Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?

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The Personal Cost of Missions: William Carey’s Successes and Failures

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Today we are continuing our blog series on the history of missions. Last week, we found ourselves in India, discussing Amy Carmichael. This week we are again returning to India to examine the ministry of William Carey, who has been called the “Father of Modern Missions” (Tucker, 122).

William Carey (1761-1834) married his shoemaker boss’s sister-in-law, Dorothy, who was five years older (Tucker, 123). Their marriage is one of the more intriguing and unfortunate aspects of the story of William Carey’s ministry in India, as we will see below. Carey was one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society, and quickly volunteered for the mission field. Dorothy, however, refused to go (Tucker, 124). Only after a delay in Carey’s departure, and the birth of their fourth child, did Dorothy finally relent and join William and their children in heading to India (Tucker, 125).

One can already see the problems inherent in William Carey’s ministry: Dorothy did not want to go with him. Also, the East India Company resisted missionaries, which led the Careys to move their ministry into the interior of India (Tucker, 125). India was a harsh place, and the Careys’ time was made harsher by the death of their son, which sent Dorothy into a “delusional disorder” in which she thought William was cheating on her (Tucker, 125).

Despite the family troubles, the mission continued with William relocating the mission to Serampore, near Calcutta. Here the Serampore Mission became a success, leading to schools, printing, and translation of the “whole Bible into Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi… and translated the New Testament and portions of Scripture into many more languages and dialects” (Tucker 126-127). William Carey’s time in India is a study in contradiction. You have the family trauma and his wife’s declining mental health coupled with the outward successes of the Serampore Mission. Ruth Tucker notes that while all the success was going on in the mission, Carey “neglected his children, failing to give them the parenting they so desperately needed. Even when he was with them, his easygoing nature stood in the way of firm discipline, a lack that was plainly exhibited in the boys’ behavior” (Tucker, 127).

Dorothy died in 1807 and Carey married Lady Charlotte Rumohr, whom he had baptized four years earlier, six months after Dorothy’s death (Tucker, 127-128). Charlotte became a valuable member to the mission, helping William’s translations and being a loving mother to the children, but died in 1821. “Two years later, at the age of sixty-two, Carey married again, this time to Grace Hughes, a widow seventeen years younger than he” (Tucker, 128). Clearly William’s family life was marred by upheaval and tragedy.

Carey’s time in India saw a great deal of change in the Serampore Mission. The group had to deal with new missionaries who wanted to change the living situations and other ways in which the Mission operated. The Serampore Mission did eventually split from the Baptist Missionary Society, but eventually rejoined with it (Tucker, 129). Carey also was noted for being focused on “social issues-particularly in his long struggle against widow burning and infanticide. But otherwise, he sought to leave the culture intact” (Tucker, 130).

So what do we do with William Carey? Was he a success? His is a complicated picture, fraught with his seeming abandonment of his family, particularly his mentally ill wife. He did not provide the help with his own children that they needed. Yet, his mission flourished, grew, and essentially provided a model for modern missions going forward. I would argue that Carey is a strong picture of the dangers of jumping into ministry without first assessing the cost.

In my master’s and doctoral work, I have seen many colleagues who have jumped into a major life change such as getting a Master’s of Divinity or a PhD without first considering what it means for their family and friends. In fact, in my first year of seminary, I sorely neglected my job, leading to me being fired. My pursuit of God’s calling in my life led to me making mistakes at my job and being fired. I have known people who have burned out and/ or allowed relationships and family life to deteriorate because they are willing to sacrifice anything to follow what they perceive to be God’s calling for their lives. In watching people head toward careers in ministry, I wonder if God truly is calling them into vocational ministry or if they are simply going after what sounds exotic or challenging (like William Carey). I have wondered before if I also jumped in too quickly. Thankfully, I seem to have found that balance.

