Of Guns and Pacifism 


The Gospels tell us that after King Herod died, an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, telling him: “Get up! Take the Child and His Mother and go to the land of Israel, for those seeking the Child’s life are now dead.”  (Matthew 2, 19-20). The angel, it would seem, spoke prematurely, the Child, the Infant-Christ, was still in danger, is still in danger, is still mortally threatened, and is still being tracked down, right to this day.

God still lies vulnerable and helpless in our world and is forever under attack. All forms of violence, of aggression, of intimidation, of bullying, of ego-parading, of seeking advantage, are still trying to kill the child. And the Child is threatened too in less-overt ways, namely, whenever we turn a blind eye on those who lie helpless and exposed in war, poverty, and economic injustice, we are still killing the Child. Herod may be dead, but he has many friends. The child is forever threatened.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the Trappist monks in Algeria who were martyred by terrorists in 1996. Some months before being taken captive and executed, they had been visited by the terrorists; ironically on Christmas Eve, just as they were preparing to celebrate the Christmas Eve Eucharist. The terrorists, heavily armed with guns, left after a tense standoff wherein the monks would did not agree to give them the medical supplies they were demanding. But the monks, understandably, were badly shaken. What was their response?  They went immediately to their chapel and sang the Christmas mass, putting special emphasis on how Jesus entered this world radically vulnerable and helpless and was immediately under threat. Their measured, eventual response honored this immediate reaction: Living now under the threat of death, they refused to arm themselves or accept military protection, believing that there was an unbridgeable incongruity between what they had vowed themselves to and the presence of guns inside their monastery. Moreover, after that initial encounter with armed terrorists, their Abbott, Christian de Cherge, introduced a special mantra into his daily prayer: Disarm me! Lord, disarm me! Living under the threat of arms, he prayed daily to remain disarmed, physically helpless against potential attack, to be like a newborn child, like the newborn Jesus, exposed and helpless before the threat of violence.

But that’s not an easy thing to imitate, especially since most everything in our world today beckons us towards its opposite, namely, to arm ourselves, to counter every threat, gun for gun, to meet all potential threat with armed resistance. It’s the times: Like Christian de Cherge and his community of monks, we too live under the threat of terrorism and widespread violence.  And our paranoia is heightened as, daily, our news reports give us images of terrorist shootings, bombings, beheadings, mass-shooting, street violence, and domestic violence. We live in violent times. Understandably there’s an itch to arm ourselves.

So how realistic is it to refuse to arm ourselves? How realistic is it to pray to be disarmed?

Christianity has always defended both justified self-defense and just war. Beyond even this, no prudent society would ever choose to disband its police force and its military and these, necessarily, carry guns and other weapons. Indeed it might be said that those who argue for radical pacifism can do so only because they are already protected by police and soldiers with guns. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, except for the guns and weapons that protect us, we all stand helpless before the criminals and psychopaths of this world.  But, that needs some nuance.

Among other things, there’s still a powerful case to be made for remaining personally disarmed. The late Cardinal of Chicago, Francis George, argued it this way: We need pacifists in the same way as we need vowed religious celibates, that is, we need gospel-inspired persons to give a particular, sometimes-singular, witness to what the Gospels ultimately point to, namely, to a place beyond our present imagination, a heaven within which we will relate to each other in an intimacy which we cannot yet imagine and where there will be no arms or weapons. In heaven, we will be utterly defenseless before each other. There will be no guns in heaven.

This reality is already imaged in the newborn Christ, helpless and vulnerable and already so threatened.

It is also imaged in our own modern-day pacifists, from Dorothy Day to Martin Luther King, from Mother Teresa to Christian de Cherge, from Daniel Berrigan to Larry Rosebaugh, we have been gifted by the witness of Gospel-inspired persons who, in the face of physical threat and violence, chose to risk their lives rather than pick up a gun. The times are forcing us too to choose: Do we arm ourselves or not?

Because those seeking the life of the child are still around, paranoid folks, like King Herod, killing indiscriminately for fear that a helpless child might soon threaten their throne and their privilege.

The Struggle to Love Our Neighbor


“The most damaging idolatry is not the golden calf but enmity against the other.” The renowned anthropologist, Rene Girard, wrote that and its truth is not easily admitted.  Most of us like to believe that we are mature and big-hearted and that we do love our neighbors and are free of enmity towards others. But is this so?

In our more honest, more accurately perhaps, in our more humble moments, I think that all of us admit that we don’t really love others in the way that Jesus asked. We don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t really love our enemies. We don’t wish good to those who wish us harm. We don’t bless those who curse us. And we don’t genuinely forgive those who murder our loved ones. We are decent, good-hearted persons, but persons whose heaven is still too-predicated on needing an emotional vindication in the face of anyone or anything that opposes us. We can be fair, we can be just, but we don’t yet love the way Jesus asked us to, that is, so that our love goes out to both those who love us and to those who hate us. We still struggle, mightily, mostly unsuccessfully, to wish our enemies well.

But for most of us who like to believe ourselves mature that battle remains hidden, mostly from ourselves. We tend to feel that we are loving and forgiving because, essentially, we are well-intentioned, sincere, and able to believe and say all the right things; but there’s another part of us that isn’t nearly so noble.  The Irish Jesuit, Michael Paul Gallagher, (who died recently and will be dearly missed) puts this well when he writes (In Extra Time): “You probably don’t hate anyone, but you can be paralyzed by daily negatives. Mini-prejudices and knee-jerk judgements can produce a mood of undeclared war. Across barbed wire fences, invisible bullets fly.”  Loving the other as oneself, he submits, is for most of us an impossible uphill climb.

