By Matthew William Brake
The other day, I was sitting at my work desk when a colleague of mine came in complaining about a (now-disputed) story that President Donald Trump wanted to increase the U.S. nuclear arsenal by ten-fold. While I hope that is not the case, it is certainly problematic that the U.S. finds itself courting nuclear war by responding to North Korea’s saber-rattling by throwing around comments about responding to them “with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. To make matters worse, some of the president’s spiritual advisors seem to be encouraging his acerbic rhetoric rather than admonishing him to use a more measured tone, especially where the discussion on the use of nuclear weapons is concerned.
This colleague, who is older than I am, told me about growing up under the threat of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, and lamented that we no longer feel the palpable fear of the bomb that he grew up with. Perhaps it’s time, he suggested (and I agreed), that we re-instill a little bit of that fear.
I grew up in a conservative world where it was not uncommon in discussions about war to casually suggest that there was a simple solution to most U.S. military conflicts: “Just drop a couple of nukes on them.”
Such language was seen as justified in part because of a combination of “realism” about the world and the nature of war, and an eschatological expectation that the world was so screwed up and the end of the world was so near that it wouldn’t really matter in the long run anyway.
I would argue, however, that flippantly advocating the use of nuclear weapons is not only unbiblical and unconscionable to the Christian (and ought to be particularly to Evangelicals), but that there is something unbalanced about carelessly courting nuclear warfare.
Precious Essence in Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove tells the story of a narcissistic, deranged United States Air Force general, Jack Ripper, obsessed with his own “precious bodily fluids,” setting off events that ultimately result in worldwide nuclear destruction. Ripper is a disturbed individual with an inflated sense of his sexual prowess and a belief in an Info Wars-style conspiracy, as indicated by a conversation with Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the UK Royal Air Force:
Ripper: Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk… ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children’s ice cream.
Mandrake: [very nervous] Lord, Jack.
Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Mandrake: … no, no. I don’t, Jack.
Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.
Mandrake: Uh, Jack, Jack, listen… tell me, tell me, Jack. When did you first… become… well, develop this theory?
Ripper: [somewhat embarassed] Well, I, uh… I… I… first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.
Ripper: Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I… I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.
Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh… I do not avoid women, Mandrake.
Ripper: But I… I do deny them my essence.
While it is clear to Mandrake that Ripper is crazy, those following his orders continue to do so out of their loyalty to him, either oblivious to his instability or willfully ignorant about it. Their complicity in Ripper’s actions, however, ultimately lead to the end of the world.
Do Evangelicals Have a Death Wish?
What could lead Evangelical Trump supporters to endorse the careless rhetoric of the president? Why would they support a person who gives legitimacy to a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones? How can they be so cavalier about endangering the safety and health of everyone on earth?
As the late John Stott points out, it wasn’t always this way. Evangelicals in the United States saw responsible social improvement and reform as a part of their mission, with an Evangelical like Charles Finney in the early 19th century making commitment to the abolition of slavery on par with the conversion of one’s soul.
But over time, this commitment shifted. A degree of pessimism about the human condition grew as the result of two world wars, and Evangelical theology increasingly embraced an eschatology that saw the world as too wicked to save and destined for an impending final judgement, relying on the belief that true Christians would be removed from the world before things got “too bad.” This caused Evangelicalism to lose its passion for the social good and along with it, the need to see responsible social action (and rhetoric) as a part of the Christian calling. While there have been efforts in the 20th and 21st centuries to jumpstart the Evangelical participation in social reform, American Christianity is nevertheless marred by a certain carelessness when it comes to such things. Another similarly flippant argument I heard quoted frequently growing up was attributed James G. Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Reagan: “We ought not worry about protecting the environment because Jesus is coming back soon!” While Watt’s actual utterance of that statement is disputed, it nevertheless resonates with many of the attitudes and influences I found myself surrounded by in my upbringing.
And this cavalier attitude has found a home among some Evangelicals with regard to the use of nuclear weapons as well. General Douglas MacArthur, who famously advocated for the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean War, was heralded with church bells ringing below his plane as he flew back across America. It is thus no surprise that Trump can speak so glibly about nuclear weapons without alienating his Evangelical base.
Stott on Nuclear Weapons
In his book, Human Rights & Human Wrongs, Stott not only explores the past Evangelical heritage of social action, but he hopes to resuscitate it in the face of modern social crises, the gravest of which is “the threat of a nuclear holocaust” (99).