There are countless stories of pastors who have burned themselves out, who have allowed things in their lives to crumble while their ministries thrive. I wonder if it is worth it? Should we consider it a blessing when the ministry of an individual is successful while their personal life falls to pieces? Is the benefit of the greater good worth the damage to an individual? Should we just see it as their personal sacrifice to following God’s calling? I think, for me, a less successful ministry and a successful personal life are more glorifying to God.

Serious Missionary: The Ultra-focused Ministry of Amy Carmichael

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This week we are starting a new series on the history of Christian missions. In studying such a history, one will see that there are many powerful individuals and ministries. The main source we will rely on is Ruth A. Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (please see the Recommended Books page on our blog). Today’s post focuses on Amy Carmichael.

Carmichael (1867-1951) was a missionary in India, where she ministered for over fifty-five years. Carmichael “founded Donhavur Fellowship and wrote some thirty-five books, a number of which were translated into more than a dozen languages. One of them, Gold Cord, has had sales of more than a half-million” (Tucker, 2004, 298-99). These facts alone make her a very intriguing person for our blog series. The fact that she had a 55-year ministry is nothing short of amazing, made more powerful when one considers that she never took a furlough (Tucker, 300). Also, the fact that she wrote 35 books with one of them selling 500,000 copies shows her impact came in several different forms.

Her ministry focused on serving children, including “child widows, temple prostitutes, or orphans” (Tucker, 300). Carmichael saw herself as the mother of these children in need. Her ministry flourished, as Tucker notes that “twelve years after she began her ministry she had 130 children under her care” (Tucker, 300). The numerous amount of children under her charge warranted others who likewise were willing to act as parents to them. As a result, Carmichael often urged that her fellow workers were supposed to remain unmarried. She started the Sisters of the Common Life for single women in order to have more women acting as mothers to the numerous children in the ministry (Tucker, 300).

The fact that she was in India for 55 years without a furlough caused Carmichael to likewise deny others’ requests for time off from the ministry (Tucker, 301). She was no doubt intensely focused on their work and thought that time away from the mission would lead to a weakened sense of calling and purpose. In fact, many of her critics accused her of running too tight of a ship and of being a dictator, mostly by those who tried to work with her (Tucker 302). One individual, Stephen Neill, ended up writing about his time working with Carmichael and noted that her authoritarian model was not always helpful, especially if someone came in with new ideas and goals (Tucker, 302-3), which he tried to do.

Overall, we are left with an image of a dedicated, organized woman who spent most of her life serving the children of India. She was gifted with incredible endurance, intelligence, and a deep desire to serve God’s calling in her life. Carmichael’s writing career was rather prolific, directly testifying to her intelligence and communication skills. However, one must also recognize that her dedication often came across to her coworkers as extreme, harsh, and too authoritarian. One has to wonder if she went too far in serving God.

This begs the question of whether or not one can “go too far” in following God. One need only interview people who have “flamed out” of pastoral ministry to find out that regular rest is often necessary in order to continue functioning in the ministries into which God has called a person. Pastors, missionaries, chaplains, nuns, monks, etc. need time to recuperate from their service. Amy Carmichael never took a furlough for over 55 years. Such a model would almost be unheard of on the mission field today. Often, missionaries travel back to their home country to raise support to continue serving in their respective mission fields; however, missionaries also take time to rest and reinvigorate  themselves in order to continue serving God to the best of their physical, mental, and spiritual abilities.

Amy Carmichael was a very devoted missionary who left a lasting impact on all with whom she came into contact. Much of it was positive, but some was also negative. I can’t help but wonder if the negative would have been lessened had she taken time off here and there to rest.

I close by asking those of you in ministry positions and other lay offices what your opinion is of such a model. Do you take regular furloughs/ vacations? Is such a model too “American,” worldly, etc? What level of exhaustion is okay in order to keep serving God’s calling in your life? Can one maintain Carmichael’s ultra-focused ministry model, or was she just particularly gifted by God in order to do so?

