Creation at Risk: A Consultation with Churches
on Nuclear Issues
Brussels, 5-6 October 2000
EVOLUTION OF WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES POLICY
The question of atomic, hydrogen and nuclear weapons has been at the heart of concerns of the World Council of Churches since its first Assembly in 1948. It was a logical focus of an ecumenical movement whose roots were in Christian peace movements going back to the late 19th century. The Amsterdam statement laid the foundations for ecumenical concern in the second half of the 20th century:
War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man. We recognise that the problem of war raises especially acute issues for Christians today. Warfare has greatly changed. War is now total and every man and woman is called for mobilisation in war service. Moreover, the immense use of air forces and the discovery of atomic and other new weapons render widespread and indiscriminate destruction inherent in the whole conduct of modern war in a sense never experienced in past conflicts...
The II. Assembly responded to developments beyond the atomic bomb:
The development of nuclear weapons makes this an age of fear. True peace cannot rest on fear. It is vain to think that the hydrogen bomb or its development has guaranteed peace because men will be afraid to go to war, nor can fear provide an effective restraint against the temptation to use a decisive weapon either in hope of total victory or in the desperation of total defeat.
Between 1954 and 1961, the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) spoke and worked intensively on the need for an international instrument to control nuclear testing. The III. Assembly further underscored the dangers of nuclear weapons developments, and for the first time officially expressed concerns about the use of outer space.
The most serious problem facing the world today is that of disarmament. General and complete disarmament is widely recognized to be the desired goal...
The landmark 1966 Church and Society Conference in Geneva is most often recalled as having brought Third World perspectives and theologies of liberation onto the stage of the global ecumenical movement. However it too devoted particular attention to nuclear war, based again on the Amsterdam affirmation.
...(The) First Assembly...declared, ‘War is contrary to the will of God’... We now say to all governments and peoples that nuclear war is against God’s will and the greatest of evils. Therefore we affirm that it is the first duty of governments and their officials to prevent nuclear war. ...
That Conference deeply influenced the agenda of the IV. Assembly held two years later. That agenda was heavily devoted to the timely issues of racism and economic development and others stimulated by the global revolutionary fervor of the year 1968. But it too spoke out on the question of nuclear weapons, beginning once more with the Amsterdam declaration.
The WCC reaffirms its declaration at the (First Assembly): “War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teachings and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of all forms of war, nuclear war presents the gravest affront to the conscience of man. The avoidance of atomic, biological or chemical war has become a conditions of human survival...The churches must insist that it is the first duty of governments to prevent such a war: to halt the present arms race, agree never to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, stop experiments concerned with and the production of weapons of mass human destruction by chemical and biological means a move away from the balance of terror towards disarmament. ...
The V. Assembly in Nairobi was marked especially by the global concern for human rights and East-West tensions. In its Section on “Structures of Injustice and Struggles for Liberation,” to survival, it shifted the nature of Christian responsibly very significantly based on ideas provided by the Federation of Churches in the German Democratic Republic:
Christians must resist the temptation to resign themselves to a false sense of impotence or security, The churches should emphasize their readiness to live without the protection of armaments, and take a significant initiative in pressing for effective disarmament. Churches, individual Christians, and members of the public in all countries should press their governments to ensure national security without resorting to the use of weapons of mass destruction...
The nuclear arms race accelerated rapidly in the late 1970s, and the CCIA was asked by the Central Committee to organize a consultation to consider it and the proliferation of conventional weapons of mass destruction. Its 1978 report noted:
We are living in the shadow of an arms race more intense, more costly, more widespread and more dangerous than the world has ever known. Never before has the arms race been as close as it is now to total self-destruction. Today’s arms race is an unparalleled waste of human and material resources; it aids repression and violates human rights; it promotes violence and insecurity in place of the security in whose name it is undertaken; it frustrates humanity’s aspirations for justice and peace; it has no part in God’s design for His world; it is demonic.... To hope in Christ is neither to be complacent about survival nor powerless in the fear of annihilation by the forces of evil but to open our eyes to the transcendent reality of Christ in history.
That same year, Dr. Philip Potter, WCC General Secretary brought the concerns highlighted in the consultation to the attention of the United Nations in a plenary address to the General Assembly in which he addressed several of the underlying causes of the global arms race:
We must challenge the idol of a distorted concept of national security which is direct to encouraging fear and mistrust resulting in greater insecurity. The only security worthy of its name lies in enabling people to participate fully in the life of their nations and to establish relations of trust between peoples of different nations. It is only when there is a real dialogue -- a sharing of life with life in mutual trust and respect -- that there can be true security.
This concern for national security arose not only as a causal factor in the super-power nuclear arms race, but as a justification for massive violations of human rights, especially by military dictatorships around the world. The Central Committee linked these concerns at its meeting in 1979:
...given the need not only to denounce militarism and the arms race, but to develop positive alternatives to the present destructive system...and as a matter of highest priority for the WCC...(the Central Committee establishes the) Program for Disarmament and against Militarism and the Arms Race.
