We are buying more debt, pain, and death: a case against nuclear-powered submarines

Today is the International Day of Peace. That is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, as a country, we have just scrapped a $90 billion contract with Naval Group of France for a new fleet of submarines—in favour of a currently proposed (a d as yet uncosted) deal with our American and UK allies to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. At least, in nothing I have read is the actual cost of this awkward AUKUS deal specified–it seems that is still to be negotiated.

It seems to me that, whatever the actual dollar cost of this new deal, it is outrageously expensive, and will prove to be incredibly costly. I believe we are buying, not only more debt, but also pain and death, for future generations. I am happy to leave the debate about the precise financial cost to the politicians, journalists, and defence pundits in the months and years ahead. What is perfectly clear to me, however, is that the cost to our country will indeed be large and invasive, penetrating deeply and impacting widely.

Allocating money in the federal budget to defence matters is a highly contested matter. By making this a high priority, other matters are pushed down the priority list. We hear regular pronouncements about the need to tighten our belts and reduce the deficit in our federal budget. But we rarely if ever hear considered reflections

about the impact of this on essential elements of our federal spending which are essential to our lifestyle—social security, Medicare and health care, education and training, and veterans’ affairs.

What will it mean for future federal budgets, to have massive and increasing commitments to defence spending, such that these other areas will need to be limited or even reduced? Allocating a large amount of the limited funds available to the Federal Government to this deal will mean less money for other areas. That will impact on the everyday lives of all Australians.

But it is not the financial costs that concern me. Nuclear-powered submarines have the simple function of contributing to efforts to defend our coastline—something that has been a high priority for the current federal government. But they also have the capacity to go on the attack (and against China, of all countries—what are we thinking?). They are agents of warfare, dedicated to be at our disposal to wage war.

At the moment, there is no country in the world with a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. There is only one repository in the world capable of disposing of intermediate-level nuclear waste, in New Mexico (USA), and it was shut for three years (2014–2017) because of a chemical explosion. How are we planning to dispose responsibly of our nuclear waste?

And further: do we really want nuclear-powered weapons to be involved in any future war? The environmental impact of a nuclear blast is serious. We have seen the scale of illness and death from nuclear explosions, in the 1945 bombings of Japan, the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

An incident involving a nuclear-powered element in current times would be even more potent and damaging. Most worryingly, the ABC has reported that nuclear-powered submarines “have a ‘long history’ of involvement in accidents across the globe”. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/nuclear-submarines-prompt-environmental-and-conflict-concern/100470362

Alongside these concerns, we know that there are costs associated with warfare other than the finance required to train troops and provide weapons for the battle—costs that go deep into people’s lives and spread wide across society. War means injury and death, to our own troops, and to the troops of those we are fighting against. Every death means a family and a local community that is grieving. There is great emotional cost just in one death, let alone the thousands and thousands that wars incur.

Every person injured in waging war experiences suffering, anxiety, and pain, with their loved ones looking on, suffering with them, and with the medical and hospital system having to devote resources to their healing.

I have a friend who has served with pride in the Australian Navy, in the troubled region of the Persian Gulf. He and his mates have returned home after their service, and they are living “regular” lives in society, with families, jobs, friends. Yet I know from my friend just how costly his service was. Psychological trauma and emotional scarring place heavy burdens on an apparently healthy man in his “regular” life. Those burdens ripple out in unhealthy ways to those around him–both family and friends. It is another cost of war, that is multiplied time and time again by the numbers of people who have served in the military.

But these are the expected, observable costs of war. War also brings “collateral damage”, in that terrible, dehumanising phrase first used by the US military during the Vietnam conflict. It is a euphemistic way of referring to “civilian casualties of a military operation”. But the reality is much starker than what this smooth phrase conveys. Countrysides are invaded, villages and towns are looted, women are raped, civilian women and men are injured or killed, buildings are destroyed, and people can be forced to seek refuge in another place.

