Nuclear War and unaskable questions

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One of the big questions concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been whether or not NATO/Western allies should respond by committing to help defend Ukraine beyond supplying weapons and imposing sanctions.  Some have suggested that at a minimum, NATO could commit to enforcing a no-fly zone against Russia.  Now, one of the primary reasons for western reluctance to engage further is the threat of the conflict escalating and potentially involving nuclear weapons.

So, when I hear people suggest that Britain and other allies should be willing to commit troops or enforce a no-fly zone it intrigues me because it suggests that they don’t consider nuclear conflict as too significant a threat.  There are two possible reasons for that. Either they think that intervention would not lead to nuclear weapons being used – that in effect when Putin and his allies issue dire threats, they are bluffing – or that the danger from at least one nuclear weapon being launched is not as significant as many fear.  For example, this might mean that it would not necessarily lead to full on nuclear Armageddon, that as with Hiroshima, one strike would be enough to end conflict and that whilst the damage would be significant that it is not more egregious than the level of harm and damage caused by conventional warfare.

My intrigue led me to asking a few questions using twitter polls, to try and understand a bit better what might be shaping opinions and also to encourage a bit of debate and discussion. Of course, as I’ve commented frequently, those types of polls cannot give a scientifically representative sample and so shouldn’t be intended as evidence of what the general populace think. However, they can be helpful in terms of giving indications and clues about the views of a specific audience (those who engage with me on social media).  Because I’m a Christian and have been involved in pastoral ministry, a lot of those who engage with me tend to be from an evangelical Christian background and include other pastors/leaders -so it also gives me a little bit of a feel of the sorts of opinions/views we are likely to find in our church congregations.

In a future article, I intend to deal with the question of nuclear conflict in a bit more detail and the ethics of it. For avoidance of doubt, I hope and pray that we never come to nuclear conflict, it is a grievous thing that we live in a world where these weapons exist. 

However, what particularly struck me and surprised me even was that a couple of people seemed to think that we should not even be asking certain questions.  Specifically, it was suggested that we should not need to ask whether or not using nuclear weapons counted as a war crime, that should be self-evident. Then, when I asked whether or not NATO should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, one person objected that it was dangerous to even ask that question because of where it might lead.

So, before we dive into the ethics of nuclear weapons, I thought it might be helpful just to pause and think about our attitude to questions and questioning. It seems to me that in terms of free speech we risk moving from a context where there are opinions that are unsayable to a situation where there are questions that are unaskable.

Now, in the specific context here, I want to suggest that there were good reasons to ask the specific questions. I wanted to get a feel for opinions, not least to help me get a view of what people are thinking.  I wanted to understand a bit better why people are taking up specific positions on Ukraine, positions that surprise me.  In so doing, I wanted to be better informed for my own writing and I also wanted to encourage conversations that help us sharpen our thinking.  I’m a bit bemused by the implication that me asking the question is somehow dangerous. I strongly doubt that Boris and Biden are looking at a small survey with 50 participants and using that to inform decisions at this level.  Furthermore, whether or not  ask the question, people will still hold opinions and surely it is better to know what people think rather than guess and assume. Indeed, that better prepares us to challenge opinions we disagree with or are concerned about.

This leads me from the question of nuclear weapons to life more generally, or rather more specifically as we think about church leadership or pastoral care.  Whilst I am concerned that if we start censoring even the questions we ask that it is problematic for free speech, I’m personally more immediately concerned about pastoral effectiveness.

You see, sometimes we can be self-censoring. We choose not to ask questions because we don’t want to know the answer. We are afraid that once we know the answer it will make things inevitable. We are also concerned about how people will cope with knowing answers.  For example, I know a now retired pastor who would sometimes visit families in hospital. He occasionally asked them if they knew what the prognosis was. They would say that they did not. Then he would ask them if they wanted to know. He was happy to talk to the consultant with them. Often they did not want to know. They chose not to ask the question because they did not want to hear the answer. The answer might be world shattering, it might draw them out of the world they had created for themselves, it might take away their enjoyment of life now. 

But also, sometimes it is easier for us not to ask those direct questions about how someone is doing in their walk with God and in their relationships or it is easier not to ask the follow up questions to seek precision because if we knew the answer it might require follow up. It might lead to confrontation, it might result in them reacting emotionally, saying things to us or about us that we would find uncomfortable. It might lead to them leaving the church or ending a relationship. So we censor our questions.

And yet, I would suggest that if we don’t ask the questions it is even more likely that the relationship will end, the person will get deeper into sin or they will leave the church. It’s better to ask and to get things on the table. 

There are of course inappropriate questions to ask, not because the question itself is inappropriate but because the context is inappropriate or the person asking is the wrong person. To give a lighter example, it has long been considered rude and intrusive for a gentleman to ask a lady how old she is.  However, the question itself is not unaskable and if she were asked at the check out when buying alcohol or by a GP when registering she could not then say “you should never ask a lady her age.”

We often say when opening up events to Q&A that there are no stupid questions. I would also be inclined to suggest that there are no unaskable questions either.

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