Once again Peace Sunday is being commemorated in churches up and down the country. To mark the occasion Dr Ray Towey explains how non-violent civil disobedience can bring about a world `no-go’ area for nuclear armaments.
IN A NUCLEAR weapons state Christians who pray for peace on Peace Sunday should consider the possible consequences. Prayer has a way of leading to action and to me this has resulted in three sentences to Pentonville Prison, What is it that moves Christians who are otherwise quiet and law abiding citizens to acts of non-violent civil disobedience for peace? It is because they have realised that in their country something is happening which is monstrously evil — the sincere plans for nuclear war with which many other Christians are scandalously implicated. To be faithful therefore I these normally law abiding people must speak out and act.
The immorality of nuclear deterrence has been succinctly described by the Scottish bishops in their 1985 peace message: “If it is immoral to use these weapons, it is also immoral to threaten their use.”
The Church, however, is more than a set of moral principles. The church is called to be a community of love, a living witness of Christ in the world. Each of us by our baptism are called to be missionaries and the world learns of Christ by the way we live the Gospel values.
In what sense can a genuine threat of nuclear genocide be compatible with proclaiming the Good News of Christ? If the Church does not clearly extricate itself from any possible support for preparations for nuclear genocide then its mission as a light to the world is fundamentally threatened and when the missionary life of the Church is threatened, the life of the Church itself is at risk.
Our nuclear weapons destroy our own spiritual life and Christian witness before they destroy our enemies’ physical life.
The intention to use nuclear weapons violates-God’s law and plan for creation. Nuclear weapon states have a moral posture which is fundamentally flawed and consequently forfeit the total obedience of their citizens. Christians in a nuclear state have a responsibility to stand in the way of preparations for genocide.
Nuclear weapons are protected by secrecy and the legal framework of the state. Engaging in non-violent civil disobedience challenges the moral basis of the laws which protect nuclear weapons, exposes the moral crises we are in and effectively distances the Christian from any complicity with the nuclear system of values. It withdraws consent and symbolically demonstrates the choices we have to make.
Done in a Christian nonviolent way and in a spirit of evangelisation and faith, Christian civil disobedience has a real power of conversion. It follows a line witness of Franz Jagerstatter and the life and example of Dorothy Day. In this sense non-violent civil disobedience is Christian obedience. For me it has resulted in three arrests and three prison sentences.
During one of my trials in June 1984, Bishop Gumbleton, Vice-President of Pax Christi International, sent a strong letter of support on behalf of a co-defendent, writing that she had acted sincerely and faithfully as a Catholic in her non-violent civil disobedience.
When Bishop Emerson Moor auxiliary in New York, was arrested on December 5 1984 while illegally blockading the South African consultate in New York, he became the first Catholic bishop in the United states ever to be arrested for an act of civil disobedience. The issue in this case was the current genocide of apartheid and not nuclear genocide, but the principles are comparable. Archbishop O’Connor of New York defended the action of his auxiliary bishop, pointing out that there must be instances when an illegal act is seen as “the only way to bring about the revocation or modification of intrinsically immoral law.”
The non-violent witness against nuclear weapons has been going on longest in the United States with thousands of people going through the courts and prison. In our own country Christian civil disobedience is going to be a continued Christian calling while we remain a nuclear weapons state.
We live in a time when the sanctity of human life is everywhere under challenge. The Church has spoken out courageously for the life of the unborn child and for the protection of the human embryo. We should not hesitate now to repudiate and resist any system of values which can contemplate the killing of millions of human beings in the name of national security.
Dr Towey is a member of Pax Christi and Catholic Peace Action as well us a consultant anaesthetist at a London teaching hospital. This was first published in the Catholic Herald, 1 February 1985.