Present Nuclear Dangers

By John Liebmann ‘88 and Carolyn Jackson ‘94

The danger of a nuclear explosion—by miscalculation or accident— is greater today than during the fraught years of the Cold War, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry told a large audience at All Souls on October 24. Perry was Secretary during the Clinton administration and also served as Undersecretary in charge of research and weapons acquisition in the Carter administration.

Perry was also involved in analyzing for President Kennedy Soviet missile installations during the Cuban missile crisis. “To this day, I believe we avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management,” he said.

In Perry’s view, relations between Russia and the United States today can “only be called hostile.” Russia has dropped its “long-term policy of no first strike,” and the United States has responded by seeking to upgrade its nuclear arsenal at a cost of a trillion dollars.

Perry named two other possible scenarios for nuclear explosions: acts of terrorism or a regional conflict, such as exists between India and Pakistan. In any case, Perry said he has been convinced since seeing the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after those attacks that nuclear explosions could end our civilization.

Perry, 89, has made education of Millennials about the threat to civilization posed by nuclear weapons his major work. He teaches a course at Stanford University centered on nuclear disarmament.  The course promotes a student exchange with counterparts in Russia. And he has launched a website: www.wjperryproject.org, chock full of information about nuclear danger. On the website, readers can sign up for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about the topic.

Perry’s October talk, sponsored by the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force along with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Peace Action of New York State, was one of the major public events at All Souls this fall. You can watch it both on YouTube (Perry All Souls) or on the website, which has the text as well.

Since the November 8 election, amid a general outcry about the caliber of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet choices, Perry has been generally positive about the appointment of retired General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While as a candidate, Trump vowed he would proceed with the proposed nuclear weapons modernization proposed under the Obama administration, Mattis has championed removing land-based missiles to reduce the danger of false alarm.

Perry advocates abolition of all nuclear weapons. He was a contributor to the Ploughshares Fund recommendations: “Ten Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President.”

All Souls Grows a Sangha

Contemplation may be low on the list of activities at All Souls , but that could be changing. Sunday, October 2, at 1:30 p.m.,  will be the sixth time that the church’s monthly sangha will meet for meditation and  talks about Buddhist teachings by Dr. Pilar Jennings, a follower of Tibetan and Vinyassa traditions and a licensed psychologist.

At the invitation of the Rev. David Robb, Pilar has been a frequent and popular speaker at Adult Education on Sunday mornings, and she agreed with Pamela Patton, Interim Director of Pastoral Ministries and a Buddhist, to offer participants the opportunity to form a Buddhist community, or sangha. To their surprise, about fifty people turned up on a chilly Sunday afternoon last April. Subsequent sessions had somewhere between 35 and forty-five attendants, and now there are ninety church members and friends on the mailing list.

A typical All Souls sangha session begins with an introduction by Pilar, followed by a guided meditation, then another talk about Buddhist teaching and an opportunity to ask questions, followed by a shorter closing mediation. The sangha is open to beginners as much as those experienced in meditation.

The association between Unitarians and Buddhism goes back to the nineteenth century, although the association with Universalism is not as long. The Eastern practice is consistent with the Unitarian Universalist “free and responsible search for meaning and truth,” and neither tradition dictates what to believe. Today about one hundred UU congregations have sanghas.

American Buddhist Lama Surya Das writes about our shared values in his introduction to Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism: “Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism value many of the same things, including experiential practice, study and self-inquiry, mindful awareness cultivation, insightful wisdom development, and loving-kindness, combined with active compassion in the world. This is the heart of sacred activism—empowering, educating, edifying, elevating, transforming, and liberating.”

Others May Worry, But He Acts

Guy QuinlanGuy C. Quinlan, an All Souls Member since 1974, is head of the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force. Guy, who retired in 2008 from Roberts & Wells/Clifford Chance, is president of the U.S. affiliate of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Weapons and is a member of the Committee on National Security of the American Bar Association International Law Section. He also serves on the board of directors of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security at the United Nations.

The All Souls Nuclear Disarmament Task Force, which he founded in 1997, has more than forty members and attracts even more participants to its educational lectures and advocacy letters and phone calls to Members of Congress. It sometimes joins with groups from other UU congregations across the country and with the Interfaith Committee on Nuclear Disarmament. Guy says that his Unitarian Universalist faith informs this work “in terms of respect for human life, the worth of every human being, and for the interdependent web of life. This is a threat to all of that, this nuclear issue, and I think I feel an obligation to respond to it. In a sense this is a religious commitment for me.”

Communications intern Marc Dolgow sat down with Guy for a talk about his work on this issue, an abridged part of this lengthy interview follows.

How likely is the continued spread of nuclear weapons and their use by a state or terrorist organization, if the nuclear status quo continues?

I think it’s very likely and that’s not just my opinion. William Perry (President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense and a Unitarian Universalist) recently said that we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race and that the chances of a nuclear calamity are greater now than they were during the Cold War. He said that we are getting back into a Cold War mentality, and most of the public seems blissfully unaware of the extent of the danger.

