Interview with Art Laffin on The Risk of the Cross

Art Laffin is one of those deep and beautiful souls worth listening to in these historic days. You want to be standing beside him holding a protest sign at the Pentagon or cooking in the kitchen with him at the Dorothy Day House Catholic Worker listening to him sing and pray “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”

I believe that the best writing on discipleship comes out of lives that are living the Gospel. Art Laffin is one such person and this is one such book. I had the chance to interview him recently on The Risk of the Cross: Living Gospel Nonviolence in the Nuclear Age (Twenty Third Publications, 2020)

RD: What is this book about?

“Jesus tells us, “Fear is useless; what is needed is trust” (5:36). These words from Mark’s gospel capture the spirit we wish to bear witness to in our lives and to express in this book.” This excerpt from the Introduction to the first edition of The Risk of the Cross, which I co-authored with the late Chris Grannis and Elin Schade in 1981, conveys the spirit of this new edition as well.

This new volume of The Risk of the Cross is intended to help groups and individuals better grasp a Gospel response to the absolute threat nuclear weapons pose to all God’s creation, to embrace Jesus’s mandate of nonviolence, and to act to avert nuclear annihilation. 

Christian discipleship depends not upon what ideas we believe, but rather on the fundamental question: in whom do we place our trust? In Mark’s Gospel, we find what this challenge entails when Jesus declares that the primary condition for discipleship is “to take up the Cross and follow in my steps.” (Mk. 8: 34). What does it mean to follow Jesus’ way of the Cross and to place our trust in God for our true security, instead of in nuclear weapons that can destroy all life on earth? How do we find hope and courage to stand for God’s reign of love, justice and nonviolence in a world threatened by nuclear weapons, war and other perils? This book seeks answers to these critical questions. At its core, the book consists of five small-group sessions focusing on Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mark’s Gospel—all linked to appendices containing vital information and inspiration to assist faith communities to follow the way of Gospel nonviolence and take nonviolent action for disarmament and social justice.

What distinguishes this work from others that treat the problem of nuclear weapons in a gospel context is an effort to interrelate the question of conscience with the question of faith. The book is not just presenting an ethical argument on pacifism in the nuclear age; but rather is an invitation to take a leap of faith, experience an intimate moment of repentance and conversion.

RD: Why does it matter in this moment?

Because humanity faces imminent nuclear annihilation unless urgent action is immediately taken to end this colossal threat. Moreover, in this pandemic time, the exorbitant resources being spent on the military budget ($740 billion) and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal ($1.7 trillion over the next 30 years), must be immediately redirected to meet critical health care and other human needs, including those most at risk–communities of color, the poor, homeless, prisoners and undocumented.

This new edition of The Risk of the Cross was initiated specifically in response to the nuclear threat made three years ago by the Trump Administration against North Korea and the growing omnipresent nuclear danger worldwide. Following a small Pax Christi International sponsored disarmament meeting to discuss how to encourage the Church to become more active in promoting nuclear abolition and gospel nonviolence, I offered, and was strongly encouraged, to update The Risk of the Cross and use it as an educational resource toward that end.

Today, due to the existential dangers of nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by cyber-enabled information warfare, undercutting society’s ability to respond—the erosion of the international political infrastructure to manage these threats, upgrades to existing nuclear systems, and worsening world tensions, the “Doomsday Clock” is set to 100 seconds before midnight. Other recent developments have further exacerbated the nuclear peril. Russia and the US possess an estimated combined total of over 12,600 nuclear weapons, many of which are on hair-trigger alert. Both countries are also developing hypersonic weapons that could become nuclear capable. U.S. and NATO missile defense systems ring Russia and China, increasing already heightened tensions. A new U.S. space force has been created to oversee military control and domination of space. 

During this past year, the U.S. withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the INF Treaty with Russia and carried out a sub-critical nuclear test, a flagrant violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And Pentagon policy makers have declared that a limited nuclear war could be waged and won, according to the most recent “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations.” This doctrine is the latest manifestation of a long-held existing Pentagon policy positing that the U.S. must be prepared at all times to use whatever military force is necessary, including the use of nuclear weapons, to protect its vital strategic and geopolitical interests in the world. The deployment in February 2020 of the “lower-yield” W76-2 nuclear warhead on Trident missiles, a smaller warhead the military believes is more usable, increases the risk of nuclear war. 

