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Applying the Philosophy

‘We Are Brothers and Sisters Striving to Get Along’

Photo by Nick Castelli / Unsplash

Living Buddhism interviewed John Wester, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the role religious communities can play in bringing about their end.

Living Buddhism: Last October marked the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the Cold War came to a full-scale nuclear war. Do you recall where you were then?

Archbishop John Wester: I lived at the time in Daly City, California. Of course, we heard parents, teachers talking. They tried to keep a lot of it from us, but I was 12, so I was picking up a lot. We were across the street from the Nike Missile Site. I remember being afraid.

What do you recall of that day?

Archbishop: I remember walking home, looking up at the sky, talking to friends, wondering if I was seeing a Russian plane or not. I also remember at school doing atomic bomb drills. Now it seems kind of silly because they’d have us go under our desks. We’d do that for earthquake drills, too.

In September 2017, you visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What prompted your visit, and what was your impression?

Archbishop: I was invited to go to Japan with some bishop friends on vacation, and as part of our trip, we visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was sobering. The exhibits, the pictures, seeing the Genbaku Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial). They left that as it was, you know, as a memorial of the bombing. So that was pretty stark. It struck me, mainly the children. Running, as kids would, to see the light as it was detonating… thinking of what happened to them, to their families and their homes.

And then I came back here to Santa Fe and saw it from a completely different perspective: the creation and engineering, manufacturing and deploying of the bomb. I felt that Santa Fe, the Archdiocese, we needed to be at the table of peace. We already produced the bomb, but now we have to counter that by standing for peace.

Your pastoral letter against nuclear proliferation was praised by scholars and activists for its courage, especially in a state that receives the most funding from the Department of Energy for nuclear sites. You wrote that if New Mexico were its own state, it would be the third largest nuclear power. What does that mean to you and your parish?

Archbishop: It’s important to me that the Archdiocese is behind this because I really think this is a social justice issue that touches on all of our teachings, beliefs, traditions and doctrines. It touches on the common good, the sanctity of life and the dignity of workers, which are major pillars of the Catholic social teaching. It touches on our scriptures, Christ’s prayer for unity. Nukes are the opposite of unity—they are absolute division, death, destruction.

So, I realize this is a very awkward position. So many of our parishioners make their livelihood from Los Alamos National Laboratory. There are people who feel that the United States needs to be No. 1 in nuclear power—that we need to keep developing them, making bigger ones and more of them.

But, I think, like John the Baptist, we need to be willing to say things that are not convenient. Because if we don’t speak, who will? If we don’t and it’s too late, then it’s too late. There are no takebacks. Because once those buttons are pushed, that’s the end of civilization.

Just one trident missile submarine in Seattle has enough firepower to destroy all of civilization. And it’s a false sense of security because it makes us more vulnerable, not less so.

Gandhi was sometimes derided by people in power as a saint who had lost his way in politics. What do you say to those who say that the Archbishop should stay out of politics?

Archbishop: It’s horrifying that we would leave decisions such as this to the politicians and the heads of industry. I think the moral voice, the voice of religion, is really the only voice that we should listen to.

The people’s voice is important, and that the lone voice can trigger the voice of the people, if you take leadership. I thank ICAN [the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] and all the other great organizations that are leading this, and Dr. Ira Helfand and the Soka Gakkai.

What would you say is at the root of our dependence on these weapons?

Archbishop: Well, I think it is self-centeredness. It’s nations trying to defend themselves at the expense of everybody else. We do have accords and peace compacts with other countries, but that’s just creating a larger group that wants to defend itself against everybody else. Jesus said, “If you want to gain your life, you must lose it.” It’s counterintuitive as far as the world is concerned, but that’s true. We’ve got to be able to surrender our ego, surrender our desire to be number one and work with people.

The biggest thing at the root is that tendency to demonize people. John F. Kennedy said in his [American University] peace speech that the Russians aren’t bad people; they’re brothers and sisters; they’re good people; they’ve done good things. We demonize people and that gives us [permission] to destroy them. And that, I think, is the biggest problem. We have to stop demonizing people and realize that we are brothers and sisters striving to get along.

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