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The Nuclear Question: Pious Hopes and Real Opportunities. Selected (Not just Pop-Culture) Aspects from a Military Chaplain in the field

“Respondeo etsi mutabor” [I respond although I shall be changed] (Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy)

“Und in seltenen Augenblicken der Klarheit und des Mutes hören wir vielleicht, um verändert zu werden”

[And in rare moments of clarity and courage we may hear, to be changed] (Walter Wink)

The military chaplaincy supports military personnel and their families in their professional and private lives, because no occupational field can be exempted from pastoral care. It is advantageous if the military chaplaincy can directly experience everyday professional life, and act and react in the local area instead of being flown in. This means that we are with the German air force, and present at the Büchel site, and involved in Germany’s so-called “nuclear sharing” (by the German armed forces) in the nuclear potential of the United States.

Potential implies possibilities or options. Material, factual ones, or also rights to participate in discussions and decisions? Or at least possibilities to exert influence, if these have not become obsolete in principle in times of possibly new “flexible first use” policies and a “thermonuclear monarchy” (Elaine Scarry). This applies both politically and pastorally. Holding out is not a valid option. Taking a stand is. This always has to do with personal, socially shaped conscience. It can also be called sharpening ethical consciousness. This is one of the military chaplaincy’s many tasks and responsibilities (“character guidance training” [Lebenskundlicher Unterricht, LKU] and ethical education). Military personnel should be able to think about and discuss controversial issues, including the nuclear issue. One place where they can do this is in character guidance training (LKU) classes, which are run by military chaplains and provide a protected internal forum.

Once something exists in the world ...

We are incapable of not communicating.1 Apart from quite meaningful Christian-Zen-Buddhist attempts to practice non-thinking (wu-wei) in meditation, it is otherwise rather difficult not to think (anything). What matters is what we (ought to) think (about), in a practical and sensible way. One of the many arguments in the nuclear debate goes like this: because the knowledge and technology now exist (are known) in the world, it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. So what should we do with what came out of Pandora’s nuclear box? Thinking ahead to the conclusion, to the consequences, would be an appropriate alternative. Taking a realistic approach to the remaining risk control possibilities, staying down-to-earth instead of giving in to human enthusiasm, would seem advisable.2 Specifically, how should a member of the German armed forces or a German civilian employee of the Bundeswehr deal in their everyday professional life with the fact that, as a fait accompli, recently modernized nuclear weapons are stationed on German soil, and are being stockpiled for political and tactical purposes? The stationing itself should basically not be too much of a problem, considering the global ethical perspective – we will soon be in post-corona-crisis times. Or should we be less concerned about the fact that nuclear weapons are present at sites in other countries, based on a questionable and ill-considered isolationist and unilateral Saint Florian3 principle (“protect our house, let others burn”)? One argument against this would be the pioneering role. But here again, the question must be asked: is being a role model merely a pious wish that serves only the subsequent retreat into one’s self, or can it point the way to a global solution and serve as a tangible stimulus for change? Who ultimately bears the risk if solidarity is lost? And how, in a question of such global proportions, can the risk to the whole of humanity at least be actively minimized? The comparison with the climate change problem, which is developing in a slightly different time frame, is an obvious one. This can and should be discussed more broadly and, in view of the continuing threat to stability, a positive agreement should be reached to reduce the risk quickly and in stages.4 Military personnel, just like military chaplains, should first of all arrive at their own understanding of the existing situation, in order to remain capable of acting responsibly. Constant new reflection and readjustment is not ruled out. An educated conscience is helpful. Rational and non-calculating thinking should also come into play alongside purely emotional defensive reactions and established political interests, including some hidden agendas of a power politics or conspiracy theory nature.

The world is not enough

We are simply people who sometimes also live in pop-culture worlds. Plus really rather a lot of people in the world seem to be afraid of somehow getting a raw deal. If James (“007” Bond, The World Is Not Enough, 19th Bond movie from 1999) had been around in the time of Jesus (the Christ), the world (really) would not have been enough. “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition); “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (New International Version), says the savior of man (Messiah, Christ) in John’s Gospel. Which in no way means consolation in the afterlife; for as Charlie Brown (in the comic strip Peanuts) says to Snoopy: “Someday we will all die.” To which Snoopy replies in his doggish wisdom: “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”

