While all of mankind lives with the bomb, nuclear weapons don’t live in the majority of men’s minds. Few people make raising awareness of nuclear weapons their life’s work. Fewer still commit their lives not only to the abolition of the world’s most dangerous weapon, but also to the word of God.
That being the way of mankind, Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is rare.
Born and raised in Southern California, Tyler spent his university years at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. After graduating, he worked alongside the late Senator Alan Cranston on founding the Global Security Institute (GSI), now one of the leading organizations in disarmament advocacy.
Before Tyler took the job, his experience with nuclear weapons was limited to his parents’ activism in The Freeze campaign during the Cold War.
Fresh out of college, he wasn’t a nuclear expert, nor was he a political scientist; Tyler was a kid with a nonprofit job, sleeping under the desk in his office at night because rents in dot-com era San Francisco were way beyond his means.
It was there, while he pored over policy and worst-case scenarios at GSI, that the weapon of most destruction took up permanent residence in Tyler’s mind.
“I don’t think people realize that our entire way of life, and everything that gives us joy and contentment, is held in the balance of nuclear weapons,” Reverend Wigg-Stevenson tells TakePart.
Long hours at the office left his days filled with nuclear weapons and his nights with despair. Everywhere he looked, Tyler saw life in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, and he knew there was little he could do to stop it.
Wrestling with this doomed reality, Tyler worked a nuclear weapons conference in San Francisco that featured the idiosyncratic social activist Dr. Patch Adams as one of its panel speakers.
Adams asked his audience members what they would personally do to end nuclear weapons. The question stuck in Tyler’s mind even as the crowd disrobed for a nude protest at the doctor’s instigation.
Fully-clothed and “paralyzed with a sort of detached terror,” Tyler watched the weapons conference descend into an exercise in absurdity as nude, aging hippies streamed out of the auditorium en route to city hall, chanting "nude not nukes."
“I’m thinking what a stupid response that is, but I’m troubled by his question,” says Tyler. “I think to myself, ‘what would I be willing to give?’
“I realized simultaneously that I’d be willing to give everything and that I can do nothing. There’s nothing I can do to make myself feel better here; I could go on a hunger strike, I can chain myself to a bomber, all sorts of ludicrous, warmed-over 60s activist-style stuff that I could try. None of it would have an effect.
“And I had this breakdown essentially—I’m not describing some vast, psychological trauma here. I’m just confronted by my lack of capacity. Which is when I heard the voice of God, for the first and clearest time in my life, say ‘the world is not yours to save or damn but to serve the One whose it is.’
“That was the day I changed from a standard of efficacy to fidelity.”
Tyler enrolled in Yale’s Divinity School and was later ordained a Baptist minister. After searching for a church to call home, he received a phone call from an old colleague in the disarmament community, David Cortright, chairman of the Fourth Freedom Forum.
Cortright asked Tyler to help rejuvenate faith-based activism on nuclear weapons.
The religious community was once at the core of the popular movement to ban nuclear weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, its role in the issue had waned, as had the engagement of the popular movement at large.
Disarmament became somewhat old-fashioned and folksy by the turn of the century. Even Christian churches, formerly the beating heart of the anti-nuke movement, maintained no real position of integrity on the issue.
“They just didn’t have a position at all,” says Tyler. “And that’s the thing—almost nobody did. It’s an issue that just sort of vanished. It would feel almost like having a position on apartheid today,” as if the world had stamped the task of disarmament "completed" and filed it away in the dustbin of history.
Compared to today’s threats, the Cold War was reliable, a conflict characterized by a bilateral balance of nuclear power rather than an asymmetric blend of non-state actors and nuclear terrorists. But with the Berlin Wall reduced to keepsake rubble, activists mistakenly believed that they were victorious over nuclear Armageddon, and they put away their swords and protest placards.
Competing with politically fashionable concerns like climate change, terrorism, and financial collapse, the issue of nuclear weapons failed to attract the audience it had in 1982, when 1 million protesters descended on Manhattan’s Central Park to shout down the bomb.
“It’s the weirdest social phenomenon—this issue clearly inflicted existential trauma on an entire generation of people growing up doing duck-and-cover exercises,” notes Tyler, “and all of a sudden it just vanishes.”
So Tyler took on the job of reactivating the Evangelical Church in the anti-nuclear movement. He went to work first for Faithful Security, an umbrella organization comprising many of the mainstays of the faith-based effort to ban nukes. He later founded the Two Futures Project, a Christian coalition that takes the anti-nuke message to churches across the United States.
