Truth, Illumination, and Nuclear Weapons

Creative Commons/Erin Marie Page

Rabbi Lerner asked me to share my highest spiritual truths, but I had intended to talk about the moral imperative to abolish nuclear weapons. I will try and put these two themes together.

The highest spiritual truth that I know is contained in Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad — there is only One, the Lord is One and only That One is worthy of worship. La ilaha illa Allah — there is no God but the One God; there is no reality but God. God is a mystery and His wondrous creation is filled with the mystery of life — unified and harmonious. Each of us is one within the One.

Hindus describe Indra’s web as an infinite net that stretches out in all directions. Each node of the web has a jewel, and each jewel reflects the entirety of the web. If any part of the web is touched, the entire web responds.

Each heart is that jewel, and each heart reflects the entirety of all life. One who knows himself or herself will know that jewel and see that all lives are interconnected and are a manifestation of that one mysterious being and power, beyond name, beyond gender, beyond form, beyond description, that permits us to know It and to know our soul — our real selves — as infinite light and infinite love.

The great majesty of the human experience is that this capacity of knowing oneself is directly related to the capacity of knowing one another. Each of us only gets one heart, and that heart has to open in all directions. If you try to only open the heart to the divine — to HaShem, to God, to YHVH, to Allah — and neglect love of other lives, that insight into the mystery of life, the secret of the One, will not be realized.

Jesus summed it up very nicely (quoting the Torah), when he said the method of obtaining fulfillment is to love that power of infinite light and love with all your soul, all your heart, and all your might, and like unto that, love your neighbor as yourself.

It is an open door that goes two ways, inside and outside. Peace is an inside job, your soul is an inside job, your consciousness is an inside job — and these gifts cannot be measured. That which is most important cannot be measured. Through that which is limited and measurable, these treasures can only be pointed at. But there are universal principles of the way in which this pointing is done, and there are universal principles of how we are to behave if we are to honor these treasures.

The illuminating radiance of the soul becomes manifest in creation when a human being lives in accordance with the nature of God’s presence. That presence is without differences of race, religion, gender, “I” and “you,” high or low, or dogma of any kind. It is the full embodiment of love and compassion, and it includes complete freedom from fear and, the deeply realized even say, death itself. It is the nurturing ground for individual and social health. Society needs individuals living this radiance.

One of the greatest problems the world faces today is the franchising of the way in which this realization is pursued. Franchising, like McDonalds or Burger King, can be found in the realm of religions. Significant movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism are attempting to franchise love and meaning, each claiming a unique exclusive ownership. Imagine believing that my Jewish love is better than your Hindu love, or my Christian liberation is better than your Jewish liberation. If these metaphors for that which is beyond description, beyond any form of idolatry are to have any meaning in this age, they are a call for us to express authentic love and living virtue in a manner that is free and open.

A relevant analogy is that of wells being dug to get to the water table. The water table is one, and the wells are each unique and separate. The value of each tradition is to dig to get to that one water table. We are people who honor life, desire to seek and serve peace, and work as a network. Also, we are people digging to get to that water table. We are people who recognize that network of life itself, and who are willing to say shame on you for saying that you own God’s love, and shame on you for creating violent divisions in humanity in the name of God.

A Sufi saying I learned from Bawa Muhaiyaddeen is to “separate from yourself that which separates you from your fellow human beings.” The same qualities that separate us from one another separate us from that which is most important inside. Anger, falsehood, jealousy, pride, arrogance, and fanaticism separate us, while love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and peace bring us together. If religion and spirituality have any meaning it is to reconnect us with that oneness.

Buddhism: hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Christianity: all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you so even to them (Matthew). Confucianism: do not onto others what you would not have them do unto you (the Analytics). Hinduism: this is the sum of duty — do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you (the Mahabharata). Islam: not one of you is a believer until he desires for the other that which he desires for himself (Hadith). Jainism: in happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self. Judaism: what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man — that is the law, all the rest is commentary.

The Eleventh Commandment: Don’t Kill Everybody

Credit: Paul Lachine

Grace is part of the fabric of creation, part of what holds things together, and these ethical principles express the way things actually are. It is not poetry; it is a description of how things really are. When these principles are violated, instability ensues — instability in our personal lives and instability among states. States must also treat other states as they want to be treated.

It is useful to look at policy in terms of coherence with universal ethical principles. There is a universal convention barring biological weapons. Imagine if nine states said, “No state can use polio or smallpox as a weapon, but nine states can use the plague as a weapon to maintain international peace and security.” Such a proposition would be offensive to our basic morality and logic. It violates that ethical principle of do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

In order for stability to be achieved in world affairs, states must treat other states as they wish to be treated. In order for citizens — the people of states — to achieve social and personal stability, we treat others as we wish to be treated. We do not want to be dominated, and we do not want to dominate others in our names.

We do not want nuclear weapons pointed at us. Right now, thousands of nuclear weapons are on “launch on warning,” giving the president of the United States about fifteen minutes to decide if there is a computer glitch or if we are under massive attack. There are nuclear devices pointed at every major American city, including Washington, right now. Our security is dependent on the reasoning, mercy, and good will of people in Russia right now. They are not our enemies. Collectively we are people who appear to be willing to do genesis in reverse, and just take things back to the very beginning … for what? And why are they doing it? Because we are putting them in this same position by pointing nuclear weapons at them.

