Give Thanks for Weapons of Mass Destruction?

For he is our peace…and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…
Ephesians 2

…and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 1


No, this is not fake news,” David Stewart told readers of the Jesuit journal American Magazine: “On May 3, a church service was held in one of England’s most hallowed and historic buildings, Westminster Abbey” at which “senior clerics of the Church of England joined politicians to give thanks for the United Kingdom’s seaborne nuclear deterrent,” now continuously on patrol for 50 years, ready to obliterate millions of people in minutes, in defense of a Realm represented at the ceremony by Prince William, “who hopes one day,” Stewart noted, in a cutting allusion to Brexit, “to be crowned king of whatever is left of Britain.”

The Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious is pictured near Faslane in Scotland. By UK Ministry of Defense – via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, for Brexiteers, the misnamed ‘independent deterrent’ – its Trident missiles leased from America – is a key status-symbol of ‘Global Britain’. For many others, the nationalistic glorification of nuclear violence, coupled with the extravagant cost – perhaps over £200 billion (CAN$340 billion) – of building and operating four new, nuclear-armed Dreadnought submarines, may ironically help drive the nations of the UK apart. Certainly in Scotland, where the Trident force is based, opposition is fierce and scathing, as evidenced recently in a Parliamentary debate, called to give thanks to the nuclear submariners. “Only in this House of Commons, at this time,” Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Stewart Malcolm McDonald lamented, “against the background of a major constitutional crisis, where each day is worse than the last, could it be thought of as a good use of our time to backslap each other on the UK being 50 years as a marine nuclear power.” “But it should come as no surprise…that this crumbling relic of a Government” should want to hark back to the symbols of power, stature and glory as they diminish Britain’s standing in the world. Indeed, Max Hastings, the [conservative] military historian, put it best in the Times last year when he said that Trident renewal was a ‘big willy gesture’ of a small willy nation.


The supposedly ‘apolitical’ heir to the throne of said nation was roundly booed by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) protesters as he entered the Abbey, where, as Stewart recounts with a shudder, “in naval uniform, he read” from St. Paul’s second letter to the Ephesians, “which mentions Christ’s peace that has torn down walls of hostility.” For Stewart, “a more ill-judged, if not blasphemous, event” – explicitly describing nuclear weapons as “peacekeeping” in nature, implicitly presenting them as gifts from God – “could hardly be imagined.”

Nearly 200 senior members of the worldwide Anglican Communion agreed, issuing a statement calling for the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Rev. Dr. John Hall, to cancel the ‘Service of Thanksgiving’, They encouraged him to “instead engage with the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons across the world,” the goal enshrined not only in the UN General Assembly’s “new treaty to ban nuclear weapons” – the 2017 ‘Ban Treaty’ religiously trumpeted in this column – but in a July 2018 resolution of the Church of England General Synod. Unrepentant, the Very Rev. Hall insisted the service was not “in any way a celebration,” a claim undercut somewhat by the Royal Navy’s own billing of “events across the UK” to “celebrate 50 years of success of the Navy’s ultimate mission,” officially known as Operation Relentless. On January 18, a message from First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones eagerly anticipated the “100th anniversary” of those constant patrols “ensuring the safety and security of generations to come.”

Interestingly, the very same Very Rev. presided over a ceremony on 4 April 2018, to mark a very different 50th anniversary: the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, known best for his civil rights crusade but a fervent denouncer, too, of the evil of war and nuclear weapons as (in King’s words) “this most colossal of all evils.” “We hope again,” Hall told his (Royal-free) Congregation, “to learn” from King’s “example and to commit ourselves afresh to keeping the dream alive of justice for all peoples and of peace in the world.” As Professor Nick Morgan pointed out in The Guardian, the Church of England “cannot possibly claim to be learning from King’s example if it is sanctifying the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.”

Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament demonstration, Westminster Abbey May 3, 2019 (source: Facebook)


As reported in depth by the Spectator, the anniversary of King’s murder was also chosen by seven veteran Catholic Plowshares activists as the perfect date to conduct a ceremony of ‘symbolic disarmament’ at the Kings Bay submarine base in Georgia, home to America’s East Coast Trident fleet. Among other non-violent acts of ‘prophetic witness’ and ‘sacramental re-consecration’ – or, to US government eyes, reckless trespass and wanton vandalism – the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 (KBP7) unfurled a banner reading ‘The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide’ (alongside King’s famous “the ultimate logic of racism is genocide”), with the three-pronged trident also symbolizing King’s ‘triple evils’ of racism, materialism, and militarism.

Three of the Seven have been remanded in custody since their arrest, with the other four ‘e-carcerated’ with ankle monitors and under curfew. All face, in the words of an April 4, 2019 Global Petition to US Attorney General William Barr, “a federal trial and a 25-year prison term for having confronted a system in which nuclear weapons that can destroy all creation are accepted as a normal, even inevitable, part of life.” (The Petition has been signed, among thousands of others, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and ‘Pentagon Papers’ whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, whose recent book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, was left at Kings Bay as part of the protest.)

