Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.'
-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Interlude
+ + +
This past Wednesday was the Feast of the Transfiguration; next Friday marks the Assumption of Mary.* I had never paid much attention to the confluence of these two great feasts of the Church before this year -- I had always noticed it, but not known what, if anything, to make of it. Indeed, it seemed to me a little inconvenient for our Eastern brethren (Orthodox and Catholic alike), because they observe a two-week fast leading up to the Assumption, but there is the Transfiguration, one of the greatest feasts of the year, interrupting it, which I kind of thought would break the mood.**
However, as I was looking up a novena to pray to help prepare for the Assumption, which has long been one of my very favorite feasts, I came upon this one, which links the Assumption firmly to the power of God over life and to His own Resurrection. That, of course, is very natural; but what I had not known about until hunting for an icon to go with this poem that I wrote, is the association, going back to the primitive Fathers of the Church, between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection. They taught that the splendor revealed to SS. Peter, James, and John there was a foretaste of the resurrected, glorified body. To set it in apposition to the Assumption -- a foretaste of the Resurrection, in a sort of diptych with an echo of Christ's Resurrection and an anticipation of the final resurrection of all the dead -- is therefore a very striking feature of the Church's calendar.
The Assumption of the Virgin by Nicholas Markell
It is striking, too, that this sequence should come in conjunction with a slough of martyr's days. Notably, there are the memorials of St. Lawrence, arguably the patron of sassy comebacks, who famously told his executioners while he was being roasted alive, "Have a bite, it's done"; St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan who was a missionary to Japan and a profound Marian mystic, who offered his own life in exchange for a prisoner in a concentration camp; and, today, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein, a German Jewess who after years as an atheist converted to Catholicism. She spent years teaching and writing philosophy, until in 1933 she was forced out of that profession by the newly instituted anti-Semitic laws; the next year, she became a Carmelite nun. She and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were eventually murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Today is also remarkable as the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Hiroshima was bombed on the feast of the Transfiguration -- unnatural light against supernatural light, as it were -- and Nagasaki, three years to the day after holy Teresa Benedicta offered up her life. The second atomic bomb hit the ground only a third of a mile from Urakami Cathedral, the city itself having been a major center of the Catholic faith in Japan for three centuries.
I find myself coming back and back to these events in grief. I have never believed that these bombings were right. One of the most basic rules of just warfare is that noncombatants are not to be touched, and one of the express purposes of both bombings was to cow the Japanese into surrender by targeting the civilian population. The Catechism states in no uncertain terms that
The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. ... Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. -- Paras. 2312-2314
The inability or refusal of even many Catholics in this country to call this particular spade a spade, or more precisely a bloody shovel, is a burning sorrow to me. I have heard the arguments a thousand times over: it saved American lives by shortening the war, it saved Japanese lives by shortening the war, the Japanese were guilty of horrific war crimes themselves, pamphlets were dropped on Hiroshima warning people to get out, and on and on. I have no sympathy with such arguments. A crime is a crime, regardless of what it was done to obtain. Killing defenseless people is murder, war or no war. And call it karma if you want, but I think that corrupt actions have a tendency to work backward and poison even the good intentions of the people who do them -- or approve of them after the fact.
And as for the notion of saving lives, well, two things. First, why don't we pretend we can go back in time. We'll go to Nagasaki, and we'll sit down with the little girl whose skin was melted and mutilated by atomic radiation, whose father had already been killed in action and who watched her mother burned alive by the bombing, and we'll explain to her that it was to save Japanese lives that we did that.
"Am I my brother's keeper?"
Secondly, no, it didn't save lives. Because everybody dies eventually anyway. That isn't just a clever turn of phrase about just and unjust methods of warfare, that is the brutal facts of life and how it always ends. God Himself ended His life in death; and that death was followed by resurrection, but death came first. You cannot save a man's life; you can only grant him a reprieve.
