Talk given by Jim Forest 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia :
“All we are saying,” sang the Beatles, “is give peace a chance.” We sing it still, not only with a fond memory of John Lennon, who wrote the song in 1969, but remembering all the people who made it into an anthem of the peace movement during the long struggle to end the war in Vietnam.
“Give peace a chance” is a line notable for its modesty. It’s a polite invitation to live in a way that makes it more likely that we can do with our lives something constructive rather than destructive.
Perhaps those few words might be seen as a pop translation of the words of Jesus in the first part of the Sermon in the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Blessed — that’s not a word we use very often. When’s the last time you used it in conversation? What does it actually mean?
The original New Testament texts are in Greek. The Greek word we translate as “blessed” is makarios. In classical Greek makar was associated with the gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but with the negative prefix ma the word means “deathless, immortal, no longer subject to fate,” a condition desperately longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones. One way to translate makarios into English would be to say “Risen from the dead.” “Risen from the dead are the poor on spirit … Risen from the dead are the peacemakers…” Each of the eight beatitudes has to do with what it is like to be a person living in the kingdom of God, and not at some future time but here and now. Such a person is poor in spirit, such a person mourns, such a person is meek, such a person hungers and thirsts for righteousness, such a person is merciful, such a person is pure of heart, such a person is a peacemaker, such a person is ready to be insulted and persecuted for his or her their faith. Such a person as already risen from the dead — that is from the kind of mortuary life we experience every time we make choices based on fear rather than love.
The Beatitudes are a brief summary of the Gospel. Peacemaking is one of the most basic elements of Christian life. However many Christians fail to practice peacemaking, or even become war makers, peacemaking is one of the essential components of the life Christ calls his followers to lead. In fact it’s emphasized in other religious traditions as well — in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. While followers of these other traditions may be just as likely as Christians to participate in war, and even at times to regard war as a sacred duty, in fact they too belong to religions in which peace and mercy are supposed to be at the core of religious life.
The problem isn’t the principle, it’s our practice. We sing “all we are saying is give peace a chance,” and we approve of Jesus’ saying “blessed are the peacemakers,” while all the while doing very little in our day-to-day lives to be peacemakers. In fact many of us actively promote division and conflict. We argue over just about anything, from who took the biggest slice of pie to whose ideas about God are more correct. Not too may people these days would remark about Christians, “See how the love one another” — and still fewer would express amazement at how well Christians practice Jesus’s commandment to love our enemies.
But there are important examples of Christians who gave an extraordinary example of peacemaking. Earlier in the day I talked to students at the School of Education about one of them, Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th century academic and educator. Let me repeat here a little of what I said a few hours ago.
Erasmus was one of the great scholars of western civilization. His most famous book, The Praise of Folly, remains one of the most brilliant satires ever written. Erasmus lived in a time of war and extreme religious conflict — the Reformation — yet was one of the great peacemakers of all time. Through letters and his published works, Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war between nations and schism between Christians.
“There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war],” he wrote, “nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome. …Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” In common with many artists of the period, he saw death, portrayed as a skeleton carrying a scythe, striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.
In The Complaint of Peace, a book similar to The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by everyone, including kings and generals, yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”
Erasmus was also one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries — but in this area too he fought to overcome enmity and promote unity. He wanted a reformation, but without a rush and without schism. His influence on Luther and other leading Protestants was huge, but Erasmus refused to sanction any solution that led to fragmenting the Church. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was also put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.” And no doubt he had occasions of seeing Catholics in a similar state. It was not easy finding Christ-like people on either side of the wall that was being built.
While himself involved in many theological debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding certain aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other even when we disagree. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who was right.
For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. While condemning corruption, he urged patience, dialogue and toleration. Ironically, in times of conflict, such a stand rarely gains friends. Leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with them is against them. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index. Erasmus would have been grieved but not surprised. He knew what people are like when they get into combat mode.
One of the people who has most influenced my life, Thomas Merton, was very like Erasmus in many ways. Merton, also Catholic, was one of the most widely read Christian authors of the past half century — indeed, remains widely read even though it’s now 40 years since his death. There are passages in Merton that could have just as well been written by Erasmus.
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, has sold millions of copies, appeared in numerous translations, and has never gone out of print. The Seven Storey Mountain is one of the most gripping accounts of religious conversion ever written, but it has its flaws. Every now and then Merton gets a little preachy. He tends to present the Catholic Church in an entirely uncritical light while only pointing out the shortcoming of Protestant Christianity. One has to keep in mind that he was a fairly young convert at the time and that, in those days, there was something a Berlin Wall separating Catholics and Protestants, and still another wall separating both Catholics and Protestants from the Orthodox Church.
