Too destructive, expensive, and ineffective

Martin Luther King’s legacy and the case against Trident renewal

 A talk for the People’s Assembly, Newcastle, September 2015

Nick Megoran, co-convenor, Northumbria and Newcastle Universities Martin Luther King Peace Committee.

Rev Martin Luther King Jr was an outspoken opponent of nuclear weaponry. In uncharacteristically jarring language, he declared his unequivocal ‘hatred for this most colossal of all evils.’ He took this position for exactly the same reason that he opposed both racism and poverty: his fundamental belief that every person is made in the image of God, and therefore all human life has inherent dignity. As the UK debates whether to renew the submarine-based Trident nuclear weapon system, King’s perspective is worth recalling.

King came to Newcastle University in 1967 to receive an honorary degree, in what would prove his last overseas trip outside the Americas before his murder. In his acceptance speech, he identified racism, poverty and militarism as the three ‘great and grave problems that pervade our world.’ For King, these problems were interrelated because they presented a challenge to the inherent dignity of life. The cornerstone of his life and work was the idea from the Hebrew Bible that humans are made Imago Dei, in the image of God, and therefore inherently worthy of equal rights and dignity: ‘Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the creator,’  King repeatedly insisted. As he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life.” This was the basis of King’s civil rights activism against racist laws and practices; but also the basis of his campaign against poverty and inequality, which degrade human life; and war and militarism – including nuclear weapons – which present the ultimate affront to the dignity of life by aiming to eradicate it.

King’s ‘image of God’ theology leads me to join the call to scrap Trident for 3 reasons.

1.Too destructive

We oppose Trident in the first place because it is too destructive.

The 1945 atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshimi are estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Each of these men and women and boys and girls are of infinite value because they are made in the image of their Creator, and each has a story. For example, one survivor of the Nagasaki bombings, Sanae Ikeda, recalls how he lost his brothers and a sister in the tragedy. “The explosion took away the skin of my hand and I started to bleed.   The light was green and then I couldn't see anything.” He remembers the horrible moment he saw the body of his sister which was horribly deformed by the explosion. “I found this body completely black, charred. I held it with my hands and it had no face. Then I found the ribbon of the waist of her pants. The outer part was all burned by the explosion, but inside the ribbon it was fine. I saw the little flowers and I could tell that this was the body of my little sister.”

Lactantius, the early ‘church father’ (c.240-c.320) wrote ‘it is always unlawful to put to death a human being, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.’  Christian CND puts the issue bluntly by stating that ‘planning to kill millions with nuclear weapons completely contradicts the teaching of Jesus Christ to love your enemies.’

Nuclear weapons are indiscriminate. It is irrelevant whether we are talking about civilians or military personnel, as all life is too precious to be eviscerated by a thermonuclear fireball. King was therefore very clear in arguing that “the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned.”

2.Too expensive

Secondly, Trident is too expensive.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has calculated the bill to replace Trident as being £100 billion. This is the cost not only of building and maintaining the new system, but of maintaining the existing one until its replacement comes on line.

This is an eye-watering amount of money. With £100bn we could buy solar panels for every household in the country, thus vastly reducing our carbon footprint. We could fund all Accident and Emergency Services in UK hospitals for 40 years. We could employ an additional 150,000 nurses for the next 30 years, or scrap student tuition fees for the same period of time. Or we could address the housing crisis by constructing 30,000 new homes every year, creating 60,000 jobs in the construction industry.

We have been experiencing years of cuts in expenditure on social care, libraries, swimming pools, the police, welfare, the arts and public services in general. Yet we have been able to find it to bail out the banks, and can apparently find it to build more bombs. That is a perverse inversion of priorities.

King’s belief that all are created equally in God’s image led him to argue that civil rights was part of a ‘struggle […] for genuine equality, which means economic equality.’ ‘What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter,’ he asked, ‘if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?’ With over half a million people using food banks in the UK each year, how can we even think that we can afford to renew Trident?

However, in debates about austerity, it would be selfish to concentrate solely on British needs. Even with cut-back health and social care, we remain as a nation far richer and more privileged than much of the world. The desperate plight of migrants wanting to reach Europe’s shores attests this. UNICEF reckons that under-nutrition contributes to the deaths of 2.6 million children under five each year; meanwhile, the human race annually spends around one trillion pounds on arms. The world is over-armed and underfed, and correcting that should be the chief priority of every responsible politician on earth.

King said, ‘We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world…. True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar… it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A good way for our nation to contribute to this is by scrapping Trident and spending the money more responsibly.

3.Too ineffective

So, nuclear weapons are too destructive, and too expensive, but lastly I want to argue – perhaps counter-intuitively - that they are too ineffective. Field Marshall Lord Bramall, former head of armed forces, has said that Trident is ‘Completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely, to face.’ But that’s only part of what I mean.

Nuclear weapons cannot get to the heart of the problem we face. If we could end war and injustice by zapping all the bad guys who all conveniently gathered themselves in one place, then maybe they would. But the world is not that simple. We’re all part of the problem of war and violence in our world. As Nobel peace prize winner Alexander Solzhentsyn said, ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’

For King, Jesus lived a life of nonviolent enemy love and eventually died on the cross praying blessings on his enemies, rather than burning them up in heavenly thermonuclear fire. He did this to end the cycle of violence that nuclear weapons are meant to try and halt, to create a brand new, internationalist community of peacemakers out of old enemies reconciled. King called this ‘the beloved community’ and it was one of his key concepts, an internationalist ethic that arose inexorably from his Imago Dei theology. We do this not by expending the best minds of our young on making and deploying these death-dealing devices, but on working to build global societies where they become unnecessary. We do this not by preparing to kill and threaten our enemies with this nightmare weaponry, but by addressing the inequalities and grievances they have. We do this not by prosecuting disastrous foreign interventions that destabilise regions and create enemies where we had none before, but by sharing our wealth to ensure that all have food for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity for their spirits. And we can do this, because it is a choice. As King said, ‘I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’

So, Trident is too destructive, too expensive, but ultimately too ineffective. We shouldn’t be scared by the nightmares conjured up by the politicians and arms manufacturers, who pedal fear to frighten us into renewing this devilish device. We should be putting our whole energies into realising King’s vision of restored, international community sharing the world’s resources equitably and living in peace with each other.