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Nonviolence is possible, and no longer just an option

By Eileen Egan
Oris Books, 350 pages, $22
To order: phone 1-800-258-5838


A fellow peacemaker once asked Dorothy Day if she could produce a “clear, theoretical, logical pacifist manifesto.” In more than three decades of leading the Catholic Worker movement, she couldn’t do it.

Day could only describe the personal transformation that alone can break age-old cycles of violence: “Unless we use the weapons of the spirit, denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying with him and rising with him, men will go on fighting, and often from the highest motives, believing they are fighting defensive wars for justice and self-defense against present or future aggression.”

In effect, Day’s answer was to offer herself and her struggle to follow the nonviolent Jesus as her manifesto. It’s therefore fitting that Eileen Egan concludes Peace Be With You, her 350-page compendium of reflections on gospel nonviolence, with a short biography of her friend, Dorothy Day.

The book’s timing is inspired. Egan’s long journey as a peacemaker began in the ashes of Europe following World War II when she worked with refugees as part of Catholic Relief Services. She recalls standing in the ruins of Dresden in 1945 as a clergy companion explained why hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths were the unintended and unfortunate, but justified, result of the Allied need to break German morale. The unimaginable carnage of world war -- 52 million dead, half of them civilians, untold millions more injured and displaced, a whole global generation damaged in spirit by anguish and anger -- became an altar on which Egan pledged her life to the works of mercy and peace.

Over 50 years and many millions more victims later, Egan is still keeping her vow and has now provided a textbook on war and peace for a global classroom focused on Kosovo. As a global audience follows the conflict in real time by broadcast news and Internet links, the time is ripe to ask if any modern war can bring peace or stability without inflicting even greater damage on everyone, sowing the seeds of future revenge.

Peace Be With You is part history, part theology, part biography, part essay and personal memoir. Egan provides a comprehensive history of the development of both Christian pacifism and its shadow nemesis within Christian thought -- the “just war” theory.

What Jesus taught

Egan’s first lesson is that pacifism is not heroic hyperbole over and above “ordinary Christianity.” Nonviolence is an essential teaching of Jesus. Resist evil, but do not retaliate if attacked. Turn the other cheek; if they take your tunic, give your cloak as well; go the extra mile; love your enemies; do good to those who hate you. If you would expose and disarm the unjust aggressor, lay down your life if necessary. But do not hate or kill anyone.

Egan lets the early church witness to this hard teaching. For three centuries, the church helped transform a world as violent as our own by accepting martyrdom in imitation of the crucified, risen Christ. It was only as the church gained official status under Constantine that theologians no less than Ambrose and Augustine opened the door to the idea of a “just war” as understood by the Roman philosopher Cicero.

The rest is history, a bloody history for which the church must bear its share of responsibility for the crusades, the Inquisition, the fratricidal religious wars of Europe, the many pogroms against the Jews and the violent conquest of the New World. In opening the door to justified violence (as Erasmus mocked, after that every war was justified), the church traded its witness to martyrdom for a history of aggression and retaliation whose latest chapter we now confront in the Balkans.

Drawing on this “just war” theory, many Christians take for granted that a war can be justified if it:

  • is declared by a legitimate authority for a just cause;
  • is waged with the right intention and as a last resort;
  • is conducted with proportionate and appropriate means;
  • distinguishes civilians from combatants;
  • has a reasonable chance for a positive outcome;
  • is followed by right conduct after hostilities cease.

Applied to the Kosovo war, people of conscience may believe that NATO is right in waging a sustained bombing campaign against Serbia. Civilian deaths at the hands of Serbian security forces in Kosovo, or among the refugees due to disease and the shock of displacement, or in the Allied bombing raids, are absorbed in light of this belief.

Meanwhile policy makers both deny and prepare for escalation. Many now assert the need for ground troops -- who, we are told, will accomplish what the experts say they knew all along massive bombing couldn’t.

Beneath it all, however, simmers the uneasy feeling that this conflict is just beginning, that any cease-fire will only delay claims for revenge until the next act of official aggression or terrorism. Is there no alternative to this madness? No better way?

Hard work and wisdom

The hard work and wisdom of peacemaking fills much of Egan’s text. There are no simple formulas nor easy answers. But the charge that nonviolence doesn’t work is challenged by the witness of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and the near-miraculous defusing of a potential bloodbath in the Philippines by church-led nonviolent demonstrations that forced the abdication of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The fall of communism and the end of the Cold War was likewise triggered by nonviolent resistance in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and by a pope who had no divisions but who had an inspired sense of the pulse of history.

There are prophets of peace many of us have never heard of whose commitment to building the infrastructure of justice and mercy has perhaps prevented many wars: Argentine artist Aldolfo Pérez Esquivel, American peace activists Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Spanish Jesuit Jon Sobrino, Catholic bishops and other world religious figures who helped forge and pass the dramatic condemnation of modern warfare at Vatican II, which included church support for conscientious objectors. Egan tells their stories well because she was there -- as activist, writer and an important leader in many of the peace organizations that have worked to educate popular opinion.

For Egan, Christian pacifism is impossible without the Eucharist, works of mercy, prayer and fasting, and the support of community.

As we approach the end of the most violent century in human history, nonviolence is neither impossible nor is it any longer just an option. In the increasing interdependence of human cultures and economies, every conflict can become a world war. As more and more destructive weapons proliferate and threaten the planet itself, nonviolence is revealed as a necessary threshold in human evolution. Hatred is killing us, perpetrator and victim alike.

The truth about peace has never done well against the rhetoric of war, especially when the faces of innocent victims haunt us and indignation moves us to secretly cheer blunt force that stops terror and punishes the bully. Yet our consciences are troubled. If only Jesus would give us a “clear, theoretical, logical pacifist manifesto.”

Egan knows, along with Dorothy Day, why the life of a Sermon on the Mount Christian is often a “long loneliness.” Peace Be With You is a good place to begin our own journey of disarmament.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s liturgical magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999