The WCC Sub-Unit on Church and Society organized in 1979 a major world Conference on Faith, Science and the Future in Boston, Massachusetts. It adopted the following declaration which was subsequently endorsed by the Executive Committee and commended to the churches:
We, scientists, engineers, theologians and members of Christian churches from all parts of the world, participants in the WCC Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, now meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), acknowledge with penitence the part played by science in the development of weapons of mass destruction and the failure of the churches to oppose it, and now plead with the nations of the world for the reduction and eventual abolition of such weapons.
That year, 1979, marked a major turning point in the mobilization of world public opinion about the nuclear arms race. The announcement by the USA of its intention to produce a neutron bomb and radically to escalate the number and quality of its nuclear arms based in Europe created a massive public outcry. The Central Committee echoed the demands of the anti-nuclear movement the following year:
The Central Committee urges all nuclear powers to:
The following year, in Dresden (GDR), it received a report from the Program for Disarmament and against Militarism and the Arms Race, and said:
The Central Committee...calls upon the churches now to:
In November 1981, the WCC convened an International Public Hearing on Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament at the Free University in Amsterdam. A hearing panel of 17 church leaders, theologians and ethicists from all the world’s region heard testimony from 38 expert witnesses, including former US national security advisors, USSR foreign policy experts, senior diplomats in the field of disarmament, political leaders including Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, leading nuclear scientists and leaders of anti-nuclear peace movements in several parts of the world. Its extensive report was submitted to the WCC Central Committee and widely distributed. It contained, inter alia, the following affirmations:
We believe the time has come when the churches must unequivocally declare that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds. ... We recognize that nuclear weapons will not disappear because of such and affirmation by the churches. But it will involve the churches and their members in a fundamental examination of their own implicit or explicit support of policies which, implicitly or explicitly, are based on the possession and use of those weapons.
Philip Potter took these affirmations and the rising concern of the ecumenical
movement back to the United Nations the following year when he addressed
the plenary session of the Second Special Session of the General Assembly
devoted to Disarmament.
During the last four years after the First Special Session on Disarmament the economic crisis has worsened throughout the world with grave consequences for the poor nations resulting in tensions within and among nations. The continuing stalemate in the North-South discussions on global issues has been accompanied by policies of confrontation and an attempt to divide the South. The present global military order is inextricably ties up with the economic and social system and therefore the quest for disarmament can in no way be isolated from the struggle for justice and human dignity. Consequently, there is deep distrust among the peoples of the Third World about the postures of the nuclear weapon states on deterrence and non-proliferation. Their struggles for social and political change are often distorted by the security considerations and economic interests of the major powers. ...
“Choose Life!” (Deut.30:15,19) Choose what is good, that is, what expresses our inner being as made in God’s image to be shared with others. Choose the blessing, that is, what communicates our vitality to others, what enables us to put what we are and have at the disposal of others that they might become their true selves and share their lives also with others. That is God’s purpose revealed in creation and in men and women made in his image to participate in his life and communicate that life to one another according to his commandments and promises of good. That is life. That is true security and peace.
Statement by WCC General Secretary Philip Potter to the Second Special Session of the UN General Assembly devoted to Disarmament, NY, June 1982, in The Churches in International Affairs 1979-82, pp 49ff.
At this same meeting of the UN General Assembly, Patriarch Pimen of the Russian Orthodox Church presented the report of the World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe he convened in Moscow in May 1982.
The Central Committee in July 1982 commended the report of the International Public Hearings, highlighting its recommendations and calling upon the churches to take clear positions on them. It also issued a statement lamenting the lack of progress at the UN Special Session and renewed its call to the churches and governments to promote peace and disarmament.
In this same period, two volumes were published by the CCIA in the context of the Program for Disarmament and against Militarism and the Arms Race, entitled The Security Trap I and II (WCC, Geneva, and IDOC, Rome, 1979 and 1982), that provided in-depth analysis and theological perspectives on militarism and the nuclear arms race. Peace and Disarmament, A compendium of major documents of the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church, was also published jointly by the CCIA and the Pontifical Commission “Justitia et Pax” (Rome and Geneva, 1982).
The Sixth WCC Assembly in Vancouver, 1983, was held at a time when massive public protests were being held around the world against the nuclear arms race, many of them inspired or led by the churches. This Assembly was particularly marked by this concern. It said:
Humanity is now living in the dark shadow of an arms race more intense, and of systems of injustice more widespread, more dangerous and more costly than the world has ever known. Never before has the human race been as close as it is now to total self-destruction. Never before have so many lived in the grip of deprivation and oppression.
The Vancouver Assembly also called on the churches to engage in a “conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of all creation” and to make this a priority for all WCC programs.