Last June, there was a report published by a commission of international military experts (which got almost no attention in the media). Most of these experts came from NATO countries (and also from some other countries like China and India). The chair was James Cartwright (Four-star US Marine Corps General and former Vice Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff). They said that the clock is ticking on the actual use of nuclear weapons somewhere in the world, because the nuclear technology is spreading, getting more dangerous and warning times are getting shorter.

There are still about 16,000 nuclear weapons left in the world. The US and Russia own about 90% of these, while seven other countries hold the remainder. The US and Russia each keep several hundred nuclear missiles on “launch on warning” status—ready to be launched in a few minutes notice. Several times in the past we have come within minutes of actual nuclear war because of computer failure or human error. The danger is getting greater because of cyber-warfare. Two years ago at a Senate testimony, the commander of US Strategic Forces at the time testified that he was extremely worried about the possibility of a cyber-attack on our nuclear command and control centers and on the weapons themselves. This is one reason a number of arms groups have been urging the US government to try to open negotiations to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. When he campaigned for President in 2000, George W. Bush said he would take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, but of course he did not. Obama said the same thing in 2008, calling it a dangerous relic of the Cold War, but the situation still hasn’t changed. So I think the danger is very real— much more so than people realize— and things at the moment are not going in the right direction.

(more…)

Crisis in the Tropics

By John Liebmann, ‘88

John Liebmann and Millie Santiago-Liebmann with her sister and friends celebrate New Year’s 2016.

John Liebmann and Millie Santiago-Liebmann with her sister and friends celebrate New Year’s 2016.

Over the New Year’s holiday, my wife, Millie Santiago-Liebmann ‘03, our son, Elvin, and I travelled to Puerto Rico to visit family and friends who are among the 3.8 million American citizens living there. Millie’s sisters and brother and their families moved to Puerto Rico after growing up in East Harlem. We had a good visit, but a humanitarian crisis makes life there difficult, and the prospects for the next generation are stark.

Puerto Rico is suffering through its worst ever financial crisis with a debt of more than $70 billion. Its challenges are unique. On the one hand, it is not a sovereign nation and therefore ineligible for emergency financing or loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the other hand, as a U.S. territory, it is ineligible for bankruptcy protection available to American states and cities. It depends on the U.S. Congress for relief, and pending legislation there is proceeding slowly if at all.

Of course, this impacts people living there. For example, a niece in the family is a professional chemical engineer and the president of an engineering society. She reports there is fear and anxiety among her peers as young professionals leave for the mainland and better job opportunities.

Our son has a developmental disability. He is doing well in New York and relies on support services. Such services are shrinking or not available in Puerto Rico. Today some 80 percent of the island’s children live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is double that on the mainland.

Folks like us with family and friends in Puerto Rico are sounding the alarm. We welcome partners like the Jubilee USA Network, with whom the Unitarian Universalist Association is affiliated. The network was founded as a not-for-profit organization in the late 1990’s to advocate for debt relief and financial reform in developing countries with extreme poverty, but now it is focused on this U.S. territory. Through its efforts the network has so far won more than $130 billion in debt relief to benefit the world’s poorest people.

Jubilee USA designated Wednesday, April 27, as a day of prayer with religious leaders in Puerto Rico for Congressional action on debt restructuring and bankruptcy protection. There is also an online petition and other information on the campaign for Puerto Rico on the Jubilee USA Network website www.jubileeusa.org.

Millie and I hope you’ll visit and support it.

Religious Bullying is Real

by Erin Langus, ’14

After becoming more involved at All Souls over the past year, I thought it would be a great experience to connect with Unitarian Universalists from all over at General Assembly. One particular workshop that resonated with me was about responding to religious bullying. It was titled “Being a UU Isn’t Easy,” and it was presented by the High Plains UU Church in Colorado Springs, CO.That city, I learned, is a center for many evangelical Christian churches and organizations.

When one child was bullied at school for being UU, the congregation formed awareness and support groups. When Jessica Laike, Director of Faith Formation and the interim minister, Rev. Beatrice Hitchcock, had a meeting with more parents and children, they learned that children were being told things such as they were going to Hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and that Christians couldn’t be friends with someone who wasn’t Christian. “As Unitarian Universalists, help your children to understand and appreciate their unique theology,” Laike counseled them, “not to argue religion with their bullies but for their own spiritual support system.”

Langus

Erin Langus

This workshop made me aware what children, as well as adults, may experience in more conservative areas of the U.S. As UUs in New York City, we have the privilege of expressing our religious and spiritual views fairly openly without concern about criticism or bullying. For the most part now, I feel comfortable sharing my spiritual beliefs with others, confident that they will be accepted and positively received. However, there were times in my childhood when this was not the case. While I didn’t grow up UU, throughout my life I can recall hearing negative or insensitive comments, particularly regarding Judaism, Islam, and other non-majority religions. While I occasionally said something to address the comments, there were many times I felt too uncomfortable to do so.

In following our Third Principle—acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations—learning about these experiences in other congregations is an important part of growth and awareness, especially since individual beliefs vary greatly within Unitarian Universalism itself. In doing this, we can equip and prepare our children to cope with challenges they may face when expressing their faith and spiritual beliefs within the congregation, and in the community as a whole.