Archives for posts with tag: deterrence

By Hugh Bryant

I attended recently a most interesting discussion where a currently serving bishop said, in the context of nuclear deterrence, that he has ‘lost faith in violence’.

The question I am interested in is whether a particular type of violence, the threat of nuclear retaliation for deterrence, still works, and whether Christians can support it.

The terrible effects of weapons of mass destruction, not only nuclear weapons but also non-nuclear violence such as carpet bombing of cities, for example at Dresden, Hamburg and Coventry, where war extends to include indiscriminate attacks both on combatants and non-combatants alike, surely raise serious questions whether such destruction is ever justified.

In relation to nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is supposed to have kept the peace and avoided world wars since the end of World War II.

The Christian attitude to war seems to me to be in two parts, what Jesus said and what Christians have interpreted that to mean in succeeding years. What Jesus said is easily stated. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), ‘Love your enemies – turn the other cheek – do good to those who hate you.’ And, of course, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Later on, in C4 CE, in his ‘City of God’ Book XIX, St Augustine put forward the so-called ‘just war’ theory, which was a Christian concept relating his perception of what he believed Jesus would have said with classical Greek and Roman philosophy (in Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s De Officiis).

Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that it is wrong to spend money on nuclear weapons, as the state will be depriving citizens of benefits which they would otherwise be able to enjoy if the money were not being spent on nukes. The reason for this is that these weapons will never be used. If they were used, this would be the end of the world as we know it and calculations of public utility would become completely pointless as there would be nobody left alive to receive whatever benefits there might be.

It is said, just as with the other sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, here again what he is advocating is just not practicable in real life. It’s all very well for us to give up our nuclear weapons but, if so, how do we answer an aggressor such as Vladimir Putin? It is also clear that MAD is at work in relation to the current crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine.

On the face of things there are a lot of parallels with the situation in 1939. An aggressive dictator has invaded a neighbouring country and there is a risk that, if steps are not taken to resist, in this case by operating a so-called no-fly zone, the neighbouring country will likely be overwhelmed and there is a risk that further aggression will take place against other neighbouring countries. In 1939, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia and when Poland was invaded, we declared war on Germany and the second world war began.

Now we and the other NATO countries are refusing Ukraine’s request that we join their fight against Russia. The reason for our refusal is said to be that, if NATO aircraft come into conflict with Russian aircraft this would probably trigger a third world war with a risk of nuclear conflict. This last element seems to be the factor which is making a difference when the situation is compared with what happened in 1939.

Putin has expressly threatened to use nuclear weapons if he is attacked by NATO and, apparently, his threat is being believed. But would the officer tasked with launching the apocalyptic weapon follow orders? Two Russian officers, Capt. Arkhipov during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Lt Col Petrov in 1983, both in effect refused orders to launch nuclear weapons, and are said to have saved the world each time.

Clearly, the logic of MAD (if one can put it that way) is that the opponent cannot risk calling the other’s bluff. And I am not suggesting that only Russian officers would prefer to save the world rather than press the nuclear annihilation button. For instance, I understand that Royal Navy nuclear submarine commanders study moral philosophy. Whether that might make them less willing to press the nuclear launch button, one cannot know – but it might help.

If one forgets the nuclear weapons for a moment, what we are talking about is dispute resolution. You and I disagree about something. We can’t persuade each other who is right, whose view is to prevail. But it’s something very important to us. We can’t just let it go. It’s not something we can go to court about. So – do I beat you up? Shall I fight you, and by defeating you, force you to do what I want? Or, more realistically, perhaps, if you start to attack me, do I fight back?

In that context, of course whether one of us will win depends upon our fighting ability and the calibre of weapons each of us is using. That is where armed forces, nukes, and MAD, come into the picture. But surely this is rather like some kinds of bee sting. If the bee stings you, it may kill you – but it will itself die.

St Augustine said that even war is waged in order to bring about peace (City of God, Bk XIX, ch 12). But MAD doesn’t fit with this. If war is waged – if the nuke is launched – it cannot bring about peace, unless a fiery descent into nothingness is to be counted as peace.

So are we, in nuclear deterrence, relying on a strategy which is irrational, which in fact does not even aim at achieving an objective which we would want?

