We didn't have to declare ourselves a traditional peace church to be strong advocates for peace and nuclear disarmament.
The first wave of large-scale protests against nuclear weapons occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As fear of radioactive fallout and possible nuclear war with the Soviet Union spread, many UUs joined the call for nuclear disarmament. The 1960 May meeting of the American Unitarian Association voted to “disseminate to the churches bibliographical data which will help members to keep currently informed about the problems and progress of disarmament negotiations.”
It was not until the second wave of protests crested in the early 1980s that UUA resources and staff were added to support the intent of that resolution. Citizen organizations opposing the nuclear arms race were proliferating. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the World Council of Churches had issued clear statements of opposition. In the fall of 1983 UUA President Eugene Pickett received support from the UUA Board for an unprecedented new coalition of UU organizations to work to end the arms race. In the spring of 1984, I was asked to direct this UU Peace Network, comprising the UUA, UU Service Committee, International Association for Religious Freedom, UU Women’s Federation, the UU United Nations Office, and the UU Peace Fellowship.
The Peace Network engaged each organization’s constituents in local and national actions. It developed a broad range of programs, including a legislative action alert network, a Nuclear Free Zone campaign for congregations, two curricula, a songbook, an advertising campaign, a Funds for Peace grants program, the Wilton Peace Prize, support for UU participation in the Great Peace March, and a home-stay program that brought Soviet citizens into UU homes and congregations. Pickett and Richard Scobie, UUSC director, noted that the Network was the most effective cooperative UUA-UUSC effort they had experienced.
Within the Network were pacifists, nuclear pacifists, and those who supported only limited arms control but not disarmament. Two actions reveal the approach that made this diverse coalition work. A group of UUs in Washington, D.C., proposed that the Network sponsor a briefing at the White House, and though most of our activities strongly opposed the Reagan administration’s positions on nuclear arms limitation, 200 UUs attended that meeting in January 1985.
At the other end of our action agenda, our interfaith work led to a dramatic action against the U.S. policy of unilaterally continuing nuclear weapons tests. Several hundred UUs at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in June 1987 marched to a forbidden line in the sand where we were handcuffed, loaded into buses, and arrested. UUA President William F. Schulz and Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen* became the first denominational leaders in the country to be arrested at the site.
Following my departure in 1988, the Rev. Stephanie Nichols took leadership of the Network and continued a high level of program activity for several years. The wave of public and UU interest, however, was ebbing with the end of the cold war. In 1991, without fanfare, the Peace Network closed.
Until a third wave of opposition begins, and while our congregations are engaged in a four-year Peacemaking study/action issue, it is good to consider the lessons from the UU Peace Network. First, we learned we didn’t need an ideological consensus to develop effective national programs that mobilize UUs into action. Second, we didn’t have to declare ourselves a traditional peace church to be strong advocates for peace and nuclear disarmament. And finally, large numbers of UUs are eager for their religious organizations, especially the UUA and UUSC, to provide action programs on the issues they care about.
Correction 2.15.08: The print edition of this story misspelled former UUA Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen's last name. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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The Rev. Stephen M. Shick is minister of the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Massachusetts, and the author of Consider the Lilies: Meditations (Skinner House Books, 2003) and Be the Change: Poems, Prayers and Meditations for Peacemakers and Justice Seekers (Skinner House Books, 2009).
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