Stott is certainly not a full-fledged pacifist; rather, he seems to be placed firmly within the Christian Realist and Just War Traditions. In other words, war should always be viewed as “the lesser of two evils” in a fallen world and only be waged if it is done so for a relatively “righteous cause, by controlled means, with a reasonable expectation of success” (106-108). According to Stott, wanton bloodshed is prohibited by the biblical text, and even if one takes into account Israel’s total wars of conquest in the Old Testament, only these specific wars are sanctioned by God to be total—no general principle of warfare can be gleaned from them since they were specific wars commanded of a specific people at a specific time. Rather, when one looks at the broader context of the biblical text, there are a number of injunctions and mitigations meant to limit the shedding of blood.
In the Old Testament, Stott points out the many stipulations laid down from the Noahic covenant, to the establishment of Cities of Refuge, to David’s inability to build the temple because he shed so much blood, to prohibitions against killing one’s political enemies during peace time as evidence that the Old Testament seeks to limit bloodshed when possible. Alongside these instances are the injunctions of the prophets against bloodshed, particularly in Jeremiah and Ezekiel Stott writes, “Thus idolatry and bloodshed were bracketed. No sin against God was worse than worshipping idols. No sin against man was worse than shedding innocent blood,” and, “To shed the blood of the innocent is therefore the gravest social sin” (112-113).
In the New Testament, Stott comments on the famous passage regarding submission to governmental authorities from Romans 13:1-7, that it inherently and on principle limits the use of violence by the state. While government authorities are permitted to use the sword to punish wrongdoers, “the immunity of the innocent is to be ensured—of law-abiding citizens in peace-time and of noncombatants in war-time. Therefore any unlimited, uncontrolled, or indiscriminate use of force is forbidden” (113). It is here that Stott takes aim at nuclear weapons, writing:
“…nuclear devices, have radically changed the context in which one has to think about the morality of war; they challenge the relevance of the ‘just war’ theory. A war could still have a just cause and a just goal. But at least if macro-weapons were used (‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’), there would be no reasonable prospect of attaining the goal (since nuclear wars are not winnable) and the means would not be just, since nuclear weapons are neither proportionate, nor discriminate, nor controlled. Millions of noncombatants would be killed. In a nuclear holocaust much innocent blood would be shed. Therefore the Christian conscience must declare the use of indiscriminate nuclear weapons…immoral. A nuclear war could never be a just war” (115).
Thus, Stott finds any collusion or approval by Evangelicals in the use of nuclear weapons to be not only immoral, but unbiblical as well, and in this regard, he finds Evangelicals to be late to the party on the biblical perspective concerning nuclear weapons (116). The unlimited destruction and unforeseen escalation of a nuclear war makes such a prospect unconscionable for the Christian.
Conclusion: Toning Down the Rhetoric
I watch in horror as many Evangelicals turn a blind eye to the president’s rhetoric out of (I can only assume) either party loyalty or a desire to win the culture wars (and therefore, speaking against the president on ANYTHING might weaken his ability to win on issues like abortion or policies concerning LGBT people). Like Mandrake, I stand by helpless as a seemingly unbalanced, conspiracy-theory driven leader is enabled by those with the power to stop the madness.
But I implore the Evangelicals among us to reclaim the tradition of nuclear pacifism. Admonish and correct public discourse when it speaks to flippantly about the use of nuclear weapons.
“But,” you may ask, “Are you saying one side should give up all of its nuclear weapons before the other side does?” Not at all, and Stott tries to navigate the tension between morality and prudence. He does, however, advocate some practical steps, such as having a “no first use” commitment (122).
But key for us in an age of acerbic public rhetoric is Stott’s advice concerning the way in which we speak about nuclear weapons. As opposed to flippant, thoughtless remarks about “fire and fury,” Stott recommends the following:
“We believe that the use of nuclear weapons of indiscriminate destruction would be both crazy and immoral. We are determined not to use them. We are sure you do not want to use them either. Yet if you attack us, you may provoke us to act against both our reason and our conscience. We beg you not to put us in that position” (122).
To press a little further, is there a situation that could arise that might entail the choice to engage in nuclear war? What about in the face of a dictator who wants to take away the liberty of others? To the Christian in particular, Scott states, “It would be appalling indeed to allow millions of people to be deprived of liberty; but would we be prepared to incinerate millions in order to prevent that from happening? Would it not be better to suffer injustice ourselves than inflict it on others? (123).
In the sight of God, “integrity is yet more valuable than liberty” (123).
Evangelicals, then, ought not be complicit in careless rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons in the same way that Jack Ripper’s men were complicit in the world’s destruction. Their use is unconscionable from a biblical perspective; thus, they require the strongest censure from any leader claiming to speak from a biblical view.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9
Matthew William Brake is the creator and founder of Pop Culture and Theology. He is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy, Wonder Woman and Philosophy, and Mr. Robot and Philosophy.
John Stott, Human Rights & Human Wrongs: Major Issues for a New Century. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1999.