Christians are world people like everyone else. With the crucial touch “more”, the magis of the Spiritual Exercises of the soldier and mystic Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). In everything we do, we should always ask what more (magis) corresponds to the will of God, the real “Lord of all powers and authorities” (see the Sanctus of the Liturgy).5 The principle of hope and the confidence that everything will turn out well in the end, as God intervenes to make everything all right, is what defines the realistic Christian worldview. Who knows what good will come of it or what the purpose is (or perhaps what other purpose it is good for), as the old German saying6 goes, sometimes somewhat sarcastically. With regard to the risks of the civilian use of atomic energy, the blessings of nuclear medicine that are derived from it seem to make sense at least in terms of the price. Is this still realistic when the U.S. film Armageddon (July 1998) takes up the theme with regard to nuclear weapons? At the time, this sci-fi film was competing with an almost simultaneous disaster movie Deep Impact (May 1998). Armageddon is named after the final battle between good and evil (Rev 16:16), which according to the Bible takes place there, today Tel Megiddo (or in Arabic: Tell al-Mutesellim) in Israel. In the film, the earth can only be saved from destruction by an approaching asteroid, which is 18 days away, by using (already existing!) nuclear weapons at short notice.7

On the other hand, in contrast to secular end-of-days scenarios that are often based only on fear, the believing worldview is qualitatively and hopefully different. In this view, a positive end-of-days prevails already, and can only be guided to completion by God himself in a remaking of the world – as loosely expressed in the saying often quoted in fashionable apocalypse scenarios:8 “If the world were to end tomorrow (because of a military or civilian nuclear disaster?), I would still plant my apple tree today.” This is erroneously attributed to Martin Luther, but probably only arose in the historically notable circumstances of the 1930s.

Banning and controlling the possession of nuclear weapons worldwide

Instead of just planting new trees, we could also ban and contain nuclear weapons (and highly risky nuclear power plants that have no final storage solution), and control them by means of global treaties. In this case, even political criminals might for once think in the right direction: trust is good, checking is better (attributed to V.I. Lenin: “Trust, but verify” – Doveryai, no proveryai).

The present Pope Francis now considers any further extension of the unused moratorium, which was supposed to lead us beyond nuclear deterrence and to disarmament, to be no longer appropriate. He considers even the mere possession of nuclear weapons (by nation states, let alone privately by terrorists) in arsenals of any size to be ethically reprehensible and a sin in the eyes of God. In the face of possible terrorist threats, the journalist Werner Sonne9 warns against the further unsecure civilian “interim storage” of CASTORs (casks for storage and transport of radioactive material) in an above-ground facility instead of in the (only somewhat more secure) underground salt domes where they were intended to be stored. At the NATO airfield in Büchel, investments are now being made in infrastructural security (a special fence), in addition to the already existing military protection. This increased protection is now even appreciated by the on-site peace activists, who had previously indirectly pointed out the inadequate fence security via their successful “go in” campaigns.

The recently deceased German philosopher Robert Spaemann (1927–2018) believes that even civilian nuclear technology is unmanageable, as something like Murphy’s Law prevails: “What can go wrong at some point, will go wrong at some point.”10 Furthermore: “There is no greater crime than to make an entire habitat uninhabitable.”11 In marked contrast to the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, for example, Spaemann in his personally oriented philosophical ethics advocates an absolute12 observance of respect for human (and also animal) life in its own right. He argues – also in view of the Fukushima disaster – for a modern revival of the original, very wise ethical principle of tutiorism (in dubio pro reo, in dubio pro vita):13 in case of doubt, the principle of preservation and sustainability should apply, instead of the principle “in dubio pro libertate”14 which has been applied too often in modern times. Especially since we have good reason to question how free we really are under a “nuclear umbrella”.

The American essayist and professor (Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University) Elaine Scarry,15 with reference to the so-called “war powers clause” (Article I, Section 8, clause 11) and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, attempts to show that conditions are more like a “thermonuclear monarchy” than a democracy as soon as a political leadership decides (almost) independently on the use of nuclear weapons, instead of under rigorous scrutiny by an elected representative body of the people: “The danger of nuclear weapons comes from potential accidents or acquisition by terrorists, hackers or rogue countries. But the gravest danger comes from the mistaken idea that there exists some case compatible with legitimate governance. There can be no such case. Thermonuclear Monarchy shows the deformation of governance that occurs when a country gains nuclear weapons,” as described in a review of her book.

