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Life Under the Bomb Means a Life of Resistance

This 75th anniversary of Hiroshima should not just be an interesting historical marker; it should be a turning point, when the U.S. renounces its nuclear legacy, and charts a new course for itself and humanity.

"Our message over the years has been simple and urgent: Nuclear weapons have totally failed us. They don’t make us safer; they don’t provide jobs; they don’t make us more secure—these are age-old lies. Instead they bankrupt us, economically and spiritually." (Photo: Courtesy of Rev. John Dear)

"Our message over the years has been simple and urgent: Nuclear weapons have totally failed us. They don’t make us safer; they don’t provide jobs; they don’t make us more secure—these are age-old lies. Instead they bankrupt us, economically and spiritually." (Photo: Courtesy of Rev. John Dear)

For the last seventeen years, my friends and I have organized a peaceful vigil for nuclear disarmament on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, in Los Alamos at Ashley Pond Park, the spot where the actual Hiroshima bomb was built.

There, sometimes with as many as 400 others, we’ve been calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons; the closing of the Los Alamos National labs; the cleaning up of the environment and making reparations to the downwinders and indigenous people whose land was stolen.

This year, the pandemic has forced us to host an online commemoration instead (on August 6th, 6:00-7:00 p.m. MST) with speakers such as Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico; Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe; Dr. Ira Helfand of the Nobel Peace Prize group, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); and for the first time, Archbishop John Wester, who will speak of his recent visit to Hiroshima, Pope Francis’ recent urgent call to abolish nuclear weapons, and his hope for a more peaceful New Mexico.

We remember what the United States did 75 years ago when we killed 200,000 people at Hiroshima and another 40,000 people in Nagasaki. We will repent of this evil by recommitting ourselves to the long hard task of expanding the global grassroots movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons and war, starting with ICAN.

Our message over the years has been simple and urgent: Nuclear weapons have totally failed us. They don’t make us safer; they don’t provide jobs; they don’t make us more secure—these are age-old lies. Instead they bankrupt us, economically and spiritually.

According to the Doomsday Clock, we are in greater danger now than ever. A limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan is very possible; an all-out nuclear war would end life as we know it. We cannot continue down this path. If we spent billions instead on teaching and building nonviolent civilian based defense systems and nonviolent conflict resolution programs around the world, to be orchestrated by the United Nations, we could make war itself obsolete.

Seventy-five years ago, when he heard about US atomic bombings, Gandhi said, “We have seen the physical effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese people, but it is too early to see the spiritual effects on the people who made and used the bomb, the Americans.”

I think that’s what we are seeing these days: the unholy spiritual consequences of vaporizing hundreds of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the spiritual consequences of building tens of thousands of nuclear weapons over the decades which can blow the planet up some twenty times over; the spiritual consequences of consigning every human being on the planet to live under a cloud of terror, on a sort of global death row. All maintained by the Pentagon and its politicians and media.

As I think on these things, I ponder the surreal fact that I have never known life outside of the threat of nuclear extinction. I’m sixty, and I’ve only known life under the bomb. At one point, the world had 70,000 nuclear weapons; today we have about 16,000 nuclear weapons. Since Hiroshima, the world has spent trillions building nuclear weapons. A few years ago, the U.S. Congress voted and approved to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade our nuclear arsenal. So, we’re building state of the art uranium plants in Kansas City and Oak Ridge, upgrading our Trident subs and Livermore Labs, and at Los Alamos, we’re building state of the art plutonium bomb factory. What a waste.

At some point in the late 1970s, like many others, I decided to speak out publicly against the bomb. Life is short, I realized, and I knew that to live life to the full meant resisting the culture of death. As I look back, I see that I’ve spent my life speaking out and marching and taking public action against the Bomb and all it represents. Who would choose such a life, such disruption, even public harassment? I don’t think we have a choice. The times require we take a public stand.

In June 1982, I was in New York City when one million people marched against nuclear weapons, the largest peace march ever. By the mid-1980s, while living in New York City, my friends and I kept vigil every single Friday morning for 2 years right in Times Square at the Riverside Research Institute, the leftover research center of the Manhattan Project. Daniel Berrigan and our friends and I were arrested every few months for years, protesting research into nuclear, even post-nuclear weapons development. We sat in the lobby, sang songs, refused to leave, and were eventually arrested for our nonviolent civil disobedience. I was probably arrested there 25 times over many years with my friends, and visited nearly every cell in NYC. The good news is that we eventually forced RRI into leaving. That’s why I know organized public campaigns of active nonviolent resistance work. We have more power than we realize. We just have to remain persistent.

