“Just War” in the Nuclear Age


 When the atomic bomb was invented and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, it was not just the Second World War that was ended. The whole human race entered its end-time as well.” (Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope)

The PostBarthian recently shared some passages from Ethics of Hope that highlight the danger that nuclear weapons still hold in the world today. 

No human being could survive the nuclear winter that would follow a major nuclear war. It is true that, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, a major nuclear war is for the moment not very likely, but there are still giant arsenals of atomic and nitrogen bombs in the United States, Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan and Israel, ready for ‘the final solution’ of the question about humanity. ‘The one who shoots first dies second.’ That is humanity’s latent but always-present suicide programme. Today it has been forgotten and suppressed, pushed out of public awareness. But it hangs over humanity as a sombre fate.

During the Cold War (before concerns about the buildup of nuclear arms were pushed out of public awareness), Moltmann gave a lecture on “Discipleship of Christ in an Age of Nuclear War,” where He explored this topic in more depth.  It is published both in On Human Dignity and in The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics –  a collection of Moltmann lectures in dialog with Anabaptist theologians, including John Howard Yoder. Its context may make us think that perhaps this lecture is too dated for us today and surely there is no need to argue such an extreme position in today’s world, with the Cold War long behind us.  But when you look at Moltmann’s two statements on this topic side by side you can see that the thrust of his message has been unchanged in 30+ years.  The goal of disarmament has still not been realized, and it still must not be forgotten!

For this post I’m going to focus on the meat of Moltmann’s argument in this direction. I plan to circle back and do a couple follow up posts based on this lecture covering 1) why the most common Christian approaches to politics tend to fall short when tested against this problem, and 2) why people living in the way of the Sermon on the Mount should think differently friend-enemy relationships and peace.  

In America at least, we tend to assume that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil that must be kept in the right hands (ours and our allies) and out of the wrong ones (Iran or anyone else who may wish us harm). But what if there are no “right” hands for this technology?  Moltmann is no principled pacifist, but he does believe that pacifism is the only just option in today’s world. He argues using the principles of Just War to demonstrate that: 1) The use of nuclear weapons is evil and sinful; 2) The same must be said of the threat of nuclear weapons; 3) The mere possession (much less development and build up) of nuclear weapons by any country cannot be justified; 4) Any conflict which is likely to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons cannot be justified. As we shall see, this leaves us with little choice other than the side of disarmament and pacifism.

Whoever is not a pacifist always explains himself or herself with a kind of doctrine of just war. This doctrine does not intend to provide a justification for war – we must be clear about this – but seeks to apply the moral criteria of justice and injustice to the conduct of war. With this doctrine the moral norms of good and evil are applied to the execution of war. According to this theory, war must be conceived as a means of politics or a continuation of politics by other means. Yet we should be aware of the fact that the doctrine of just war was not developed for the justification of war but for the limitation of war because no one is allowed to participate in an unjust war. (Both the Vietnam War and the Falklands War, for example, were according to this tradition unjust wars because war was never declared.)
The decisive elements of the doctrine of just war are:

1. War must be declared by a legitimate authority; it must serve the common good of the state.
2. It must be conducted with a good intention.
3. It must be conducted with the expectation of a good outcome; the general situation after the war must be better than the situation before it.
4. All peaceful means for a resolution of the conflict must have been exhausted.
5. The means of the war may not be worse than the evil which is supposed to be overcome by it, that is, the means must stand in the right proportion to the end.
6. There must be a distinction between soldiers and citizens. The civilian population must be protected. (On Human Dignity, 119)

It is should be readily accepted that the use of nuclear weapons against enemy countries does not fall within the confines of the elements of just war as outlined above.  But what about their continued existence? Surely complete disarmament is nothing but a utopian dream that would leave the world vulnerable to annihilation at the hands of evil nations or groups who wish us harm? For Moltmann, there is no question on the ethics of this dilemma: 

There is ethically no conceivable justification of a possible destruction of humanity and of life on earth in order to protect the rights and freedom in one of the social systems in which human beings live today. A “peace” which is bought with the threat of world destruction is no peace. The peace of deterrence through mutual fear may technically be nonemployment of weapons, but it is not peace. Mutual deterrence through fear is a condition of extreme lack of peace, because it increases potential realities of violence. Even without nuclear war the stockpiling of armaments already destroys the life of human beings and the natural environment. The “military-industrial complex” spreads itself like a cancerous growth and infects all dimensions of life. Unnoticed, a total mobilization has come into being..
We call, therefore, for withdrawal from the apocalyptic threshold, a gradual nuclear disengagement as a first step and then the gradual dismantling of conventional armaments. (On Human Dignity, 122)

But this isn’t a matter of following the moral reasoning of one theologian. Moltmann leans heavily on official declarations from the Society of Protestant Theology (1981) and the Reformed Alliance in Germany (1982) which echo a declaration  of the Brethren from 1958, and concludes: 

If the use of the means of mass destruction is sin, then the possession of the means of mass destruction for the purpose of threatening and deterring the enemy can not be justified as Christian. because this threat is effective only if one is also ready to use the weapons, the threat itself is immoral and must also be viewed as sin.  
The modern military means of mass destruction have changed war so much that the real nature of war is revealed now before everryone’s eyes. We have reached the point, therefore, where we must go back and say that all war is irresponsible, is sin, and there can be no justification of it. Every martial threat and positioning which includes the possibility of escalation to universal nuclear war is irresponsible. The current concept “peace through mutual deterrence” is also irresponsible.” (On Human Dignity, 129)

Far from starting with an extreme position that absolute nonviolence is the only option for all Christians (must less the world), he argues through “just war theory” to arrive at position that pacifism should no longer be considered a fringe option in today’s world; it is the only option that takes the nuclear threat seriously, as he concludes in this lecture: “I believe that so-called pacifism is no longer an illusion or utopia. Pacifism is the only realism of life left to us in this apocalyptic situation of threatened world annihilation.”