Stumbling Into a Spiritual Strategy to Combat Nuclear Weapons

13 October 2019, 1:11 PM
nuclear weapon wikicommons

Stumbling Into a Spiritual Strategy to Combat Nuclear Weapons, September 21, 2019

By the Rt. Rev. William E. Swing

Starting in 1983, I have done what I could to respond to the existence and threat of nuclear weapons. Read books and relevant news, watched movies and TV documentaries, wrote articles, gave speeches and met with proponents and opponents of nuclear matters! Finally, in 2007, I decided to take a new tact. I asked friends of mine who are experts in this field – former Secretary of State George Shultz, Physicist Sidney Drell, former Secretary of Defense, William Perry and eight others – to join with me in meeting on the phone (later by Zoom) once a month to try to discover new ways of advancing nuclear abolition. A few good things came of this. Along the way, I wrote “A Nuclear Prayer” to be said at the beginning of these meetings, and we dutifully said it for years. Then one morning, one of our members said, “Why don’t we make a YouTube video of us saying our prayer? And each of us could give a personal testimony of why we are so passionate about nuclear reduction and abolition.” We then hired a production company and filmed in New York City and at Stanford University. The result was a very moving 8-minute video.

When a former Secretary of State, a former Secretary of Defense, several United States Ambassadors, a famous physicist, and a few friends pray each month for the elimination of nuclear weapons, it raises lots of questions. What do they know that everyone needs to know? Why are they praying? What is their prayer?

• The Honorable William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense under President Clinton • The Honorable George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State under President Reagan • Dr. Sidney Drell, Professor Emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator • Ambassador James E. Goodby, former Strategic Nuclear Arms Negotiator with the U.S.S.R. • Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr, former Senior U.S. Diplomat • Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute • Monica Willard, United Religions Initiative Representative to the United Nations • The Right Rev. William E. Swing, former Episcopal Bishop of California, and President and Founder of the United Religions Initiative

Soon thereafter, this prayer started appearing around the world. Eventually our little group was known, not only for the expertise of our members, but also for having unlikely people speaking about these matters from their hearts and souls.

Two public assemblies, then, forced us to think in larger terms. First, was the meeting, in Toronto, Canada, in November, 2018, of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. At the end of an exhilarating and exhausting week, our Nuclear Prayer folks put on the last workshop session. Instead of our estimated 10 people attending, almost 50 people arrived. When we showed them the video of our Nuclear Prayer, people reached deep down in themselves to write their own nuclear prayers. And most all of them wanted to be part of our work, somehow. Two clear groups were present: a) those who cared about the threat of nuclear weapons many years ago but had drifted from urgency and b) those who had no idea of the place of nuclear weapons in today’s world.Second was the Accelerate Peace Interfaith Action in Global Peacemaking conference, at Stanford University, in June 2019. Again, we led off with the YouTube video, but this time we added A Child’s Nuclear Prayer.

Janessa Gans Wilder, Founder and CEO of the Euphrates Institute (a URI Cooperation Circle), shares a children's prayer at Session 2 of the Accelerate Peace conference: "Voices for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons." See more at

Before showing either video, I said this to the audience: “There are many groups in the world which work diligently to rid the world of its nuclear weapons. What makes us unique is that our primary focus now is emotional, visceral, moral, and spiritual.

When human beings are grasped by the utter devastation intended by these weapons, something deep inside the soul snaps and revolts.

Precisely at that moment, a prayer is uttered, the cry goes up, the fight is enjoined. Without this primal reaction to nuclear insanity, nothing can change this world’s inexorable march toward nuclear annihilation. But if this primal reaction is elicited and harnessed in enough people, then life on this planet will have a future. So in this next hour, we hope that you will reach down in yourself, and discover or rediscover, your most basic response to this world’s nuclear threat.” More than 125 people wrote their own responses and indicated that they would like to be part of Voices for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, somehow.

The next morning, more than 50 people showed up at breakfast to state that they would like to be part of what we are doing. (“We” being the Voices for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons – a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative.) Also attending that breakfast were the Executive Director and Board Chair of the Charter for Compassion. What became clear in the conversation was that the time had come to think in much more expansive terms. What if there weren’t just one hundred people ready for our message? What if there were thousands and hundreds of thousands? What if we weren’t only URI but also Charter for Compassion? What if we invited all interfaith and spiritual groups in the world to share in this unique work? What if we launched into social media and became a presence on the internet?

Historically, this is a moment when two things are happening in the global arena of nuclear weapons.

On the one hand, the major nuclear powers have chosen to “modernize” and expand their arsenals, meaning that the new weapons will be stronger and the new delivery systems will be more diabolic. On the other hand, the arms control regime is collapsing. Major powers, such as the United States and Russia, are walking away from existing treaties and reducing profound moral commitments into lip service. This is a critical moment for planet Earth. What is needed most now is to provide pressure, by an aroused public, to reverse the direction of nuclear states to dishonor their solemn commitments to treaties and to move speedily toward the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons. “We” need to expand ourselves in order to help apply the severely needed public pressure.

What we decided to do was to expand, in every way possible. First, we wrote a strategic plan. Second, we created a Facebook page and hired someone to manage it. Third, we decided to reach out to all interfaith organizations to see if, together, we could create ways to mobilize a sizeable spiritual force. And fourth, we decided to create our own website. All of this meant renewed commitment, developing new colleagues, and finding sufficient money.

(Personal note: I am eighty-three years old and working on this project on a volunteer basis. This work, if it is to succeed, will have to outgrow me immediately. I believe that it can, and so I am looking around for colleagues in leadership, and I am happy to say that I have found a few who are willing to be partners. And I am confident that there will be others. To succeed, this cannot just be a URI project. It has to have ownership and buy-in from numerous other agencies.)

In terms of summarizing our evolution, we started with a small group of experts trying to figure out how to be opportunistic about a response to the incognito nuclear crisis of this moment in history. Then we stumbled upon a destiny that grew out of our Nuclear Prayer. And now we are into serious capacity building in readiness to take on the giants of endless nuclear proliferation and ultimate self-destruction.

Our unspoken assumption is that as human beings we are answerable to a higher Source for what we do with this beautiful planet that we have inherited.

We are not nuclear slaves waiting for the orders from Putin and Trump. The issues are far greater than the Republican or Democratic Parties or arms manufacturers or lobbyists or deterrence apologists.

As human beings, we understand the gift of this good Earth to be sacred and holy and to require us to be answerable to the entire enterprise of life on this planet. We intend our prayer to be a plea to the Originating Force of the Universe, to be a primal scream to Mother Earth, to the Author of all Life, and to the common sense that is woven into the DNA of survival.