Prayer over the Offerings for the Assumption

Let this oblation of our devotion ascend unto thee, O Lord: and, at the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually yearn after thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Pacifist Manifesto

I've written before, especially in the wake of the report to Congress on the outcome of state-sanctioned torture under Bush and Obama, of my pacifist convictions. I've wanted for some time to outline them more clearly; they express and govern, not simply an attitude to war, but an attitude to all interpersonal interactions, that I believe is badly needed in this country. St John Paul II's words about a culture of death hovering over the world apply just as much to the money-worshippers, war criminals, abortion advocates, and racist bigots of America and western Europe as they do to the fanatical religious terrorists, child-conscripting warlords, police state oppressors, and drug-trafficking butcher mafiosi of the rest of the world.

Violence is an abhorrent thing. This is the principle from which all pacifist conviction proceeds; and it is a principle that, though simple and obvious enough, is worth stating, because an awful lot of the time, debates over things like Just War Theory or gun control start at the wrong end -- with practicalities. I have nothing against being practical, but starting with the practical is the wrong way to do it, because in order for something to be practical, we need first to know what it is we are practicing and why. The inherent flaw of all mere pragmatism is its breezy uselessness; action, especially revolution, comes only from idealists.

Violence is abhorrent because life is precious. Life; that is, the lives of all human persons. (Though a legitimate and interesting inquiry, I won't be touching on animal rights here.) Any ethic that does not accept the sanctity of human life cannot be pacifistic, which is one of the reasons that the American Left has not succeeded in being consistently anti-war for a long time. It has opposed the Right, certainly; but mere opposition to the Right is of no importance in itself. But the support the Left gives to abortion*, assisted suicide, and euthanasia makes it impossible for it to be really pacifistic, because the essential quality that makes violence wrong has already been dispensed with. It is of course equally impossible for the Right to be pacifistic (not that it would be), because, for all its co-option of the pro-life cause, its typical endorsement of the death penalty, its military hawkishness, its hostility to immigration and public health services, and its acceptance of torture all defile any claim to regard life as sacred.

Both parties being wrong? Whodathunkit?

Now, one of the corollaries of the sanctity of life is the duty and right to preserve one's own life. The Church teaches, and I accept, that this makes violent acts to defend oneself or someone else against a violent aggressor morally legitimate. This is the root of the concepts of self-defense, protection of others (especially but not only one's family), law enforcement, and Just War Theory -- all of which I accept in principle. It's impossible to deny that every one of these ideas, as practiced by humans, is subject to human imperfection, and increasingly so the more humans are involved. Nevertheless, the maxim stands that Abuse does not abolish use; and one could hardly demand that, say, a man stand aside and let a home invader rape his wife, on the grounds that US conduct in Vietnam was reprehensible.

So, I acknowledge self-defensive violence -- let us say, chivalry -- to be intrinsically allowable. But I renounce it. Renunciation is a mirror image of denunciation: where denunciation condemns a thing in itself as bad, renunciation (what the doctors and mystics have called the Way of Negation, or apophatic theology) seeks God by forsaking a recognized good. Pacifism, set beside chivalry, is thus like celibacy set beside marriage, fasting set beside feasting, or vowed obedience set beside personal liberty.

But non-violence in itself is not very significant, for the same reason that not having sex isn't very significant unless you use it to refocus your attention and energies toward God. That reverence for life and for one's fellow-man has to be more than merely negating the impulse to injure him for liking Nickelback; more, even, than choosing, difficult and worthwhile though it is, to forsake one's right to defend oneself, out of respect for the image of God even in an aggressor. I identify the following principles as a fully pacifist ethos, the body of non-violence animated by the soul of charity.

