Deciding between a bad nuclear choice and a very bad nuclear choice.

If the United States would disarm unilaterally, a Soviet invasion is almost a foregone conclusion. The world’s freest society would be overtaken by an atheistic, totalitarian regime. But if the nuclear buildup continues, a nuclear holocaust, which history suggests is inevitable, looms ever nearer. Welcome to a fallen world that has ruled out the possibility of choosing a clearly “right” path and has relegated most Christians either to silence or to uneasy support for one of the equally dismal alternatives.

Unlike the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals are firmly divided on the issue of nuclear arms. The evangelical community is home for total pacifists and also for those who believe that the hope of taking the gospel to all the earth rests on the shoulders of American military strength. Nowhere was this clashing of perspectives more evident than at a conference called “The Church and Peacemaking in the Nuclear Age,” held in May in Pasadena, California. Ostensibly, this was the first gathering of evangelicals to discuss the issue of nuclear arms. However, some evangelicals, by apparently avoiding the conference, expressed their view that this issue does not belong on the list of evangelical priorities.

The idea for the conference originated in 1979 with two students at Fuller Theological Seminary who were trying to find their own ways through this complex issue. Recognizing that the evangelical voice is not consolidated, organizers tried to provide for an equal airing of all positions. Moderator Vernon Grounds, former president of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, remarked on opening night, “Nobody anticipates that his or her ideas will be changed.” Grounds had accurately anticipated the tone of what was to come.

More than 1,300 people came from 34 states. Some came still grappling, others with views already solidified. All were asked to consign their opinions to the marketplace and to reconsider them yet another time. The magnanimity of the issue cast an air of intensity over the proceedings. As cherished views were challenged by major conference speakers and by those leading the 115 workshops, some were moved to tears and some to anger. From the podium, Grounds exhorted people to be careful to demonstrate in their personal conduct the peacemaking they were seeking.

Outspoken advocates of pacifism included Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Jim Wallis, editor of the controversial Sojourners magazine. Advocates of a “peace-through-stength” position included Ed Robb, chairman of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, radio evangelist David Breese, U. S. Sen. William Armstrong (R-Col.), and retired air force Gen. Robert Mathis.

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Essentially, the conference provided a forum for another in a long tradition of debates between Christian pacifists, who reject lethal violence in any form, and just-war advocates, who emphasize that government is ordained by God to police injustice. However, the contemporary staging of this centuries-old debate is being colored by two significant developments.

First, pacifists, who have traditionally been separatists, are seeking to have their views adopted as at least evangelical policy, if not national policy. It is this attempt, and not the pacifist tradition itself, that most peace-through-strength advocates find troublesome. A second key development is the growing realization among just-war theorists that the use of nuclear arms, because of the nature of nuclear conflict, cannot meet the criteria demanded by traditional just-war theory. These criteria include: reasonable hope for success, guaranteed safety for noncombatants, and the expectation that the resulting good will outweigh the necessary “evil.”

Just-war advocates continue to uphold the essential goodness of just-war doctrine. As Wheaton College philosopher Arthur Holmes observed, “If everyone subscribed to just-war theory, there would be no war.” But the more pragmatic among the just-war theorists acknowledge that the tradition, noble as it is, has failed to prevent armed conflict, even between Christians. And they know further that if mankind fails once more to prevent a major war, it could mean the annihilation of the earth.

And so the just-war camp is split three ways. Some are leaning toward pacifism (unilateral nuclear disarmament) as the lesser of two evils. Others are embracing a peace-through-strength position for the same reason. But most, it appears, are feeling the tugs from both directions and aren’t quite sure what to do.

Perhaps more significant than the range of views is that both sides met to discuss them. Calvin College philosophy professor Richard Mouw called the conference “long overdue,” stating the issue has been far more divisive to Christians than “a discussion of infant versus adult baptism or free will versus predestination.” Mouw criticized evangelicals intent on having creation taught in public schools for not operating within the context of a creation ethic, one that teaches stewardship of the earth God created. But not all evangelicals agree that the issue of nuclear arms belongs on the agenda.

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Robert Dugan, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the conference’s 41 sponsoring or affiliate organizations, said that some well-known evangelicals, even up to the final weeks prior to the conference, urged the NAE to pull out. But Dugan and the NAE refused. Dugan guaranteed that the NAE would remain neutral, but he insisted the nuclear arms discussion should be a priority issue for evangelicals.

Conference organizers emphasized that most who turned down invitations to speak had legitimate schedule conflicts. But they suggested that for others, “schedule conflict” may have been a euphemism to mask their concern about the conference tilting toward pacifism. As it turned out, the suspicions were self-fulfilling—because some skeptics chose not to take part, the conference was weighted in favor of pacifism.

Peace-through-strength advocates Breese and Robb said they were convinced conference organizers did their best to provide for a balanced expression of views. “It’s our own fault that we’re underrepresented,” Robb said. Inasmuch as the need for scriptural justification is at the heart of the controversy, the peace-through-strength position was hurt most by the absence of an outspoken theologian or Bible scholar.