As the United Nations Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was ratified by the 50th nation on October 24, 2020,  and will enter into force on Jan. 22, 2021, thereby making nuclear weapons illegal, the bookserves as a timely resource to invite people of faith to work for nuclear abolition and demand that the U.S. ratify the TPNW, which thus far, the U.S. and eight other nuclear nations have refused to do. 

Living as we are in a nation that legally sanctions nuclear weapons, what would Jesus have us do? The late Jesuit Fr. Richard McSorley, S.J. answered this question, asserting It’s a Sin to Build A Nuclear Weapon (the title of his 2010 book). Moreover, Pope Francis has declared that the very possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. 

If the human family and Earth, our common home are to survive, if the children are to have a future, the U.S. and the other nuclear nations must heed the cry of the Hibakusha (A-Bomb survivors): “Humanity and nuclear weapons cannot co-exist.” Dr. King put it this way: “The choice today is…either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

RD: Can you say a little more about who you are and how this book comes out of your daily work and living?

From 1978-1990 I was part of the Covenant Peace Community and Isaiah Peace Ministry in New Haven, CT. Since 1990 I have been part of the Catholic Worker Community in WDC (1990-1993 at the Olive Branch CW, and 1995-to present at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker). I currently live at the DDCW with my wife and son, several other Catholic Workers, moms and their children who have experienced homelessness, and other activists. The DDCW is committed to doing the works of mercy, peace and social justice, promoting Gospel Nonviolence, working to abolish war, nuclear weapons and all weapons, and nonviolently resisting all forms of violence, oppression and killing. We are involved with a “Feast for the Street” ministry of offering meals to homeless friends each Thursday afternoon, and hold weekly peace vigils outside the Pentagon and White House.

For over four decades, I have been an organizer, writer and speaker in the faith-based nonviolent movement for peace, social justice, disarmament, eradicating poverty and war and safeguarding the environment. I have participated in numerous nonviolent actions to abolish nuclear weapons, killer drones and guns, ending U.S. military intervention and warmaking in Iraq and Afghanistan, resisting torture and racial violence, ending environmental destruction, closing Guantanamo and upholding human rights for the homeless, immigrants, the poor and prisoners. I have been imprisoned for my involvement in the Trident Nein and Thames River plowshares actions, as well as for a host of other nonviolent acts of civil resistance/divine obedience.  

I have traveled to war zones in Northern Ireland, Central America, Iraq and Palestine to stand with people who are nonviolently resisting war and occupation. In 2005 I went to Cuba with Witness Against Torture to try and visit the Guantanamo prisoners and to call for an end to torture and the closing of the detention center. In 2014, I visited Jeju Island, S. Korea to offer support of the church-led nonviolent resistance campaign to stop the construction of a new U.S-backed naval war base.  Also, since my brother Paul’s murder in 1999, I have been active with the Journey of Hope campaigning against the death penalty. 

This new edition of The Risk of the Cross is the fruit of being part of a community of faith, service and resistance; prayerful reflection and study about the nuclear peril; meeting the Hibakusha and other victims of war; living with and assisting people who have been victimized by poverty; and engaging in nonviolent actions for disarmament and social justice. 

 What Chris, Elin and I wrote in the original introduction of The Risk of the Cross, carries over to this new edition: 

“We have been called together by a faith in the power of God, which is manifested in weakness—our own and that of others like us who struggle to confront the violent despair of the nuclear threat with a message of Christian hope… 

This book is the fruit of the Kingdom of God mysteriously at work in our midst. We, the writers, come from communities of faith nourished by the word of God and the Eucharist. In our prayer together, we have been deeply stirred by the vulnerable, forgiving love of Jesus powerfully expressed on the cross. His nonviolent example in the face of the consummate evil and blatant injustices of his day informs our struggles as his… disciples. As people striving to follow his way, we reject all weapons of war—both conventional and nuclear—as being diametrically opposed to Christ’s Kingdom and his way of salvation through willing self-sacrifice.”

RD: Who do you hope will read this book?

All followers of Jesus. This would certainly include the leadership of all Christian denominations.

