The Involvement of Faith-Based Groups in the Nuclear Disarmament Movement
Religious groups have a long tradition of advocacy against war and weapons. Jonathan Frerichs, a programme executive at the World Council of Churches, explains how these groups can get involved in nuclear weapons divestment work.
ICAN: Are religious groups actively promoting disarmament?
Jonathan Frerichs (JF): Yes, many are active in a variety of ways. For example, Buddhist groups in Japan and North-East Asia have kept the abolition flame of hope burning brightly in response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Among Christians, there are churches taking positions against nuclear weapons, educating their members, speaking out in public and talking to governments. Some are working at the parish level, some nationally and some internationally.
The groups that have been advocating against nuclear weapons the longest are the Roman Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches and peace churches like Mennonites and Quakers. Others have taken up the issue more recently, including the groups known as Evangelicals.
The most advocacy activity takes place in countries that have some connection to nuclear weapons – as possessors, allies of possessors, places where nuclear arms are stationed, countries where nuclear weapons have been tested, or countries that produce uranium. There are also many places where churches are not active on nuclear issues.
Some of these same dynamics would help explain where other religions are involved, as in the Buddhist case. The picture should also include opposition to nuclear power plants. We are seeing some cases where this is the reason why youth are becoming involved.
ICAN: How can religious groups promote divestment?
JF: In one sense, the research, outreach, advocacy and persistence that divestment requires is no different for religious groups than for others in civil society. In another sense, there are religious groups with a lot of experience in pursuing the work of divestment as an expression of their faith. Also, divestment is an advocacy strategy that in some cases has become a collaborative effort among groups from different faiths.
Some religious communities are the kind of “constituency” that may be mobilized in a coherent and committed fashion that can support divestment actions. The strongest examples I am aware of are among Catholic orders – sisters and nuns – who combine solidarity and tenacity with a commitment to pursuing justice. Certain church groups choose to hold shares, rather than divest, in order to engage with the company in question.
In the World Council of Churches, member churches from different regions agreed to divest from companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid era. When it comes to nuclear weapons producers, mainline US member churches generally have avoided investing their institutional funds as part of their commitment not to support arms manufacturers. This is a longstanding practice.
A huge and largely unmet challenge, however, would be to go beyond church headquarters and make the case for nuclear divestment with local congregations and individual church members.
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