Religion’s role

By Jessica Wilbanks, September 5, 2007

On March 16, 2007, 222 Christians from all walks of life were arrested on the White House sidewalk for committing civil disobedience in protest of the Iraq War. On the same day, thousands of other Christians walked in freezing temperatures for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq candlelight march in Washington, and 200 additional vigils around the country included the participation of thousands more.

While progressives tend to advocate for issues using facts and figures, conservative Americans have been more successful in creating a cogent frame for favored policies–often drawing on biblically based language to frame issues. In the United States, a nation in which more than 91 percent of the population identifies themselves as religious, to ignore the inherent immorality of nuclear weapons is to close an important channel of communication. So many great social movements–including suffrage for women, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the current struggles to end the conflict in Darfur and to stop U.S.-sponsored torture–are deeply grounded in religious traditions and grew in capacity largely because of their ability to articulate a moral narrative.

The disarmament movement in the United States is desperately in need of the powerful, visual imagery that a moral message can provide. Arguments against nuclear weapons from disarmament experts are well-reasoned and solid: The nuclear weapons complex is a waste of tax dollars; the nuclear arsenal encourages the global spread of nuclear weapons; and nuclear weapons facilities wreak havoc on the environment and public health. But contrary to our best intentions, these arguments can come out in the form of a laundry list rather than a powerful and coherent narrative.

When people of faith talk about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, they call on powerful imagery and descriptive language. The Central Conference of American Rabbis names the traditions that led them to call for an end to the nuclear arms race: Sakanat Nefashot, the danger of exposing oneself to health hazards; Bal Tashchit, the abhorrence of willful destruction of the environment; and Yishuv Ha-arets, the betterment and guardianship of the Earth. Muslim leaders speak to the Koran’s injunction to build an abode for peace in the world. Using vivid language from religious traditions contextualizes the immorality of nuclear weapons for Americans and allows them to advocate for disarmament from the depth of their own traditions. Rather than simply working for a policy change, some people of faith come to view the elimination of nuclear weapons as a divine mandate and commit themselves fully to the task.

The involvement of religious communities in nuclear weapons is not mere wordsmithing, but a much deeper process. In the words of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the nuclear issue is not simply political, but also a profoundly moral and religious question, and therefore, the Church must participate in the process of protecting the world and its people from the specter of nuclear destruction.

For many religious Americans, the Bush administration’s proposal for the production of new nuclear warheads is a moral crisis and must be posited as such. Through organizations such as Faithful Security, religious people who identify themselves based primarily on their faith have a way to join their collective voices together to call for a commitment to disarmament.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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