Break the silence on nuclear weapons  

09 February 2018

The Church of England ought to join the international campaign for disarmament, says Stephen Cottrell

I GREW up in a Cold War world where the possibility of nuclear war was all too real. In recent decades, those fears seem to have gone away. But nuclear weapons have not. More nations are obtaining them, and with that comes the increasing risk that, one day, they will be used again. President Trump and Kim Jong-un rattle their sabres at each other, awakening the world to the real and present danger of nuclear weapons.

So, does the world need a fresh impetus to look again at the issue of nuclear disarmament?

Actually, this is happening. But, unfortunately, the UK is not part of it. And the Church of England — the national Church — is silent and out of step with other faith groups around the world. I want to try and change that.

 

THE General Synod last addressed this subject in 2007. Since then, there have been important developments in the international scene. Last December, the Nobel Peace Prize was won by the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. Also last year, with the support of the majority of the world’s states, a Nuclear Ban Treaty was introduced.

At the Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of Hiroshima, took to the podium. She said: “I saw all around me devastation — a procession of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burned, blackened, and swollen.” Ms Thurlow’s first-hand account is desperately uncomfortable to hear, but we must listen. As Hiroshima and Nagasaki slip further into the annals of history, there are fewer people alive today to give us a direct account of that horror.

Her testimony also steers us clear of becoming indifferent to the threat that these dreadful weapons still pose, or of being so overwhelmed by their power and influence that we think that there is nothing we can do to get rid of them.

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Nuclear weapons cannot have anything to do with the justice and peace that God seeks to bring about in our world. As Christians, we strive to look beyond the kings of this world to the coming of God’s Kingdom, knowing, as the prophet Isaiah says, that he will establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness.

In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize gave recognition to the many people across the world who, like Ms Thurlow, have demanded that the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons be outlawed. Three recent international governmental conferences have shown that even a limited nuclear exchange would result in death and suffering on a scale that would overwhelm the capacity of emergency services anywhere. Most governments conclude that, because of their indiscriminate impact, any use of nuclear weapons will always be contrary to principles of international law. These principles are not derived just from the sum total of statutes and government statements: they reflect a global public morality.

Last July, on the basis of these principles, 122 nations agreed a text for a new global Nuclear Ban Treaty. It bans the use of nuclear weapons as well as their possession and future development.

Not surprisingly, countries possessing nuclear weapons, including the UK, oppose this treaty, arguing that it is a destabilising influence on the balance of power. Our Government, understandably, wants the UK to retain an active engagement in world affairs after Brexit, but not, apparently, in the promotion of comprehensive treaties for multilateral disarmament.

This illustrates that, while the Nuclear Ban Treaty is a valuable and principled achievement, it can be a starting point only. Building a future without nuclear weapons will take time. Just as building a house takes time, we have to approach the task by placing brick on brick.

 

CHRISTIAN denominations in the UK have actively campaigned for the introduction of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, and, together with other faiths, are raising awareness. The Vatican has taken a particular lead. Days after the treaty opened for signature, the Vatican signed and ratified it to encourage its eventual entry into force.

I regret that we in the Church of England have not yet added our voice to this international coalition of good will and protest — but we must. The gospel of peace demands nothing less. As a Church, we must be neither indifferent nor overwhelmed, and I hope that this issue will soon be back on the agenda of the General Synod.

An informed debate of the quality that the General Synod has held in the past will give our church members and our Government principled and theological arguments for a different approach to our security. Around the world we are witnessing the most promising disarmament initiative in 20 years. Our country should be part of it.

 

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford. He is hosting a fringe meeting tomorrow at the General Synod on the question “Can nuclear weapons be banned?”

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