Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

Survival @ 2.5 Minutes to Midnight


(Already, a number of pastors and churches around the US and the UK have decided to conduct “Resistance Bible Studies” based on last week’s “Musings”. Here is the “new and improved” version, with assigned readings. All I ask is attribution – and feedback! Let me know your experience in leading or participating in this study.)

For 70 years, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained the Doomsday Clock, a graphic representation of the level of danger to the planet from nuclear weapons and other threats. Partly because of the election of Donald Trump, it has moved the clock from 3 to 2.5 minutes from midnight. The danger has been dire for many decades, and now it is worse – but only by a small increment.

One day in 1983, while Americans went about daily life without any hysteria, one Soviet officer named Stanislav Petrov made a decision that prevented nuclear war. He had to decide whether an alarm indicating a missile attack on the USSR by the US was real or false. In minutes, he had to decide whether or not to follow the established protocol and fire missiles back at the US. Keeping a cool head, determining that there were some signals missing that could authenticate the alarm, he held off from firing the missiles. As he made his decision, he doubted himself. But twenty minutes later, it was clear that his intuition was correct.

Petrov, the man who saved the world, lived modestly in obscurity in Russia until his death on May 19. It is horrifying to consider that the fate of the planet could hinge on whether or not one human being has his head screwed on straight, much less at the one critical moment when it needs to be rightly aligned with good sense and decency. Today we are witnesses to the spectacle of two world leaders who do not have their heads screwed on straight, swapping threats and insults with their fingers on the triggers of nuclear arsenals. It ought to be unnerving. We ought to be out on the streets protesting Trump’s threats to destroy North Korea. This rhetoric makes the already bad problem of North Korea much worse. Republican voters should demand that their Republican Senators and members of Congress demand that Trump resign immediately or be impeached. He is doing the opposite of what he promised in his oath of office, and he must be removed.

But even if his finger were lifted from the nuclear button, the Doomsday Clock would probably move back only slightly, to three minutes from midnight again. The dangers would still be ever-present. The number and kind of threats to the survival of human civilization are sobering indeed. Solar flares could destroy the electrical grid of North America and plunge us into social chaos that some researchers suggest would result in the deaths of many tens of millions of people. One nuclear weapon strategically detonated high in the atmosphere could do the same thing to the electrical grid. Global warming is intensifying storms and hurricanes. There are more Americans in the US territory of Puerto Rico than live in Iowa or Utah or Mississippi. Three and a half million of our citizens are living without electricity now, and likely will continue in this condition for many months. We’re getting a very unpleasant preview of what life will be like for most Americans after the inevitable solar flare event occurs, unless we get serious about “hardening” our power grid to protect it from electromagnetic radiation. But that will cost a lot of public money, at a time when the Republicans plan to slash federal taxes and plunge the country into much deeper debt.

Some folks I know are going into doomsday mode because of the threat of nuclear war and human-caused climate change. They are stockpiling food and water and medicines for their households. They are preparing privately for public disasters. But we’ll neither prevent disasters nor survive them unless we act socially, politically, and communally.

A few Thanksgivings ago, I found myself eating turkey with a relative of an in-law. He lives up in the Sierra foothills. He’s a Republican with a big pickup truck who revels in being socially inappropriate. He told us about his Mormon neighbor who follows the LDS practice of stockpiling food in case of disaster. The Mormon proudly told his neighbor about his supplies. “And what do you have by way of provisions for disaster?” asked the Mormon. The answer: “I have an AK-47, and a stockpile of ammo. And if there’s a disaster, I’ll bring my gun over to your house and by golly, we’ll be sharing your provisions!”

When disaster strikes, we’ll all be sharing what’s left, whether we like it or not. There will be nowhere to hunker down and hide for long. Of course it’s good to stockpile some food and water in our homes. But in a short time, those supplies will run out. The only cure for civilizational collapse is civilization itself. We’ll have to stick together, work together, cooperate, support and defend the rule of law, and share our resources as fairly as we can. Why wouldn’t we do these things now, so they will be easier to do later? Let’s share what we have today, so that when we need to share the most, we’ll be in the habit.

By far the best way to prevent disaster and prepare for crisis is through public engagement. Want to survive the Big One that will shake Los Angeles to pieces, sooner or later? Join a church, temple, or mosque now. Be a vigilant citizen to assure that your government is prepared for disasters. Know your neighbors. Want to prevent looting and mayhem in the aftermath of an earthquake? Work to create a society where no one is left behind without economic opportunity and health insurance and decent education for their kids. Want to prevent nuclear war and worsening weather incidents? Get involved in politics now. Pour time and money into electing people to office who take climate change seriously and seek peaceful resolutions to global conflicts.

Don’t bother to stockpile food and water unless you are also stockpiling friendship with your neighbors near and far, whether or not they have AK-47’s stashed in their closets. It is only through the nurture of networks of trust and care that there is any hope for individual or civilizational survival.

About the Author

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

Review & Commentary