Where Oppenheimer and Pope Francis Agree | Sojourners

Where Oppenheimer and Pope Francis Agree

J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1945. Photo:  Atomic / Alamy

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer where Danish physicist, Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), refers to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as a modern day Prometheus, the Titan in Greek mythology said to have stolen fire from the gods to give it to humanity. In the scene, Bohr attempts to convince his friend to have a more sober-minded view of the realpolitik of the Manhattan Project, the U.S.’ name for the program that oversaw the development of the first atomic bomb in a race against the Nazis. Once unleashed on the world, the bomb, like the gods’ flame, could not be returned. Some things simply can’t be undone.

Bohr was wrong to compare Oppenheimer to Prometheus for one major reason: Nuclear weapons are unambiguously evil. The myth of Prometheus is about order. It helps explain humanity’s capacity to share some of the creative and destructive power of the gods. The myth highlights how the line separating divinity and humanity can, at times, appear fuzzy. No Western myth of human aggrandizement can account for the evil brought forth by the race for the atom bomb. While we’ve sometimes misused Prometheus’ gift, the same flame that can burn us also feeds us.

But there’s nothing redemptive about incinerating an estimated 210,000 people as the U.S. did when we bombed the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. No good can come from that. In May, leaders of the seven largest industrial economies convened in Japan. The leaders also visited the Hiroshima Peace Park and met with Hirosha Harada, the former director of the museum and a survivor of the U.S. bombing. Harada told NPR of the permanent exhibit, “If we were to reproduce the situation of that time, no one, including myself, would be able to enter the museum.” It is a horror that defies memory.

Bohr was mistaken on another point, too: History is not destiny. We are not doomed to live under the self-imposed threat of extinction. The global nuclear disarmament movement started before the bombs were even dropped, and continue to this day. There have, of course, been some Christians who have consistently opposed nuclear weapons. But Christians in the U.S. have never made a unified, unequivocal call for disarmament. Now is the time.

Given the renewed attention to the danger of nuclear weapons — thanks, in part, to Oppenheimer — recent developments in Catholic theology regarding the immorality of nuclear arms provide a timely pretext to engage in interdenominational advocacy at the federal level, as well as political and theological education within church communities. We are at one of the most dangerous junctures in decades.

We are in danger because we are engaging in another nuclear arms race while being in the midst of a climate catastrophe. Rather than focusing on cooperation to salvage our planet, the U.S. is instead focused on remaining the world’s lone superpower. The imminent climate crisis is the backdrop of all geo-political posturing. This posturing becomes absurd in light of humanity facing the threat of extinction. This is especially true for the world’s poor for whom climate adaptation is a costly pipedream. President Joe Biden continues to oversee a destructive nuclear arms race against Russia. Biden’s 2023 military budget continues the $1.25 trillion process of “modernizing” the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, which began under President Obama.

A chief strategic aim of this process is to develop and deploy nuclear warheads that are allegedly more accurate but also more deadly. Unlike the theatrically large explosions of the first generation nuclear bombs, the aim of this latest generation of “tactical nukes” is to produce a lower yield explosion, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be used in conventional combat. A world full of armed conflict is evil enough. We cannot afford to live in a world where nuclear warfare is both possible and more feasible due to “lower yield explosions.”

Robert Oppenheimer saw the technological development of nuclear warfare as endemic to the arms race. In a July 1953 op-ed for Foreign Affairs, later reprinted in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, he described the ease and intentionality with which he and military leaders visited death upon Japanese civilians. Afterward, he noted, “We knew that these munitions could be adapted, not merely to a slow medium bomber operating where we had almost complete air supremacy, but to methods of delivery more modern, more flexible, harder to intercept, and more suitable for combat as it might be encountered today.” The road from having nuclear weapons to using them is too short. On this point, Oppenheimer and Pope Francis agree.

In a November 2019 visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Pope Francis seemed to condemn the development and possession of nuclear weaponry as an affront to the dignity of the earth and human beings. Official church teaching maintained that nuclear deterrence was morally legitimate within a framework of gradual disarmament. But there would be no ambiguity about his aims a year later after the publication of his encyclical — a teaching document outlining official Catholic doctrine — Fratelli tutti. A major point of Fratelli tutti is human interconnectedness. With this point of emphasis in mind, Pope Francis argued that possessing nuclear weapons undermines that very possibility of trust and, therefore, just relations, among the world’s nations.

Francis’ critique is both a pragmatic argument about contemporary global affairs, as well as an absolutist moral argument about the immorality of developing and maintaining nuclear weapons. Nuclear weaponry has developed to the point where human extinction is a realistic possibility. The threat of violence cannot be the force that bonds human beings together as a global family under God.

We should build on this forceful shift. Since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches have toed similar lines. In March 1946, a commission of the Federal Council of Churches — one of the ecumenical associations of Christian denominations that would later form the National Council of Churches — advocated that the U.S. halt all further nuclear weapons production and place nuclear technology under international governance. During the Cold War, this early horror that inspired the council to declare that, “We have sinned grievously against the laws of God” were largely subordinated to the effort to contain communism.

With the hardline pivot of the nation’s single largest denomination, this is an opportune moment for other U.S. Christians to stand united with Catholics in a renewed, principled opposition to our government’s possession of nuclear technology. Public opinion would be on our side. After two generations of revelations regarding the near catastrophes due to accidents, losing nuclear weapons, and equipment malfunctions, a 2020 poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that two-thirds of Americans believe that no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

But attitudes aren’t politics. Attitudes need to be cultivated and leveraged into sustained political struggle. This starts with highlighting people’s interests: The $1.25 trillion dollar nuclear arms development plan averages out to nearly $42 billion per year diverted from meeting human needs when both the duration and quality of the average American’s life is on the decline. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates, the projected cost of nuclear forces will steadily rise from $42 billion to $69 billion over the next decade. Militarism undermines our pursuit of the common good.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds before midnight, the closest we have been to catastrophe since the clock’s inception in 1947. With at least 12,512 nuclear warheads around the world, our situation demands that we take action. Christianity has both the people and the moral framework necessary to successfully campaign for a nuclear free country. We must.