Have you ever interrogated a Catholic priest?
I have. It begins like this:
“Father, hi, hello, my name’s Brenna. I wanted to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me, because I want to do something about it, because I want to write about it, and can I take notes from this interview actually? It will be anonymous! Okay. It’s about nuclear weapons, actually. About the conundrum they represent, the logical fallacy, the inherent hypocrisy present in the support that they receive from Christians.”
I must give credit to the holy man; he looks only slightly alarmed by my psychotic line of questioning/babbling, and rather than calling the authorities, he asks if I would like some tea or coffee, and could we sit down to talk.
Alright, fine by me.
We begin by establishing the fact that nukes are inherently un-Christian. I have prepared an arsenal of quotes from preeminent Catholic figures to convince him of this fact, but he spells it out simply and eloquently within the first few minutes of the interview:
“Thou Shalt Not Kill. One of the biggest rules we have here in the Catholic Church. Also, Do Unto Others. Would you want to exterminate yourself with a bomb? Would you want to destroy yourself, your children, your loved ones?”
No, I wouldn’t.
He holds his hands out to me with palms open and facing the vaulted ceiling, raising his bristly eyebrows knowingly.
“It should be as simple as that. People should ask themselves that question, and act in accordance with their answer.”
Yes, I think, but the problem is that no one is asking the question. It’s easy to forget to ask that question when nuclear warheads are kept out of sight and out of mind, buried hundreds of feet beneath the earth, and the only photos we have depicting their effects are grainy black and white images of mushroom clouds, taken in some distant time, in some distant place. Surreal, especially when juxtaposed with the very graphic images of violence we are confronted with each day via media and news reporting.
I remember reading about how the US military had shot days of colored film in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how much of that footage was subsequently classified and concealed. Leaving us only with images of the bomb itself, as a sterile weapon. Removing the human element.
We talk about the way humans are selective in what they choose to ask themselves. Religion says do not kill. Nukes kill indiscriminately. Humans may try to live their lives by religious teachings, but they also want to have a nuclear arsenal ready in case of a World War Three. They don’t want to sacrifice their faith, but they don’t want to give up their nukes. Rather than reconciling the paradox, humans prefer to avoid the issue altogether, but in avoiding it, they tacitly contribute to the persistence of nuclear weapons.
As we are discussing this, a sudden burst of music radiates from the choir loft behind and above us: a pianist warming up, playing graceful arpeggios with the pedal down so that the notes blend together ethereally. It sounds like heaven might. The acoustics of the chapel could not be more gorgeous.
“A nuclear attack would erase all of this,” I said, waving my hands around to the music.
“Well, yes. But. So could a fire… and you don’t see anyone boycotting fire.”
He seems amused by my fixation on WMDs.
“That’s true”, I acknowledged, “that’s true. But then again, fire can also be used to warm hands over a pit, to char the wick of an aromatic candle, to sautée mushrooms over a stovetop. Nuclear weapons are created exclusively for the purpose of destruction on an unthinkable scale; it’s their one function. They can’t produce sautéed mushrooms. They destroy mushrooms, and everything else.”
The priest laughs at this, and I notice how his laughs are quiet murmurs that sound a little apologetic. I wonder what he could be apologizing for. Maybe he recognizes that he is only one man, not Jesus, and that this is only one issue among hundreds of issues facing his congregation (and the world). Maybe he feels helpless in the face of them. Maybe he feels laughter is inappropriate given the graveness of the situation.
I ask him what we can do, as Christians. Well, an easier question –or perhaps a harder, more challenging one, hiding under the guise of simplicity- what will he do personally, as a Catholic priest, to advocate for nuclear disarmament? I reminded him of Sister Megan Rice, the 82 year old nun-turned-nuclear-activist-turned-convict.
“My brother works at Oak Ridge”, I tell him. “He’s a nuclear physicist in a lab there, and he’s been to the Y-12 facility. That break-in was legendary. People still talk about it there! And her being a Catholic nun….my god! Sorry, sorry. But, wow, what a powerful statement from a member of the church. What a heroine.”
The priest nods in agreement, says something about the merits of listening to your calling when God moves you to act, even in the face of danger, but sorry, he won’t be breaking into any top secret nuclear compounds in the spirit of Rice.
“I suppose,” he goes on to say, “that my calling is a quieter one. I’m more of a teacher than an activist. I try to educate others through my words, to guide them through my mentorship. What about you? What will you do to create change? Are you interested in politics, journalism?”
I feel embarrassed. “Well,” I say, “I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting these weapons, only there weren’t any jobs hiring for it. Ha. So I decided to get an actual paying job instead, and think about nukes on the side. I guess I can still write about them, you know, through blogs or twitter or whatever. I want to do more.”
What more can I do?
Imagine this. Imagine a world where nuclear weapons are framed as a religious issue, as well as a political one, where the fight to reduce our arsenal is taken up by churches like the fight to reduce poverty and hunger. Where collection baskets are passed around to support nonproliferation organizations, where petitions for nuclear disarmament are signed after church services, where religious leaders incorporate the topic into their homilies and their preaching. Imagine a world where the struggle to eradicate the weapons becomes a uniting factor, bringing together Muslim imams and Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, all of them with a vested interest in eliminating indiscriminate weapons. Where religious peoples are forced to ask themselves difficult questions about nukes, but one where they have spiritual guidance and a supportive community to help them along towards answers. Imagine a world where various faith groups come together and make a cry too loud to be ignored by the media, which in turn pressures our politicians –who so often refer to their religious dedication– to make a decision, to make a choice, to take a stand.
For my part, I will keep writing, and keep talking to religious leaders. (Well. As my budget allows: I wanted to visit a downtown mosque and a city synagogue for this project, but didn’t have enough funds on my metro card to justify the trip. Will try again after payday).
And we should all keep asking that difficult question: can we support nuclear weapons and subscribe to a religion at the same time?