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Obama’s Palm Sunday Mandate

Obama’s Palm Sunday Mandate

Each year on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, Christians celebrate the unlikeliest of invasions: one man, Jesus of Nazareth, riding unarmed into Roman-ruled Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by followers waving palm fronds. His arrival started a chain of events resulting in His arrest on Thursday, crucifixion on Friday, and resurrection on Sunday.

By any immediate standard, Jesus’ invasion was a spectacular failure. But His followers would grow from a small, persecuted sect into the most prevalent religion of the Roman Empire and, over the course of two millennia, the world. Palm Sunday is proof that human history does not always proceed according to realists’ predictions; proof, indeed, that our most momentous occasions defy all prediction.

In the early hours of the morning at the start of this week, while most American churchgoers still kept their beds, President Obama delivered an address in Prague that should be marked by history as “the Palm Sunday speech.” Standing before tens of thousands of Czech citizens, he called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth, and outlined a set of practical steps to begin the process.

Most Americans are not versed in the Byzantine trajectories of nuclear politics. Most Americans lack the scientific expertise to evaluate the technological prospects of an adequate verification regime. But most Americans, in this most religiously devout of all developed nations, can respond to that basic tug at the heart of what we fundamentally know to be true: that, as President Obama told the cheering thousands in Prague, “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”  

In this realization, we stand in one accord with the varied, nuanced, and careful evaluations of faith leaders throughout the nuclear age. The groundbreaking 1983 U.S. Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter on nuclear war, for example, pulled up just shy of unequivocal condemnation of the possession of nuclear weapons, allowing only for deterrence as an interim state. It is high time for American Catholics to revisit the teaching of this letter and ask, as Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles recently did: in an age where the threat of nuclear terrorism renders deterrence theory obsolete, isn’t total nuclear disarmament a moral mandate commanding the support of every life-loving Catholic?

This moral clarity is ascendant, as well, in the mainline Protestant churches and multifaith coalitions that were the bastion of the nuclear freeze movement, working jointly today under the umbrella group Faithful Security.

And today, 30 years after Billy Graham remarked, “I wish we were working on SALT X right now! Total destruction of nuclear arms,” new constituencies are entering the fray, including the one I work with: the Two Futures Project, a Christian disarmament movement launching later this month, led by young Evangelicals with the blessing of many elder statesmen in the conservative movement.

No, we cannot simply moralize or theologize our way into a world without nuclear weapons. But we need not choose between hope and pragmatism: as U.N. disarmament chief Sergio Duarte says, disarmament is the fusion of idealism and realism—it’s the right thing to do, and it works.

The President’s recommendations were not new, for example, to those who have followed nuclear weapons policy over the past several years. In January of 2007, a cadre of former Cold Warriors led by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn published a landmark op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”

As these so-called “four horsemen” wrote, “Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.” A year later, their proposals had received the support of seventy percent of the living, former Secretaries of State, Defense, and National Security Advisors.

And, as recently as last December, a group of eminent international leaders formed Global Zero to further the work toward a nuclear weapons-free world. Though many still associate this goal with the protest movement of the sixties, today the champions of nuclear weapons elimination are far more likely to be in the Wall Street Journal than Woodstock; far more likely to be sporting repp ties than tie-dye.

In circumstances like ours, faith-based, moral conviction offers ordinary Americans a gateway into an issue whose complexities otherwise discourage the involvement of the nuclear laity. Moral conviction gives us passion and agency both to affirm the orientation of the administration and to drive it to greater lengths than seem politically possible at present.

So when the President says he seeks a world without nuclear weapons, we say, Amen; but when he says he does not know whether it can happen in his lifetime, we say, abolition in this generation, for the sake of the next. And when he remarks that the United States will “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” we reply that this does not go far enough: rather, that the elimination of nuclear weapons must become the organizing principle of our security policy, the true north to which our compass points.

The simplistic naysayers are inevitable: fatalists who proudly adorn themselves with an armor of brittle adjectives, like hard-headed and clear-eyed.

But there is no time like Holy Week to remember that such defenses are merely stiff-lipped masks covering a coward’s face, contorted in the permanent flinch of all who have never mustered the spine to cast a wager on hope. How many of these hypocrites sat in church pews mere hours after the President’s speech? How many were part of the billions whose weekly worship is a direct outgrowth of a conquest that was simultaneously the most absurd and most successful in history?

Let us be clear: Obama is not the Messiah, and nuclear disarmament does not rival the work of Calvary. The elimination of nuclear weapons represents stewardship of the world, not its salvation. Nevertheless: the timing of this Palm Sunday mandate can mean a great deal to the American faithful. It should kindle in us the faith and courage that will not be ancillary virtues as we face down our shared nuclear future. And it should remind us that the transformation of impossibility into inevitability—as it was with Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery—is itself the hallmark of God’s movement in the world.

Read or watch President Obama’s full Palm Sunday speech to see what you think.

The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the director of the Two Futures Project and policy director of Faithful Security: the National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Weapons Danger.

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