Commentary
By Tobias Winright 11-01-2017

During high school I had a friend — let's call him "Dilbert"  — who once, when losing the game of Risk, swept all of the pieces off the board to end the game. After that, whenever my friends and I played the game and someone threatened to do the same thing, we always referred to it as "pulling a Dilbert." 

Today, I fear that President Trump might do the same thing. Particularly in connection with North Korea — and even more so given the chances that dictator Kim Jong-un might reply in kind. 

Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times shared similar concerns after a trip to North Korea:

“…[A] nuclear war seems terrifyingly imaginable. In the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, it was clear that President Trump’s threat to 'totally destroy' North Korea had backfired and is being exploited by Kim Jong-un for his own propaganda and military mobilization."

Neither leader seems likely to negotiate diplomatically. Both seem to fear "losing face" more than anything or anyone. 

Seasoned experts are also worried. Former CIA Director John Brennan says the odds of a war with North Korea are 25 percent, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry warns that the situation today is even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis, with which he was involved.

I would like to remind readers — especially, but not only, Catholics — just how seriously our tradition takes the problem of nuclear weapons. Their existence is viewed as a moral problem. For Catholics and other Christians who voted for Trump out of his supposed pro-life stance, his reckless and dangerous confusion about, and commitment to, using nuclear weapons must be equally concerning.

Yet a recent Stanford University study reveals that most Americans are OK with using nuclear weapons, even if they know that doing so will kill civilians in other countries.

This greatly troubles me, because such a "blank check" attitude about nuclear weapons is contrary to the ethics of war. 

In Gaudium et spes, the final authoritative document issued in 1965 at the end of the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, the world's Catholic bishops expressed deep concern about so-called "scientific weapons" that could result in "massive and indiscriminate destruction far exceeding the bounds of legitimate defense" (par. 80). The Council also gave its "unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation" of total war and any acts of war "aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas, along with their population, [as] a crime against God and man himself."

Coming in the wake of World War II’s atom bombs, the Cold War arms race, and under the umbrella of “MAD” (Mutually Assured Destruction), the Council statements clearly suggest it total and nuclear war in mind. In all of the documents of Vatican II, only abortion and infanticide are condemned similarly as "unspeakable crimes" (par. 51). 

Twenty years later, in 1983, the United States Catholic bishops' pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, echoed this teaching on nuclear war and called for nuclear disarmament. In a controversial move, the bishops said that nuclear deterrence was also accepted, as a temporary means toward the end goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Intentionally launching nuclear weapons — that would annihilate millions of innocent people along with the guilty, and result in miscarriages, birth defects, cancers, and years of environmental devastation — is as gravely evil as abortion according to official Catholic teaching. It is impossible to argue that such casualties would simply be "collateral damage.”

This is why those Catholics and other Christians who hold that armed force may sometimes be morally justifiable (i.e., just war theory) tend to be "nuclear pacifists” — nuclear war would probably be total war, violating just war principles such as noncombatant immunity and proportionality. And a "first use" to prevent an attack that is not both imminent and grave raises even more red flags.

For these reasons, more than 100 Christian ethicists signed a statement declaring declaring their "unanimous, principled opposition” to any version of a “preventive war” doctrine.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. When speaking at the United Nations in 2015, Pope Francis urged others to put the Non-Proliferation Treaty into action. The Vatican was among the first of the world's states to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in September this year.  

The Vatican recognizes that signing onto a treaty is not enough. On Nov. 10-11, it will host a conference on nuclear disarmament, with bishops, theologians, and others (including myself) discussing ways to move forward on a world without nuclear weapons.

This should encourage Catholics and other Christians in every nation, including our own, to think twice, and think hard, about the current tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. 

Tobias Winwright

Tobias Winright is a contributing writer for Sojourners, and he holds the Maeder Chair in Health Care Ethics and teaches theological ethics at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO. 

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