What does the Bible teach us about nuclear weapons treaties? Nothing. That’s right. Nothing. If one scours their Bibles, they will find not one single passage that tells us what God thinks about nuclear non-proliferation treaties. This makes Leith Anderson’s recent statement about the reauthorization of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) all the more curious. Anderson said, “Evangelicals believe the Bible, and the Bible calls us to seek peace. Limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and praying for reductions in nuclear weapons is rooted in the peace-priority of Scripture and makes common sense.” Colin Watson, director of ministries and administration for the Christian Reformed Church of North America, commented as well, stating, “I believe that strengthening treaties will reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and therefore reduce the possibility of intentional or accidental detonations. This position is consistent with my views on the sanctity of human life.”
Anderson and Watson assume that respect for the Bible and sanctity of human life requires the reduction of nuclear weapons. But that is an assumption, not an argument, and Christians are not justified in making this assumption. To be clear, their position conflates two issues: the ethics of nuclear weapons and the efficacy of non-proliferation treaties. Those are different issues that require different theological and moral calculations.
Theologians and ethicists draw upon scripture to think morally about nuclear weapons through the just war tradition. The Bible surely is authoritative in that sense, but Christian ethicists should not apply moral principles, precepts, and rules to complex political problems like nuclear weapons in a direct biblical fashion. The Bible prohibits murder but not killing, which can be justified under certain circumstances. Deciding whether a person killed by a gun was murdered or killed requires further analysis.
As Anderson and other pastors eagerly assert, seeking peace is a scriptural command. But sometimes peace may be negotiated, or it may require the force of arms. At other times, it may require both or other tools. Whatever the case may be, the answer does not lie merely in the quotation of scripture but in the application of scripture through prudential judgment.
Though the just war tradition grew out of scripture’s admonitions to seek justice and preserve peace, it is not clearly defined within scripture. It developed over time through debate and refinement. The tradition came from a certain view of government and its role within society, and brought history, law, philosophy, and theology into the discussion. Rulings of early church councils and the development of canon law first codified these ideas. Evangelicals seem to have a strong aversion to history and tradition, but within the history and development of Christian ethics, we find important moral resources to think about political questions.
The NAE released a poll that showed strong support among evangelical leaders for New START. That’s all good and well. The new treaty may or may not be good, and observers can make convincing arguments for or against the treaty. For instance, it may not be effective, or it may merely paper over previous Russian abuses. The key questions are not so much about the treaties, though they matter, but what the treaties intend to do, whether they are enforceable, and if the outcome will make us safer. A Bible verse cannot answer any of those questions, which some seem to believe.
This sort of thinking by Anderson and Co. plagues our modern politics. Its simplistic and naïve. Christian pastors have a certain moral authority to speak up on particular issues, but too often they exercise that role with little humility or sense of nuance. Do any of these pastors fully understand the full extent of the nuclear nonproliferation regime? Have they studied its effectiveness? Are they familiar with the various policy options? What about the international political dynamics at play? Are they aware of the dangers that may result from the abolition of nuclear weapons? One gets the feeling often that Christians want to be able to speak up on complex issues without actually having to do much homework, but the result is that they lose credibility because they actually don’t know what they’re talking about.
What Anderson states is a truism, but he imagines it solves the problem. Treaties limiting nuclear weapons are not all self-evidently biblical, good, right, or peaceful, even if Christians desire a world where peace flourishes. Neville Chamberlain famously sought a peace deal with Hitler that only emboldened Hitler, when what was needed was a more confrontational approach.
To preempt those who would say I am jettisoning the Bible, let me be clear: the Bible is absolutely authoritative for Christian ethics, but that is not the question. The real question is how is it authoritative. Many statements from theologians and pastors on these complex issues fail to wrestle with the reality of international politics and its complexity. Quoting the Bible is not enough. What is needed is biblical wisdom, prudence, and complex understanding of the situation, which requires diplomats, politicians, policy experts, and others who are involved in the actual process of negotiation.
A Christian who wants to draw upon scripture must build a bridge between the scriptural context and our current situation, which is a complex undertaking. What does the Bible say on a particular topic? Where does it say it? How do we understand the entirety of what it says? How has the church across the ages thought about this question? Are there developed concepts that relate to this idea? How do theories of ethics or politics inform our own understanding? Quoting a passage about peace or a prohibition of violence does not help government officials make a clear and informed decision. Of course everyone wants peace, but in order to ensure peace, government must exercise power diplomatically and militarily. That requires practical reason to chart a path on how to proceed. In order to act, the path must be made clear, not only practically but morally.
Morals are not simply ideals that are impossible to enact. Morals are supposed to inform our actions. They are practical. Many Christians seem to think the opposite, given how many propose impractical ideals. Invoking the kingdom of God at every turn is neither helpful nor biblical. The vision of the kingdom of God is glorious, but it is not a political program that can be put into practice.
Pacifists, especially contemporary pacifists, feel no need to offer constructive political solutions outside of denunciations. The Gospel demands certain behaviors, they assert, even if they result in utter catastrophe and chaos. They argue that power politics are anathema to the Gospel, and force deployed against an enemy is a sin. Taking up arms cannot be in any way a Christian practice of reconciliation or loving judgment.
When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, Christian pacifists imagine that one can draw a direct link from the injunction to love enemies to a political practice or policy. “Turning the cheek” and “praying for enemies” are not comprehensive political statements that specify the complete limits for any political or military leader. That’s not how most Christians throughout history have understood the passage. For instance, Christians theologians have made a sharp distinction between revenge and punishment; the former is sinful, and the latter is a proper disposition against an aggressive prince or nation.
Christians should think in a deductive manner on certain issues, moving from the text of scripture to political policy. In some cases, this is a fair move. Abortion would be a clear example. Though there are hard cases at the margin that people need to debate, the pro-life position’s basic premise is that abortion is murder. In international politics, however, this sort of reasoning is by far the exception, rather than the norm. The moving parts are many, and pulling them all together into one coherent and balanced analysis is hard enough. Adding moralizing on top of that is even harder. We should not expect from such complicated trains of thought an absolute deductive response: “God favors all nonproliferation treaties!”
Nuclear weapons did not arise because we thought blowing up the world would be a good idea. Instead, Nazi Germany was developing nuclear weapons, and the Americans wisely concluded they better develop them first. Which we did. Hooray! And we used them first, bringing an end to World War II. We have not used them since.
Nuclear weapons should concern us because they potentially pose an existential threat, but the view that these weapons are only a threat to peace is factually inaccurate. In fact, nuclear weapons have been credited, rightly to my mind, with maintaining a credible deterrence throughout the Cold War that kept the United States and the Soviet Union from engaging in World War III. Rather than creating instability, nuclear weapons create stability between major powers. The costs of war would be so high and catastrophic that no government has been willing to use nuclear weapons. There are surely grave risks with nuclear weapons, but over time the US and Russia have developed fairly robust safeguards, realizing the danger these weapons pose. So getting rid of nuclear weapons or lowering the nuclear arsenal’s size could pose a serious risk to stability and deterrence, as Rebeccah Heinrichs argues. Those who think the pre-nuclear age was some idyllic world of peace and harmony, please brush up on your history.
Before Christians assert what the Bible says on a particular political issue, they should realize that they often cannot easily discern what God thinks about a specific national security issue. Instead, they must arrive at the conclusion by studying the Bible alongside theology, history, ethics, and political analysis.