Faithfully Sitting on a Pole: Saint Daniel the Stylite and Early Christian Asceticism

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Greetings to my readers! I hope all of you are doing well and had a wonderful holiday season. As evidenced by the previous sentence, it has been a minute since I have posted a blog. For this, I apologize. I found it tricky to pick the blog back up in January, and watched January turn into the end of February. Next week, however, I hope to begin a new series on the history of missions through which we will explore movements and missionaries around the world throughout history. I am very much looking forward to it. As for today, I ran across a passage in my reading that I wanted to post about, so today’s post will not figure in with our new series.

The main source for this post is Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. It is, so far, a very interesting read about authority in regard to the bishops of late antiquity. Rapp has a brief section in the beginning of her work (pp. 3-5) in which she discusses Daniel the Stylite, a fifth-century ascetic.

St. Daniel the Stylite first became a popular figure in a suburb around Constantinople (Rapp, 2005, 3). The archbishop of Constantinople even gave Daniel’s ministry his seal of approval. Rapp notes that he became “a personal saint for Emperor Leo I (457-474) and for his successor, Zeno (474-491), who depended on Daniel to soothe restless crowds on the verge of rebellion… Leo rewarded Daniel’s cooperation with public gestures of recognition, especially by donating a large pillar, topped by an enclosed platform on which Daniel would live” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

In my experience, many Protestant students of church history usually begin to scoff when they read sentences like the previous quotation. Often, you will hear something like, “Wow he can really do a lot of good ministry from up on a post;” or maybe something like, “This is just extremism or fame-mongering.” Unfortunately, such flippant dismissals of ancient holy men and women can overlook some of the more intriguing elements of church history. Many Protestant denominations today do not know enough of their own faith heritage. It is often as if they think the Apostles all died out and then the Reformation popped up, with a whole bunch of “Catholic happenings” in the interim.

Now, I am fully aware that as one who is writing a dissertation on the early church, such a statement might seem self-serving. But I do also think that there is validity to the ministries and actions of even the early ascetics. In the case of St. Daniel the Stylite, you have a man who lived on top of a pillar. Now it might seem odd, but he was actually ordained to the priesthood while he was on top of the pillar, with the “laying on of hands” being affected by God “from above” (Rapp, 2005, 4). Rapp further notes that “Daniel’s ordination had no effect on his way of life or daily routine, since he never exercised any priestly duties. His ordination to the priesthood served the exclusive purpose of recognizing, confirming, and enhancing Daniel’s position as a holy man” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

So what is the point of him being ordained if he never descends from his pillar? Well, Rapp does describe a time when he climbs down from his pillar in order to mediate a crisis between the Archbishop of Constantinople and a rebel emperor over orthodoxy. Rapp even notes that in the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the two individuals fall at Daniel’s feet which are “crippled and worn down to the bone—a tangible token of his ascetic achievement” (Rapp, 2005, 5).

The man on a pillar shows that he was not above (pun intended) the crises of the city to which he ministered. He willingly climbed down to intercede, a task that no doubt caused him excruciating pain. Daniel is one of many “holy men” from the early church who practiced extreme asceticism. John Chrysostom, the bishop on whom I am focusing in my dissertation, spent a couple of years of his early ecclesiastical career in a cave in Syria where he didn’t really sleep or sit down for about 2 years. Such a practice left permanent damage upon his body.

Many readers today will see these types of stories as extreme actions embarked upon to gain a following. However, Christians need to embrace the fact that these individuals are a part of their own faith heritage. These holy men and women were a product of their era, exhibiting devotion and commitment to the Christian faith. It is easy to say that they could have been more effective ministers if they had lived among the people, but that is to sell their asceticism short. Eschewing the comforts of the world, including a comfortable place to sit or sleep, was done in order to show their devotion to a faith which set them apart from the masses. They were admired for their piety and dedication to Christianity. I, for one, have to admit that I admire their courage to fully live out their faith in such a way. I have to also admit that I think they probably experienced their faith on a deeper level than I ever have. I would urge you, if you haven’t before, to study the ancient holy men like St. Daniel the Stylite.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree? Is there validity to this type of asceticism? Should these men and women be viewed with or even overtly given ecclesiastical authority?