Over the decades, I protested or was arrested at every major nuclear weapons installation across the USA, from the Pentagon and the SAC Base in Omaha, to the Livermore Labs in the Bay Area and Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Concord Naval Weapons Station which has nuclear weapons, to the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas, to the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington, the Trident submarine base in King’s Bay, Georgia, even the Trident base in Faslane, Scotland, and the Trident sub base in Groton, Connecticut. That was a particularly memorable day.

They were launching a new Trident sub right into the Thames River. 10,000 Navy officials were there, the band was playing, and the sub was standing out of the water, but on a track to slide into the river and onto the Atlantic. So, we disrupted all their festivities. Twenty-one people sat in and were arrested at the entrance. Meanwhile, four of us got into a canoe and sailed down the Thames River, right up to the Trident submarine, which was bearing down on us. We were like the Marx brothers taking on the Trident submarine.

We stood up in the canoe and held up our banner which read “Disarm the trident; live in peace.” Just then the cops in single one-person speed boats sped up next to us, grabbed us, and of course, tipped over the canoe. We went flying into the river, right in front of the 10,000 Navy officials.

What to do? I started swimming toward the stands. Then, I looked up and there, bearing right down upon me was the brand-new Trident submarine—the U.S.S. Rhode Island, also known as, the end of the world. So, I launched into a speech, addressing the 10,000 Naval officials. I could see the whole crowd lean forward to hear me. I denounced the Trident, called them to abolish nuclear weapons and follow Jesus and love our enemies. Just as I was making my point, a police speed boat plucked me out of the water and threw me onto a nearby shore, where I was arrested and taken off to jail. I faced one year in prison for that, after a big public trial, eventually received time served.

In December, 1993, I joined Philip Berrigan and two friends, walked onto the US air force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina at 4 in the morning, right up to the one of the 75 F15 nuclear capable fighter bombers, took out a hammer, and hammered once on this enormous nuclear airplane. For that action, I faced 20 years in prison. Ours was about the 50th plowshares action--there have been about 100 by now--invoking the prophet Isaiah who said, “Someday people are going to come along and beat swords into plowshares and study war no more.”

We were arrested, and I did nine months in jail, and several years under house arrest. We were trying to engage the law which legalizes nuclear weapons—how do you confront the law that legalizes nuclear weapons? The only way is to touch the idols—so we tried to tell the court that we need to adhere to international law, not to mention God’s law, and abolish these weapons. Later, I published my journal from jail, called “Peace Behind Bars” which is still in print.

Twenty five years ago in 1995, while I was under house arrest in Washington, D.C., I read in the Post that the Smithsonian was about to unveil the actual Enola Gay airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with a massive display explaining how “the atomic bomb saved 1 million American lives.” This was how they were going to mark the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima.

So, I walked over to the Smithsonian, and asked to speak with Tom Crouch, the famous historian who directed the exhibit. Lo and behold, he welcomed me into his office and we spent the afternoon talking. I argued that he was wrong about the way he was pitching the exhibit. He heard me out, and agreed to organize a major meeting with the head of the Smithsonian, historians and leaders of the peace movement with a press conference afterwards.

The meeting turned out to be powerful for everyone, and a large media contingent turned out, including Peter Jennings himself who reported it as the lead story on ABC news that night. As the story of our meeting spread through the press and across the nation, the Pentagon, Congress, the U.S. Military, and the Air Force Association launched a full-scale propaganda war, calling for the closing of the Smithsonian. It was incredible.

In the end, the entire exhibit was canceled and the plane was put on display with a little plaque that said it dropped the atomic bomb and saved American lives. I was widely attacked for raising questions, even in “the Washington Post,” but when Rush Limbaugh denounced me on his radio show, I considered that the height of praise.

The historians who spoke at the Smithsonian museum meeting in 1995 explained to us in clear terms what actually happened 75 years ago. We now know for sure that the Japanese were going to surrender on August 15th, because the Soviets were about to invade Japan too, so the U.S. dropped the bomb twice before their invasion could happen. They knew the war was over in a few days, and they wanted to prove to the Soviet Union that the U.S. was militarily stronger. The goal was to impress the Soviets, and thus began the Cold War and the development of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at trillions of dollars which has bankrupted the planet and placed us all on death row. Read Gar Alperovitz or watch the HBO series, “The Untold history of the U.S.” to learn more. In the 1950s, the Pentagon started the lie that the U.S. atomic bombings “saved lives.” After 70 years, the lie has become truth. But that’s not what happened. Don’t believe it. Seeking the real truth is the first step toward peacemaking.

