Editorial: “A New Covenant of Nonviolence”: On Archbishop John C. Wester and the Work of Nuclear Disarmament

In light of recent events, one passage in Archbishop John C. Wester’s pastoral letter Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament acquires a new poignancy:

Russia has also been engaged in a major [nuclear] “modernization” program. President Vladimir Putin has announced new advanced nuclear weapons that he claims the U.S. will never be able to defend against. International tensions are increasing over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, with one U.S. senator openly stating that nuclear war is not off the table.

Wester’s letter, issued in January with the intention of rejuvenating the peace work that has historically been a part of the archdiocese’s mission, was well received by many Catholics who have felt that the episcopacy—particularly the American episcopacy—has been too slow to take up Pope Francis’s unambiguous condemnation of nuclear weapons (a condemnation, it should be noted, that amplifies but in no way deviates from the traditional Catholic position). The Sisters of Mercy sent Wester a letter of gratitude (and encouraged others to do the same); here at Today’s American Catholic, we alluded to it in a tribute to two recently passed peacemakers and contributors to our journal.

For those who haven’t yet read Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace, it is well worth taking the time: Wester’s summary of the church’s long history of opposition to nuclear weapons, his close readings of key texts and statements of Pope Francis that “[move] the Church from past conditional acceptance of ‘deterrence’ to the moral imperative of abolition,” and his careful assessments of the moral, mortal, and economic costs of nuclear proliferation are a vital contribution to the argument for disarmament that speaks to the heart as well as the mind. That his archdiocese—named, with sorrowful irony, for Saint Francis, that paragon of peace—is home to the nation’s largest repository of nuclear weapons grounds his words and deepens their pastoral legitimacy; when he speaks of how “much of the land for the Los Alamos Lab was seized from Native American ancestral lands and Hispanic homesteaders without adequate compensation, continuing the legacy of colonialism, racism, and systemic violence,” or challenges the state’s scandalous economic inequality and the job-creation myth peddled by the weapons industry by pointing out that “During the 79 years the nuclear weapons industry has been in New Mexico, Census Bureau data shows that our state has slipped in per capita income from 37th in 1959 to 49th in 2019,” he is before all else a priest addressing the concrete concerns of his flock.

The context in which we read Wester’s letter in January has already shifted significantly. The Russian invasion of Ukraine alluded to above has become a reality, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening nuclear escalation. The U.S. withdrawal in 2001 from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 now seems like a shortsighted strategic decision, warped by the first wave of antiterrorist fervor, that emboldened a new arms race. Though Wester’s message has been borne out with increasing urgency, Americans, as a whole, have no calculable influence on the way their government operates foreign policy, including nuclear policy, nor the way it determines its military budget.

This last point is worth dwelling on for a moment, because without acknowledging the fact that, as the historian Daniel Bessner put it in a pointed analysis for the newsletter Foreign Exchanges, “We live in an era when the institutions of mass politics . . . have proven themselves unable to serve as vehicles of the people’s will,” we will circle endlessly around the questions of where power lies, how to disperse it, and what steps we need to take to envision and enact an alternate future. Bessner summarizes the sources of our present disconnection:

[T]here has been a century-long, and largely successful, elite project to remove ordinary people from the decision-making process. Beginning with the intellectual revolution of “democratic realists” like Walter Lippmann—who insisted that social scientists and decision-makers should be the ones making actual political choices—and continuing with the midcentury (1930s–1960s) creation of the national security and administrative states—which concentrate power in the hands of small groups of people—US elites effectively have removed the demos from politics.

In this view, Wester’s call for “legislative advocacy” on behalf of nuclear disarmament is more of a morally symbolic than politically pragmatic act: important in its own way, but necessary to couple with a broader political movement that reaffirms peoples’ right to have a say in how their government operates in their name, and allows for new articulations—and eventual implementation—of a foreign policy that takes as its central tenet the interconnectedness of all human life.

Problematizing this, of course, is the outsize influence the defense industry has in setting the national agenda. Two days after Wester’s letter appeared on January 11, Farhad Manjoo, writing for the New York Times, questioned why Senator Joe Manchin said he would not vote for the Build Back Better Act, a $2.2 trillion, 10-year plan, because it was too “mammoth” and “sweeping,” yet had no issue authorizing a military budget of three-quarters of a trillion dollars for a single year. After noting that the Pentagon has never passed an audit, that our military budget accounted for 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures in 2020, and that we are expected to spend $8.5 trillion for the military over the next 10 years, Manjoo asked, “Are such lavish resources even good for national defense, or might the Pentagon’s near-bottomless access to funds have encouraged a culture of waste and indulgence that made it easier to blunder into Iraq and contributed to its failures in Afghanistan?” “The reasons such spending persists aren’t a big mystery,” he continued:

The military-industrial complex is every bit as politically powerful as Dwight Eisenhower warned it would be. (A recent Wall Street Journal headline captured the situation well: “Who Won in Afghanistan? Private Contractors.”) In another trick, the military spreads its contracts to a large number of congressional districts, giving every lawmaker a reason to celebrate excessive military spending.

The Russian invasion has shown once again the frightful distance war profiteers are able to place between themselves and human suffering. “Now that there’s geopolitical turmoil, however, suddenly [Raytheon] stock looks like a great investment,” the website InvestorPlace flippantly advised, referring to the Massachusetts-based defense conglomerate; Raytheon’s own CEO, Gregory Hayes, has spoken bluntly of the “benefit” that “tensions in Eastern Europe” would have for the company.

This is the world into which Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace has been released. In one way, it can overwhelm us and threaten to stifle Archbishop Wester’s prophetic call. And yet, in another, it can cast into sharp relief the very need for that call and our alacrity in heeding it. (See here for one way that local communities are getting involved.) This is the responsibility not only of Catholics who might have a special attraction to the spiritual underpinnings of the archbishop’s argument, but to all those who feel the world has reached a breaking point that is a turning point for rebuilding the structures of peace. As Pope Francis stated in his 2019 address at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home.” ♦

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

Image: Otto Pankok, Christ Breaks the Rifle, featured on p. 13 of Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace

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