WATERtalk Notes: “Feminist Efforts to Overcome the Genocidal Mentality of Nuclear Weapons”

Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Feminist Efforts to Overcome the Genocidal Mentality of Nuclear Weapons”

An hour-long teleconference with

Rev. Dr. Renate Rose

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

1 PM – 2 PM ET


WATER spoke with long time peace advocate Renate Rose about the relationship between feminism and the fight against nuclear weapons.

These notes are provided as companion to the call’s audio. A Q & A session followed.

Mary E. Hunt: It is wonderful to have Renate here on this important week before the U.S. presidential election. Her topic, nuclear weapons and peace work, reminds us of what we should be talking about instead of emails and sexual abuse. So we will do what is important here at WATER and focus this hour on the “Feminist Efforts to Overcome the Genocidal Mentality of Nuclear Weapons.”

Renate is a longtime friend and collaborator at WATER, someone we have been with both here in the US and in her native Germany. As I was preparing for her visit, I returned to the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion interview that Kelsi Morrison-Atkins did with her published in 2015. It is a wonderful read of a life lived to the maximum for peace and justice, the story of a woman who grew up near a concentration camp near Berlin and has made peace her life’s work.

Renate Rose is a peace advocate and ordained pastor of the United Church of Christ.  She studied economics and political science in Germany (Ph.D.) and worked for 12 years in international organizations. She holds graduate degrees from Harvard Divinity School (M.Div.) and San Francisco Theological Seminary (D.Min.) and served as pastor and Association Minister in Honolulu while being active in the peace movement. For seven years she taught New Testament, Worship, and Feminist Theology in the Philippines (Silliman Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary). After her retirement she translated a book about Auschwitz from German into English. She spends part of the year at her family clinic, Haus Friedborn in the Black Forest in Germany, and part of the year in Cambridge, MA.

A long-time supporter of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and other peace organizations, Renate feels strongly that the nuclear arms race is foremost a feminist issue, but has been largely neglected by feminists. She believes most people remain uninformed of the threat of nuclear war and hopes to point listeners toward important resources and analyses.

I am sure that at the end of our hour today we will be among the informed who can do something about this terrible scourge of weapons. Thank you, Renate, for joining us to bring us this important message.

Renate Rose: I thank WATER for the great honor to invite me to give this talk. It seems more than timely when we learn that since 1945 the US has produced 70,000 nuclear weapons and read about the plans of the Obama Administration to spend more than 1 trillion dollars during the next decades for the renewal of our nuclear arsenal of still 7,000 weapons, including 14 submarines, each one with an explosive blast of 4000 Hiroshima bombs. The inhumanity, the immorality, and the injustice of such plans are beyond comprehension for me. But I was stunned when in May a friend sent me a page from the Wall Street Journal which claimed that 59% of the American public would back today using a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city where 100,000 or even 2 million people (clearly a genocidal number) would die immediately, not to mention the long-term radiation effects. I was so shocked, I didn’t believe it and called up Mary Hunt to ask her if this could be true.  Oh yes, she said, I believe it is true. This alarming news made me reread the book by Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen: The Genocidal Mentality – Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat, which a friend from MIT had given me about 10 years ago. It states that we are all bystanders of the nuclear arms race just like the Germans during WW II, with the difference that the genocide of the Jews was officially secret, and those who would denounce it would be themselves put into the concentration camps, whereas here, in the US, we are free to say anything without risking imprisonment. And yet, most people are not informed, because the nuclear arms race is rarely discussed in the newspapers or on TV.

If everyone in the US would realize that 54% of our taxes go to the Pentagon and only 3% to Social Security, unemployment, and labor (and 5 % to Medicare and Health), you know the profound injustice of our capitalist economic system. I don’t think most people are aware that our nation spends $1.2 million every single minute on war and so-called defense. Otherwise there would be a revolution. If “Black Lives Matter” to us, we have to get involved.

How did we get to this point? There are many reasons and I could spend a whole hour enumerating them. However, I want to name one that I have not heard before but which might explain where we are heading to, why it is so dangerous and how we can shift the discussion onto another level.

