Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lifeboat or Tomb? How the Nuclear Weapons Story Ends

The door to the nuclear bunker built for Congress at "Raven Rock."
(Image: RAVEN ROCK: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan
to Save Itself - While the Rest of Us Die

It was the six-hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month that it happened: all the underground springs erupted and all the windows of Heaven were thrown open. Rain poured for forty days and forty nights.

That's the day Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, accompanied by his wife and his sons' wives, boarded the ship. And with them every kind of wild and domestic animal, right down to all the kinds of creatures that crawl and all kinds of birds and anything that flies. They came to Noah and to the ship in pairs -- everything and anything that had the breath of life in it, male and female of every creature came just as God had commanded Noah. Then GOD shut the door behind him.

- Genesis 7:11-16
(translation from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson)

I've looked in various versions, and there is no doubt: it's not "then the door shut," or "then the door was shut" or even "then someone shut the door."

"Then GOD shut the door behind him."

What could this possibly mean?

Noah has had a lot of agency up to this point in the story; God's giving directions, but Noah's the doer. So it's remarkable that here the story very explicitly says that it is God that shuts the door here.

Could it mean God is . . .

(a) ... guaranteeing they are safe?

(b) ... trapping them?

(c) ... leaving them no choice but to continue on?

(d) ... saying when it is "enough"?

(e) ... signaling the end of Phase 1 of the story?

(f) ... all of the above?

(g) ... none of the above?

(h) ... something else?

In part, I suppose the answer you choose depends on whether you think the ark, at this point in the story, looks more like a lifeboat or a tomb.

To me, the significance of the storyteller saying that God closed the door is that it emphasizes the gravity of this moment. And perhaps it is poignant precisely because, at this stage of the story, we don't know how the rest is going to turn out.

As I think about the possible relevance of this part of the Noah story to the "Back from the Brink" campaign to prevent nuclear war, I think about the people who invented nuclear weapons. When they were doing that work, they hoped and believed that they were building a lifeboat: a device that would prevent wars from happening in the future. In the years that followed, the idea of "deterrence" became something that many people believed in; it seemed like a source of safety, as long as you didn't let yourself think about the underlying horror of the weapons involved.

Over time, more and more people began to see that nuclear weapons were as likely to put an end to us as they were to put an end to war. People are now understanding that we have barricaded ourselves behind a multi-megaton door, and we are at risk of suffocation.

Perhaps our situation today is like the second half of the Noah story, the part where we find out if it will be possible to open that door again and emerge into the light of day. For Noah, the ark did, indeed, turn out to be a lifeboat. It's not yet clear how our story turns out. Can we prevent nuclear weapons from being our tomb?

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Related post:

What would Christians think if someone proposed carving out a slice of their Sunday services to worship the God of Entombment? Wouldn't they think that was absurd? After all, if Christianity is anything, isn't it the religion of "UN-entombment"?

(See When is Christianity Going Back to Being the Religion of "UN-entombment"?)

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