Synod speech #2 (in case I don’t get to give it)

The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons

I wonder if you had like me a long journey to get here. I was entertained and thrilled by stories of secret liaisons and sexual politics. Not love island, but Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. In the Marriage of Figaro, a randy Count uses everything in his power to sleep with his wife’s maid, Suzannah, the day before her wedding to Figaro. Though a comedy, it’s a chilling story about what happens when power is concentrated in the hands of one person. The count has the power to demand sex, send a young page boy off to die in battle and to force a double standard upon his wife. Those who believe in the exclusivity of love and the sanctity of marriage have to resort to trickery and subterfuge, which often goes disastrously wrong, to undermine the absolute power of the Count. How different the story would be if power were shared equally between the characters.

Nuclear arms are a terrible evil. There will be a day when the earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, when every garment rolled in blood is thrown into the fire and every sword beaten into a plough and nuclear arms will be a horrible memory of our fallenness on that day. But, for now, the greatest threat is that the monstrous power of nuclear arms be concentrated in the hands of those who do not share some of the values we cherish. I know patriotism isn’t fashionable and our actions on the international stage often leave a lot to be desired, but I still believe that the UK is a force for good in the world. Because of our Judeo-Christian inheritance and the Bible’s insistence on innate human dignity and value, we believe in the rule of law – that no government is above justice – we believe in essential freedoms and tolerance. I think it’s fair to say that we hold our nuclear arms, not as a matter of national pride and status, but with fear and trembling and great uncertainty as is fitting. Ask yourself, is that the case with every other power with nuclear arms? Is now the time to concentrate power in the hands of those who see these weapons as symbols of prestige or as vehicles to promote selfish national interest? Is now the time to choose the possibly tragic comedy of soft power over the undoubted influence for good we already possess?

As a New Testament scholar, I’m often worried by claims about trajectories in the Bible – guesses as to where the Bible would have gone if it was still being written. Just behind the upper car park is a huge space fenced off for archery practice – its enormous for a good reason. Once you’ve released your arrow, there’s no real way to be certain where its going to go. The report accompanying this motion claims a pacifist trajectory for the New Testament. That could be true, but there’s no real way to know. The works that make up the New Testament were not written for makers of political policy. Why? Because power was concentrated in the hands of an emperor whose divine claim to total power could hardly be resisted. But as some of us were reminded by Prof Lieu yesterday, the basic political unit of the Greco-Roman world was the household. Polybius and Dionysus of Halicarnassus both argued that the household was a microcosm of the state: with the master of the house secure in his hold on power, the state would run well. So when Paul and Peter take these household codes and adjust them to address slaves and women, when they claim the slave’s real master is the Lord Jesus and that he is the master of the masters, reducing the household masters claim to total power, these are perhaps the most politically orientated writings in the New Testament. Their very real imperative is the levelling of the power playing field to end the tyranny of the household, still very much alive in Mozart’s day. Is this a playing field we want to tilt now when it comes to nuclear arms?

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