Conscience takes priority

Military personnel (whether German or American) who willingly serve at a (presumed) nuclear weapons site do so, in my opinion, mostly with a certain pragmatic and realistic approach and, at the same time, in accordance with their own standards of high professionalism and conscientiousness. The actual political decisions are made elsewhere. One’s own attitude to such complex ethical questions as the nuclear issue can but does not have to end in an immediate moral conflict. Any cognitive dissonances that arise are resolved in everyday practice into a presumption of stability: “It has worked quite well so far, and we are doing our security-conscious bit to maintain this stability.” This always includes a consideration of international information and communication psychology as well. Personal freedom of conscience has its value on the level of individual ethics: if – as has happened before – a member of the armed forces finds their conscience is deeply troubled and they cannot (any longer) justify to themselves working in the immediate vicinity of special weapons, then a solution can be found, also with the help of the military chaplain, in which the Bundeswehr releases the specific person from a specific maintenance task assigned to them, and finds them other work to do (not necessarily at another location). This already results from the Bundeswehr’s own leadership philosophy of Innere Führung.16 From a soldier’s point of view, it probably seems more reasonable to conscientiously fulfill one’s duty to guarantee security than to engage in what may be only self-referential, locally limited actionism that is primarily about displaying a good moral image. Furthermore, in view of the problems facing the world, the question of urgency (setting priorities for resistance activities) arises in the immediate actual endangerment of human life, along the lines of: “If you do not want to permanently live under the nuclear umbrella, then first of all help the world’s poorer people to survive”, instead of letting them die of hunger, malnutrition, undernourishment, childhood diarrhea, etc. in their thousands while you look on, or accept they might die. It would therefore need to be decided which current threat could be addressed directly in faster and more practicable attempts to remedy it, and whether practiced solidarity would not promote (common) security much more effectively.

According to the findings of the Swiss sociologist, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and critic of capitalism Jean Ziegler, some nine million people around the world die of starvation every year – and they are not just potentially threatened by starvation or probable death, but do actually die.17

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium18 from 2013 (cf. Evangelii gaudium 203), Pope Francis also speaks in the style of a prophetic speech, deliberately leaving himself open to attack, in terms of political controversy, and provocation, of “an economy that kills”. At least in the press of that time it was reported in this way, though in the context of the document itself, the statement was not meant to discredit capitalism so fundamentally.19

Instead of a miracle conclusion

How do we escape the apparent ethical dilemma between the still predominant belief in deterrence (out of fear of the alternative) and the lack of trust in (political) solutions as a way out? Only through perseverance, persistence, thinking ahead and unprejudiced and innovative20 communication at all levels. In the current world situation, the most likely lever for change would probably be creative trust-building measures. Personal/human relationships have also been helpful in earlier historical contexts (e.g. the relationship between Mr. Kohl and Mr. Gorbachev). Increasing global digital networking – especially in the hopefully soon arriving post-corona times – helps to make structures of injustice transparent, i.e. visible and changeable / amenable to modification. (The theologian and psychoanalyst Eugen Drewermann21 calls these “structures of evil”, which arise out of human fearfulness.) It gives hope to see that a global sensus communis of human-ethical wisdom is forming through the spread of information and learning. However this always comes with a risk and the danger of failure.22 In his 2009 Prague speech, President Barack Obama nourished the hope that the abolition of nuclear weapons could become possible: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. […] I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.”23 Finally, the deontologically arguing philosophical ethicist Robert Spaemann should once again be heard on the nuclear (energy) question. He considers the current zeitgeist-driven, fashionable concept of unilateral liberalistic utilitarianism to be extremely morally corrupting and incompatible with (the divine root of) human reason: “Bad uses are inherent in this technology. [...] The will to knowledge is and remains legitimate, but it seems to me that wherever it is a question of its application – of technology, that is – one must learn to be very morally careful in its handling. Not everything that serves knowledge serves humankind; neither in nuclear research nor in embryonic research. The urge for knowledge does not justify the destruction of children in the mother’s womb; it is not an absolute value. [...] The costs here are human life. There are some types of research that must not be done. [...] Exactly this question should also be asked about atomic energy: isn’t the price of progress in energy generation too high?”24 How much more would this apply to the question of ever more sophisticated tactical nuclear weapons, whose real or even only possible existence gives rise to fears that the threshold for their use might be lowered and breaking the taboo might become easier.25 The “powerful international supervisory authority, which would be equipped with rigorous powers of control and possibly retain a monopoly on the possession of nuclear technology”26, will not in the foreseeable future exist as an internationally democratically legitimized agency with powers to act. And terrible so-called conventional weapons will continue to be used, and the international community of states will continue to be destabilized as a result.