In that, in waging war, we are forcing someone to do what they do not want to do, we are perhaps acting in a similar way to a parent chastising a child, or perhaps, in a grown-up context, we are paralleling the operation of criminal legal sanctions.

What is punishment, in the context of the criminal law? It is a mark of victory. The criminal has been defeated. Then, instead of being beaten over the head, they are punished. What is the purpose of the punishment? Among other things, to protect society, to stop the criminal from doing their crime. And deterrence, to deter others from committing the crime.

That looks like a rationale for waging war against an invader. But ‘What would Jesus do?’ On the face of it, he was not against the invading Romans – although one of his disciples was Simon ‘the Zealot’, a resistance fighter. Turning the other cheek doesn’t chime with fighting to the death against someone. On the other hand, Jesus respected the Jewish Law; ‘I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt. 5:17). By extension that might imply that he supported the Rule of Law.

This could mean that, in dealing with an invader, the defending state has to abide by international law. That would allow the defenders to use violence (force) in self-defence, provided that they obeyed the rules of the Geneva Conventions (roughly equivalent to the rules of the Just War ‘jus in bello’ – rules governing conduct in a war, as opposed to principles to justify whether to wage war at all – so-called ‘jus ad bellum’).

But – none of this bears on the question whether MAD really works. Just as criminologists argue that it is the likelihood of getting caught which deters criminals, rather than the length of prison sentences, so are unjustified aggressors like Putin actually deterred by our having nukes?

MAD, as understood by Russia, involves the ‘no first use’ principle, (although NATO has not accepted this). So it could be argued that Putin’s threat to retaliate, against NATO use of non-nuclear force in support of Ukraine, does not fit the paradigm of MAD. It could be argued that Putin is expressly threatening first use: and therefore, by the operation of MAD, inviting nuclear destruction.

Either way, surely NATO could in fact respond to Putin and intervene, and at the same time robustly state that his threat of nuclear ‘retaliation’ would amount to a first use. Both sides would shy away from ‘going nuclear’. But a no-fly zone would be feasible, and that would be likely to bring about a ceasefire.

Surely that is an argument in favour of nuclear deterrence? I don’t think so. Even in this Ukrainian case, nuclear weapons are ultimately pointless. If the pilots of Russian warplanes see that NATO targeting radar has locked on to them, they will not fly over their erstwhile targets any more. That will have had nothing to do with the availability of nukes.

Hugh Bryant is a Reader in the Church in Wales.

An edited version of this article was first published on the CRCOnline website, https://www.crconline.org.uk/.

Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3:1-15 – for the readings please see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096631
Psalm 139 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096854

What do you feel about being on camera all the time? You know, anywhere on the M25; and actually, when you get out of your car, more or less all the places that you walk these days, in built-up areas, seem to be under surveillance by cameras of one kind or another as well.

Do you have an iPhone? Because, if you do, you can almost stalk your favourite people, with the ‘Find Friends’ app. I have both my daughters in my phone’s Find Friends application, so I can see at a glance where they are and not disturb them if they are working in the hospital. I also have my lodger, a young man who works at rather odd hours, so quite often he’s out when I am in, and he’s awake when I’m asleep: using the app I can keep tabs on whether he’s in or out and about. He is very welcome in my house, especially as he’s very good at feeding my cats, so I don’t want to lock him out by mistake.

But although all this stuff is very common, I expect that most of us would say that we were not too thrilled about the fact that all our comings and goings are under surveillance somewhere. Big Brother is, indeed, watching us, and we don’t much like it. We like to think that we have privacy; that it’s not the case that everybody knows what we’re doing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say.

Now part of the attraction of being a private person must surely be that it saves you from being caught out in some misdemeanour and getting into trouble. So long as people don’t know what you’re doing, within reason you are free to do more or less anything, and there’ll be no consequences.

You can do that, when you’re a grown-up: obviously when you were a child, you didn’t have that freedom. Your parents and your teachers kept an eye on you and made very sure that you didn’t stray from the path of righteousness. When you grow up, you find that things change. You have to take responsibility for your life and it’s your choice whether you do good things or bad things, or whether in fact you just keep quiet, keep very private and try not to bother anybody. You pursue a style of life which may not be particularly good or particularly bad.

And then along comes Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me:’ ‘Thou … spiest out all my ways.’ ‘Spiest’. God is the ultimate surveillance camera. There is no hiding-place from God.

