By JOHN DEAR
Recently, as the United States bombed Afghanistan and forced over 7 million poverty-stricken refugees into the freezing mountains, the Catholic bishops met in Washington and declared their support for war (NCR, Nov. 23). At a special Mass for peace, they welcomed one of the Pentagon’s admirals to read from the scriptures. Then the bishop who is the outgoing president of the bishops’ conference read from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ injunction not only not to kill, but not to get angry with anyone. After reading the gospel, he launched into a hymn of praise for the U.S. war against Afghanistan. The next day, the newly elected bishop president announced his support for war.
With that, except for Thomas Gumbleton and three others, the bishops have once again rejected the nonviolence of Jesus.
Recently, as we discussed the church’s support for war, my friend Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan said simply, “The bishops have abandoned us.” At a lecture at a Catholic university the week before, he told the audience that we should just burn our copies of the gospels, process into our church sanctuaries holding aloft the Air Force Rule Book, with its command to kill our enemies, and incense that instead. At least that would be more honest. It would express our fidelity to the gods of war, since we do not worship the God of peace.
Since the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, I have been working nearly full-time as a volunteer at the main New York Family Assistance Center, as a coordinator for the Red Cross, helping to supervise over 500 chaplains serving the grieving family members. I myself have counseled over 1,500 family members who lost loved ones, and spoken with hundreds of rescue workers and firefighters at ground zero. I have also accompanied dozens of family members to ground zero and tried to console them as they bid farewell to their loved ones.
“Every person in the United States should visit ground zero,” one firefighter said recently. “Then they would see for themselves the horror of war and be against the bombing of Afghanistan.”
As I stood at the ruins of the second tower, one Catholic mother who lost her 30-year-old son, said, “I have no room for anger. I feel only compassion for the families of the hijackers and the people of Afghanistan. Bombing Afghanistan will never heal my grief or bring my son back or protect us from further terrorist attacks. It only increases my grief.”
As a Christian, I have tried to offer compassion to those who have suffered here at home, and to voice the gospel message of compassion for all people around the world, including the refugees of Afghanistan, the children of Iraq and the oppressed peoples of Palestine. The gospel mandate is clear: We are to love our neighbors and love our enemies, even if the bishops won’t. Even if they reject the gospel, we are called to be faithful to the nonviolent Jesus.
As I walk with the grieving here in New York, I’ve been trying to speak a simple word of peace: Stop the bombing, stop the war, stop killing people. To my surprise, I find most people are in agreement. I think most Americans see the futility of war. They recognize that killing thousands in Afghanistan is not going to stop further terrorist attacks, but only outrage more people and insure future attacks.
Jesus calls us to proclaim his message of peace and nonviolence, whether in times of war or not, to say in no uncertain terms: War is not the will of God. War is not blessed by God. War is never justified. There is no such thing as a just war. Violence in response to violence can only lead to further violence. State-sanctioned terrorism will only lead to further terrorism. You reap what you sow. Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future and the God of peace.
There is no security or safety in war, nuclear weapons, bombing raids, missile shields or greed, only in nonviolence, love, justice, compassion and the God of peace.
The time has come to dismantle every nuclear weapon and every weapon of mass destruction and redirect those billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace through international cooperation for nonviolent alternatives; interfaith dialogue; feeding every child and refugee on the planet; lifting the sanctions on Iraq and the international debt; supporting the Palestinian people; joining the world court and international law; ending poverty and the destruction of the environment; closing our own terrorist training “School of the Americas”; and showing compassion toward every human being on the planet. Then we can begin the process of abolishing war itself, and converting our culture of violence into a culture of nonviolence.
In this way, we Christians show the world that we are not a people who retaliate or seek revenge. We are followers of the nonviolent Jesus, people who love one another, love God and ourselves, and love our enemies. Whether the bishops endorse Jesus or not, we are called to practice gospel nonviolence.
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, December 7, 2001