Escaping the Final Pandemic

By Dean Hammer ’78 M.A.R.

The spiritual “Let My People Go” rises from deep inside of me during these days preceding the celebration of Passover. Moses follows God’s instruction to confront Pharaoh’s domination of the Israelites. Moses’ chutzpah and prophetic imagination galvanize a liberation movement. Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites from slavery, provoking ten plagues divinely unleashed on Egypt because of the monarch’s hardness of heart (Exodus 7:13).

This narrative bears an eerie resemblance to our current plague-ridden societya hardness of heart that extends across America’s history of genocidal conquest and slavery to the malignant normalcy of contemporary empire-maintenance: systemic racism, pervasive abuse of the ecosystem, and the ominous threat of nuclear war. The perils of human extinction create a sustained, widespread apocalyptic anxiety.

The miserable conditions of prison tested my faith. But the Eucharist celebrated by Henri Nouwen with us prisoners transported me to a place of affirmation. My peace activism became a blessing, a strange privilege.

“For ours is an age in which children can be innocent victims of the nuclear bomb, and in which the deadening light of Hiroshima has replaced the life-giving light of Mount Tabor,” Henri Nouwen once wrote. The life-giving light of Mount Tabor illuminates the legacy that Jesus inherits from Moses and Elijah. Jesus amplifies their prophecies and expands their vision of freedom, a hallmark of the Hebraic revolution. He initiated a liberation movement to rise above violence and inter-human killing. Jesus bears witness to the commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” He had the option to join the militant zealots but instead chose to inaugurate a nonviolent revolution that is essential to humanity’s survival. The refrain from the Risen Christ is: “Peace be with you.” (Lk. 24:36). This invitation is made by one who was tortured. Jesus defiantly challenges imperial dominance by “practicing resurrection,” as essayist/poet Wendell Berry puts it. This peace, Jesus’ farewell gift, is integral to healing the wounds of America.

First Yale, Then Jail

This is the confession of a Eucharistic Jew whose life was radically transformed by two years in durance vile, my incarceration in various prisons between 1977-86 following my civil resistance to nuclear weapons. The miserable conditions of prison tested my faith. The love and support from the peace and justice community made it tolerable.

The Eucharistic life, as Nouwen phrased it in his book With Burning Hearts, celebrates the new creation, a new era of human history inaugurated by Jesus and his followers that condemns killing as an outmoded and unacceptable way to resolve human conflicts. YDS professor Henri Nouwen, my mentor and treasured friend, showed this vision to me in his celebrations of the Eucharist (in the YDS crypt chapel and off campus with New Haven’s Covenant Peace Community).

My peace activism at YDS culminated with an alternative graduation “ceremony,” a protest action in Groton, CT. Seven years later when I was incarcerated at Danbury federal prison, Henri led a day of retreat for twelve of us prisoners, instilling in me a deep sense of freedom to overcome the subjugation of prison. The Eucharist celebrated by Henri that day transported me to a place of consolation, affirmation, and vocation. My peace activism and prison witness became a blessing, a strange privilege. That day I confessed with my life that the Holy Spirit disarmed the powers and authorities through the nonviolent witness of Jesus on the cross (Col. 2:15). I understood more clearly my civil resistance and prison witness as an offering, a lived-out prayer, an act of service. I renewed my vow to join with others in a conspiracy with the Holy Spirit, the force that can disarm the powers and authorities holding the human family hostage to violence and mass killing. With enormous gratitude, I offered a living testimony: the human family cannot co-exist with nuclear weapons.

My experience of protest and prison exposed me to the tyranny of the nation’s militarism and judiciary. This baptism by fire “way down in Egypt land” branded my soul. This rite of passage, filled with pain and inspiration, created an elan vital that allowed me to transcend the prison bars and barbed wire. The light of this baptismal fire was the source of protection and guidance in my jailhouse walk, and it continues to provide fortitude to bear the nefariousness of human brutality. Partaking in the celebration of the Eucharist continues to revitalize my baptismal experience, creating a wellspring to persevere in the activism to abolish mass killing.