In September 2009, Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Aria, then-president of Costa Rica, said at the Security Council Summit that 22,000 eyes of death face humanity every night in the form of nuclear weapons. I agree with George Kennan who said the willingness to destroy so much with these devices is nothing less than a blasphemy and an offense to God.

The readiness to use nuclear weapons is a violation of the fundamental principle that must guide our relationship to the natural world — reverence for life. Reflecting on this absurd existential condition which most people refuse to address squarely, I think we need to ring a wake-up call, like adding a modern day commandment. This eleventh commandment will tie our most basic spiritual principles into the theme of nuclear weapons: Don’t kill everybody.

The idea that one can worship at the altar of the quest for ultimate dominance through nuclear weapons and then prevent others from joining the cult is unrealistic. The greatest stimulant to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the reliance on nuclear weapons by the most powerful. The president of the United States has said he is seeking the security of a world without nuclear weapons. The secretary general of the United Nations has stated that obtaining the elimination of nuclear weapons will be a public good of the highest order. Yet, because we have not created a constituency that will put political pressure on the president to advance nuclear disarmament, in the current military budget there are tens of billions of dollars pledged to upgrade warheads and delivery systems. Last year the United States spent over $50 billion on the nuclear weapons venture and, according to Atomic Audit published by the Brookings Institute, the United States alone has spent over $5.5 trillion dollars on this venture since the dawn of the nuclear age, and all these expenditures without substantial debate.

With the Cold War decades away, knowing that the weapons are useless against terrorists and suicidal to use against a state with nuclear weapons, is it not time that we raised our voices to end this irrational immoral and unsustainable situation? How can we continue to threaten even states without nuclear weapons with “all options on the table” mantras and then expect them not to pursue nuclear weapons programs?

It is time to create political pressure based on the moral and practical imperative to abolish nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Are Not Just about Nuclear Weapons

I contend that the reason for this failure of political pressure is that we have not made the clear and powerful moral argument. We have not said to our political leaders: “Shame on you. Shame on you for continuing to threaten to use nuclear weapons. Shame on us for tolerating this. Shame on you for putting the oceans at risk. Shame on you for allowing species to be killed at alarming rates. Shame on you for calling us who want to have a sustainable future idealists; we’re the realists!”

A new level of cooperation is needed to protect the environment and that will not be obtained in a world where some project threats to use nuclear weapons.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, who is the UN’s leading figure on biological diversity said: “If the 9 billion people predicted to be with us by 2050 were to have the same lifestyle as Americans, we would need five planets.” The magnitude of the damage to the ecosystems is much bigger than we ever imagined. The rate of extinction is currently at 1,000 times the natural, historical, background rate of extinction. The most recent study by the International Union of Conservation of Nature found that 17,291 of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction and 70 percent of the fishing stocks are at risk.

The levels of cooperation necessary to protect the global commons — the living systems upon which civilization depends such as the oceans, the rainforests, and the climate — makes the spiritual imperative of loving one’s neighbor as oneself to be the practical imperative of this moment. I contend that that level of cooperation cannot be obtained in a world with nuclear haves and have-nots. The same diplomats on Monday who have to say, “We’re threatening your country and your people with nuclear annihilation” will find it a bit difficult on Tuesday to say, “Let’s cooperate to protect the oceans.” Nuclear weapons are not only about nuclear weapons; they are also about our values and how we communicate with one another. What could be more dysfunctional and in need of our attention and calls for change?

The destruction of natural biodiversity in the interests of short-term profits expresses values. Do we value life and its manifold graces? Do we value short-term acquisition of products, many of which are not particularly useful? When issues are communicated in this kind of framework, then the political effectiveness of morally informed activists, such as the Network of Spiritual Progressives, will increase. Common sense honest expressions that include values are powerful.

Peace is preferred and our common interests in living together far outweigh the costs of hostility. There is always a way for peace to be realized, and often the simplest truth is the deepest and most powerful. Is it not a great wonder that we have found a way to harness atoms, releasing energy for destruction three times the heat of the face of the sun, within a thousandth of a second? That energy contained in an atom is mysterious and mystical. Just because we can use it does not mean we fully understand its meaning. You cannot see it with your eyes or touch it with your hands. The same power that gifted our intellects with the capacity to discover this destructive capacity has also gifted us with the wisdom to move the world to a place without nuclear weapons.

How many so-called experts predicted that the Berlin Wall would fall as it did? None of the intelligence services predicted it. How many even imagined that apartheid was going to end without a bloodbath? Just a few decades ago, who could have predicted that with our little Blackberries we would have access to more intelligence than the CIA or the KGB had thirty years ago? No one could have predicted these things, and we can’t predict the future. The reality of the future will exceed our imaginations.

We can predict whether we are going to be the human beings that we know we are capable of being. The same power that gave us the capacity of destruction that arises from the splitting of the atom has also given us the power of love, compassion, peace, wisdom, and gratitude for the mystery and majesty of life. I will close simply asking that great power of love to bless us, give us the courage to accept the blessing, and bring us into the state of oneness and wonder and gratitude.


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