What’s remarkable is how much Merton changed in the twenty years between publication of his autobiography and his death in 1968. He became one of the most prominent Catholic participants in dialogue with non-Catholic Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox, and then widened the circle even further to include people from other religious traditions. One of the last photos we have of Merton, taken just a few weeks before his death, shows him in the Himalayas side by side with the Dalai Lama. His friends came to include Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus.
There are a few passages in Seven Storey Mountain that give a hint where Merton would be going in his later life. One of these concerns a Hindu monk named Bramachari whom Merton got to know when he was studying at Columbia University. It was Bramachari who encouraged Merton to read The Imitation of Christ — a book that was also important to Erasmus, by the way.
In Merton’s later writing there is a tremendous emphasis on opening doors that a lot of people prefer to keep closed and padlocked.
Merton came to see his own spiritual life as the place where one begins to overcome division. Here’s how he puts it in a key passage in one of my favorite Merton books, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”
In fact Merton took the principle even further, to include not only with his fellow Christians but also non-Christians.
It’s striking to see how deep that dialogue was and also how wide open it was. For example, probably the best statement Merton ever wrote about how God is both One and a Trinity was not made to a fellow Christian but to a Moslem correspondent. It wasn’t that Merton forced the topic on his Moslem friend, but he was quite ready to answer a question like that when it was asked.
It is sometimes assumed that Merton’s deep interest in other religions suggests he was engaged in a search for a new spiritual home that met his needs better than Christianity, or perhaps was seeking to put religions into a blender and pour out of it his own “baptized Buddhism.” In fact for Merton the faith into which he had been baptized was never at issue. As he put it in a journal entry made three years before his death: “I may be interested in Oriental religions, etc., but there can be no obscuring the essential difference — this personal communion with Christ at the center and heart of reality as a source of grace and life.”
But it seemed to Merton that, thanks to the activity of the Holy Spirit, there was great wisdom to be found in other religious traditions and thus it was of mutual benefit for friendships to take root across all religious borders. At the very least, this kind of dialogue contributes to an increase of love and a lessening of enmity in the world.
One of the people Merton got to know was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and poet from Vietnam who has since become one of the best known Buddhist writers. In May 1967, Nhat Hanh spent two days at the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived.
Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, three words revealing the essence of the situation.
Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.
Less than two months before his death, Merton was in Calcutta to speak at a conference that brought together people belonging to various religions. In the talk he gave, Merton stressed that unity cannot be attained by “interminable empty talk, the endlessly fruitless and trivial discussion of everything under the sun.” This kind of “inexhaustible chatter,” which we imagine puts us in closer contact with each other, in fact is rarely remembered by anyone even a week later. “The deepest level of communication is not communication,” he said, “but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
But this didn’t mean, Merton added, that we can get closer to each other by minimizing differences or pretending they don’t exist. As he put it, “There can be no question of … a mishmash of semi-religious verbiage and pieties, a devotionalism that admits everything and therefore takes nothing with full seriousness.” Rather “there must be a scrupulous respect for important differences.”
Merton is not remembered by those whom he met in Asia in those last few months of his life as a post-Christian, but rather as a Christian with genuine interest and respect for non-Christians and a readiness to learn from them and enjoy their company. One of the signs of the significance such conversations had is the visit made to Merton’s monastery by the Dalai Lama in 1994. He arrived by helicopter, then sat in silent meditation on Merton’s grave. Once when he was asked his opinion of Jesus, he replied, “Whenever someone speaks to me about Jesus Christ, I think of Thomas Merton.” Asked on another occasion if he believed in God, a question many Buddhists find problematic, the Dalai Lama replied. “It depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If you mean by ‘God’ what Thomas Merton means, then yes, I do.”
It’s not surprising that Merton had a special interest in Gandhi. Here was a Hindu who, partly inspired by the Sermon in the Mount, developed a nonviolent method of struggle which contributed hugely to India obtaining its freedom. It seemed to Merton that Christians could learn a great deal from such a man. One of Merton’s books has the title Gandhi and Nonviolence.
Merton also greatly admired Martin Luther King, a Baptist Christian who had been influenced by Gandhi. King was due to visit Merton in 1968 and would have done so had be not been murdered in Memphis.