So where does that leave us? Serving out a life-sentence of mediocrity and hypocrisy? Professing to loving our enemies but not doing it? How can we profess to be Christians when, if we are honest, we have admit that we are not measuring up to the litmus-test of Christian discipleship, namely, loving and forgiving our enemies?

Perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are. If we are still struggling, we are still healthy.  In making us, it seems, God factored in human complexity, human weakness, and how growing into deeper love is a life-long journey. What can look like hypocrisy from the outside can in fact be a pilgrimage, a Camino walk, when seen within a fuller light of patience and understanding.

Thomas Aquinas, in speaking about union and intimacy, makes this important distinction. He distinguishes between being in union with something or somebody in actuality and being in union with that someone or something through desire. This has many applications but, applied in this case; it means that sometimes the heart can only go somewhere through desire rather than in actuality. We can believe in the right things and want the right things and still not be able to bring our hearts onside. One example of this is what the old catechisms (in their unique wisdom) used to call “imperfect contrition”, that is, the notion that if you have done something wrong that you know is wrong and that you know that you should feel sorry for, but you can’t in fact feel sorry for, then if you can wish that you could feel sorry, that’s contrition enough, not perfect, but enough. It’s the best you can do and it puts you at the right place at the level of desire, not a perfect place, but one better than its alternative.

And that “imperfect” place does more for us than simply providing the minimal standard of contrition needed for forgiveness. More importantly it accords rightful dignity to whom and to what we have hurt.

Reflecting on our inability to genuinely love our neighbor, Marilynne Robinson submits that, even in our failure to live up what Jesus asks of us, if we are struggling honestly, there is some virtue. She argues this way: Freud said that we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves, and no doubt this is true. But since we accept the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbor is as worthy of love as ourselves, then in our very attempt to act on Jesus’ demand we are acknowledging that our neighbor is worthy of love even if, at that this point in our lives, we are too weak to provide it.

And that’s the crucial point: In continuing to struggle, despite our failures, to live up to the Jesus’ great commandment of love we acknowledge the dignity inherent in our enemies, acknowledge that they are worthy of love, and acknowledge our own shortcoming. That’s “imperfect” of course, but, I suspect, Thomas Aquinas would say it’s a start!

Sensitivity and Suffering


Daniel Berrigan, in one of his famous quips, once wrote: Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider carefully how good you are going to look on wood!

In saying this, he was trying to highlight something that’s often radically misunderstood from almost every side, namely, how and why authentic religion brings suffering into our lives.

On the one hand, all too common is the idea that if you welcome God into your life you will have an easier walk through life; God will spare you from many of the illnesses and sufferings that afflict others.  Conversely, many others nurse the feeling, if not explicit belief, that God means for us to suffer, that there’s an intrinsic connection between suffering and depth, and that the more painful something is the better it is for you spiritually. There is, of course, some deep truth in this, spiritual depth is inextricably connected to suffering, as the Cross of Jesus reveals; and scripture does say that God chastises those who draw close to Him. But there are countless ways to misunderstand this.

Jesus did say that we must take up our cross daily and follow him and that following him means precisely accepting a special suffering. But we might ask: Why? Why should suffering enter into our lives more deeply because we take Jesus seriously? Shouldn’t the opposite be true? Does true religion somehow stand against our natural exuberance? Is suffering deep and joy superficial? And, what does this say about God? Is God masochistic? Does God want and demand our suffering? Why is a certain inflow of pain necessarily concomitant with taking God seriously?

Pain will flow into us more deeply when we take God seriously not because God wants it or because pain is somehow more blessed than joy. None of these. Suffering and pain are not what God wants; they’re negatives, to be eliminated in heaven. But, to the extent that we take God seriously, they will flow more deeply into our lives because in a deeper opening to God we will stop falsely protecting ourselves against pain and become much more sensitive so that life can flow more freely and more deeply into us. In that sensitivity, we will stop unconsciously manipulating everything so as to keep ourselves secure and pain-free. Simply put, we will experience deeper pain in our lives because, being more sensitive, we will be experiencing everything more deeply.

The opposite is also true. If someone, as a crass expression might put it, is so insensitive so as to be thick as plank, his own insensitivity will surely immunize him against many sufferings and the pain of others will rarely disturb his peace of mind. Of course, he won’t experience meaning and joy very deeply either, that’s the price tag for insensitivity.

A number of years ago, Michael Buckley, the California Jesuit, preached at the first mass of a newly ordained priest. In his homily, he didn’t ask the newly ordained man if he was strong enough to be a priest, but rather if he was weak enough to be a priest. In teasing out what’s contained in that paradox, Buckley helps answer the question of why drawing nearer to God also means drawing nearer to suffering: “Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man?  Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish?  Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accepted deflated expectations?”

Buckley then goes on to make a comparison between Socrates and Jesus, as a study in human excellence, and highlights how Socrates appears, in many ways, to be the stronger person. Like Jesus, he too was unjustly condemned to death, but, unlike Jesus, he never went into fear and trembling or “sweated blood” over his impending death. He had drank the poison with calm and died. Jesus, as we know, didn’t undergo his death with nearly the same calm.

The superficial judgment, Buckley suggests, is to see their different reactions to death in the light of their different deaths, crucifixion so much more horrible than drinking poison. But that, Buckley submits, while containing some truth, is secondary, not the real reason. Why did Jesus struggle more deeply with his death than Socrates did with his? Because of his extraordinary sensitivity.  Jesus simply was less able to protect himself against pain. He felt things more deeply and consequently was more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate.

Socrates was a great, heroic man, no doubt; but, unlike Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, he never wept over Athens, never expressed sorrow and pain over the betrayal of friends.  He was strong, possessed, calm, never overwhelmed. Jesus, for his part, was less able to protect himself against pain and betrayal and, consequently, was sometimes overwhelmed.