1. Magnanimity. It's difficult to get this idea into a single word; magnanimity in the Aristotelian sense, which my Thomist readers may think of, is a somewhat different thing: generally it means being above revengefulness, or more generally, the opposite of being petty. That is included here. But more than that, the idea I'm going for as an outworking of pacifism is the deliberate choice to think as well of other people as the evidence allows you to. In other words, taking their words and actions in the kindest, most generous sense you know how; considering whether they may not be right, not least because it's hard to be unbiased towards oneself; remembering that even if what they say or do is truly unfair, or worse, they may have all sorts of extenuating circumstances of which we can have no knowledge, and extending them the benefit of the doubt, because for all we know they are doing as rightly as they know how -- and perhaps a lot better than we would in their shoes.

This is a hard virtue to master, because of course it's (usually) easy to think well of people who are nice to you, so that magnanimity is mostly called for when dealing with jerks. This, too, is why I speak of a deliberate choice, and not a sunny disposition. Having a sunny disposition is a capital thing, but it's also easily dispelled in most people, and when things get rough, a pleasant temper is no substitute for a will firm in the habit of love.

2. Restraint. This virtue could be flippantly summed up as "the opposite of comboxes." It's funny and sad that patience, which is theoretically so easy to practice at a keyboard (if only for the mechanical reason that it takes longer to type something than it does to say it), should be so nearly absent from the internet. Of course, it isn't only on the internet that we need patience; it's easy to see the chinks in a Christian's practice of moderation and long-suffering at Starbucks or in traffic.

It's more than just patience, though; restraint involves recognizing the limits of what we can and can't know. We can guess that, say, the defendant in such-and-such a case is guilty/a racist/likes Nickelback, but we can't know it. And we shouldn't pretend that we do. We can suspect that so-and-so who wrote that nasty article about us is a closeted and self-hating homophobe, or anti-Catholic, or a crypto-Marxist, but we can't know it. And we shouldn't claim to. It isn't merely that such behavior is rude and unloving, though it certainly is. It's that this lack of reverence for the image of God in one's brother, this refusal to extend the grace and charity and generosity that are the stuff of life (for all life is lived as a gift from others), is precisely the root of violence. Restraining your violent hands is mere repression if you don't do so by opening your heart to love and compassion, begging the grace to do so.

Matthias Gruenewald, The Small Crucifixion, 1510

3. Forgiveness. It's startling to me, and tragic, to see how little this virtue is practiced among Christians in this country. There's no shortage of bitterness, wrath, and rage-porn (thanks, HuffPost!), especially when it comes to horrible things like child abuse in the Church. There is also a great deal of the opposite problem of invalid indulgence: i.e., waving things away, pretending that they don't matter. This is lousy ethics, because it's lousy theology. An indulgence (roughly, letting someone off from a punishment) can only be granted to someone who has been forgiven already, and forgiving a sin requires confession and contrition -- i.e., acknowledging sin for what it is, and being sorry and saying so -- to come first. (The sickening behavior of Archbishop Nienstedt and the officials of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St Paul is an example of utter failure to confess or to be contrite, and of attempting to acquire indulgences and apply them to others to ameliorate the penalties of unabsolved sins.)

And mark this: of its very nature, forgiveness is a gift; and gifts cannot be demanded. It's excluded by the nature of what a gift is -- something unearned, an act of generosity on the part of the giver. No justice can bind any person to forgive. Of course, if we refuse to forgive, then we will not be forgiven, but that seems to have more to do with the cosmic laws of spiritual causality than with a rule imposed arbitrarily from without.

Nor, however fashionable it may be to point out the psychological and even physiological benefits of forgiveness, is it really possible to forgive in order to benefit oneself by forgiving. That, too, is contrary to the nature of forgiveness. It turns the gift into a kind of purchase, making the words of absolution a price for one's own peace of mind. No. Forgiveness is about the other person, not ourselves. Joss Whedon, though an atheist, knows far better: "To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It isn't given because it's deserved, it's given because it's needed." Or, in Pauline language, While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

You can't, of course, compel repentance in another soul. If you could, we'd be living in a world of robots; the fact that the robots were made of flesh and bone would make no difference to that. But you can be ready to extend forgiveness at any moment, hoping for it, praying for it, opening one's heart to it. And that means ...

