Where do we go from here: Cooperation or Catastrophe

Peace Advocate December 2022

Photo via shutterstock
Photo via shutterstock

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By Rev. Rodney Petersen

As the good ship Golden Rule sets forth on a new voyage on behalf of nuclear disarmament, let’s acknowledge three nautical realities: 1) life in a boat requires knowing who else is in the boat; 2) a voyage will be successful only insofar as it has an agreed upon direction; and 3) we must understand that the purpose of a boat is to draw together two different shores into a common destination. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final book, Where do we Go from Here: Chaos or Community (1967) has some wisdom that may help us on our voyage.  His title draws us to the realities of civil rights in our country but also speaks to where we are foundering with respect to weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation. The Golden Rule, its reality and its metaphor, is relevant to both missions.

First, life within a boat requires the peacebuilding skills of learning to know ‘the other’ and of establishing bridges of understanding worldviews, practices, and lifestyles different from one’s own. UNESCO emphasizes “global citizenship” as one approach that will help foster the peaceful integration of differences, without succumbing to the fallacies of domination and uniformity. 

The context for our boat is emergent global citizenship. There is a growing sense across the globe that rights and obligations arise from the people themselves, particularly since WWII, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set forth by the United Nations (1948), and given further significance for religious consciousness and liberties in the U. N.’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981). 

 Theological identity, as with all identity, is formed in the context of dialogue and engagement. What is at stake is not merely knowing about theological matters but becoming more religious by way of being more thoughtful, just, and holy, particularly in areas that are relevant to society in the twenty-first century. Those areas shaped by discussion of religion with national defense and weapons of mass destruction, with the sciences more generally, and with our environmental responsibilities.

Among the challenges for nation-states in the twenty-first century is the degree of allegiance citizens give to local, national and international participation, whether oriented toward an individual or communitarian political ethic. Sociologist Elise Boulding argues that a new model of citizenship that is multicultural, multinational, and multidimensional is on our political horizon, involving a threefold citizenship to local community, to the nation-state, and to global agreements. Religious citizenship is a dimension of citizenship at each level. Rather than regressive in its commitments, religion offers deep meaning, the energy for moral vision, and a means to reconciliation and peace that is increasingly recognized. 

Interfaith religious principles and practices are fundamental to peace processes. Peacemaking requires the techniques attributed to forgiveness–its definitions, its rhetoric and its dialectic. Peacebuilding refuses paths of appeasement, the trivialization of physical or psychic violence, pacification without human liberation from structures that enslave, and mere conciliation through conflict management. Peacekeeping demands attention to the cardinal and theological virtues in the formation of the soul. To promote the Beloved Community within the context of differences among the boat’s voyagers. the moral courage preached by MLK, promoted by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and put forward in the philosophy of Josiah Royce to counter the greed and individualism of the current Gilded Age. This is the work of the good ship “Golden Rule.”

Second, in addition to knowing the others in the boat, there is a need to pursue a common direction. Faith leaders need to demonstrate the kind of moral clarity and activism they showed a generation ago. The opportunity lies before us with the New START agreement (2026) between the United States and Russia on strategic arms reduction. A U.S. re-engagement on nuclear issues is long overdue. Religious communities can help inspire the public to support nuclear arms policy changes by regaining the moral clarity on nuclear weapons reduction they displayed in the 1980s and going beyond that to direct engagement with the public. 

The kind of ethical clarity that is needed is the kind Cardinal Joseph Bernardin expressed in his 1983 Commencement Address at Notre Dame University: “Because the nuclear issue is not simply political but also a profoundly moral and religious question, the Church must be a participant in the process of protecting the world and its people from the specter of nuclear destruction.”

Ethicist Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, traces the history of the nuclear beginning with the years following the Vietnam War. She points out how the U.S. religious communities have waxed and waned in an engagement over a host of theological and moral questions posed by weapons of mass destruction. Many religious groups turned their attention from the issues surrounding the Vietnam War to a more general reflection on the conditions that make for peace and the conditions that threaten human security such as nuclear proliferation.

In the 1980s many faith groups turned their attention once again to the nuclear issue. Prominent among these was the American Catholic Bishops’ powerful pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” The American Catholic Bishops were not alone. The Southern Baptist Convention supported a nuclear freeze in 1982, as did the Episcopal Church, which made a pronouncement regarding no first use of nuclear weapons. That same year also saw a statement from the Central Conference of American Rabbis supporting a bilateral nuclear arms freeze and reduction. In 1985 the United Church of Christ supported a complete ban on nuclear weapons in its “Just Peace” pronouncement and subsequent book. This was followed by the publication in 1986 of the United Methodist’s publication, “In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace,” which opposed nuclear weapons.

Interfaith work and joint statements on peac e and the elimination of nuclear weapons are called for, but Mohammed Abu-Nimer, of American University, points out, it’s time for the interfaith community to go beyond talk about a common direction of nuclear disarmament and work to make change happen: “Interfaith efforts in the USA since 9/11 have been intensified and have emerged as an important factor in creating opportunities for face-to-face learning about the other. However, our experience in interfaith work has taught us that we must move beyond words and talk.

Finally, achieving a common direction among those in the boat requires an understanding of the need to bridge two different shores. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, at the United Nations on August 1, 2022, coinciding with the anniversaries of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came at a time of escalating tension. The threat of nuclear confrontation with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran is growing. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns, “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) recently joined 100 interfaith organizations in a joint statement calling on NPT members to act in accordance with their moral conscience to recognize the incredible threat these weapons pose, affirm that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and take swift steps toward disarmament.

The boat “Golden Rule” is able to connect the interfaith community in its effort to recognize the incredible threat posed by nuclear weapons. It does so insofar as it practices a recognition of what Pope Francis outlined in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, on the care of creation, and connecting that recognition with the insights of the encyclical Fratelli tutti, thateverything is connected.” Life in a boat, in the “Golden Rule,” calls for a world characterized by community and not chaos.


Rodney Petersen, historian and theologian, served for a quarter century as Executive Director of the Boston Theological Institute, and then worked as Executive Director of Boston’s inter-faith Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. Currently Dr. Petersen is a Visiting Scholar at Duke Divinity School.