The Nuclear Testament

Posted on 01. Oct, 2008 by in Snapshots

Standing in the Yale Divinity School common room, beneath the benevolent gaze of portraits of deans past, were a Navy officer, a United Nations diplomat, and a slew of clergy from around the country. They were mostly white, mostly male, and mostly middle-aged—not the usual demographic to be discussing “vulnerability.” But as the room filled with the melodies of choir practice from across the quad, the crowd spoke of an “anxious age.” Though the only weapons on the premises were special YDS ballpoint pens poised to fill tender Moleskines and stern legal pads, the assembled were convinced they were not safe.

Participants in the Divinity School’s annual Sarah Smith Conference gathered on Prospect Street to talk about nuclear nonproliferation. Held in honor of YDS graduate and Methodist moral leader Sarah Smith, who died in 1999, the conference was designed to focus on different issues of ethical and religious relevance; in recent years, it has centered on homelessness and public faith. This year’s topic, in line with Yale’s push for global engagement and growing academic angst over nuclear policy, was “Are We Safe Yet? Vulnerability and Security in an Anxious Age.” The question drew a crowd of 112 from across the Northeast, as well as some from as far away as the UK, Canada, and Australia, for two packed September days to ponder how religion, Yale, and religion at Yale can possibly change the world.

Playing a starring role at the conference was Sergio Duarte, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who gave the keynote address. “Disarmament, in short, represents the fusion of idealism and realism,” he declared. “It is the right thing to do, and it works.” Religious leaders, he explained, can extend their mission of “serving the human family” by joining in the push for total nuclear abolition. His idea is not a new one, dating back at least as far as the 1980s, when the US Council of Catholic Bishops was one of the most vocal advocates of the Nuclear Freeze movement, calling for a moratorium on all nuclear production.
And at Yale during the ’60s and ’70s, the University’s spiritual community benefited from the energizing presence of its chaplain, Reverend William Sloane Coffin YDS ’56. Coffin preached desegregation, anti-war action, and, after leaving Yale and relocating to Manhattan’s Riverside Chapel, anti-nuclear activism. As Coffin well understood, nuclear disarmament can take on a special urgency in the hands of the faithful.

Tyler Wigg Stevenson YDS ’04, who spoke at the conference, was an anti-nuclear activist for years before a religious conversion led him to locate new moral stakes in his cause. Now, he explains that America’s nuclear arsenal sets the country “squarely in the face of the wrath and judgment of God.” He currently works for Faithful Security, a coalition group that bridges faith communities to pursue nuclear nonproliferation, and warns that the US government “seeks to elevate America above that which God has ordained any nation to be.”

Stevenson was one of the younger, and louder, conference participants. “I’m sure someone here thinks I’m a zealot,” he mused during a coffee break after his speech, though this doesn’t prevent him from avidly expressing his views. “A country considering nuclear weapons,” he explained, “needs only to look at North Korea on one hand, and Iraq on the other, and see the indisputable advantage of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Those trained in business might rightly call this an incentive—and it will cause a catastrophe beyond imagining.”
A year after graduating from the Divinity School, Stevenson was one of a handful of spiritual leaders who, under Coffin’s guidance, sparked the genesis of this year’s conference. In the summer of 2005, Coffin invited roughly a dozen friends, colleagues, and scholars, Stevenson included, to his house in Vermont to discuss how the religious community could mobilize to eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons. The chaplain died the next year.

John Lindner, who now produces a YDS magazine called Reflections, was also present in Vermont. When Lindner speaks of Coffin, it is with a sense of veneration—as though the reverend were at once a movie star, a prophet, a sage, and a best friend. “Bill said, ‘I’m an old man, I’m dying, but come to my house and we’ll talk about this,’” Lindner recalled. The ideas spawned during this intimate gathering eventually grew into this fall’s conference as well as a nuclear-themed issue of Reflections to be published this spring.

Lindner’s magazine highlights a progressive strain of thought thriving on the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. Articles titled “Jesus of Hollywood” and Scripture in the Digital Age” suggest that the Divinity School has not forgotten its forward-thinking heyday; recent issues have centered on how sex, immigration, foreign policy, and environmentalism interact with issues of faith.

In a high-profile academic move, the Divinity School drew Tony Blair to New Haven to teach a course on “Faith and Globalization” with YDS Professor Miroslav Volf, who played a large role in organizing September’s conference. Volf spoke at the beginning of the conference, noting the ways technology and the modern world have revolutionized what it means to be unsafe. Nuclear weapons, Volf insisted, threaten world security, and a more insecure world means a world further from the biblical ideal of Jerusalem, a “city that is utterly and completely secure, and can never be conquered or undone.”

Professor Jonathan Schell, a longtime advocate for nuclear disarmament who teaches a course in Yale’s Political Science Department titled “Strategic, Political, and Moral Dilemmas of the Nuclear Age,” lent the conference an overtly political presence. “We’re overdue for a profound reconsideration of this issue,” Schell noted. His comment applied not only to Yale, but to an entire nation about to move on from the nuclear-friendly policies of the Bush administration and, perhaps, beginning to question the need for any country—including the United States—to possess nuclear weapons.

The national conversation may, in fact, be changing. Last January, in a Wall Street Journal editorial penned by former policy heavyweights George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger—hardly a hippy activist himself—called for a world without nuclear weapons. It was signed by almost all living former Secretaries of Defense, suggesting a rising tide for nuclear reform. “They could hardly be bigger chunks of establishment,” Schell observes of the four authors, “and they’re calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

The Divinity School hopes that it can add fuel to the fire. As a university increasingly plugged in to global power dynamics, it wasn’t long before Yale began to tackle what Schell calls “the mother of all global issues.” That it was the Divinity School that assumed this task, Schell believes, is not surprising. “We need all hands on deck,” he says. “And that very much…includes religious bodies. These are questions of cosmic, spiritual importance—and philosophical importance.”

When Robert Oppenheimer saw the first atomic explosion at the Trinity Test, he remembered a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Like Oppenheimer, participants in September’s conference have come to see nuclear weapons as a spiritual as well as a political issue. The Divinity School is formulating a New Testament for a post-nuclear age.

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