I am starting with the book by Lifton on the genocidal mentality, which I mentioned before. He shows how such a mentality developed as early as WWI and accelerated during WWII and during the Cold War. During the Nazi time it was based on the ideology of racism, now we are living with the ideology of nuclearism that embraced nuclear weapons as the only way, even salvation, Lifton says, to security and peace. He explains that both Nazi and nuclear narratives are “sustained by certain psychological mechanisms” which protect individual people from “inwardly experiencing the harmful effects of their own actions.” Human feelings are dissociated or split from a portion of their mind. Lifton calls it “psychic numbing” or “doubling.” It is a diminished capacity to feel, thoughts are separated from feeling. Doubling means you have two “selves,” so to speak, which function autonomously and can lead to “brutalization.” He says Nazi doctors required extreme forms of psychic numbing in order to avoid experiencing the pain of their victims. Since American Defense Strategists for nuclear warfare are far removed from seeing and experiencing their victims, their brutalization seems invisible to themselves and to us, since we are not exposed to what they are planning unless we would look every day at pictures of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lifton interviewed many scientists who had worked on the atom and the hydrogen bomb and who admitted their “doubling.” For example, Theodore Taylor, a famous physicist who worked on the bomb, described how he was feeling more at home in the laboratory than at home, because the attitudes of his family encouraged the split. Both his wife and his mother (who knew what he was doing) would sometimes ask: “Why are you working on trying to find new ways to kill as many people as possible?” He would answer that he and others were in fact the world’s front line of peacemakers … making war obviously insane.” All the wives of the scientists were against the work of their husbands and the wife of Hans Bethe apparently became more outspoken when he was working on the hydrogen bomb. But in spite of the precarious condition of doubling the “addiction” to nuclear weaponry was so exciting that it never stopped, especially when nuclearism was extended to the robot missile age and now to the robot drone age, which lets the computer make the decisions.

You will not be surprised to learn that the military and certainly “nuclearism” is exercised and sustained by “white men with ties who discuss the size of missiles.” We are living with an extreme form of male domination at the highest level of the military, which will lead us into an unimaginable disaster if we don’t stop it.  Carol Cohn, as a young teacher, was invited to spend a summer in a workshop and then a whole year on nuclear weapons, nuclear strategic doctrine, and arms control taught by so-called “Defense Intellectuals.” She has described her experience in an article in 1987 on “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” which I recommend to you for reading. It reveals how she had to learn the abstract language of acronyms for the strategic projects of nuclear weapons in order to discuss it with her teachers and how this language transformed her thinking. Suddenly she didn’t realize what she was talking about. She quit when she realized how these so-called male “Defense Intellectuals” play a game of chess with nuclear weapons, but were outside of work “nice and charming people” whom she liked. Her experience confirmed the psychic numbing and doubling which has now, 30 years later, reached a peak of which most people are unaware. I know of one other woman and her daughter, Alva Myrdal of Norway (and Sissela Bok) who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for her work on nuclear disarmament. (The other 10 or so women who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, were mainly rewarded for their work benefitting women and children in the world.)

All the legal attempts at the beginning of the 20th century by the League of Nations, by the Kellogg-Briand Treaty of 1928 which outlaws war as a solution for settling conflict, the United Nations, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) which stipulates nuclear disarmament for the nuclear weapons States, the timid exhortations of the World Council of Churches in 1982 which stated that churches should pay attention to the fact that “a nuclear war can never be just or justifiable” and that nuclear weapons constitute “a crime against humanity,” the many peace organizations which I have supported for decades, especially the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War which documented that 2 billion people would die of famine and starvation if even a mini-nuclear war  would break out, all these laudable calls to stop this madness have not led to peace and disarmament.