4. Bearing the Cost. This is not different in substance from forgiveness; in Hannah Hurnard's beautiful allegory Hind's Feet on High Places, the central character encounters a little speaking flower which says to her, "My name is 'Bearing-the-Cost,' but some call me 'Forgiveness.'" But the two do differ in expression. Forgiveness, insofar as it involves repentance and reconciliation, is the perfection of bearing the cost; bearing the cost is the decision to open oneself to forgiveness. And this decision is, metaphysically, the embrace of martyrdom.

Make no mistake: it is far easier (for most of us) to face forgiving someone than to face death, especially death by torture, as so many martyrs did. And forgiveness can be approached, though not completed, with pretty mixed motives.** But there is a continuum between the two decisions. Both involve the deliberate choice to open oneself to injury, to accept the anguish of being victimized by another person's sin, rather than retaliating. The Crucifixion is the model of this decision: Jesus did not run away; He did not resist; He didn't even ask them to stop torturing Him. He received the sins of Gentile and Jew, state and church, crowd and elite, stranger and friend, into Himself, and returned only love.

Very few of us will be called to that kind of self-sacrifice in the body. Most if not all of us, I suspect, will get the chance to make that kind of self-sacrifice of the soul; will suffer some injury or injustice so far from any justification as to leave open to us the possibility of a vicarious offering of ourselves to God for the sake of the offenders, praying with our Master, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

*I'd add that contraception, in my opinion, fails to fully acknowledge the sanctity of life. However, this, though important, is a related issue rather than a directly relevant one, and -- with certain exceptions -- contraceptives are generally concerned to prevent conception, rather than to procure the death of an embryonic human being, so that referring to contraceptives as a form of violence is at best misleading. Hence, I won't go further into the matter than to acknowledge here that it is a related and important topic of its own.

**Not that mixed here should be taken to mean false or thoroughly self-centered. Self-interest and even fear can prompt us to try to forgive; but the divine spark of love, however small, must be invested into the action if it is to be forgiveness. Thankfully, God distributes these sparks pretty freely.


  1. You explain your pacifism very well. There is one point that I have big problems with.

    "Of course, if we refuse to forgive, then we will not be forgiven, but that seems to have more to do with the cosmic laws of spiritual causality than with a rule imposed arbitrarily from without." This sounds suspiciously like "karma." There has to be something better to explain the words of Jesus.

    1. Well, to the extent that it does correspond with the Hindu notion of karma, I'd identify that as something Hinduism got right, rather that seeing in it an objection to this mode of understanding forgiveness. Naturally I am open to correction; but what I've said here seems to me to be very consonant with the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness. The Prayer of St Francis (which isn't of course a dogmatic document, but is certainly a classic of Catholic spirituality) says, among other things, "It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned". Another way of summarizing it is that refusal to extend grace to others is, in and of itself, a refusal of grace as such; which then means that that sin of refusal, so long as we persist in it, remains unforgiven, by the nature of things.

      It seems to me that the alternative would be to conceive of forgiveness strictly in terms of Divine decision. This analogy (I take for granted, since God transcends the mind of man, that *all* ways of speaking about God are necessarily analogical) has certain advantages, as for instance that it emphasizes the personal nature of forgiveness; one of the drawbacks of the analogy I happen to prefer is that it can make absolution sound mechanical, rather than relational. Some of the drawbacks of the idea of God granting us forgiveness in response to our willingness to forgive others are that it could be (mis)taken to mean that God grants us pardon *on the ground that* we've forgiven others, as a kind of spiritual payment that we've earned, which as I said above doesn't match the very meaning of forgiveness; another is that, while the fairness of the system is obvious enough -- you can perhaps expect others to do what you find yourself unable to do, but you can hardly expect others to do what you point-blank refuse to do -- it can edge into the concept of God as being stingy with forgiveness in the midst of calling us to be generous with it, rather than recognizing that the Divine forgiveness that animates human forgiveness is a single, self-luminous thing.