Midweek Blog: Bonhoeffer and Spending Christmas apart from Loved Ones

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I wanted to pause our series on American Church History in order to post a blog about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christmas. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote several books which are widely regarded by Christians even today, but his Letters and Papers from Prison have a much different tone than some of his other, more theological and ethical texts. In Letters and Papers, obviously, one gets a picture of how Bonhoeffer experienced prison and isolation from his family during World War II. There are many selections which describe his experience in prison while the city in which he is incarcerated is bombed. It paints a sobering picture, since not only is he bound to a cell, but the prison building itself is subjected to artillery shells striking the area around it.

Several of his letters actually address spending Christmas in jail, which is the focus of this blog today. Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to his parents, “The only thing I can do to help is to believe and know that your thoughts about it will be the same as mine, and that we shall be at one in our attitude towards the keeping of this Christmas. Indeed, it can’t be otherwise, for that attitude is simply a spiritual inheritance from you. I needn’t tell you how I long to be released to see you all again” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 165). He mentions that this Christmas (with him in prison) will be a somber one, but it should not dampen the holiday for everyone simply because he is incarcerated. It sounds easy enough, but I am sure that his family (which they actually illustrate in a letter that they wrote to him) missed him in the house during their regular traditions.

If nothing else, I think Bonhoeffer here shows how difficult it is for families at the holidays to be separated from loved ones because of prison, wars, or other circumstances. The sacrifices of people like Bonhoeffer’s family, as well as their torment around the holidays, make his Letters and Papers relatable to audiences today.

Another passage I want to discuss comes from the same letter. Bonhoeffer writes, “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God… that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn-these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people” (Bonhoeffer, 166).

This passage strikes me because I’ve never considered how the Christmas story can resonate with individuals who have no home, family, or safe haven to go to at Christmas time. Not just for prisoners, but for the homeless and the lonely people in the world, the Christmas story has a special message for all of them: Christ entered this world in a similar circumstance. Joseph and Mary were travelling and trying to find a space for Jesus to be born. The only space left was in a stable area. The humility of Christ’s birth speaks to those whose existence can only be described as “humble.”

Bonhoeffer, as a prisoner, knew isolation and loneliness at Christmas. He though, unlike so many, had a loving family who came to see him when they were permitted and who missed him at Christmastime in their home. How many of his fellow prisoners felt a much deeper loneliness and isolation than he did because they had no such support? How many prisoners incarcerated today feel a similar loneliness and isolation, especially at the holidays?

I want to draw this blog to a close by examining one final passage from Bonhoeffer’s letter to his parents. He writes, “It’s only when one thinks of the terrible times that so many people in Berlin have been through lately that one realizes how much we have to be thankful for. No doubt it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will remember it for a long time to come. But it may perhaps bring home to some people for the first time what Christmas really is” (Bonhoeffer, 166).

He touches on a powerful notion that speaks also to today’s world. There is the obvious connection that Christmas has become too commercialized in the United States, and that a “quiet” Christmas is the remedy, but I think there’s more to it than that.

The idea that it might only be when things are “quiet” during tragic times that one experiences what Christmas really is about has a powerful impact to those who are suffering this holiday season. Illness, enmity, strife, fear, and loss can lead to a painful Christmas season. However, it might be that those who are dealing with such heartache will have an experience of Christmas and Christ’s love that they need in such a dark hour. That is not to say that people should see their struggles as a good thing (no one wants to hear that), but that Christmas specifically might shed a small light into their dark world. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about anyways? Christ came as a light into a dark world. The good news of Christmas can be just the right thing for those seemingly surrounded by bad news.