We see in all these lives that “giving peace a chance” is not something that just happens. It’s a way of life made up of big and small choices that are based on respect for life, a respect for the other person, a refusal to dehumanize those whom we regard as opponents or enemies, a readiness to listen, an active effort to prevent division or overcome it once division occurs, and a real search for nonviolent alternatives in situations that otherwise could easily turn to violence. It’s a refusal to be dragged along like cattle being herded to wherever the trail boss wants to take us. We can see what these qualities look like in the lives of people like Erasmus, Merton, Gandhi and Martin Luther King — famous people — but we can also see what they look like in unfamous people whom we happen to know, perhaps someone in our family, some teacher or friend or neighbor. Such people exist and most of us know one or two or them.
Let me end with a story of how these qualities looked in the life of one ordinary family.
At the center of the story is an elderly black woman, Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathan. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Primitive Baptist Church. The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. Along with four other inmates, he had escaped from Pillow State Prison several days before. Somehow they obtained weapons. Once on the run, Riley went his own way. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.
Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathan with his
shotgun, shouted, “Don’t make me kill you!”
Here comes the astonishing part. Louise responded to their uninvited guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild playing with a toy gun. She started out by identifying herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. “Young man,” she said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in no violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”
She had a certain authority and also showed not a trace of fear. Riley obediently put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”
Louise calmly asked Nathan to please get dry socks for their guest while she made breakfast. Within a few minutes she prepared bacon and eggs, toast, milk and coffee, setting the table not only for Riley but for Nathan and herself. A striking detail of the story is that she put out her best napkins.
When the three of them sat down to eat, Louise took Riley’s shaking hand in her own and said, “Young man, let’s give thanks that you came here and that you are safe.” She said a prayer and asked him if there was anything he would like to say to the Lord. Riley couldn’t think of anything so she suggested, “Just say, ‘Jesus wept.’”
Later a journalist asked how she happened to choose that text. She explained, “Because I figured that he didn’t have no church background, so I wanted to start him off simple; something short, you know.”
The story crosses yet another border with a confession of love. After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She had asked about his family and learned of the death of his grandmother. Riley, trembling all over, said that no one in this world cared about him. “Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves all of us, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much.”
All the while the police had been searching for Riley and the other convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived — as a result of the abrupt ending of the call, the friend she had been talking with alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars.
“They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said. Louise told Riley to stay where he was while she went out to talk to the police.
Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they found themselves face to face with Louise Degrafinried. Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”
There are people who have a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response to this determined grandmother as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathan escorted their guest to one of the police cars. He was taken back to the prison. No one was harmed .
The story of what happened to two of the other escaped convicts is a familiar tragedy. They came upon a family preparing a barbecue in their backyard. The husband, having heard about the escaped prisoners on the radio, had armed himself with a pistol. He tried to use it but was himself shot dead. The men took his wife hostage, stole the family car, and managed to drive out of the state before they were captured and the widow was freed. Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shot-out with police the following month.
The Degrafinried story does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise and Nathan were asked to press charges against Riley for holding them hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” Louise insisted. As both she and Nathan refused to testify, the charges were dropped.
Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence for having escaped. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley’s release. “He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.
Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview. Riley recalls praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.’” “That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God,” Riley said. In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”
Louise Degrafinried was often asked about the day she was held hostage. “Weren’t you terrified.” “I wasn’t alone,” she responded. “My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”
It’s similar to a comment Riley made when explaining the events that led to his conversion. “Mrs. Degrafinried was real Christianity,” he told mourners at her funeral. “No fear.” Riley sat in the front pew at the service and was among those carrying Louise Degrafinried’s coffin to its burial place.
Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville where he works as a foreman of a tent and awning company. He and his wife have a son. Not long ago Riley was invited to tell his story to the children of a local primary school in Mason, Tennessee, whose principal is one of Louise and Nathan’s children.
The story hasn’t yet reached an ending. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 are still underway. Thanks to the welcome extended by two elderly people, no guns were fired at the Degrafinried house. No one was looks back on that day with regret or grief. A man who might have remained a lifelong danger to others has instead become a respected member of society and a committed Christian. Louise and Nathan have died, but their pilgrimage from fear continues to touch the lives of others.
Time to end. Let me just suggest that you hang on to that story for a while and think about the Degrafinrieds and their unexpected guest. Think about it the next time you happen to hear “Give Peace a Chance” or the next time you read the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
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