Ethics, Religion and Conflict

Are Nuclear Weapons Moral? In Search of Orthodox Christian Thought on Deterrence and Disarmament

Published on: May 9, 2024
736 views
Readers' rating:
5
(16)
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Also available in: Русский
Nuclear weapons against the backdrop of a Russian flag
Image Credit: iStock.com/vadimrysev

I happened to be in Sweden when the country joined NATO two months ago. On March 6, an American nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bomber overflew the capital region in a show of solidarity with the newest alliance member. On the ground below, in the Stockholm suburbs, I was beginning my field work with Orthodox Christians to answer a question. What do Orthodox Christians think about nuclear weapons? Here I sat with Orthodox from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and various parts of Europe in a country that has provided refuge from war to so many. The coincidence of the flyover reassured me of the timeliness and importance of my project. It made me glad as a researcher but sad as a human. In my bones I felt the tragic irony of a circumstance in which the Orthodox Christians surrounding me had just acquired an extended nuclear shield against a self-proclaimed Orthodox empire.

I am an American political scientist, raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, who studies religion, international relations, and nuclear weapons. For most of my life, Orthodoxy was something exotic about which I thought little. I attended a Divine Liturgy in 2018 and was struck by the beauty of the ancient faith. My curiosity was also piqued by the political row over Ukrainian autocephaly. I began to see Orthodoxy not only as something beautiful, but as something more significant to international security than many in the West realize. One year later, Dmitry Adamsky wrote Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy, one of the most well-documented and stunning works I have read in my field. Adamsky chronicles the relationship the Russian Orthodox Church has built with the country’s nuclear establishment since the 1990s. At the heart of this relationship is a narrative that Russian nuclear weapons were foretold by Saint Seraphim and gifted by God through his intercession. The proof is that Russia’s nuclear weapons were developed at Sarov after Church property including Seraphim’s monastery was expropriated by the Soviet Union and incorporated into a secret military installation code-named Arzamas-16. Latching onto this coincidence, the ROC has decreed Seraphim the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear forces. The Church legitimizes nuclear deterrence as a moral method to defend Orthodox civilization (embodied in the Russian state) against a satanic liberal West. One may suspect that the Kremlin coerced the Church to promulgate this narrative, but in fact, the ROC under Patriarchs Alexei and Kirill has created it and driven its internalization in the Russian government, military, and society. Kirill publicly reaffirmed his belief as recently as October 2023, stating during an award ceremony for a top Russian physicist that nuclear weapons are “ineffable divine providence,” and that Russia may not exist were it not for the nuclear deterrent provided by God and Soviet physicists.

To the extent that coercion is at play, Kirill may be repressing dissent within his own Church. Many clergy are disaffected by the war against Ukraine. Disaffection may extend to nuclear orthodoxy. A hint of this arose with the 2020 release of a draft ROC document banning the consecration of weapons of mass destruction. Only personal armor may be pastorally blessed. The fate of this document is unclear. It remains available on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, but the archpriest assigned to the Strategic Missile Forces denied in 2022 that the ban would be adopted at an upcoming synod. Even if Kirill accommodates dissent by relenting on the rite of blessing certain weapons, there is no indication that he is backtracking on the overall legitimizing narrative. The Russian Church remains a force working principally against—not for—nuclear disarmament.

Since reading Adamsky, I have wondered whether Orthodox Christians realize that Russia is using the faith to legitimize and perpetuate the specter of nuclear Armageddon. My interactions suggest most do not. All are painfully aware of the war against Ukraine in furtherance of Russkiy Mir, and many have heard Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation. But few have likely thought about how nuclear weapons have already been used in the war or heard how their role has been celebrated by Russian hierarchs. Though the ROC typically frames nuclear weapons as strictly defensive, their possession creates moral hazards and enables aggression. The background threat of Russian nuclear weapons is why Western nations have not more directly aided Ukraine. A Russian Orthodox Metropolitan said as much while addressing troops in Crimea on the one-year anniversary of its annexation: “Today we celebrate the day of reunification, the fair entrance of Crimea and Sevastopol, the Russian sailors’ city of pride, into the Russian Federation. This happened, and happened peacefully, without bloodshed, because you professionally and firmly hold the nuclear sword of our Motherland” (Adamsky, 216).

I am no Orthodox theologian, but I presume the ROC narrative is, shall we say, non-canonical. Is there a countervailing Orthodox Christian assessment of nuclear weapons? Official ecumenical documents provide little guidance. The 2016 synodal statement The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World briefly notes that nuclear weapons cause fear and danger but does not disavow nuclear deterrence like the Holy See’s expansive 2014 document Time for Abolition. The more recent For the Life of the World does not mention the word nuclear; one can infer only a vague allusion to nuclear weapons in the phrase “technologies of destruction” in the section on War, Peace, and Violence. This is surprising given the Ecumenical Patriarch’s interest in the environment, the catastrophic threat that nuclear weapons pose to the planet, and the vibrancy of the global nuclear ban movement. 