    2. The problem I have is only with the suggestion that there is a "cosmic" (which I take as meaning impersonal) law at work, rather than forgiveness being something extended by God or men.

  2. I can understand and respect the decision to bear wrongs and injuries rather than fight to protect oneself. But surely we're not merely permitted to fight in order to protect others from harm, but have some obligation to do so?

    1. That is a tricky question to answer, because I believe that we sometimes do and sometimes do not.

      Considered simply, I believe the answer to this question is "No." The reason for this is that, looking to our divine Example in Gethsemane, He not only gave Himself up to the soldiers, He not only instructed His disciples to flee rather than to fight, but actively rebuked St Peter's attempt to defend Him and healed the soldier whom he had injured. Nor is this kind of reaction confined to Christ, which might allow the possibility that His supreme mission justified an irregular approach to self-defense; less than a century later, St Ignatius of Antioch, writing a number of letters to local churches in the Aegean basin and in Rome, implored them not even to try to mount a legal defense for him, so that he might be crowned with martyrdom; and the stories of the other martyrs nearly all contain companions who might have effected some type of resistance, of whatever kind, and did not do so, not infrequently on the instructions of the martyrs themselves. Today being the feast of the blessed martyrs John Fisher and Thomas More, the latter's last words to the man who beheaded him (at least, as told by Robert Bolt) spring to mind: "I forgive you right readily. Be not afraid of your office: you send me to God."

      Where, in my view, this gets tricky is when it comes to those to whom we have a special obligation -- particularly our family members and most of all in the case of children who haven't reached the age of reason or are otherwise unable to defend themselves. Partly for this reason, I wonder whether it's possible to be a thoroughgoing pacifist unless one is also childless, which will of course mean that strict pacifism will nearly always be paired with celibacy among Catholics. (Childless couples, or couples whose children are of age, would be in a slightly different position; there, I am old-fashioned enough to feel the obligation of a husband to defend his wife -- unless both are committed pacifists.) In that circumstance I think that a mitigated pacifism -- so, for instance, conscientious objection and abstention from civil office (since, in the last resort, the state rests practically upon violence, whether illicit or licit), especially police work -- is probably the least conflicted solution for those who did want to devote themselves to this vocation while married.

      One thing I will point out, though, is that I believe we're apt to feel a false sense of obligation here. To take the ridiculous, but traditional, example of The Supervillain forcing Our Hero to choose to save either his beloved or a bus full of innocent people from the Evil Death Ray of Evil, we rightly sympathize with the impossible position into which he's been put. But we sometimes fail to notice that, no matter what Our Hero or The Supervillain does, the responsibility for any deaths is *entirely* on the shoulders of the villain, who determined to use the Evil Death Ray of Evil in the first place, and invented this situation primarily to torment Our Hero. He certainly wishes Our Hero to feel himself implicated in any ensuing death; he may even think that he has truly polluted him by so doing. But nothing (in the orthodox version of this thought experiment/comic book plot) is forcing The Supervillain's hand in the first place. He'd be killing the beloved and/or the bus full of innocents anyway; nor, to be frank and even perhaps a bit cynical, am I optimistic that he can be trusted to stick to his side of the deal he's struck with Our Hero. In short, our failure to defend another person is not *necessarily* a moral failure, because the aggressor is always the party primarily responsible. Now, if our failure is caused by indifference to the fate of others or by inner complicity with the aggressor, then yes, we are guilty in our own degree; but that would be a problem with our souls anyway, and is revealed rather than created by the Evil Death Ray of Evil.

    2. For an even lighter look at some related problems, the following links may be helpful:

  3. Ah, but the usual situation of defending others is not one of being forced to choose between one set of victims of the villain and another. It's, "Shall we stop the Nazi invaders or let them conquer unchecked?" or, "Shall I stand by here while A kills B, or try to stop the killing — or maybe just walk away?"