So what’s left? To keep working and communicating in a reasonable hope that of course politicians and military officers are also (ethically) thinking people and open to alternatives, and that perhaps even as a change management stroke of luck, a real historical sudden fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall, freedom-to-travel moment (Scha­bowski: “to my knowledge it applies immediately”)27 could happen, or rather a children’s fairytale The-Emperor’s-New-Clothes insight28 (“The em­peror is naked!”), which will once again allow people to see the actually better alternative. Just a pious wish again? On the contrary – let’s go for it!29

1 See Watzlawick, Paul et al. (1967): Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York.

2 See Spaemann, Robert (2011): Nach uns die Kernschmelze. Hybris im atomaren Zeitalter. Stuttgart.

3 (Patron saint of chimney sweeps and firefighters.) Comparable to the NIMBY-principle (“not in my backyard”).

4 Helpful in this context are the dramatic theology remarks by Willibald Sandler, in the tradition of Raymund Schwager and René Girard, about a “cross-way” [Kreuz-Weg] between the roadside ditches of arrogance and “sympathizance”. Sandler, Willibald (2008): Der Sündenfall von Dogville. Interpretation von Lars von Triers Film aus einer dramatisch-theologischen Perspektive. Innsbruck, p. 14, paragraph 68. (accessed May 27, 2020). (accessed May 27, 2020).

5 Sandler, Willibald (2008). Here on pp.15 ff. he talks about a third way between arrogance and “sympathizance”, the real Christian (cross-)way of critical solidarity as a middle way (p. 16, paragraph 79): “From this middle way it is possible to approach a new understanding of what arrogance and sympathizance mean here. Sympathizance is solidarity without criticism [...] which therefore cannot be understood as authentically Christian. Arrogance is criticism without solidarity, i.e. a judgment, condemnation or a desire to improve, in which one leaves oneself out – without a willingness to risk oneself in doing something for the other or in self-criticism. Thus one falls into precisely that trap which one self-righteously reproaches the other for. In the Bible’s words: ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?’ (Matt. 7:3-5).” (Translated from German.)

6 (“Wer weiß, wozu das gut ist?”)

7 On the probability of asteroid strikes and rescue scenarios that are already being planned, see e.g. (accessed May 27, 2020). (accessed May 27, 2020).

8 However here again is the interpretation in Sandler, Willibald (2008), p. 15, section 73: “The dramatic-theological interpretation of Last Judgment texts and apocalyptic texts aims in this direction – for example John’s Apocalypse: it is to be understood as self-judgment, which people do to themselves and to each other when God, the divine grace, turns his back on them, or they turn their backs on Him and divine grace.” (Translated from German.)

9 Sonne, Werner (2018): Leben mit der Bombe. Atomwaffen in Deutschland. Wiesbaden, pp. 194 f.

10 (Translated from German.)

11 (Translated from German.) Spaemann, Robert (2011), p. 101; particularly regarding the unresolved question of the final storage of radioactive material.

12 (Translated from German. “Unteilbar”, literally: “indivisible”.)

13 (“When in doubt, for the accused, when in doubt, for life”.)

14 (“When in doubt, for liberty”.) Spaemann, Robert (2011), pp. 103 f.

15 Scarry, Elaine (2014): Thermonuclear Monarchy. Choosing between Democracy and Doom. New York.

16 (Officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”.)

17 Ziegler, Jean (2018): “Ich helfe denen, die keine Stimme haben.” In: chrismon. Das evangelische Magazin 5/2020, p. 18.

18 (“The Joy of the Gospel”.)

19 (accessed May 27, 2020). (accessed May 27, 2020).

20 At least for an analogous, innovative way of thinking adapted to the respective situation, cf. the reference to “non-violent resistance” in Wink, Walter (1999): The Powers That Be. Theology for a New Millennium. New York: “Just-war theory misinterpreted ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ (Matt. 5:39) as meaning nonresistance. In an earlier chapter I tried to demonstrate the error of this interpretation. Jesus did not teach nonresistance; rather, he disavowed violent resistance in favor of nonviolent resistance. Of course Christians must resist evil! No decent human being could conceivably stand by and watch innocents suffer without trying to do, or at least wishing to do something to save them. The question is one of means. Likewise Christians are not forbidden by Jesus to engage in self-defense. But they are to do so nonviolently. Jesus did not teach supine passivity in the face of evil. That was precisely what he was attempting to overcome!” – in more detail in Wink, Walter: Engaging the Powers. Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis 1992, pp. 175-192 (9. Jesus’ Third Way: Nonviolent Engagement); and cf. similarly the reference to the Jesuist wisdom tactic of “provocative defenselessness” (e.g. Matt. 5:41) in Ebner, Martin (2012): Jesus von Nazareth. Was wir von ihm wissen können. Stuttgart, pp. 138 f.: “Such reactions must be astonishing. And that is obviously the tactics behind them. They do not play the game of violence. Instead they make their counterpart aware of their own aggression, by means of a paradoxical intervention.” (Translated from German.)