If the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, leaders of churches and all Christians take seriously the magnitude of the nuclear threat, the Gospel command of nonviolence, the pleas of the Hibakusha, Pope Francis, McSorley, and others peacemakers, we must disarm and implement the TPNW. What if all Christian denominations took the lead in demanding that the U.S. ratify the TPNW? What if the churches called for the conversion of arms industries to non-military production, while advocating for full and just protection of workers’ rights during the transition process? What if the churches called for complete financial divestment from all institutions involved with the nuclear weapons complex? What if the churches were to call on all Christians in the nuclear chain of command to refuse orders to use nuclear weapons (killer drones or other weapons) and to kill? These efforts would go a long way to create the climate necessary to bring about real disarmament.

In writing about something so heavy and real and terrifying, where and how do you find hope?

Ultimately, my hope comes from the Gospel, and the belief that the crucified and risen Jesus has forever overcome the powers and principalities and the forces of death of this world, and has given new life to all who believe. It comes from prayer, reading the scriptures, and being part of a community and faith-based movements committed to alleviating what Dr. King called the “triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism,” and upholding the sacredness of life and creation. I am also inspired by the Holy Cloud of witnesses, many of whom, like Jesus, were persecuted, and some martyred, because of their faith in God who commands us to love and never to kill. Additionally, I believe these truths of Gandhi: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of (hu)mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man (humans)… “My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might over sweep the world.” Finally, Dr. King stated: “Love, even for enemies, is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” And Dorothy Day declared: “The only solution is love.”  I deeply believe this.  

Although humanity still remains on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, there are many signs of hope. First, there is the inspiring witness of the Hibakusha who have been relentless in working for nuclear abolition. There have also been compelling and courageous disarmament actions and initiatives by grassroots groups and peacemakers worldwide, papal pronouncements condemning the mere possession of nuclear weapons, NGOs like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and the historic TPNW. To commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6–9, 2020, there were numerous international actions calling for nuclear abolition. In 2017, 122 nations signed the TPNW, and now 50 states have ratified it. On January 22, 2021 the treaty will enter into force.  To mark this historic day, international actions will be held at nuclear weapons sites and military and political centers of power to implore the nuclear nations to ratify the treaty. 

Finally, I have gained great hope from participating in and supporting “plowshares actions.” Drawing on the rich biblical tradition of nonviolence, Plowshares activists have carried out over 100 plowshares and related disarmament actions since 1980, whereby the nuclear swords of our time have symbolically been beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3). The most recent plowshares action, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, took place on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in St. Mary’s, Georgia. The base is homeport for six Trident first-strike nuclear submarines, with each submarine having the capacity to cause devastation equivalent to between 1,000 and 4,000 Hiroshima bombs. They declared in their action statement: “Nuclear weapons eviscerate the rule of law, enforce white supremacy, perpetuate endless war and environmental destruction, and ensure impunity for all manner of crimes against humanity. Dr. King said, ‘The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.’ We say, ‘The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide.’” In October 2019, they were tried and convicted by a jury of three felonies and a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia. In October and November, Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta and Patrick O’Neill, were sentenced to prison terms from between 10-14 months.  Martha and Carmen just began serving their sentences, and Patrick and Clare will self-report to their respective prisons in January and February. Liz McAlister served 17-month in jail pre-trial and was credited for time served. Fr. Steve Kelly, SJ, who has been imprisoned since the time of the action, has served his sentence, however, he is still jailed and awaiting extradition for a previous case. All were given three years supervised probation and ordered to pay restitution. Mark Colville, who has already served a year in jail pre-trial, is awaiting sentencing. 

On September 4, 1989, six peacemakers and I carried out the Thames River Plowshares action in New London, Connecticut. We were able to swim and canoe to the docked USS Pennsylvania, the 10th Trident, and hammered and poured blood on the hull. Three of us, including myself, were able to climb on top of the submarine, where we prayed for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I believed then, and I believe now, that if people have the faith to believe that disarmament is possible, and act on that faith, it can occur. I, along with other Plowshares activists and many other peacemakers, know this can happen because we were able to begin the process of true disarmament. I continue to be compelled by this belief and hope for a nonviolent disarmed world. 

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