Nuclear weaponry "doesn't provide security. Rather it threatens to undermine life itself," Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker told the small crowd yesterday among the weeds and broken glass of the vacant lot on 14th Street.
"We have a choice: we must halt the arms race or face annihilation," he continued. "We must not allow this to take place without our voices being raised in opposition."
The Rev. Edward White, executive of the National Capital Union Presbytery, asked, "Is there any point at which the arms race comes to a conclusion? Our leaders say we must be superior to the Soviet Union," yet the Soviets have vowed to keep pace with us, philosophies guaranteed to perpetuate the arms race, he said, adding: "We already have enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the whole human race 8, 10, 20 times."
Walker and White were protesting the display of sophisticated weaponry that is part of the annual convention of the Air Force Association, beginning Sunday at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.
The site of the "Bread Not Bombs" protest -- an empty lot among decaying houses along the 14th Street corridor -- was chosen to dramatize neglect of social needs as military spending increases. There will be further rallies Sunday at 1:30 and 3 p.m. on Woodley Road opposite the hotel.
Criticism of the escalating arms race, and particularly the amassing of nuclear weapons, is a theme that is being sounded with increasing frequency by religious leaders throughout the nation.
* In Seattle last June, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, addressing the Pacific Synod of the Lutheran Church in America, proposed fighting the nuclear arms race by withholding taxes that would be spent on armament. "We have to refuse to give our incense-in our day, tax dollars-to the nuclear idol," he said. It is believed to be the first such endorsement of tax resistance by a ranking Cathoilic official.
* During the summer, two major church bodies, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) overwhelmingly voted to make peace and peacemaking institutional priorities for their denominations for the coming years.
* Five church-based organizations, made up of evangelicals as well as mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, have joined together as "New Abolitionists" with the aim of putting the nation's churches squarely in opposition to the nuclear arms race.
* In Texas, Hunthausen's fellow Catholic bishop, the Most Rev. Leroy T. Matthiesen of Amarillo, isued an appeal to workers in the local Pantex plant to give up their jobs rather than to work on the neutron bomb, scheduled to be manufactured there. With Pantex one of the major employers in the Texas Panhandle community, the Catholic leader's proposal has touched off a major controversy, fueled by economic arguments as well as differences of opinion over both the morality and political wisdom of the nation's nuclear arms policy.
* Meeting in Indianapolis last month, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious approved unanimously a resolution opposing production and deployment of the MX missile, the neutron bomb and nuclear weapons generally. The organization embraces the leaders of 80 percent of orders of Roman Catholic nuns in this country and is the official liaison between the Vatican and American Catholic nuns.
* The governing Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, at its meeting last month in East Germany, issued an omnibus statement on threats to peace. In addition to its condemnation of the neutron bomb, the statement condemned the "scandalous increase" on money spent on arms, called for continued disarmament negotiations, and called on nuclear powers to respect nuclear-free zones in "countries which decide to create them."
Nationally, both the Christian Churches and the United Church of Christ are preparing study materials for their congregations across the country to use in programs of study and action around the peace issue.
Hunthausen's fellow Roman Catholic bishops, acting through their action agency, the U.S. Catholic Conference, have appointed an ad hoc committee headed by Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati to address war and peace issues.
In a 1,200-word explanation of his views in the Seattle archdiocesan newspaper, Archbishop Hunthausen minimized the importance of his call for tax resistance.
"You may disagree with the concrete actions and tactics I suggest," he said.
"What no good Catholic may do is to continue to live without thought, as if the arms race is not a problem, as if huge buildups of nuclear weapons are justified without examination, as if there are not principles and assessments of facts which challenge us all to rethink what we are doing as a nation in this matter."
To move churches beyond rhetorical denunciations of the arms race is the aim of the "New Abolitionists" coalition.
With membership including Roman Catholic bishops, Protestant clergy and antiwar activist lay men and women across the religious spectrum, the five groups in the coalition hope to recreate the spirit of the anti-slavery abolitionist movement of the mid-19th century in their campaign against nuclear weapons.
The five groups -- the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Sojourners, New Call to Peacemaking, Pax Christi and World Peacemakers -- are distributing 150,000 copies of their New Abolitionist Covenant which calls for a series of actions beginning with prayer and including "public witness."
"This is not a statement to sign, but a covenant to be acted upon," the groups said.
The covenant says "the growing prospect of nuclear war presents us with more than a test of survival; it confronts us with a test of faith."
"We are Christians who now see that the nuclear arms race is more than a question of public policy," the covenant says. "We believe that the wholesale destruction threatened by these weapons makes their possession and planned use an offense against God and humanity, no matter what the provocation or political justification."
"As the foundation of national security, nuclear weapons are idolatrous," it says.
At the present time, it is largely the religious leaders who are raising their voices and even taking to the streets to protest the arms race. Just how much following they have at the grass-roots level is still problematic; national polls seem to indicate that a majority of Americans favor increased rather than decreased military spending. Hunthausen and Matthiesen and others have been sharply criticized by their own laity for the stands they have taken.
Still, church historians would have to note that a generation ago a similar gap existed over the question of racial equality, when only the visionaries advocated legislation to put an end to discrimination based on race.