Here is my reason why it hasn’t happened. It has to do with the mental-rational structure of our consciousness as described by Jean Gebser, a little known German- Swiss philosopher of the 20th century. He isn’t well-known (although there is even a Jean Gebser Society in the US) because he cannot be put into a category: he was foremost a historian of cultures and civilizations, but also a poet, a linguist, a scholar of Sanskrit and Asian philosophies, an anthropologist, and psychologist, etc. in other words, a man with a broad interdisciplinary knowledge, contrary to our “narrowly focused, specialized” disciplines. He saw himself as a person who tried “to appraise the multiplicity of cultural endeavors, that is to say, to uncover meaning-giving connections.” (It is now called “intertextuality”). Making the connections has been for me the most important feminist effort, but it has rarely been done explicitly in the area of nuclear weapons.

In his book Ursprung und Gegenwart (first published in 1949/1952), translated as The Ever-Present Origin (1975/1985), Gebser looks at the unfolding of our structures of consciousness since the beginning of humanity and discovers five stages or mutations (leaps of change) over time, the fifth one being about to take place if we consciously work at it (and I know many who do, knowingly, or unknowingly). The five stages are:

1.         The archaic structure of consciousness

2.         The magic structure of consciousness

3.         The mythic structure of consciousness

4.         The mental structure of consciousness

5.         The emerging integral structure, which I will call feminist (as exhibited by Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, especially in Part IV (Re-Visioning the Divine), chapters 12 & 13 of her book: Transforming Vision, Explorations in Feminist The*logy, Fortress Press 2011)

I think it is evident that we find ourselves today in the mental structure and I will start with that one, because when I start with explaining the archaic structure, people say immediately: what does that have to do with nuclear weapons? And they tune out, since in the mental structure we don’t want to wait, there is no time for a complex answer, it must be simplistic. That is of course not possible when something slowly emerges and unfolds.  Gebser believes that every structure has been important and that it is our task today to recognize their interrelationships and integrate them into the now emerging integral structure of consciousness. I am imagining the different structures like members of a symphonic orchestra playing together a beautiful symphony. This is actually what we learn from Quantum Physics; the protons and neutrons of an oxygen atom sing in a major key, the blades of grass in a mountainous meadow sing together in a harmonious way. In the photosynthesis consisting of light and matter, we hear a triad; in other words, the world is sound, is melody, we are living in a singing cosmos. Are we listening?

No, because every structure over time shows besides its beneficial forms, deficient forms and we are in the midst of a very deficient form of the mental-rational structure when it comes to nuclear weapons. According to Gebser, the mental structure can be dated for the Israelites to ca. 1250 BCE, for the Greeks to ca. 500 BCE and for the rest of Europe to the discovery of perspective when Petrarch, a famous Italian poet, was apparently the first one to ever climb a mountain  (Mont Ventoux in S. France) and he wrote a letter (in 1336 CE) describing the feeling of looking down over a wide landscape. From that time on conquering space and three- dimensionality became decisive. Our horizon broadened until we went to the moon. From the International Space Station we can now see every country in the world and with Satellites everything on earth, nothing is hidden, so to speak. Transparency could be a good thing, but what happened in science? Combined with competition, the capitalist system, and an exaggerated ego-centeredness, the once broad perspective narrowed to the magic point of an atom. You split the atom to master nature and your focus is on the weapon, but you totally forget the people who are to be killed. You are splitting your mind at the same time and forget that you cannot look at the outside world without at the same time looking inward into your heart. You have forgotten what you should have learned from the mythic structure: to be a whole human being you must look inward as well as outward and you must use your imagination to envision a harmonious world of cooperation and tolerance of other perspectives than your own, in other words, we must develop in Lifton’s words a species-mentality, or in the words of David Brooks a “mentality of commonality and [world] citizenship that does not “shut down a piece of your heart and your moral sentiments.” By now, you might be willing to understand what Gebser means with remembering “origin” and the archaic structure. I think he didn’t want to use the word “God” (as too limited), but he says it manifests as “wisdom” (die Weisheit/Sophia, which is feminine in German and in Greek) He means some “primordial leap of energy that creates life and life-giving structures.” My sister and I have decided that today we could call it a primordial trust in life, a trust which a baby in the maternal womb has where it is one with the mother and knows not yet any differentiation. The baby in the womb knows no fear or mental anguish, because it lives on trust in oneness. Origin means oneness with all there is. During the magic structure of consciousness the differentiation between nature and human beings started, the soul was still sleeping, so to speak. People still knew that they were part of nature, but they also started to fear the transcending power of nature. They wanted to master it and the struggle to master and conquer nature has not ceased yet. Climate change has taught us that by mastering nature we have abused it and are destroying our environment at a speed that is unsustainable. In this context nuclear weapons have become “magic tools” which can destroy life on earth. They represent the deficient forms of the magic and mental structures of consciousness: a modern form of sorcery and witchcraft, totem and taboo, with the difference that our technological tools today are so much more harmful compared to former centuries. To arrive at the integral structure of consciousness, we must become aware that everything in the cosmos is connected, the energy for life and the industry of death, as the pope has called the whole military-industrial complex. We are one and we must stop being magicians who believe they can overcome human vulnerability by a total domination of nature. Instead we must appreciate the positive features of the mythic structure, which we find in Bible. Jesus who tried to teach us “Love your enemies” gave up on the dualistic thinking of either/or and instead showed by his life and the empty tomb (as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has over and over emphasized) that death can be overcome if we follow his example of healing life with new imagination and a transforming and transformed vision of well-being for all.