Standing Passively By

The Passover story highlights the Israelites initial resistance to Moses’ leadership “because of their dejection and hard slavery” (Exodus 6:9). How easy it is to become helpless and passive bystanders to the illegitimate behavior of governmental oppression and violence. Citizens become entrenched in a disavowal of the egregious crimes conducted in their name.

The citizens of nuclear nations (the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) are drummed into a state of “psychic numbing,” dissociated from the effects of their government’s acts of brutalization. On a collective scale, the day-to-day danger of species annihilation goes unacknowledged. Because of the technical advances of warfare, even those who carry out long-range bombing maneuvers do not have to witness the bloody consequences of their actions. Those directly participating in the preparation and enactment of genocidal behavior can develop “double lives,” engaging in mass killing work during the day and going home at night to be benevolent spouses and parents.

In his interviews with Nazi doctors and nuclear scientists, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton identified a new group disorder, the genocidal mentality, the heartless preparations and willingness to commit mass killing. The nine countries wielding nuclear weapons in the name of deterrence spend trillions of dollars creating the probability of a final pandemic. The dismantling of nuclear weapons is a decisive task if we are to survive. The prophetic challenge of Dr. King remains a crucial choice for humanity: “We need to choose non-violence or non-existence.”

A Shattered Moral Compass

Last August marked the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombings. Something happened in the 20th century that made it morally, psychologically, and legally acceptable to commit mass murder. In the century of two world wars, brutal mass killing by nation-states was normalized. The moral compass of civilization was shattered. In our neo-colonial era, weapons of mass destruction and other technological developments intensified the threat and scale of genocide. The human family lives in the shadow of omnicidal weapons that have the capacity to destroy all life as we know it.

The Bomb created a transgenerational soul wound. After World War II, the US government waged psychological warfare on its citizens via civil defense drills with the aim of instilling intense vulnerability and insecurity. The various take-cover exercises provoked fear, submission, and loyalty. The secretive risk management of these omnicidal weapons reduces citizens to spectator status at the mercy of the nuclear weapons chieftains’ statecraft. The cumulative trauma suffered by US citizens as bystanders creates a wound in the soul of the body politic, injurious to the collective social imagination. Demoralization spawns hopelessness and powerlessness.

A Conspiracy of Healing

“A good deed doesn’t just evaporate and disappear,” declared Bishop Desmond Tutu, drawing on a lifetime of activism. “Its consequences saturate the universe, and the goodness that happens somewhere, anywhere, helps in the transfiguration of the ugliness.” Bearing witness to the spirit of goodness is a way to practice the discipline of hope. Hope demonstrates a new pathway: though it is not easily obtainable (the gate is narrow), it is a necessity for the psychological and spiritual well-being of individuals and our society at large.

I find hope in many places. Several recent events provide great inspiration: the nun in Myanmar who recently risked her life in the streets of Myitkyina to stand courageously between military forces and pro-democracy protesters; the remarkable international breakthrough for peace by 50 countries (though not the US or the other nuclear nations) that have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; and the witness of five friends currently in federal prison for their peace activism. Bearing witness to hope is key to the practice of resurrection, compelling me to return to the light of Mount Tabor, its transfiguring power. This legacy extending from Moses to Jesus calls us to renounce our allegiance to the nuclear pharaohs and their doomsday preparations and repudiate the use of nuclear weapons.

The church that claims its birthright can serve to ignite a jailbreak from the genocidal mentality. The church that embodies the compassion and hope of this nonviolent revolution to reclaim our humanity can help to heal the soul wounds of America’s history of violence and genocide. May we join in a liberation movement: to be delivered from the threat of nuclear annihilation by cultivating an international campaign to abolish all weapons of mass destruction. May we bear witness to a conspiracy of hope and healing, uniting with the voices crying: “Never Again. Never Again.” And singing with our lives: “Let My People Go.”

Dean Hammer teaches clinical psychology at Antioch University New England and practices as a licensed psychologist in Vermont. Contact him at for information about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons as well as the Plowshares Disarmament Witness.