I have also found engagement with nuclear weapons lacking in the literature on Orthodoxy and the ethics of war. For example, Hamalis and Karras’s Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War, which brings together some ofcontemporary Orthodoxy’s leading minds, gives hints but leaves more questions than answers. Does the canon law principle of economia prevent Orthodoxy from categorically disavowing nuclear weapons and lead the faithful to instead make circumstantial assessments of their morality? If so, what are the circumstances under which nuclear deterrence or use is acceptable?  Is symphonia relevant to such calculations? Even if war is principally the business of the state, should not the Church attempt to be a moderating influence? How does the lack of an Orthodox Christian Just War tradition impact nuclear and broader military ethics? In my reading of Orthodoxy, all acts of war are sinful and require metanoia. Nonetheless, strictly defensive war is accepted as a tragic and unavoidable feature of this fallen world. Can Orthodoxy provide more precise guidance on the rules one must observe when engaged in such defense? Are threats of nuclear annihilation moral?

People from various walks of life have tried to argue that nuclear deterrence is moral because its purpose is to prevent war; the weapons are not actually supposed to detonate. Therefore, nuclear weapons do no harm if they are used for deterrence. Alas, nuclear deterrent threats must be credible. The unthinkable must be thinkable. This requires serious logistical, psychological, and moral preparation to engage in nuclear war. The practical and moral untenability of this paradox is a major feature of the Holy See’s comprehensive disavowal of nuclear deterrence. Not only might nuclear war really occur; the very preparation for it damages the soul. Channeling Aristotle Papanikolaou’s essay “The Ascetics of War,” one could say that the ascetic of nuclear deterrence interferes with theosis (in Hamalis and Karras, 3–35). This idea may be promising common ground for Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and coordination on the nuclear issue.

Notably, the possession and use of nuclear weapons (even for purported deterrence) has been explicitly illegal under international treaty law since January 2021, when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) received enough ratifications to enter into force.  The TPNW currently has 93 signatories and 70 states parties. The catch—a big one—is that none of the nuclear weapon states have signed the treaty. Instead, they vigorously oppose it. The aim of the TPNW and the associated ban movement, then, is to work even more vigorously to spread anti-nuclear weapon norms and affect customary law. The movement hopes to make nuclear possession and its implied threat morally and legally untenable. This is the fundamental battle line of contemporary nuclear diplomacy. The moral and legal legitimacy of nuclear weapons is the question of the day.

Enter Orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy has a key role to play in determining the future of nuclear weapons. The efforts of the ban movement are likely to fall short if the ROC remains unchallenged in giving an imprimatur of moral legitimacy to Moscow’s vast arsenal. I do not presume that there is a single, clear, and simple ecumenical Orthodox answer to the ROC position. The political science literature reveals enduring public support for nuclear weapons in multiple countries, and the very limited literature on religion and nuclear weapons suggests ambivalence among diverse Abrahamic clergy on the moral question of possessing nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence. I find that many people still believe in nuclear deterrence. They think it works and  is moral. Perhaps they are right, and it is an astounding teleological irony that God has equipped us to preserve Creation by giving us the ability to promptly destroy it. I have my doubts.

But more important than honing my own opinion is measuring the belief of Orthodox Christians. Is there an Orthodox Christian ethics or hermeneutics of nuclear deterrence and disarmament? If you are Orthodox Christian and would be interested in supporting my research by taking a brief survey or participating in an interview or focus group, please contact me via LinkedIn or via email at cferrero@coastal.edu.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As you’ve reached the conclusion of the article, we have a humble request. The preparation and publication of this article were made possible, in part, by the support of our readers. Even the smallest monthly donation contributes to empowering our editorial team to produce valuable content. Your support is truly significant to us. If you appreciate our work, consider making a donation – every contribution matters. Thank you for being a vital part of our community.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Chris Ferrero

    Associate Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Coastal Carolina University

    Chris Ferrero is Associate Professor of intelligence and security studies at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. He earned his PhD in political science at the University of Virginia. His research program on nuclear norms emphasizes how religious identity can influence nuclear use,...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

Have something on your mind?

Thanks for reading this article! If you feel that you ready to join the discussion, we welcome high-caliber unsolicited submissions. Essays may cover any topic relevant to our credo – Bridging the Ecclesial, the Academic, and the Political. Follow the link below to check our guidlines and submit your essay.

Proceed to submission page

Rate this publication

Did you find this essay interesting?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 16

Be the first to rate this essay.

Share this publication

Disclaimer

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Attribution

Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University