Why "Two Futures"?
“A lot of people think we can have these things [nuclear weapons] indefinitely and, if we’re smart about it, they’ll never be used,” says Tyler. “Two Futures is putting our fundamental conviction up front, that there really are, over the long-haul, only two futures open to us: one in which nuclear weapons are abolished, and the other where nuclear weapons are used to devastating effect.
“We either move toward zero, or we move toward their use.”
With the continued atomic proliferation of the planet, we appear to be moving closer to the latter scenario.
North Korea, an unpredictable player on the world stage, is working to advance its nuclear arsenal. India and Pakistan, who share a border and a legacy of bitter war, have raced to arm the subcontinent with more than 200 nuclear weapons. Iran, in CIA Director Leon Panetta’s opinion, is only two years away from developing the bomb.
“As other nations seek and succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons, both nuclear material and nuclear know-how will spread, which makes nuclear disaster inevitable in at least one of two ways:
“One way, it simply makes a lot of regional conflicts nuclear,” explains Tyler, comparing the tension in India and Pakistan to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where for one week, Soviet missiles stationed 90 miles off the coast of the United States brought the two countries inches away from a nuclear war.
“India and Pakistan are a constant reminder of what it’s actually like when you have a friction point and share a border between two nuclear powers.”
The other possibility makes Tyler lean even further toward the stark inevitable.
“As nuclear weapons spread, [fissile] material is going to be impossible to control with a high enough degree of certainty. So at some point during the spread of nuclear weapons, you have to see it falling into the hands of a non-state actor or a terrorist group. Once that happens, there’s no reliable way to interdict or deter an attack.”
Unlike the U.S. and Soviet Union, mutually assured destruction won’t stop terrorists from attacking a nuclear-armed state with nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, Cold War defense thinking still rules the day on Capitol Hill; so nuclear stockpiles will remain robust as a means of deterrence, and terrorists, as a result, will continue to have more material to swipe if they get ambitious.
In Tyler’s mind, nuclear weapons aren’t strictly a threat to every living thing on the planet—they also impede the progress of man, both socially and spiritually.
“I really view these things as a question of who we understand ourselves to be. A lot of people talk about nuclear weapons like they’re just the evolution of the sword—sort of ‘rock, club, sword, gun, machine gun, tank, nuclear weapon’—and I think that’s totally false.
“When we built nuclear weapons, we developed a technical system, the first in history, where the sort of ‘human will to death’—which I call ‘sin’—could be exercised on a global level.
“To me, that means we’re called to a heightened level of responsibility. Theologically speaking, we are not meant to have this kind of power. We’re currently wielding a power that we have no authority to bear.
“There is a theological and a spiritual imperative to respond to that power with humility and responsibility, rather than thinking that it’s a tool that’s available for our use.”
Tyler’s theological stance is in no way at odds with his secular belief that a single nuclear detonation would be bad business for everyone.
“You do not need a personal relationship with Jesus to be horrified by this prospect. All you have to do is have a pulse. You just have to be human.”
But with 23,000 nukes on the planet, an activist could have God, Ganesh, and Google on speed dial and still struggle to get to zero. How does Tyler measure success against tens of thousands of nuclear weapons?
”My standard is not what I can accomplish, but whether I’m being faithful. Regardless of what happens with nuclear weapons, we need people who are being faithful, and who will say unflaggingly that these things are a sin against God and humankind, that we should not have them, and that we should work with everything we got to prevent their use.
“If their elimination was my standard, then I’m setting a goal for myself that’s not mine to set. But if simply showing up every day and being faithful is my goal, then that’s something I’m able to do.“
Slavery, Tyler reminds us, was at one point an untouchable issue in the United States before people of faith got involved.
“There were all sorts of reasons why it was impossible to abolish slavery. It was actually impossible to do. Until people motivated by faith and humanity and a sense of right and wrong simply said it was a crime to own another human being.
“If you say that long enough, what’s possible changes.”
Past all the paralyzing hopelessness and partisan politics that keep nuclear stockpiles stacked high, there is a hope that someday the world will live without its most dangerous weapon.
It won’t happen overnight—it might not even happen in our lifetime—but so long as the anti-nuke movement is equipped with the conviction of people like Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, there is way to eliminate nukes before they are again used.
With faith involved, there’s always a way.