And that leads me into one of my chief reasons for being a pacifist. Objecting to war because it causes men to die is, to my mind, a bad reason: you might as well object to sex because it brings men into existence, only to die seventy years later (if they're lucky). True, war brings about many tragic deaths that would otherwise be avoidable, but so does hiking. And for that matter, some defenders of Just War Theory -- my masters C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton among them -- have rightly pointed out that men are quite as likely as not to be adequately prepared for death in a trench or a tank, since the issue is forced upon them. Nothing like imminent death to set your mind on the Four Last Things.
I don't object to war because it makes men corpses. I object to war because it makes men killers.
+ + +
My Lord, you must not stop here. To the minster.
To the cloister. No time to waste. They are coming back, armed. To the altar, to the altar.
All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life
I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy,
And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
I have therefore only to make perfect my will.
My Lord, they are coming. They will break through presently.
You will be killed. Come to the altar.
Make haste, my Lord. Don't stop here talking. It is not right.
What shall become of us, my Lord, if you are killed; what shall become of us?
Peace! be quiet! remember where you are, and what is happening;
No life here is sought for but mine,
And I am not in danger: only near to death.
-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Part II
+ + +
Children, women, and men lose their lives every day. War does not alter the death rate in the slightest: it has been holding steady at 100% for as long as records have been kept on the subject (Enoch and Elijah notwithstanding), and very possibly longer. But war, like murder, involves people in the deliberate snuffing out of human life. Man is the image of God: to take another man's life is to violate that image, to deface the living icon of God. It is impossible to do such a thing without risking corruption of the soul. To do so deliberately and consciously, without just cause and just means, is, apart from repentance, damnation.
The sanctity of human life is a truth with which we have long lost touch; we live in a remarkably cynical age. I'm talking about everything from abortion to war to the death penalty. And, behind these, the despair of eternal values that animates both the realpolitik that effects many of the wars we are and have been entangled in, and the utopian idealism (notably to be found in many forms of socialism) that claims to confront such wars. The despair of the former is no doubt obvious enough; the despair of the latter is subtler, but no less present, for when (as always happens in a broken world) the utopian finds his hopes disappointed -- when he discovers, as Solzhenitsyn said, that the line dividing good from evil runs not between classes or parties but down the middle of every human heart -- he has nothing to fall back on. When neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, he has no faith in a new creature to sustain him.
It is faith in a new creature, the deliberate decision to know all men in Christ, that moves me to be a pacifist. For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then all were dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more (II Cor. 5.14-16).
I don't mean that I think violence is always wrong, for everybody, regardless of circumstance. I believe that I am personally called to pacifism, and would urge others to adopt it, but I condemn no one on grounds of not being a pacifist.
A number of contemporary Christian pacifists, such as Shane Claiborne, have taken the view that Jesus' own teaching and that of the primitive Church was pacifistic, not simply in the sense of renouncing violence -- that is, choosing to forsake something that can sometimes be licit in itself, as a celibate acknowledges the good of marriage, but forsakes it for a different path -- but in the sense of denouncing violence, that is, maintaining that it is always and in every situation wrong. I sympathize with, but cannot adopt, such a position.*** If a man kills another man solely in direct defense of his own life, I can't really bring myself to say that he is spiritually condemned unless he repents of that self-defense. Or that the man who uses violence to prevent his wife or his child from being harmed is reprehensible for doing so. He is doing something that risks his own spiritual well-being, for unnatural actions, even those that incur no guilt, always wound the soul and pose a temptation to it to distort its own moral compass thereafter; and every act of violence, however thoroughly justified (to the extent that they ever can be), provokes a thirst for revenge in the person against whom it is committed and in those who care about them -- so that violence is, almost inevitably, self-perpetuating.
But, provided that his purpose is to defend himself or someone else, and that he is not seeking the other's death for its own sake, I don't believe he has sinned. Indeed, based on the example of St. Joan among others, I would go so far as to say that participating in a truly self-defensive war is, in itself, permissible; though God knows there are precious few of those.