As expert witnesses have stressed in pre-trial hearings, the KBP7 are motivated by the Catholic Church’s long-standing support for nuclear disarmament, a stance radicalized by Pope Francis to include condemnation of the “mere possession” of the weapons as sinful. Describing the KBP7 as a “spiritual special ops team,” Joseph Kopacz, Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, interpreted the Pope’s new, harder line as meaning “time is up” – for either nuclear weapons, or the planet. And in the view of Jean Hill Fletcher, professor of theology at Fordham University, what that means, for Catholics who feel called “to defend and take care of God’s creation,” is that “Trident can be seen as an idol that’s put in the place of God.” In the words of the senior protestor, the jailed Elizabeth McAllister (79) – co-founder of Catholic Plowshares in 1980 – in the new “national religion of nuclearism…the Bomb is the new source of salvation.” Such a demonic ‘religion’, KBP7 member Mark Colville (also jailed) told the Court, requires a faith that is utterly incompatible with the teachings of the Bible.”

(For the latest on the KBP7 campaign and case, see Democracy Now’s anniversary coverage and the perverse but predictable ruling by Georgia Magistrate Benjamin Cheesbro (that the group is entitled to no protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), supposedly minimizing the consequences of non-violent law-breaking motivated by demonstrably sincere religious conviction.)


The May 3 date of the Westminster service coincided with the 40th anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister. Thatcher – whose funding of mass unemployment with Scottish oil revenues sowed the seeds of the current separatist whirlwind – was a particularly fanatical devotee of nuclearism. As the Cold War ended she energetically urged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan to drop their blasphemous vision – “that visionary stuff,” as she called it – of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

But British leaders throughout the atomic age have shared her basic belief that their ‘great’ country deserves to belong to ‘the nuclear club’: to be one of the few countries on Earth capable of destroying much of the Earth. True, there have been occasional outbreaks of concern, conscience, and even candor: 50 years ago, Labour PM Harold Wilson, as Operation Relentless began, mocked the “so-called independent, so-called deterrent” (before committing vast resources to retaining and updating it). Britain had, after all, in 1968 signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which it was granted the status of Nuclear-Weapon State (NWS) on one rather drastic condition: that it enter negotiations “in good faith” – together with the US, Soviet Union, France and China – to not just reduce but eliminate its arsenal.

The Treaty entered into force in 1970, and 49 years later the UK has spent not a day in such negotiations (though nearly 18,000 days on continuous patrol). By yet another quirk of timing, the May 3 service came during a major meeting of NPT states in New York, preparing for next year’s half-century Review Conference. The meeting ended with no agreement on agenda or priorities, amid unprecedented levels of frustration with the non-compliance of the NWS. As South Africa – a country which actually gave up nuclear weapons, under Nelson Mandela – insisted: “The NPT belongs to all of us and not a small group of a cartel that abrogates upon itself to dictate what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

The NPT featured, if not prominently, in the House of Commons ‘Thanks Be to Trident’ debate mentioned earlier. Of the 23 speakers, only 5 opposed the British Bomb – 4 SNP MPs and the sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas. Of the others, the undoubted visual star of the show was Anna-Marie Trevelyan (Conservative), who sported a submariner’s outfit and who, born in April 1969, marveled that for “every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year” of her life unsung underwater heroes had been keeping her safe. The quote of the evening, however, came from a Labour MP, Vernon Coaker, responding to a question from Caroline Lucas about Britain’s opposition to the Ban Treaty:

I believe that we are a global power. I think that we are a global force for good – I am not ashamed to say that – and as part of that, our possession of nuclear weapons is accepted in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We legally hold those weapons, and that contributes, in my view, to global security and peace.


This is the fabled, ‘made-in-Britain’ NPT. Not the ‘grand bargain’ the non-nuclear states thought they were signing – non-proliferation in return for disarmament – but a deal to reward Britain, for all its global goodness, with the Bomb in perpetuity! (Or at least another 50, 60 years…) For the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn – for over 30 years a fervent CND supporter – such views are shameful and such ignorance offensive, though he has thus far broken anti-nuclear hearts (and risked a schism with the Scottish Labour Party) by refusing to lead on the issue. For the outgoing Brexit-broken Prime Minister, however, Coaker’s NPT is her NPT, an international stamp of approval on a jewel in the national crown. In fact, Theresa May’s first order of parliamentary business, in July 2016, was to move a motion – passed by 472 votes to 117 – authorizing the construction of the new Dreadnoughts “so that we can get on with the job of renewing an essential part of our national security for generations to come.”

British PM Theresa May announces resignation. May 24, 2019. By UK Government via Wikimedia Commons

Announcing her enforced decision to resign as Conservative Party leader, effective June 7, May tearfully referred to the honor of serving “the country I love!” During the July 2016 Trident debate, she made clear just how far that service might have to extend:

George Kerevan (SNP): “I congratulate the Prime Minister on her new role, but let us cut to the chase: is she personally prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children?”

The Prime Minister: “Yes! The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it…”

Fundamentally, though, that repulsive “Yes!” doesn’t reflect ‘love of country,’ at least in any sane, humane sense.

It reflects a love – an adoration – of another Idol.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.