I spent 1995 organizing three weeks of events at my church, St. Al’s, near the U.S. Capitol leading up to the 50th anniversary. Every morning we would hold a protest and civil disobedience action in D.C. at the Pentagon, White House or Capitol, and every evening we would have a prayer service and a featured speaker, such as Gar Alperovitz, Howard Zinn, Philip Berrigan, Liz McAlister, Shelley and Jim Douglass, and Marie Dennis.

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At the same time, I was also organizing a massive commemoration at the National Cathedral, in D.C. for Sunday August 6, 1995, with Rev. Daniel Berrigan and Martin Sheen. I wanted to invite Mother Teresa, whom I knew well, but other activists didn’t want her included. When the evening arrived, the Cathedral was packed with thousands, standing room only, and literally, as Dan, Martin and I and many others walked up the center aisle, the attending Episcopal bishop whispered to me, “I’m sorry, John, but the national bishop said we’re not allowed to take a stand on nuclear weapons, so we’re going to read an opening statement saying the Episcopal Church does not take a stand on nuclear weapons.”

What?

We got to the altar, he welcomed us to this historic sanctuary where Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu preached, then read his awful statement. The crowd was stunned. We sat down for the readings. When Daniel Berrigan walked up to the podium to do the first reading, he said, “Imagine when Dr. King came here, and the church said it doesn’t take a stand on racism and segregation. Imagine when Archbishop Tutu came here, and the church said it doesn’t take a stand on apartheid….” That was as far as he got. The place exploded. Thousands jumped to their feet and cheered for 20 minutes. Martin and I still consider it one of the most electrifying moments of our lives. In fact, years later, while filming a scene for “The West Wing,” right there in the National Cathedral on the spot where it happened, he was overcome with the memory of that extraordinary night.

The next day, hundreds of us were arrested blocking the entrance to the Pentagon. The whole event was reported on the front page of the “Washington Post,” where it was announced that a major benefactor of the National Cathedral had withdrawn his pledge of $5 million to the Cathedral because of our prayer for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Another lesson. The U.S. Churches do not speak out against war and nuclear weapons because they are afraid of the controversy. No, they don’t speak out because they know, rightly, that they will lose big money.

After 9/11, I moved from New York to New Mexico to serve as a pastor of five rural poor parishes. I started Pax Christi New Mexico, and then the annual Hiroshima Day peace gathering in Los Alamos. I was only there a few months when the state newspaper did a front-page profile on my antiwar stand. Then the threats started. Archbishop Sheehan called me in and forbid me to pray publicly for peace in Los Alamos.

We went on. In 2005, for the 60th anniversary, our peace group studied the book of Jonah, who called upon the people of Nineveh to repent, and so we formed the sackcloth and ashes subcommittee. We thought: If the God of peace was upset with Nineveh, what would the God of peace think of Los Alamos, where they prepare the end of the world? That August, hundreds of us sat in sackcloth and ashes on August 6th for thirty minutes of silent prayer, “to repent of the mortal sin of war and nuclear weapons and beg the God of peace for the gift of nuclear disarmament.” We’ve been doing that every year since then.

But the church did not like it. For decades the Archdiocese of New Mexico had been receiving massive funds from the rich Catholics in Los Alamos. Many had started to listen to me, so Archbishop Sheehan called me in again and said, and I quote, “God can no longer protect us. Nuclear weapons are our only security from rogue states.” And then he banned me from saying mass. He removed my priestly faculties (the documents allowing me to say Mass in New Mexico), solely because I was against war and nuclear weapons. Note: I was punished far worse than the pedophile priests. He was scandalized by my peace stand. I, on the other hand, thought what he said was blasphemy.

The pastor of the Los Alamos Catholic church wrote a scathing editorial against me in the state newspaper saying the church blesses the bombs of Los Alamos, and I was wrong. Long story short, all hell broke loose, the Jesuits told me to stop all this work for peace, people in Rome were mad at me, so I was kicked out of New Mexico and sentenced to a live in a house in Baltimore with no work assignment. After 32 years, the pressure was too much, and I reluctantly decided to leave the Jesuits--all because of my public stand against war and nuclear weapons. I was treated far worse than Thomas Merton or Daniel Berrigan were. Eventually, I joined a diocese in California where I now live and remain a priest, even though, yes, God help me, I’m still against war and nuclear weapons. To me, that should be the normal position any thinking follower of Jesus.

I don’t know how anyone can claim to be a Christian or a Catholic, and support the vaporization of other human beings. Jesus is nonviolent, and says that God is a God of peace and we are all called to be peacemakers and love our enemies, which means we have to do what we can not to bomb or kill them.

