What difference can one person make?
When ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons won the Nobel peace prize, it was a recognition of the power of regular people drawn together by the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. ICAN formulated a strategy to talk about the humanitarian costs of nuclear weapons, got the support of some governments, held international conferences and helped shepherd the idea of a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons through the United Nations. Regular people with a vision who acted on it.
Breaking the silence
The key to breaking the silence is believing that each of us has the power to make a difference. Thanks to one person who believes that, the Presbyterian Church, USA, is poised to break it’s nearly 30-year silence on nuclear weapons.
Late last year, Knoxville pastor Gloria Mencer approached the peacemaking committee of East Tennessee Presbytery, the regional collection of congregations in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Gloria felt the contradiction between the calling of her faith to be a peace creator and the activity of her government that seemed to be pushing ever closer to the brink of complete nuclear annihilation. There must be something we can do, she said to the committee. For starters, came the answer, you should talk to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.
The President of our Board, who is also on the Presbytery’s peacemaking committee, invited her to OREPA’s next Board meeting. Gloria came and talked about her concerns, and a conversation opened which will lead to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) considering and, we hope, adopting an overture calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons at its biannual meeting in St. Louis in June.
The Presbyterian Church has a long history of addressing nuclear weapons, including the founding of the formal Presbyterian Peacemaking Program in the early 1980’s to direct the church’s efforts to be part of the nuclear freeze movement. In 1983, the denomination published Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling, a document that summoned the entire church to contemplate the gospel imperative to live according to God’s vision of a peaceful world.
But for the past three decades or more, the Presbyterian Church has been silent about nuclear weapons, as have most mainstream denominations in the United States, the Society of Friends (Quakers) being the notable exception.
The silence was broken by the Roman Catholic church three years ago when the Pope delivered a powerful statement denouncing nuclear weapons. The Catholic church had issued sporadic statements about nuclear weapons in the years since the US Conference of Catholic Bishops published a paper in the early 1980s, but there had never been a formal renunciation of the central acceptance of that paper of the doctrine of deterrence—which was a de facto acceptance of nuclear weapons.
That changed last year, when Pope Francis explicitly declared the doctrine of deterrence outside the bounds of the faith and called for the nations of the world to take steps to disarm. Nuclear weapons, he said, “cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family.” He condemned not only the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, but their very possession.
For the entire Presbyterian church—St. Louis in June
The overture that will be considered by the Presbyterian Church’s national assembly in June is already being considered by local regional bodies—East Tennessee Presbytery endorsed the overture in early February, and on February 24 it was approved as an overture to the General Assembly by New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina.
The overture has two main goals. It calls on the church to educate its members about the threat of nuclear weapons and the imperative to seek nuclear disarmament, and it calls on the US government to take steps to sign, ratify, and comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The overture is specific—it calls for the elimination of funding for new or “modernized” nuclear weapons production facilities, including the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant slated for Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
OREPA hopes the Presbyterian overture might serve as a model to be considered by other US denominations, challenging people of faith to speak and to act to compel the government to take steps to increase our security.
In the rationale accompanying the Presbyterian Overture, the ominous words of Beatrice Fihn, director of ICAN, as she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, are cited: “The story of nuclear weapons will have one of two endings. Either we will end them, or they will end us.”
You can read the text of the Overture here: Overture on Nuclear Disarmament 2.12.2018