Midweek Blog: Terrorists and Their Other Victims

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Today’s blog will continue our recent discussion of American church history, but it will concern some recent tragic events. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, there was a horrific terrorist attack in Paris on Friday, which killed 129 people. What has followed the attacks, in the USA at least, has been a war of words regarding whether or not we as a country should allow over 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country. In fact, 31 states’ governors have voted against allowing any refugees into their respective states. Those who have been arguing such a position point to the fact that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks came to France as a Syrian refugee. Recently there has also been renewed debate over Islam as a religion in and of itself, with many people claiming that mosques with any ties to terrorists should be shut down. While we can and should debate all of these points, today I want to look at a selection from a poem written in 2001 entitled, “First Writing Since.”

The poem is in response to 9/11 and how Muslims in the country had to deal with the fear/ suspicion they encountered everywhere. The old cliche is “history is bound to repeat itself.” Unfortunately, people are still having to deal with suspicion and fear directed at them because of the actions of a few. The author is a Palestinian-American Muslim woman named Suheir Hammad (text in Harvey and Goff, 531-533). I think this poem gets at many of the frustrations that people are feeling right now in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Hammad writes, “first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. please god, after the second plane, please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers” (Harvey and Goff, 531).

The author here shows that she understands what is to come, specifically the blaming and the suspicion that will be leveled against those who “look like” the attackers. She notes that her first thought was “please let it just have been a horrible accident.” Unfortunately, it was not and that led to a time of great trouble for Muslims in America.

Hammad later writes, “most Americans do not know the difference between Indians, Afghanis, Syrians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus. More than ever, there is no difference… one more person ask me if I knew the hijackers… one more person assume no Arabs or Muslims were killed… we did not vilify all white men when McVeigh bombed Oklahoma” (Harvey and Goff, 532).

These are some of the most poignant lines from the poem. Hammad notes how Indians, Afghanis, and Syrians were all lumped together in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh. Hammad touches on how each were persecuted as though they “knew the hijackers.” Clearly, she herself has been asked that question. The notion that someone would ask that of a Palestinian Muslim shows just how the suspicion of Muslims hit a fever pitch in the wake of 9/11. She makes the powerful statement that just because one white man (McVeigh) killed over 160 people when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building doesn’t mean that we should blame all white men. The very idea that white men in the USA would all be blamed equally for the actions of one seems far-fetched to say the least. But, it’s not far off from what Muslims went through after 9/11 and what Syrians are going to have to go through in the coming weeks. One seems preposterous, the other seems like a foregone conclusion. Anyone else see what’s wrong with that picture?

The final selection I want to include offers hope. Hammad writes, “thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked, ‘Do you want a hug?’ A big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer… There is death here, and there are promises of more. there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has arisen. affirm life. affirm life” (Harvey and Goff, 532-533).

These are powerful statements. In the first part of the selection, a white woman shows how comforting and welcoming people can be, despite widespread suspicion and hatred. Sometimes people just need a little kindness. The second half of the quote shows that even though we as a nation were hurting, and Muslims in particular were feeling ostracized, we were (and currently are) all still breathing. That means that we are alive. We must “look for peace and justice” and “affirm life.”

Now, how can we do that? Does that mean we have to let anyone come into our country without being careful? I don’t know. I think it means that we need to start seeing this number of 10,000 refugees as more than just a huge number, and as more than a potential for terrorism. There are living, breathing people that are fleeing a war-torn world. I don’t know the logistics that are involved with “vetting” these refugees nor do I know how they will acclimate to life in the United States. What I do know is that we need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of our past. Just 15 years ago, we turned our backs on many Muslims in this country because they “looked like the terrorists.” We ought to be so ashamed of this past that we are vigilant to not repeat the process. Not all refugees are potential terrorists. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to “affirm life.”

Midweek Blog: Catholic Bishops on Pointing Nukes at Our Enemies

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This week, in continuing our series on American Church History, we are jumping forward a bit into the twentieth century. Today’s blog focuses on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1983 which published a pastoral letter entitled “The Challenge of Peace.” The conference’s focus was on the ramping up of nuclear arms between the USA and the USSR in the early 1980s, as well as the rhetoric surrounding a strategy of nuclear deterrence. The idea, for President Ronald Reagan, was that the USA should stockpile advanced nuclear weaponry in order to keep the peace. Such an increase in production of catastrophic weaponry led many people to decry the policy, including the aforementioned Catholic conference (Paul Harvey and Philip Goff, eds. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, 60-61). “The Challenge of Peace” was what the conference penned in response to such political actions, and this letter will be the focus of today’s blog.

