Christ and Nuclear Weapons

<i> Ronnie Dugger, publisher of the Texas Observer, now lives in New York City. He is the author of "On Reagan" (McGraw-Hill 1983). </i>

If Jesus Christ was teaching and preaching among us now as he was almost 2,000 years ago, what would he say about nuclear weapons?

The subject is addressed in two recent books. In one, “The Ethics of War and Nuclear Deterrence,” George Kennan, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who originated the idea of a 50% cut in both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, gives “A Christian’s View of the Arms Race.” In the other, “Peace Is Possible,” Franz Alt, a well-known television journalist in West Germany, applies Christianity to nuclear weapons. Both men are conservative about government.

Undertaking “to look at the problems of nuclear weaponry from a Christian standpoint,” Kennan begins by discussing “those who, as believing Christians, take it upon their conscience to give the order” for the slaughter of civilians. Certainly, he says, the rule of war that noncombatants must be spared as much as possible should also be “prescribed by Christian conscience.”

Yet, Kennan says, “the nuclear weapon offends against this principle as no weapon has ever done.” Because, he writes, nuclear weapons cannot be used without causing, “in all probability, the killing and mutilation of innocent people on a scale previously unknown in modern times.” Worse, “and utterly unacceptable from the Christian point of view,” as Kennan sees it, “is the holding of innocent people hostage to the policies of their government, and the readiness or the threat to punish them as a means of punishing their government.”


Worst of all, he says, nuclear war would destroy not only the Earth and our past and present civilization, “we would, by the same token, be denying to countless generations . . . the very privilege of leading a life on this Earth.”

Kennan asks: “How can anyone who recognizes the authority of Christ’s teaching and example accept, even as a humble citizen, the slightest share of responsibility for doing this--and not just for doing it, but for even incurring the risk of doing it? Who are we . . . to take upon ourselves the responsibility of destroying (the entire environmental framework), or even risking its destruction? The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other beings . . . is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity--an indignity of monstrous dimensions--offered to God!”

Franz Alt has mesmerized his fellow Germans, burdened as they are by their memory of the Nazi Holocaust, with his more theological approach to the question of Jesus and nuclear weapons. Alt’s theme is that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave his “central demand--to love one’s enemies.”

According to Jesus, Alt writes, “love for your neighbor is not perfect until it includes your enemies. This is political dynamite . . . . The threat of annihilation is, beyond any doubt, contrary to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount . . . . If you believe in the God of Jesus, in the God of love, then you cannot believe in the bomb . . . .


“An atomic war is un-Christian,” Alt says. “That applies both to the first strike and to the retaliatory strike . . . . There can be no ethical justification for using nuclear weapons . . . . If a man advocates nuclear weapons today, then his soul is untouched by the spirit of Christ; a dark paganism rules his mind . . . . The Sermon on the Mount offers us a choice: God or the bomb?”

Alt also perceives in the teachings of Jesus a major supporting theme: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Jesus meant this appeal, Alt believes, “for all those who flaunt their clean records.” As a German, Alt sees in our hate of communists now his own people’s hate of the Jews in the 1930s. And, he says, “our moral arrogance toward communists blocks our realistic view of our own nuclear sins.” If you ignore the evil within yourself, he says, you will “build atomic bombs while condemning others for doing likewise, and sooner or later you will use your bombs . . . .”

In the nuclear world, Alt says, “love of enemies has become the logic of survival” because “the opponent’s irrational fear of me does not get any more rational if I try to frighten him even more . . . . An intelligent policy would aim at lessening an opponent’s fears. ‘Love thy enemy’ is another term for intelligent politics.” Furthermore, he says, “conservatives ought to be in the vanguard of this struggle, for we have to conserve the most precious thing we have: life.”

Surely many will disagree. But those who take another position about what Jesus would say about nuclear weapons might have to consider Franz Alt’s clinching argument: “If you put down love of enemies as a crackpot notion, you should at least be honest with yourself and admit that you are calling Jesus a crackpot.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, then, with this text from Jesus, at Matthew 5:43-44: “Ye have that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, ‘Love your enemies.’ ”