level?!

Most definitely! Guy Quinlan at All Souls Church in New York City has long been a nuclear disarmament activist. While actively involved at the national and international level, closer to home he keeps his congregation up to date on nuclear issues and mobilizes members to lobby their congressional representatives. Most recently he sent out letters warning people about legislation to prevent the development of incredibly destabilizing “low yield” nuclear weapons, and of the utmost urgency of legislation extending the NEW START nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia. Although these actions are directed at members of Congress, bringing pressure to bear on representatives is a vital local action.

Dick Duda of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto has worked with the interfaith group Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice to promote the Back from the Brink campaign. Back from the Brink is a national campaign to get local groups, towns and state legislatures to adopt resolutions calling on the U.S. government to undertake five basic steps to move our country away from the extreme danger of nuclear war. Dick’s group has been joined around the country by hundreds of faith groups, local organizations, and towns, and several state legislatures in adopting Back from the Brink resolutions.

Joanne Dufour, who edits and writes most of the posts in this UU-UNO “Disarming Our Planet” blog series, has organized nuclear disarmament activities in various congregations, and most recently is a member of the Olympia (WA) Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons. Their group conducts weekly bannerings and has made speaker presentations in churches, senior living locations, and on cable TV. They are part of the larger Washington State Coalition Against Nuclear weapons, whose 40 member organizations undertake an array of local actions to promote disarmament, including taking aim at Kitsap Bangor Naval Base, home to much of the U.S. trident submarine fleet.

These are just a few of the UUs mobilizing local efforts to address this incredibly important and dangerous national issue. There are many, many others.

Here at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, our Peace and Justice Committee works to keep our congregation informed about the latest developments on nuclear arms. I am an active member of and represent us at Massachusetts Peace Action (MAPA), a large state-wide network of peace activists. I sit on the MAPA Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. We host educational conferences, conduct civil actions, meet with representatives, and so forth. But this past year we have undertaken a unique effort that involves the introduction of state legislation to address nuclear at the state level. Our nine bills propose a range of actions. They include such things as creating a commission to study the redeployment of state tax dollars from federal funding for nuclear weapons to our state infrastructure needs; call on our state congressional delegation to promote a no-first-use policy; urge Congress to take steps to align with the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons; and divest state pension funds from companies that manufacture or trade in nuclear arms.

I recently testified before the Massachusetts State Legislature in support of the bill to divest pension funds from nuclear arms. We had expert testimony on many aspects of this bill, from the economic impact, to investment issues, to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear arms. I was asked to advocate from a moral framework. I’d like to end this post by sharing my testimony.

Jerry Ross testifying before the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of nuclear arms divestment

Jerry Ross testifying before the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of nuclear arms divestment

My name is Jerry Ross and I am a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Bedford. I am speaking in support of House bill 2202 and Senate 1516, RELATIVE TO THE DIVESTMENT OF STATE PENSION FUNDS FROM NUCLEAR WEAPONS. 

The existence of nuclear weapons has from the very first presented the world not only with an existential dilemma but a profoundly moral one. Upon witnessing the first test explosion of the atomic bomb he helped create, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer was heard to quote from the Hindu spiritual text the Bhagavad Gita. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It will not surprise you today when I tell you most of the world’s religions have condemned nuclear weapons as immoral.

The World Council of Churches First Assembly in 1948 declared war with atomic weapons “a sin against God and a degradation of man.” The Sixth Assembly in 1983 called for their “outlaw as a crime against humanity.” The 2011 International Ecumenical Peace Convocation reaffirmed that call and reiterated it in 2014. Upon passage of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July of 2017, Religions for Peace, representing major faith traditions from around the word, including my own Unitarian Universalist faith, issued a world-wide statement endorsing the ban (a copy of which I have attached to my written remarks). As recently as May of this year, Soka Gakkai International, the world's largest Buddhist lay organization repeated its long-standing call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Add to these, the specific appeals by Nobel laureate religious leaders Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and finally Pope Francis’s 2017 statement that “the very possession of nuclear weapons is to be firmly condemned.”

But we really do not need the world’s religions to tell us nuclear weapons are immoral. We know that in our hearts. The merciless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of human beings is a crime beyond rational understanding, but not our moral reasoning.

Genocide does not happen all at once. It requires a long chain of actions that lead to that moment of criminality, each actor along the way becoming complicit in the final act. Let us not participate in that chain of immorality by investing our citizens pension funds in companies that build or trade in these ghastly devices. The process of preventing the use of nuclear weapons begins with preventing their manufacture. Let that process begin here in Massachusetts.

Last year, I traveled to Hiroshima and walked the streets of that city on an August day very like that terrible one in 1945. I observed the bustle of life about me on a not-unusual crystal-clear morning, as men, women, and children went about their daily lives, just as we and our children and grandchildren do. Then I imagined the moment when all that humanity was extinguished and the ashes of 80,000 human beings rose into the sky. The survivors of that day are called the Hibakusha. I leave you with the words of one Hibakusha, Sankichi Toge, on a monument in Hiroshima Peace Park.

Give back my father, give back my mother,

Give grandpa back, grandma back,

Give me my sons and daughters back,

Give back the human race.

These are but a few examples of how UUs can think globally and act locally to address the other and equally urgent existential threat—that of nuclear weapons.

Jerry Ross and others protesting for nuclear disarmament

Jerry Ross and others protesting for nuclear disarmament