The most thoroughly developed case for pacifism came from theologian Sider, who emerged at the conference as a bridge between the political liberals and conservatives. Because of Sider’s constant emphasis on evangelism, his commitment to Scripture, and his humble willingness to consider other views, he is highly respected by those with whom he disagrees. Yet he champions the causes of the “evangelical Left,” asserting that, despite skepticism from the Right, the Left is just as concerned as he about evangelism and upholding the authority of the Bible.

Sider opts for what he calls “the way of the cross.” He emphasizes that Jesus rejected the role of military messiah and opted instead for a life of peace. Sider reasons that God responded to his enemies by loving them even to the point of dying on the cross. And God told all who would follow him to love their enemies as he did. Thus, Sider suggests that those who do not follow the way of the cross have an incomplete view of the Atonement.

Sider believes his argument is based on Scripture, and is pragmatic. He argues that history reveals that bigger and better weapons have always ultimately meant less security, not more. He advocates a bilateral nuclear freeze but points out that efforts to negotiate such a freeze have failed thus far and, he suspects, will continue to fail. Sider says that unless there is a major peace revival, “I have virtually no hope that my children and yours will not be killed in a major nuclear war in the next 25 years.” He believes the U.S. should embark on a fundamentally different path. That new path is civilian-based defense. He proposes that the U.S. channel money now being spent on nuclear arms into a massive program to educate its citizens in the methods of nonviolent, noncooperative self-defense, principles espoused by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Sider, who calls Soviet totalitarianism a “ghastly evil,” believes that if the U.S. would disarm, the Soviets would almost surely invade and that thousands would likely be tortured and killed. But he says, “If hundreds of thousands of committed, praying Christians died in a [nonviolent campaign], I predict we would see the most rapid expansion of the Christian faith the world has ever known.

Supporters of a peace-through-strength position follow a line of reasoning totally different from Sider’s. They argue that society, as such, cannot be saved. Says Breese, “The world is under judgment because it has not believed,” and “no discussion of peace is related to reality which does not consider man’s lack of peace with God.” They reason that the world will find peace only insofar as the world’s citizens find the Peacemaker, Jesus. The goal of the church, then, is to take Christ to the world. Peace-through-strength advocates point to the Soviet Union’s goal of world conquest, and to its Marxist atheism. They conclude that Christians have the obligation to support efforts to preserve spiritual opportunity so that people may choose Christ and the church can carry out its biblically prescribed mission.

Those who advocate peace through strength heartily disagree with Sider’s understanding of Scripture, and on this point they have the considerable backing of just-war scholarship. Noted Bible scholar John Stott, in expounding Romans 12 and 13, argued powerfully for the legitmacy of the state exercising violence to restrain evil.

Theologian R. C. Sproul, who was not at the conference, faults Sider for dismissing too quickly the argument in Romans 13 and for attempting universal application of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Sproul affirms that Christians are called to be peacemakers, but adds that Sider’s argument for the way of the cross is a simplistic application of the biblical mandate to follow Jesus. “Surely we are called to do what Jesus said,” says Sproul, “but not to be who Jesus is.”

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Sproul concludes that to disarm unilaterally would be “suicide and totally irresponsible.” But he acknowledges that if the current path is followed, the result will be “suicide postponed,” that nuclear holocaust would be “inevitable apart from the restraint of God.”

But peace-through-strength advocates reject the pacifist argument that the major choice today is between existence and nonexistence. They want, and believe they can have, both life and freedom. Senator Armstrong suggested a possible alternative. He criticized the last four decades of American nuclear arms policy, deterrence. He suggested that a strategy based on defense, not retaliation, is a way out of the moral dilemma. Armstrong cited the Reagan-proposed “high frontier” satellite defense system as an example of a sound solution.

Generally, those who favor peace through strength maintain that the best policy is a continued strong stance against the Soviet Union, combined with creative negotiating aimed at softening the hearts of men.

For many, the conference raised more questions than it provided answers. Stott offered an engaging Bible exposition, but he stopped short of offering solutions, stating only that somehow two clear biblical principles—one calling for evil to be overcome with good; the other calling for evil to be punished—had to be harmonized. Perhaps this moral ambiguity was captured best by Mathis, who said, “Sometimes the choice is between a bad and a very bad,” or by Wheaton College’s Holmes, who asked rhetorically, “What tough moral questions have easy answers?”

Conference organizers were disappointed by what they considered poor attendance despite a massive promotional campaign. They were expecting 2,000 and got only about 1,400. Also, Fuller’s Roberta Hestenes expressed surprise at how uninformed registrants were on issues related to nuclear arms.

But the conference, organizers hope, is only the beginning. The leadership that gathered in Pasadena intended to send the message to the evangelical community that its social agenda should include an awareness campaign on the issue of the arms race. The Christian College Coalition, which represents more than 70 Christian colleges across the country, has been granted the authority by the conference board of directors to coordinate this campaign. The coalition has guaranteed it will continue in the spirit of the Pasadena conference by maintaining neutrality.

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In his closing remarks, Fuller president David Hubbard warned that the mistakes of history must not be repeated, that this issue must not be allowed to control the evangelical agenda. He urged a continuing emphasis on evangelism. Time will tell whether evangelicals will respond to the message they’ve been given. Those already familiar with the issue of nuclear arms are aware of its intricacies. Its complexity is fostered by the realization that so much of the argument from both sides seems so right—or, perhaps, so wrong.

RANDY FRAME, in Pasadena

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