We see these consequences of war again and again on our screens, in so many places around the world. Whilst we might enter into a war in order to resolve an immediate problem, the reality is that it is usually a short-term “fix”. War never fully resolves a conflict or solves a problem; war inevitably generates further conflict and raises more problems. The history of Afghanistan in the last 43 years testifies to this—the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, the guerilla war of the 1980s, the rise of the Mujaheedin, civil war from 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the American Invasion of 2001 and the war which has run on for two decades through into this current year. At every point, warfare has generated yet more conflict.

As people of the Uniting Church, we are committed to being a peacemaking people, firmly working for the cause of peace in our world. We are also a church which sees the problems inherent in the use of nuclear power—and especially, the use of nuclear power in waging war.

We should be totally opposed to this latest deal signalled by the Federal Government. It is not simply a matter of purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines. We are buying more debt, pain, and death, for future generations of Australians. We should be pressing our political representatives to urge the government to back away from this deal.

In 1979, the Uniting Church Assembly received a statement advocating opposition to the mining and export of uranium; see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3137-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons

In 1982, the Uniting Church Assembly declared that “affirm that the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means”, in a statement on Militarism and Disarmament, at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/500-militarism-and-disarmament

In 1988, the Uniting Church Assembly adopted a comprehensive statement relating to nuclear power and the nuclear arms race. See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/499-nuclear-deterrence-disarmament-and-peace

The same year, the Assembly adopted the Statement to the Nation: Australian Bicentennial Year, 1988, in which it describes itself as a church which had “engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker.” See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

In 2003, the Uniting Church Assembly declared once more that “the Church is committed to be a peacemaking body” and adopted the Statement, Uniting for Peace; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/497-uniting-for-peace

The Uniting Church has supported the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries, promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canberra Region Presbytery signed a letter of support for this campaign in 2020, on the 75th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. See https://www.icanw.org/australia

See also a fine blog on this topic by Chris Walker at https://revdrchriswalker.wordpress.com/2021/09/21/nuclear-submarines/

and an address for International Day of Peace by the Moderator of the UCA in NSW.ACT, Simon Hansford, at https://talbragar.net/2021/09/21/when-peace-is-not-peace/

Giving priority to “one of these little ones” (Mark 9; Pentecost 18B)

Two weeks ago, we read and heard the passage where Jesus berated Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Jesus went on to teach about the need for those who follow him to take up their cross and lay down their lives (8:34–37). The hubris that Peter demonstrated, when he rebuked Jesus for what he was teaching, is met head-on by Jesus. He rebukes Peter for his focus on “human things”.

The nature of those “human things” is made clear in the passage that we read and heard last Sunday. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asks his followers (9:33). No answer comes; those followers of Jesus were shamed into silence “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). Arguing about who is the greatest is a clear manifestation of a focus on “human things”. It’s what human beings do, all too often–we see it demonstrated in our politics, in domestic violence, in sexual assaults, and in the constant stream of uprisings, civil wars, and international wars that are never-ending.

Jesus has been with his followers since the start of his public campaign in Galilee (1:14). By this point in his time with these followers, Jesus no time left for such matters. He teaches them here, as he has already done in the previous passage, about what lies in store for himself as he heads towards Jerusalem—betrayal, and death (9:31; see also 8:31). These are the heart of the “divine things” that he has encouraged his followers to set their minds on. Jesus is resolutely fixed on what is important to God, not what is the focus of humans.

The story we read and heard this coming Sunday (9:38–50) contains further insights into this distinction. The disciples want to exercise their authority by forbidding an unknown person from casting out demons from those possessed by them. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us”, the disciples report (9:38), expecting to be congratulated by Jesus. (Did you notice the pronoun: following US!!)

But their expectations fall flat. Jesus, once again, rebukes his followers: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39).

Such manifestation of authority will receive a further rebuke from Jesus yet again, at a later point in the story that is being told in this Gospel. Returning to the theme of authority, two of his followers petition Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Jesus gives them short shrift: “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38). By this time, surely, he must have been seething with frustration—will they never understand? “Do you not understand?” Is a question that Jesus has already posed to his followers, no less than four times previously (4:13; 7:18; 8:17; 8:21).

