Give peace a chance
Nonviolence was Jesus’ method of choice, and it should be ours, too, argues peace activist John Dear, S.J.
To our modern ears the idea of heresy seems quaint and medieval—involving technical arguments about abstract matters. But I contend that heresy and its cousin apostasy are constructs of down-to-earth significance that we should keep in mind today. And for us Catholics, I submit, our chief heresy is violence. We’re all violent. We’re violent to ourselves, our relatives, our neighbors, other Catholics and Christians—and most heretical of all, to our nation’s enemies, beginning with the children of Iraq. We pay taxes for war, tolerate executions, shrug at global warming, and regard corporate greed as the natural order of things. Some of us go to Mass in Los Alamos on Sundays and design and build nuclear weapons the rest of the week. In short, our lives betray that violence is our true spirituality. Our deepest, unexamined thoughts are that violence saves us, that might makes right. We’re at home with a few notions contrary to the gospel: War is justified, war is God’s will—even that God’s very self is violent. We think these things normal, natural, perhaps even holy.
How to recover clarity? We do it by resurrecting what I regard as the most important Christian value—gospel nonviolence. That has been my own practice over the last 28 years. Jesus taught and demonstrated nonviolence, and in this world of unprecedented violence, I want to follow him into God’s reign of peace, starting here and now, today.“The chief difference between nonviolence and violence,” Thomas Merton wrote in Blessed Are the Meek: The Roots of Christian Nonviolence (Catholic Peace Fellowship), “is that the latter depends entirely on its own calculations. The former depends entirely on God and on God’s word.” Some raise their eyebrows to hear that nonviolence was Jesus’ fundamental characteristic. But consider his revolutionary commandments: “Love your neighbor”; “Blessed are the peacemakers”; “Be as compassionate as God”; “Love your enemies”; and “Put down your sword.” His trek to Jerusalem was aimed at confronting violence. There he verbally jousted with the authorities, then entered the temple and committed civil disobedience, his way of resisting the empire. They seized him and turned him over to the Romans for execution, but even then he remained nonviolent, saying “Forgive them; they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
He rose from the dead, as we know, a sign that God vindicated Jesus’ way. Even then Jesus refused the road of vengeance, refused to unleash lightning bolts, refused to retaliate. On the disciples who had ignominiously fled the scene, he imposed no shame.
He offered instead the gift of peace and extended yet another invitation to follow his way. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he invited them, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
His is an invitation I try to take up daily. My practice as a Catholic begins with a daily prayer of peace. I sit in the presence of the God who loves me, an act of contemplative peace. There I let God disarm my heart of my own inner violence. I allow God to help me become more nonviolent. God sends me out to join the disarmament of the world. My day begins in contemplative nonviolence, as I call it.
As God disarms and heals me more and more, I find I can be nonviolent to myself. But more, I can better practice interpersonal nonviolence with those around me: my friends, colleagues, neighbors, family, even those who hotly oppose me. And more and more I can practice downward mobility into solidarity with the world’s poor and marginalized.
Practicing gospel nonviolence requires, as St. Paul urged, putting on the mind of the nonviolent Jesus. As we spend time communing with God, we begin to think and see through the eyes of Jesus. We find the wherewithal to renounce violence and resist war. It dawns on us that everyone alive is our sister and brother, that our being reconciled with them—and all of creation—is the divine plan.
“When the practice of nonviolence becomes universal, God will reign on earth as God does in heaven,” Mahatma Gandhi said.
This practice pushes us to pursue a new kind of world, one without war, poverty, nuclear weapons, or global warming. We learn how to carry on his mission by nonviolently resisting systemic injustice, what Jesus termed “taking up the cross.” And though such a course may lead to suffering and persecution, it ultimately ends in Resurrection peace.
We Catholics, whether right-leaning or left-leaning, have an easy capacity to be self-righteous and judgmental. I speak first of all for myself. But the point of the spiritual life, the reason for the sacraments, the purpose of prayer and scripture reading is to help us transcend surliness and violence and become our true selves—that is, God’s beloved sons and daughters, peacemakers to a world of division and war.
For the first three centuries after Christ, a Christian’s vocation suffered none of the confusion and murkiness it suffers today. To be a Christian was to be nonviolent. In those days the church enjoined Christians from serving in the military. The church forbade killing for any reason. And not surprisingly, such steadfast nonviolence led many early companions to martyrdom.
After Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, the church organized itself along the lines of imperial hierarchy and rejected the nonviolence of Jesus. Christians soon joined the military and churchly thinkers developed a construct, based on the thinking of the pagan Cicero, to justify warfare.
Not all Christians were persuaded. Many fled to the desert to keep the gospel of peace alive. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, we call them. They kept the fire of peace burning. Later those fires were stoked by the bright witness of Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi, then the Quakers and abolitionists, right through to our own time in prophets like Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day. Day once called nonviolence “the all-important problem or virtue to be nourished and studied and cultivated.”
They are joined by Martin Luther King Jr., who told the Memphis crowd gathered to hear him speak the night before he was assassinated, “The choice before us is no longer between violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or non-existence.”
But the work remains. We all need to return to that early Christianity, where nonviolence is normative. That means we need to throw away the archaic and obsolete “just war” theory. We need to live according to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and spend our lives ending war, poverty, nuclear weapons, and global warming.
As we embark on this daily Catholic practice, we discover that our God is not a god of war or violence, but the living God of peace and nonviolence. That good news makes every effort worthwhile.