The period following the Vancouver Assembly provided no new policy statements on nuclear weapons, but was one in which the WCC encouraged a number of international disarmament initiatives and pressed on the major nuclear powers their responsibilities to disarm. WCC General Secretaries encouraged the initiatives of the “Middle Power Coalition,” the signatories of the Delhi Declaration, the Groupe Bellerive and others. Letters were written to President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev on the occasions of their summit meetings in Geneva and Iceland, encouraging them to take more rapid steps toward nuclear disarmament. On the eve of the meeting of the same leaders in Geneva in January 1987, the Central Committee welcomed the resumption of the earlier talks and appealed to the two nations:
- to declare a moratorium on nuclear tests as a provisional measure that would enable negotiations towards a comprehensive test ban treaty;
Later that year, the WCC Officers welcomed the conclusion of the agreements at the USA-USSR Summit in Washington DC, saying that
The agreement to eliminate intermediate nuclear forces and thus an entire class of nuclear weapons is a significant achievement especially with the elaborate system of verification which augurs well for further steps in nuclear disarmament. The initiative already taken for making proposals for reducing strategic nuclear weapons is reassuring.
In a statement presented by Dr. Lamar Gibble, a CCIA Commissioner, the WCC told the Third Session of the UN General Assembly devoted to Disarmament (1988):
In the limited time given for this testimony, among many concerns, we choose the following for emphasis. Firstly, even in the aura of a historic agreement to reduce intermediate range nuclear weapons the awful risk of nuclear war remains. We are painfully aware that this agreement can only reduce the nuclear arsenal by 3%. We would, therefore, urge the pursuit of every possible effort to further reduce and ultimately eliminate these weapons of mass destruction. We reiterate the declaration of our most recent Assembly that “the production and deployment of nuclear weapons as well as their use constitute a crime against humanity, and therefore there3 should be a complete halt in the production of nuclear weapons and in weapons research and development in all nations, to be expeditiously enforced through a treaty…” Only if such a comprehensive approach is taken to nuclear disarmament and complemented and reinforced by mutually accepted verification procedures and by the new technology available for verification can the possibility of nuclear holocaust be significantly reduced. We w2ould encourage this session to establish a multilateral mechanism under the auspices of the United Nations to perform such verification functions for our global community.
The WCC addressed a letter in 1987 to President Bush and General Secretary Gorbachev on the occasion of their summit meeting in Malta, reiterating appeals addressed earlier. But this was the last initiative on nuclear weapons before the VII. Assembly in Canberra (1991).
In Canberra the agenda was radically shifted in the direction of post Cold War armed interventions and internal conflicts. That assembly, meeting as the Gulf War was raging, gave strong clues that this would be a period of divided views and sometimes contentious relationships among the churches as they wrestled with new challenges. The VII. Assembly adopted a major policy statement on the implications of the use of armed force by the Gulf Coalition led by the USA, and another on internal conflicts. The attention of the Central Committee was fixed for most of the ensuing decade on the implications of such challenges and by renewed debates and efforts to address the churches’ positions on violence.
The war in Bosnia/Herzegovina again led to contentious debates in the Central Committee on the old tension between the Christian traditions of pacifism and the just war. In 1994, on the basis of a background document, “Overcoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of War,” the Central Committee created the Program to Overcome Violence. In the course of the international campaign, “Peace to the City,” carried out in the context of the POV, the focus turned especially to the issue of small arms and light weapons, and this has continued as a part of the new ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence established by the VIII. Assembly in Harare (1998).
The disarmament agenda shifted more to the area of conventional arms, following the line traced earlier in consultations on militarism and disarmament. The CCIA Commission held a consultation in 1993 on the conventional arms trade (cf. The Arms Trade Today, CCIA Background Information, 1993/1, WCC, Geneva, 1993) and adopted a statement on the subject.
Soon after the Harare Assembly, the following document was issued, and it was the last major policy statement devoted particularly to nuclear weapons to date.
Nuclear weapons, whether used or threatened, are grossly evil and therefore morally wrong. As an instrument of mass destruction, nuclear weapons slaughter the innocent and ravage the environment...
At its first meeting (Morges, Switzerland, January 2000), the newly elected Commission of the Churches on International Affairs adopted guidelines for programmatic work in the field of disarmament which stressed the need for the WCC and its member churches to turn their attention back the continuing threat of nuclear weapons. So, concern about nuclear weapons has not disappeared from the WCC agenda. However, it has been dropped to the lowest levels of priority of many churches, including those in nuclear weapons states. There is an urgent need for the ecumenical movement to remember its history and to reassert leadership at what is in fact a very critical moment of new challenges to the international disarmament regime and the ever more dangerous legacy of the decaying products of the decades-long US-USSR nuclear arms race. Statements alone will not be enough. The statements reviewed here were often backed by movements in the churches working to bring official church assemblies with them in action and conviction. If we are to be effective again, attention will have to be paid during the forthcoming ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence to the strengthening, regeneration re-connection of such movements.
Geneva, 4 October 2000