21 Drewermann, Eugen (1988): Strukturen des Bösen. 1: Die jahwistische Urgeschichte in exegetischer Sicht / 2: Die jahwistische Urgeschichte in psychoanalytischer Sicht / 3: Die jahwistische Urgeschichte in philosophischer Sicht. Paderborn.

22 According to Sandler, Willibald (2008), the controversial Danish Catholic director Lars von Trier in his film Dogville (2003) produces a modern illustrated film story of the (biblical) Fall of Man: a pure dominating power perverts of its own accord the “gift” of peace, as previously shown by the greedy grab for the fruit of paradise in the wrong “mode of appropriation”. At the same time, the movie aims to criticize a Christian fundamentalist perverted civil religion.

23 Scarry, Elaine (2014), note 22, p. 411.

24 Spaemann, Robert (2011), pp. 105 f.; cf. on this point also Schockenhoff, Eberhard (2018): Kein Ende der Gewalt. Friedensethik für eine globalisierte Welt. Freiburg im Breisgau, pp. 385 f.; cf. also Bartoszewski, Wladislaw (1986): Wer ein Leben rettet, der rettet die ganze Welt. Die Erfahrung meines Lebens. Freiburg im Breisgau, pp. 47 f.: “Peace at any price [...] means in practice giving in to all kinds of blackmail, recognizing the politics of strength, the politics of the stronger. It means making the gesture of humility before the conflict even begins. [...] What the preachers consider to be an act of reason, of pragmatic thinking, even of love toward humanity for peace at any price, is ultimately the latent willingness to accept tyranny, violence, brutality.” (Translated from German.)

25 Cf. also Schockenhoff, Eberhard (2018), p. 391, note 816.

26 (Translated from German.) Schockenhoff, Eberhard (2018), p. 390.

27 Günter Schabowski (1929-2015) was a German journalist and politician, member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), and a member of the SED Politburo from 1981 until 1989. In his role as Secretary for Information, he gave a press conference on the evening of November 9, 1989, at which he read out from a sheet of paper a new regulation on travel by GDR citizens to Western countries. In response to a question from a reporter, he said that this new rule, to his knowledge, would come into effect “immediately, without delay”. That same evening, this news triggered a mass rush of East German citizens to the border with West Berlin. This led the overstretched GDR border guards to open the Wall a few hours later, in a totally unplanned way. Cf. (accessed May 27, 2020). (accessed May 27, 2020).

28 The Emperor’s New Clothes (Danish: Kejserens nye klæder), first published in 1837, is a famous literary fairytale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In it, an emperor has expensive new robes made for him by two weavers who are con-men. They claim that the clothes are invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The emperor and all the townsfolk play along, because they are uncertain or fear for their positions. The deception is only revealed at a procession when a child speaks the truth. Cf. (accessed May 27, 2020). (accessed May 27, 2020).

29 Not only, but also in the sense of the provocative claim of the “World Days of Prayer” at Assisi and elsewhere: “It is not enough to do something for peace, one must pray for it.” Or – and this really is the last film reference – the protagonist’s cry at the very end of the excellent Japanese feature film Sweet Bean (German title: Kirschblüten und rote Bohnen) by Naomi Kawase (Japan/France/Germany 2015), which is also fitting for corona times: “Dorayaki! Come and get ’em!“ Dorayaki are small sweet pancakes with a red bean filling.



Burkhard Bleul is a pastoral assistant and Catholic military chaplain at the following locations: Büchel/Eifel (Tactical Air Force Wing 33 [Taktisches Luftwaffen­geschwader 33]), Ulmen (Bundeswehr School of Dog Handling [Schule für Diensthundewesen der Bundes­wehr]) and Kastellaun/Hunsrück (Information Technology Batallion 282 [Informationstechnikbataillon 282]).


Photo: Markus Kroth