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Fellowship of Reconciliation teaches faith in the power of nonviolence


In 1969 the Fellowship of Reconciliation invited me to be in a group it was sending to observe the war in Vietnam. The 10 days I spent with this 9-person team changed my life. I saw how horrible the war really was. I wrote a book about it and in 1970 ran successfully for Congress on an antiwar platform.

I also met Tom Fox of NCR fame in Saigon; one Sunday evening he served my Mass in the cathedral.

I was therefore pleased a year ago, in June 1998, when Jesuit Fr. John Dear became the first Catholic and the first Jesuit to be the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

When the crisis over Kosovo required me to give some thought to the NATO bombing, I reread recent issues of Fellowship, the group’s journal, which appears six times a year. The message there was the same one the fellowship has been preaching since its founding in 1914: pacifism and nonviolence. I wished again, as I have for years, that I could agree totally with that message and act accordingly. Indeed I hope that someday I might accept, as good Christians can and perhaps should, the strong tradition of pacifism in the Catholic tradition.

My mind seems to concur with the view of Elie Wiesel that the bombing by NATO is the only way to try to stop the crimes against humanity going on in Kosovo. But all my instincts go with the message and the spirit of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The fellowship wants total nuclear disarmament. It deplores the fact that the United States still retains a nuclear arsenal of 8,420 operational nuclear weapons. In November 1998, the fellowship and a number of key religious groups, including Pax Christi USA, developed a new abolitionist covenant. It states that “the maintenance and development of nuclear arsenals is a sin against God ... and God’s creation.”

The case for nonviolence has been made powerfully and persistently by the fellowship. It points to the fact that the 19-year campaign of nonviolence by Gandhi forced the British to yield to India’s claims for independence. The fellowship advocated and activated nonviolence in World War I when it obtained exemption from the draft law in the United States for conscientious objectors. In World War II it struggled against the internment of Japanese-Americans.

In later years the fellowship initiated a reconciliation program between the United States and the Soviet Union. More recently the group, the oldest and largest interfaith peace organization in the world, has joined the worldwide crusade to ban land mines and has been militant in its denunciation of U.S. bombing of Iraq.

In December 1998, Dear published an eloquent plea in USA Today to stop economic sanctions against Iraq which, he wrote, have caused more than 1 million Iraqi deaths, according to the United Nations.

The broad-based activities of the group are chronicled in Fellowship magazine, the oldest continually published peace journal in the United States. The 65 volumes of this journal constitute a history of the international movement for peace through nonviolence.

Dear, 39, spent 8 months in jail for hammering on an F-15 fighter in an act of protest. He has been arrested over 50 times for acts of civil disobedience. In a conversation some time ago I urged Dear to earn a doctorate in peace studies and teach in that area in a Jesuit university. But he feels called to the apostolate of working diligently for peace through nonviolence. The fellowship is an organization precisely fitted to his aspirations. He works with its 32-person staff and lives in a Jesuit community in New York City.

As I view the agonies of more than 500,000 refugees from Kosovo I wish I had a deeper faith in the power of nonviolence. The theology of pacifism has deep roots in the gospels and in Catholic tradition. If the official Catholic church moved toward the doctrine of nonviolence the inhibitions against war could be outstanding. Such movement is possible, since it is becoming more and more impossible to find the seven conditions necessary to have a “just war.”

In the interim, Catholics who dread and hate war will be looking to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the wisdom it has acquired in its 84 years of existence. It will continue to denounce NATO bombing while at the same time condemning the incredible cruelty of Slobodan Milosevic.

It is always challenging to read Fellowship. Its most recent issue features an interview with Jonathan Schell, long the prophetic voice calling for the destruction of all nuclear weapons. The magazine is filled with voices and profiles of religious people around the world who are completely convinced that no Christian may ever kill.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation and its 23 affiliated religious groups is hoping for greater Catholic participation. I urge everyone to subscribe to Fellowship for $15 at 521 North Broadway, Nyack NY, 10960. Doing so might change your life as it did mine.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999