Three times, in chapters 8–10, Jesus rebukes his followers. Three times, they have acted in ways that indicate their fixation is on authority, prestige, power. Three times, Jesus has responded with a clear explanation. Each time, as they journey southwards towards Jerusalem, he recounts what will take place to “the Son of Man”; a prophetic circumlocution for describing oneself (Ezek 2:1, 3, 6, 8, 3:1, 3, 4, 10, etc). Each time, the fundamental purpose of his mission is explained in short, staccato phrases.

That purpose, and the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem, is that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed” (8:31); there, he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (9:31); there, he will be “condemned to death; handed over to Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (10:33–34). The end in view is surely sobering, cautionary, worrying, for those who follow with him. Yet each time, they revert to a focus on authority—“human things”.

This threefold description of the imminent fate of Jesus, increasing in detail at each restatement, provides an intense focus on the journey ahead. Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem (11:11) with a cohort of followers who have repeatedly failed to understand that, instead of a focus on their own authority, leading to a seat in glory, they are in company with the one who will take up his cross (8:34), lose his life (8:35), “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35), and ultimately be the slave of all (10:44). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

This final, definitive affirmation of his role comes after the three instances of the misguided orientation of his followers, and the three corrective teachings offered by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This sequence is surrounded by two stories of healing, symbolising the need for the followers of Jesus to open their eyes and see the reality of Jesus. In Bethsaida, a blind man seeks healing from Jesus (8:22–26). In Jericho, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus for mercy (10: 46–52). The two healings clearly symbolise the need for the followers of Jesus themselves to open their eyes to see Jesus.

Despite their physical blindness, these two men have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus as he passes by, and reach out in hope. Yet those travelling along with Jesus are impervious to what he offers, and blind to the fate that Jesus is walking towards. The irony, the penetrating incongruity, of these juxtapositions, is searing.

It is within this context that the story of the unidentified exorcist (9:38–41) is to be understood. Indeed, the sense of irony is clearly present in this story. The ministry of Jesus has incorporated the casting out of demons alongside his teaching, preaching, and healing. “Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus have been characterised from the start of his public activity (1:39).

In fact, the casting out of demons was integral to the charge that Jesus had given his followers earlier in their time with him: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). And these very activities had formed the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent … they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

So there may be some sense of self-assured certainty when they report to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (9:38). (Yes—notice the pronoun: following US! Not Jesus—but US.) But were they not aware that Jesus was not interested in this claim to authoritative ownership of the franchise of “casting out demons”? The irony, surely, is that Jesus is more interested in the wellbeing of the person possessed, than in the delegated authority of his followers as the ones who should rightly cast out the demon.

Those following Jesus have heard his teachings explaining that his focus is on the cross, losing your life, becoming a servant, drinking the cup of suffering, and being the servant of all who “gives his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Yet they have not understood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, he has just informed them (9:35). Yet they act as if they can continue to be first, lord over all. So again he will need to underscore his views: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (10:43), “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).

The irony is intensified by the placement of this incident involving the unidentified exorcist immediately after the previous parable-in-action, in which Jesus took a child into his arms, and declared, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). A child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me”.

So Jesus teaches that how “one of these little ones” is treated, is the benchmark of faithfully following in his way (9:42–48). Not the one with authority, power, glory. But the “little one”, the child. In his characteristic parabolic-hyperbolic style, Jesus instructs his followers to respect “one of these little ones” by cutting off their hands, cutting off their feet, tearing out their eyes, placing the millstone around their necks and drown in the sea of they cause “one of these little one” to stumble. These are hyperbolic exaggerations, of course, about the importance of respecting, caring for, and prioritising “ one of these little ones” (9:42–48)—not literal instructions!

(**Caution: Do not try this at home. Do not take these words literally. But learn the lesson that they teach.)

In this passage, as we hear it this Sunday, the irony is intense. It is the child, the little one, the unidentified exorcist, who has priority, in the eyes of Jesus, ahead of those who seek authority, status, power, glory. The challenge is clear. The word is proclaimed. The Gospel is enacted. The way of the cross awaits …