Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 19, 1986, p 167. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Should civilization’s survival be our only issue in the nuclear age? As Jesus walked down a road to a place of the skull, survival was definitely not the issue.
For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many [Mark 10:45].
"The issue," said one, "is survival of our civilization, our whole world, even. If we don’t do something about nuclear proliferation and do it now, civilization as we know it is gone."
In summation, her opponent countered: "The issue is survival of our American way of life, our children’s survival, and their children’s children. Without a strong national defense, we are at the mercy of those who have a bigger bomb. And then where will we be?"
Pro- or anti-nuclear, the question is one of survival — survival of civilization as we know it.
And yet, here we are again in Lent, following a Jew down a road to a place of the skull where survival is definitely not the issue. We are reminded that it was in Gethsemane that he discovered — in spite of his prayers — that, for him, survival would not be the issue. The cup would not pass to another.
Come to think of it, our faith is full of people like Mary, Paul, Stephen and our Lord himself for whom survival was low on the list of priorities. These folk contested "civilization as we know it," and paid for their beliefs with their lives. If I remember the story correctly, it was "civilization as we know it," and all that it stands for, that sent them to Calvary in the first place. Up they went, convinced that "civilization as we know it" was passing away.
The other day I was talking to a man who has become a close friend of a Hungarian government official. "Have you ever met a real-live, lifetime, 100 per cent atheist?" he asked. "I mean somebody who is an atheist the same way I am a Methodist."
I confessed that I had not.
"Well, this woman is that kind of person. I thought, when I first met her, that getting to know somebody who lived her whole life, every minute, every day, without even a thought, not even a hint of God, would be a real revelation for me. I figured that she must be strange, different, like somebody from another planet."
"You know what I found out?" he asked, getting close to my face, gripping me by the collar of my overcoat.
"No, what did you find out?" I asked.
"There’s not a damn bit of difference between her and me. She isn’t somebody strange; she is just like your average, everyday, commonsense American. Like me, she never wonders, ‘What does God want me to do now?’ Like me, she doesn’t lose sleep expecting God to come down and do something about the world. She just goes about her life, deciding on the basis of what’s in her own best interest, what’s practical, what’s possible. That little ‘godless communist’ could pass for you or me anytime."
In discussions of bombs, Volvos, church pensions and what to do on Tuesday, survival cannot be the issue. We follow one who preached that civilization as we know it is passing away, whether we get a mutually verifiable arms agreement or not. Perhaps that’s how we got into this nuclear mess to begin with: survival became the issue for us — the only issue. What can a people who have nothing else but survival to live for do except to build bigger bombs? As long as that’s the only issue, the only point of living, the only standard by which to judge our actions, we shall cling to our bombs as the only transcendence we have. Even though it isn’t much, as gods go, the bomb is all we have. So we will hold tight.
As his disciples flee into the darkness with their swords, he is dragged away by Caesar’s men who come after him with the sword. The sacrificial victim of "civilization as we know it," he bids us to let go.