Violence can sometimes be permissible. But I don't think it is ever required, and I think furthermore that it is always better to lay down one's own life rather than taking somebody else's. Shew I unto you a more excellent way: so to reverence the image of God in one's fellow man, that the ugly outlines of one's fellow man cannot overshadow it or blot it out, not even if it should hold a spear or a thorny crown.
I think that pacifism, like celibacy or poverty, is a sign of renouncing something that is sometimes licit -- in this case, self-defense by force -- for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. It is, if you will, an eschatological or prophetic act, displaying hope and faith in the world to come, where violence, injustice, and suffering will have no place: electing as our Master did to suffer these things rather than to inflict them upon others, so as to end in oneself the cycle of revenge that naturally springs from every act of violence. Nonviolence anticipates the new creation: which, as I opened with, is precisely the mystery that was expressed in the Transfiguration of the Lord, and again in the Assumption of the Mother of God. That living self-sacrifice that triumphed over death, that virgin maternity -- these things are the opposite of violence, and signify the victory of peace.
+ + +
You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church.
-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Part II
*For those readers not already familiar, Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven at the close of her life, in a similar way to the assumption of Elijah the Prophet. Opinion is divided in the West about whether she died first, with most theologians believing that she did; in the East, I gather, there is a complete consensus that she died, and in fact the feast is known as the Dormition ("falling asleep") of the Mother of God, rather than as her Assumption.
**These two feasts actually illustrate some of the interesting contrasts between Western and Eastern spirituality (Western and Eastern, not Catholic and Orthodox, because there are a Western-rite Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics: the divergence of spiritualities is really much more geographical than ecclesiastical). I am not as thoroughly acquainted with the East as I would like to be; but I understand from what I have read that the Transfiguration there equates in devotional importance with the Passion in the West, and that, where a Western saint might be associated with the Stigmata, an Eastern saint would be linked with the light of the Transfiguration.
The contrast of accent, between Dormition and Assumption, I can't account for with my present knowledge -- though I suppose it's just possible that it is comparable to the fact that Westerners tend to speak about the Blessed Virgin Mary where Easterners tend to speak about the Mother of God: the same person, of course, but I suppose the one accents her unlikeness to most other believers where the other accents her likeness. I mean, not many people are (or wish to be) virgins through their whole lives, but parenthood is very common; and correspondingly, only a tiny fraction of the human race have ever been assumed into heaven, with or without death, but as for dying, like Aslan said, "Most people have, you know. Even I have." But of course all of this is pure speculation.
***The view that I take is the same as that set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some scholars and activists assert that the ancient Church was definitely pacifist. It is in my opinion indisputable that the Church forbade her members to join the military, and that those who converted who were soldiers already were urgently exhorted to find work that did not involve them in killing people. However, this does not necessarily equate to the strictest pacifistic position that killing is always wrong for any reason at all, and it does not even necessarily involve us in the belief that Just War Theory is false, because the Roman Empire -- like most governments -- could not be relied upon to send her troops only into just wars. This means that, even if Just War Theory is (as the Catholic Church teaches) essentially correct, it would still impinge upon soldiers not to participate in unjust wars, which a great many Roman wars were. As for joining the military, it involved swearing oaths to the genius of the Emperor, which was precisely the symbolic act of idolatry that many of the martyrs were killed for in the first place: one could hardly expect the Church to approve of people entering the army by such a means even if she were not pacifistic.
The Sermon on the Mount is often cited in support of the most rigorously pacifist viewpoint (whether of theology, or of the history of theology): the argument being that Jesus taught us never to retaliate. I am not so sure of this, not because I believe that Jesus did teach us to retaliate -- He certainly didn't -- but because the kind of things the Sermon on the Mount deals with don't appear to me to be coming up in a context of war, or even of injurious violence. The conjunction of being slapped on the right cheek, having your pants sued off you, and being forced to carry a soldier's bags for a while, all suggest that what Christ was speaking of here was the desire to retaliate born of humiliation -- a subtler and a broader thing than the more specific manifestation that violent revenge takes.