To demonstrate to you the difference between a person with an integral structure of consciousness and a rationalistic one I will tell you a story. In 1974 or so, my husband, who was a physicist and a nuclear engineer, and I went to a meeting at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. The famous physicist of MIT, Victor Weisskopf, gave a Lecture on “The Forces of Nature.” He tried to explain the energies and light waves of the universe, how the galaxies and the stars and sun and moon all work together, and our little place in it. At the end of his talk he said: It’s all so magnificent but so hard to explain, “but I could play it to you on the violin.” With awe in his eyes he heard the cosmos singing. For us, it was a sacred moment, which I will never forget. – Soon afterwards, a few weeks or months later, there was another talk on the same subject at the same place, by another physicist, Steven Weinberg, who wrote a famous book about the Big Bang. Although more or less the same subject, he talked about it in a very cold way that was hard to follow or understand. At the end of the Lecture he said: Well, it’s all accident and chance and it has no meaning. We were aghast, as you can imagine.

HOW can we persuade people to work with responsible “spiritual intelligence” and imaginary “creativity” (borrowing from Jan Phillips’ book NO ORDINARY TIME) to turn the tide, to engender the mutation, the leap of change, before it is too late? Gebser died in 1973 and warned of the immediate danger. When asked: when will the mutation happen? He said: “The mutation will enter the general awareness at the moment when the deficient mentality reaches its maximum of rational chaos.”

With the one trillion dollar for new nuclear weapons and the disgraceful spectacle of our election process I think everybody will agree that the maximum of rational chaos has arrived!

Will we listen to the melody of creation or remain “prisoners of reason?”

Thank you.

Q & A

MEH: Renate, that was a marvelous way of contextualizing the way in which we live, both the nuclear aspects and the poetry of your own experiences and your own way of handling these issues. We will now have an opportunity to dialogue.

Q: How can places of worship take a real path in this leap of change and leap of faith?

RR: I think that churches have a great opportunity and a great challenge. The opportunity is to appreciate the ideas and imagination in the language of the Bible and to interpret the rhetoric of the time out of the medieval structure of consciousness. We need to recognize our need to merge the outside world and the inside world of the individual. They belong together, and are not opposite. So we can use the mythic images, but we must interpret them appropriately to our mental structure, and find new images to convey what the people at the time wanted to convey to us. The challenge is that we have to create a new language. We need an inclusive language for people and God. We have to get rid of the patriarchal language. We could explain to fundamentalists that they are splitting their mind on Sundays, because on Sundays, they say the words of the Scriptures have just fallen down from heaven and weren’t written by men. If we could show that to them, I think some of them might understand that we can appreciate the mystics and the Eucharist but we have to reinterpret it in our own way. I will give an example using the Eucharist. We can say that the bread of the Eucharist is the bread of equality, because everyone receives the same amount. For the cup of wine, it is the cup of solidarity shared with all people of the world.  Jesus does not have to be a savior, but is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. In that role, we can follow him, having the same strong faith in life that he had. That’s the main point I would make.

