Action challenges war addiction
By JOHN DEAR
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.s birthday, several hundred people of faith and conscience gathered in New York City for a weekend of prayer and discussion about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, the U.S. sanctions on Iraq, the U.S.-funded occupation of Palestine and Kings teachings on nonviolence. Then we all walked to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for a vigil. Forty-seven of us blocked the entrance to the building, held banners calling for an end to the war, sang hymns and read from Kings speeches. After an hour, we were arrested and carted off to jail until early the next morning.
You may say, Well, what good did that do?
My friends and I have come to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words, that years of peace pastorals, encyclicals, sermons, conferences and petitions will not break the cultures addiction to war. As the gospel makes clear, only nonviolent resistance, direct intervention, can help us take a step toward peace.
When we read the lives of the great Catholic peacemakers from Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day, it is clear that their deeds, not just their words, made the difference. They were not concerned with big numbers and dramatic results, but deeply committed to putting the gospel into practice. They spoke out for peace with their own lives. Francis walked into enemy territory in a time of war to meet the sultan. Dorothy sat down in Washington Square in New York City, refusing to cooperate with the U.S. nuclear air raid drills, and was arrested and jailed. Their small, loving actions continue to reverberate throughout history.
Liberation theology insists that we cannot think ourselves into a new way of acting; we have to act our way into a new way of thinking, of being, of living.
Enough books, enough homilies
I had the chance to spend an evening in conversation with César Chávez shortly before he died, and asked him what Catholic peacemakers should do. Without missing a beat, he said, Public action! Public action! Public action! Tell everyone to act publicly for justice and peace. We have had enough books on nonviolence from people like you, he said with a smile, enough homilies, conferences and classes. We need to act publicly for peace and justice.
The Pentagon, White House, weapons manufacturers and corporate executives want us to bicker over questions of morality and the just war theory so they can keep on murdering thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere halfway around the world without any disruption.
But our silence is complicity. To make true peace we have to disturb the false peace. The gospel demands we disrupt the government wars.
Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good, Gandhi taught. We cant worship both the God of peace and the false gods of war. We must obey Gods law of nonviolence, and that requires disobeying the culture of war.
But peacemaking is not my vocation, many people say to me. But every Catholic, every Christian, is called to be a peacemaker, to live the life of active nonviolence in confrontation with the states systemic violence.
Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus declared. They shall be called the sons and daughters of God. Every one of us is a son or daughter of God, every one of us is the beloved child of the God of peace. That means every one of us is a peacemaker. We all need to engage in the public witness for peace, whether we like it or not.
As Catholics living in this culture of war, our first allegiance is not to the Pentagon, the flag, the government, the president or America. It is to the peacemaking Jesus.
Jesus life of action
Jesus lived a life of action. He practiced public, provocative, creative nonviolence, with regular acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. He was a one-person crime wave, breaking every law that violated Gods law of peace. He organized the poor in Galilee and walked to Jerusalem in a campaign of active nonviolence. He entered the corrupt temple, turned over the tables of the moneychangers, drove out the cattle, and declared the place a house of prayer. He did not hurt or kill anyone, but he took dramatic, direct action for justice. For this deed, he was arrested, tried, tortured and executed.
As his followers, every one of us has this same vocation of active nonviolence. We are called to love our enemies. Right now, that means simply trying to stop our government from killing them.
But how can my government be so wrong? And what will people think of me if I get involved in these messy issues?
Our government has been waging war since its founding. The media have long supported the Pentagon, and the church has justified war for centuries in violation of the gospel, so many of us have not learned the wisdom of gospel nonviolence. If we pledge our allegiance to the God of peace and start acting publicly like Jesus did, then many eyebrows will be raised, people will get upset, and some relatives and friends may even walk away from us.
But we will become faithful disciples.
Long ago, as I was beginning to grapple with this scary gospel life, I asked Daniel Berrigan for advice. He said the whole point was to get your story to make sense in the light of the Great Story, the story of Jesus. Nowadays, when people criticize me for acting against the governments wars, I take heart knowing that Jesus faced constant criticism and was eventually assassinated for this work, and I feel my life is beginning to fit into his story. I recall too the last Beatitude: Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice. Rejoice and be glad!
We have to recognize our fear, hear Jesus repeated call not to be afraid, remember that thousands of people are dying because of our government, and stand up and say, No to war and injustice.
Two fundamental factors help me to overcome my fears: prayer and friendship. Through regular quiet meditation, I feel new energy from the Holy Spirit to take that next step. Through the love of my friends, I share my fears and find myself less afraid. With every new step on the road to peace, with every public action for justice, with every creative engagement of nonviolent resistance, we discover our true vocation. We become disciples and apostles like the early Christians. We begin to participate in the paschal mystery of Jesus. We learn what it means to be blessed by the God of peace.
Jesuit Fr. John Dear is the author and editor of 20 books on Christian nonviolence, most recently Living Peace (Doubleday). He lives in New York.
National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002