I first came across Psalm 139 properly when I went to the Cathedral to make a confession to the last Dean, Victor Stock. He used to hear confessions and I had never done it before. Indeed I had been brought up to have a vague suspicion of confession as being a dastardly Roman Catholic device.

Then I realised that the Catholics were not dastardly, and that indeed you can say confessions in the Church of England as well. So I went along and Dean Victor got me to kneel down next to him and say the words on a card to introduce my confession. He said, ‘Take your time, and think about what you want to confess to the Lord’; and I did, and the Dean blessed me, pronounced absolution and gave me a task to do, a sort of penance. You know, in the Catholic Church, and in all the literature and on the TV in things like Father Ted, the penance is often to say so many Hail Mary’s.

Dean Victor gave me a different sort of penance. He said that I should go away and read Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me.’ Of course I went and read the psalm and thought about it carefully. Over the years since, I have gone back and thought about Psalm 139, asking myself, why did Dean Victor recommend that I should read that particular psalm after I had made my confession to him?

Now tonight we have only sung the first nine verses of Psalm 139, but there are in fact 24 verses – it’s not a very long psalm – and it is well worth getting your Prayer Book out at home (or borrowing one from here if you haven’t got one at home) and reading it again, this time the whole way through. Why do you think that the Dean prescribed Psalm 139 for me to read? It got me thinking about the whole philosophy of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system only works if criminals get caught. There is no deterrent preventing them from committing crimes unless they believe that there is a chance that they will be found out.

‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me …’

This psalm is all about God knowing all about everything we do, good and bad. So maybe that knowledge, that awareness on my part, if I am going to do something naughty – that awareness that God knows about it, will serve as a great deterrent. Our lessons today go in the same direction. In Proverbs the passage might look at first almost like a ‘prosperity gospel’:

‘Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase’:


That could mean, make sure that you keep up with your planned giving:

‘So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.’

Speculate, charitably, in order to accumulate.

There’s also this sense of keeping us in order, by chastisement if necessary.

‘For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth’.

The Lord is like a good parent, not letting the children get away with anything.

‘[E]ven as a father the son in whom he

This leads not just to riches, but to the riches of wisdom and understanding, which is worth more than silver and gold and precious stones.

When this idea is translated into the world of the New Testament, as in John’s first letter, (which we had as our second lesson today), God has shown his love to us, and called us the sons of God, in that we are like his son Jesus. It’s quite tricky to understand. St John says, ‘Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’

We have no image of God that is particularly plausible, except our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he was a man just like us. And again the lesson from this is that, if we are to be like Jesus and therefore to be sons of God, we must behave ourselves.

‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’

There was no sin in Jesus, and if we hope to be like him we must try to avoid sin ourselves. If we are to be children of God, we must uphold God’s law as best we can. Of course, most importantly, that means that we must love one another.

‘For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.’

But it can go further than that.

To show you what I mean, I’ll finish by telling you a little story about when I was training to become a Reader. My training coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting to read Medicine at Bristol University. One day I went to visit her to see that she was safely installed in her hall of residence and that she was getting to grips with university life. Indeed she was doing fine.

The following Sunday I was having coffee after the morning service at St Andrew’s in Cobham, with some other members of the congregation, and the conversation turned to my recent visit to Bristol.

‘How was it?’

‘Very nice thank you. Mind you,’ I said, ‘I think that I may have had a very expensive journey.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, just as I was turning off the M4 on to the M32, to go into the centre of Bristol, I passed under a bridge – and I realised too late that the bridge was bristling with things that must have been speed cameras.’

‘But surely, you were only doing 70 mph? So no problem.’

‘Agh! Well, I managed to get it below 100 …’

Whereupon some of the party giggled; but one of them took me by the hand and earnestly counselled me. What she said was, ‘Now that you are going to be a minister in the church, you have to change your ways. No more breaking the law by speeding – and definitely no more crowing about it!’

Oh dear; but she was right. I did learn a lesson. Fortunately there was no nasty speeding ticket in the post, so the camera must have not had any film in it on that occasion. I have tried to slow down since. I suppose that’s one way that one can ‘purify oneself’. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.’ I hope that I’m all the better for it, for that friendly scrutiny.