Q: You mentioned seeing pictures of the Holocaust and the numbing of minds. I also observe the numbing of minds today. How does our culture currently numb minds to the cultural relevance of what you’ve shared today? How can we as people of faith begin conversations about this process?

RR: I have just seen a documentary called “Command and Control.” It’s about a nuclear accident in Arkansas in 1982 where a missile exploded. They knew that it would happen and they couldn’t stop it, yet one person died. The lucky thing was that the nuclear warhead of that missile did not explode because there was a security switch that held. It was found miles away in a farmer’s meadow. They said, if it had exploded, the radiation effect would have been felt up to Boston. Many accidents like this have happened, but they are not publicized. Not just hundreds, but thousands of these accidents have happened that are not officially acknowledged. The Generals in the film said that one can be lucky for a while, but eventually a human error is likely and a serious accident can happen. Therefore we have to get rid of nuclear weapons.

Response: I appreciate what you had to say, because having the opportunity to express something that is substantially important, which is our inability to consistently do things perfectly. Our patriarchal culture leads us to believe that there are no accidents, and I fear that unless we educate humanity as a whole that being human means imperfection. I thank you and appreciate the opportunity to hear you speak.

Q: The enormity of this problem is very difficult to grasp, and I particularly appreciated your description of the speaker who played his violin. I wonder if WATER and you might consider developing some kind of a ritual that would help us grasp the horror and help us understand what to do about it?

RR: Yes, ritual is very important, especially the ritual of remembering. I recently attended a meeting with Japanese and American high school students remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese students said that it was very important to them to remember the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can tell you that the Americans don’t want that to be remembered. There is a fantastic play that a Japanese writer wrote after WWII, and he researched what had actually happened during the War Crimes Trial of the Japanese from 1946-1948. Most people have never heard of this trial, I didn’t myself before this play. The play is based on history; most of the people were real people. During this trial, there were lawyers from the United States but only one Japanese lawyer. At one point, the Japanese lawyer said, “I would also like us to remember the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The American President of the Commission dismissed this question as irrelevant. The crimes of Americans cannot be questioned, only those of the Japanese.

Response: I think you’re right. Remembering is a good place for us to start. But how do we carry this forward to women in our faith communities? Just listening to this today, I find myself thinking a little bit bigger about where to take our work. I work a lot with people who work with the homeless, with Black Lives Matter, with criminal justice etc., they all need money and I don’t think they realize where the money is; it’s with the Pentagon and the Department of Energy.

MEH: Renate, could you point us towards groups who are working on this, particularly women’s groups, that we could work with in the future?

RR:  No, I don’t know any women’s groups, except that the peace action groups I know consist overwhelmingly of women.

MEH: Could you finish up your comments today by pointing us towards feminists and women in religion who are working on these issues?

RR: I don’t know of any. Massachusetts Peace Action, 90% of the people working there are women. There are some wonderful men at  MIT: Jonathan King who tried to  speak to synagogues but without success. People don’t want to touch the subject.  But some churches in the Boston area have gotten together to create an interfaith working group on these issues. We had our first meeting of creating a response to this issue from the faith communities. Because people who have faith usually do not want to split their mind and their heart in two.

MEH: I think also of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. There are also many secular groups, but I think there is a lot of work to be done in faith communities. Thank you so much Renate for your lifetime of commitment to work on these issues.

RR: I would like to close by telling all of you that I have provided a list of things you can do to address this problem. There is a lot to do, even if you pick out only one or two of the points. This is very important. I would like to leave you with the words of the Parliament of the World’s Religions:  “Resist despair, recommit to nonviolence.”

WATER thanks the Rev. Dr. Renate Rose for her work. We look forward to more collaboration with her.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, December 14, 2016 at 1 PM ET with Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker discussing her recent book edited with John Grim, Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe. All are welcome to join.