At one point, in Luke’s Gospel, as they journeyed on their campaign march to Jerusalem and encountered a hostile reception among the Samaritans, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to call down hellfire from heaven?” They wanted to be violent religious people like Elijah, and call down hellfire from heaven. Jesus turned around and rebuked them. Look it up. It’s a shocking moment. He just taught them in the Sermon on the Mount to love their enemies, and already they want to bomb them to smithereens. No, he says, we don’t do that. We’re nonviolent, we love our enemies, we’re peacemakers.

Today, nearly all Christians want to call down hellfire upon their enemies. But if you dare listen to the nonviolent Jesus, you’ll hear he’s still rebuking us. No more bombs, no more hellfire, no more nukes, no more violence; from now on, love your enemies, disarm, practice nonviolence and live in peace. That’s the Gospel message.

That’s why I say, the existence of nuclear weapons is far beyond any philosophical questions of goodness or morality. For years, I’ve been saying: nuclear weapons are bad for New Mexico and the world, bad for our health, bad for the economy, bad for children, bad for our security, bad for the environment, but also bad for our souls! Ultimately, their existence is a religious issue, a spiritual issue. It says we really worship the false “god of war,” as Hitler called him, not the living God of peace. These weapons say, “We will wipe out in 15 minutes what it took you 15 billion years to create.” The only humane, sane, moral, and therefore religious, holy stand to take is to publicly oppose them, resist them, denounce them and work for their abolition.

Pope Francis said in November 2018 at the Vatican’s international conference on nuclear disarmament. “The threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned,” he said. He said it again last November on the plane home from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The use of nuclear weapons is immoral, that is why it must be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not only their use, but also possessing them: because an accident or the madness of some government leader, one person’s madness can destroy humanity. The words of Einstein come to mind: ‘The Fourth World War will be fought with sticks and stones.’”

It’s heartening to remember that when Mandela became president, he immediately abolished South Africa’s six nuclear weapons. Ukraine also abolished its nuclear weapons. They remind us that this is doable. We have to break through our collective apathy, like the Parkland students on gun violence, like our friends in Black Lives Matter who speak out against racism and police brutality, and like the environmentalists, like Greta Thunberg, and organize, agitate and take public action for nuclear disarmament.

About ten years ago, Martin Sheen and I flew to Oslo, Norway to speak at the launch at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, which later won the Nobel Peace Prize. These are the people who banned landmines, then cluster bombs, and now they’ve targeted nukes. It was one of the highlights of our lives. We spoke about the grassroots U.S. movement to oppose nuclear weapons, and told great stories, and offered our support for ICAN. You can’t plan a night like that. Everyone felt mobilized to continue working for nuclear disarmament. Martin did a full national media blitz the next day. Then we attended a reception with the Secretary of State, in the hall where the Nobel prize is offered and met hundreds of leading activists and organizations from over one hundred nations, all of whom have spent their lives opposing nuclear weapons.

Since then, ICAN is on track to get fifty nations to outlaw nuclear weapons, which will move the United Nations to outlaw nuclear weapons, just as they did with landmines, and begin the process where it could become contagious. This, to me, is one of the most exciting, hopeful, if ignored, movements in the world.

To the employees of the Los Alamos National Labs and the nuclear weapons industry, we plead: don’t waste your “one precious life” building weapons to vaporize millions of sisters and brothers. Quit your jobs and find pro-human, nonviolent work.

To the Christians who work at the Los Alamos Labs and the nuclear weapons industry, we say: take up the command of the nonviolent Jesus and love enemies, don’t nuke them. Quit your jobs, join his campaign of nonviolence, and work for a more just, more nonviolent nation and world.

To our politicians, we say, stop funding nuclear weapons development. This message is integral to the Black Lives Matter movement, the environmental movement, the anti-corruption movement, and all the grassroots movements for justice and peace. Instead, fund the needs of the people for better schools, jobs, healthcare, food, housing and environmental cleanup.

These weapons and our violence blind us to the truth of our common humanity, our oneness with creation. We can no longer even imagine a world without war or nuclear weapons. Today, we demand leaders with vision of a new North America, free of nuclear weapons, a new land of nonviolence that fulfills Dr. King’s visionary dream, who will work to make that vision come true.

This 75th anniversary of Hiroshima should not just be an interesting historical marker; it should be a turning point, when the U.S. renounces its nuclear legacy, and charts a new course for itself and humanity, so that together in a nuclear-free future, we can get on with the task for justice, environmental cleanup and learning to live at peace with one another.

May we carry on the work for the rest of our lives, so that someday, a new generation will get to live in a world with no nuclear weapons.

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