Until recently, my general opposition to violence was of little importance, since I was barred from military service in any case. Now, it is still of little importance; save that if the draft is ever reinstated, I will have to register as a conscientious objector.
I am not a pacifist sensu stricto -- I do not believe that violence is always and intrinsically wrong. I don't reject Just War Theory, though I do doubt that more than three or four wars in the history books even have a shot at being regarded as partially just. But I do insist, adamantly, that the best and most efficacious tactics are always those of nonviolence -- similar to what Gandhi called satyagraha or "the force of the truth."
It is a rather disquieting symptom that the retort of many Christians to this will be that it is impractical, rather than to dispute whether it is in fact best. That we must make concessions to a fallen world, I understand and admit; that we must criticize things primarily from the perspective of a fallen world, I deny utterly. Whether something is practical ought always to be considered, and, for a Christian, it ought always to be the last thing considered. There are few things less practical, in a worldly sense, than being crucified. Or, viewed from the other side, there are few things more practical. But -- "the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men."
Before any question of pacifism or semi-pacifism -- or, for that matter, militarism -- can be addressed, this tendency must be addressed: the tendency, marked (in my experience) among American Christians of nearly every stripe, to judge things by a very worldly standard of effectiveness. This is in some ways to be expected, for Christianity has been accustomed to being the dominant religion in all of Western society for considerably more than a thousand years; Christendom has shaped Christianity, even while it was shaped by it. That the faith has acknowledged and developed a theory of just war is one thing, but for war to be a normal and acceptable thing to Christians is wrong.
And why do I speak of war being a normal and acceptable thing to Christians? Because I have almost never heard denunciations of wars from Christian lips. To take a specific example, that Blessed John Paul II opposed the American invasion of Iraq as unjust plainly did not faze many Catholics, including many who regard themselves as thoroughgoing traditionalists. Or consider that Cardinal Ottaviani, one of the most stubbornly conservative opponents of reform at the Second Vatican Council, was a bitter critic of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, acts now practically taken for granted as justified by many ostensibly orthodox Catholics. (Not that the problem is an exclusively Catholic one.)
What is desperately needed in these circumstances is a return to first principles. Chesterton was right: what is wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right. For if we do not first settle what is desirable, we cannot even decide that something less desirable than that is an acceptable compromise -- or, as my logic teacher used to shout, "Define your terms!"
The first principles of Christianity include, among other things, a love of peace, a belief that peace is worth sacrificing oneself for. I take this to be beyond serious dispute. To reference I Corinthians again, St. Paul rebuked the church there for suing one another over property, and remarked -- so blasphemously to capitalism and to all the disciples of Mammon! -- "Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?" Naturally, the immediate response of many people will be that neither Christ nor His apostles decreed that Christians had no right to defend their property, and the fact that that is the immediate response is the problem. The instinctive posture of a Christian ought always to be one of surrender, of gift, of -- well, of imitating our Divine master:
"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed." -- I Peter 2.21-24
Are there reasons for Christians to defend their rights, whether we speak of the courts or of war or of anything else? Certainly. It can be obligatory in some cases, as when others (especially our families) depend on us to do so, for their well-being. But these things must be recognized for what they are: exceptions to the obvious pattern of the New Testament. Valid exceptions, but exceptions nevertheless. If we lose sight of the ideal -- the disciple who forsakes father and mother and his own life also -- we will be adrift in a world with a faulty compass. If our values are derived from exceptions instead of from ideals, we may be confident that we are secretly setting up alternate ideals that serve our own purposes and even our own lusts. And the very truth contained in these exceptions will work against us, making them harder to perceive and so harder to cure. "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"
Dorothy Day -- a devoutly Catholic anarchist and pacifist, whose cause for sainthood was recently endorsed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops -- used to remark that she was a pacifist in the class war as well as in warfare. Likewise. I'd like to spend my next few posts exploring nonviolence in national war, class war, and the culture war. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.