The letter states, “In the nuclear arsenals of the United States or the Soviet Union alone, there exists a capacity to do something no other age could imagine: we can threaten the entire planet. For people of faith this means we read the Book of Genesis with a new awareness” (“Challenge of Peace,” 123). The notion that the destructive power of human-produced weapons should make us look differently at Genesis carries with it a sense of foreboding. If people can annihilate vast numbers of humans and other lifeforms in a huge area with one single bomb, think at what that has to say about humanity’s relationship with God in the creation narrative. These bishops continued, “Today the destructive potential of the nuclear powers threatens the human person, the civilization we have slowly constructed, and even the created order itself” (123).

The destruction seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II showed everyone the power of nuclear bombs and their catastrophic impact. Many Catholic voices dissented soon after, such as Dorothy Day. Many of them saw civilized humanity as taking a huge step backwards with the killing of so many men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the War. The Conference we are discussing responds to Reagan’s new nuclear arms race with much of this anti-nuke tradition in the background, as the letter mentions (127). The letter, however, notes that simply advocating for disarmament is complex. It states, “It much less clear how we translate a ‘no’ to nuclear war into the personal and public choices which can move us in a new direction, toward a national policy and an international system which more adequately reflect the values and vision of the Kingdom of God” (134).

While imposing a foreign policy that “reflects the values and vision of the kingdom of God” would not really be acceptable today, the Bishops do note how simply having the biggest muscles (or the most bombs) isn’t necessarily the best way to operate. The policy of nuclear deterrence is that one has to basically point the bombs at one’s enemies; in the historical case to which we are referring, the USA has to point the bombs at the USSR with the finger on the button. The goal is of course to never use the weapons themselves but to scare the enemy into thinking that you are about to. The problem arises when one’s enemies calls one’s bluff. What happens if they say, “Go ahead. We know you won’t do it.” At that point, you either have to fire the weapons, or you have to come up with an entirely new strategy. All the while, your enemies might be preparing to attack you or to fire similar weapons at you.

One final passage from “The Challenge of Peace” describes this very issue. “The need to rethink the deterrence policy of our nation… also will require, we believe, the willingness to open ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God, which call us to recognize our common humanity and the bonds of mutual responsibility which exist in the international community in spite of political differences and nuclear arsenals” (196).

If you ask me, this is the most groundbreaking, novel concept within the letter. Again, utilizing one’s understanding of the Kingdom of God or “opening ourselves to the providential care, power, and Word of God” would simply not work in today’s United States. You can’t mix government and religion like that. However, the aspect which I think has the strongest impact on the letter’s historical context, as well as our own today, is that there is a “common humanity and bonds of mutual responsibility in the international community.” I think one of the problems today is that we look at other countries, and the people who inhabit them, as somehow less than ourselves. The USA has plenty of enemies, but what could possibly set it apart from many other countries is a new attitude that looks at the humanity of even our enemies and the employment of a “mutual responsibility” toward them.

I don’t want to venture to far into the realm of politics or political theory here (I would be way out of my depth), but crafting a foreign policy that looks at other countries, including our enemies as fellow human citizens could go a long way to subverting other conflicts. What the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had to say to the USA in the early 1980s is powerful. They went completely against the government’s position of nuclear deterrence with a very public stance. They showed strong faith commitments and a willingness to speak up for God’s kingdom. Although this happened over thirty years ago, their views on peace and focusing on the humanity of others might still ring true today.

What are you thoughts on nuclear deterrence? What about the Bishops’ response? Is today’s geopolitical stage too advanced for such a document? Has ISIS changed the game, or can we still look for humanity in our enemies?