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These days are what I think of in private moments as “wiggle” time, as in trying like crazy to wiggle out from under difficult issues. I, for one, would love to wiggle out from under the difficult sayings about nonviolence that keep creeping out of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. I would love to believe that the 13th-century construct called the just war theory could be, with a minimum of prodding, overlaid on today’s circumstances. I could then wash my hands of nagging concern and wish the warriors well, keeping an eye out, of course, to make sure things don’t get out of hand on the battlefield.

The reality is, of course, that while the language of just war and concern for civilians has entered our vocabulary, even at the highest levels of war planning, once the bombers get rolling, precious little stands in the way of escalation.

Smart bombs and missiles in Afghanistan have already given way to gravity bombs and cluster bombs and stray munitions of all sorts. Real people are getting killed, innocent people.

And the words of Gen. Omar Bradley become chilling: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. … The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. … We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

Those were the words above a letter from Jesuit Fr. Matthew Ruhl, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City, Mo., published in a recent newsletter to the congregation. He wrote:

“One of the most distressing teachings of Jesus for me comes from the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.’ ”

Jesus often taught by using hyperbole, Ruhl wrote, as in the instance when he said one must hate father and mother or that hands and feet that offend should be cut off and eyes plucked out if they cause a disciple to sin. They were teachings meant to make a point about sin, not to be taken literally.

But the teaching about resisting evil is not hyperbole “because Jesus really did turn the other cheek,” said Ruhl, when Jesus refused to defend himself in the Garden, when he chose to go to his death rather than offer resistance to evil.

Distressingly little wiggle room there.

Ruhl wrote approvingly of Gandhi and his belief in the force of nonviolence, and then he ventures into territory where many won’t tread -- World War II, seen by many as the ultimate just war. “At war’s end, 50 million people were dead. Can we ever speak of victory when 50 million people have been killed? Would a program of forceful nonviolence have been more successful? I hardly believe it could have been worse.”

There have been successes, Ruhl believes, in 20th-century use of forceful nonviolence: In the Indian civil rights legislation passed in South Africa in 1914; when India gained independence from England in 1947; in the civil rights legislation in the United States in 1964; in the popular uprising that ended the Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986; in the tumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa in 1991.

“It is my belief,” wrote Ruhl, “after years of prayer, contemplation, study, after years of living in inner-city North America, after having lived and studied in one of the two cities hit by an atomic bomb, that the way to respond to a violently aggressive enemy is through a program of forceful nonviolence.

“It is my belief that it is impossible to love your enemy and kill him at the same time. I can no longer abide the taking of human life or the use of violence as a means to any end. It runs counter to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.”

Naive? Impossible? Or distressingly Christian?

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001