What kind of peace do we seek? The Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the time of Jesus, described how the Pax Romana was experienced by people, like the Celts and Jews, who had been conquered by the Romans: “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
Seventy years ago, the U.S. made a desolation, and called it peace. The U.S. sought an unconditional peace with Japan, before the Soviets invaded Japan in WWII. Toward this end, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than a quarter million people, mostly civilians.
As Christians, this is not the sort of peace we seek. Jesus of Nazareth made it clear that he was not in favor of a desolate peace, a negative peace, based on the threat of military destruction. At the time, Catholic and religious leaders were some of the few voices raised in opposition to atomic weapons. The Holy See argued “the new death instruments” were “catastrophic.” Atomic weapons raised a “sinister shadow on the future of humanity.”
Their concerns were sadly prescient. Army Air force leaders argued for more atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The world’s nuclear arsenal rapidly grew from a handful of U.S. atomic weapons in 1945, to over 66,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, primarily in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Today, many citizens mistakenly believe the nuclear danger largely receded with the end of the Cold War twenty five years ago. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons present huge dangers today, from threats of accident, to hundreds of thefts of fissile materials and/or weapons, to proliferation and use by terrorists and insurgents such as ISIL. This is a real concern, not merely the stuff of action movies. ISIL stole over 80 pounds of uranium from Mosul University in Iraq this past year. While that material is not weapons-grade, it could be used in a dirty bomb that would spread panic and radiation.
Pointing to the disastrous humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, religious communities have joined with secular advocates for deep reductions of nuclear weapons. Former “Cold Warriors” such as President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, and President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry, today all urge deep reductions in nuclear arms. Pope Francis concurs.
The Japanese continue to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui put it in marking the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, “Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation. We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism. To coexist we must abolish the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity that are nuclear weapons. Now is the time to start taking action.”
There are other paths to peace, that I discuss in the cover story of America magazine this week. The Just Peace tool box gives us many proven methods to build lasting, sustainable peace, approaches that do not “make a desolation and call it peace.” We should use just peace and reconciliation approaches to nuclear disarmament.