Talk given in the Vancouver Public Library 7 February 2004
by Jim Forest
In the history of protest, one of the oldest examples we know of occurred in Constantinople in the year 842 when, opposing the iconoclast Emperor Leo V, a thousand monks took part in an icon-bearing procession in the capital city. They were exhibiting in public images of Christ and the saints which, had they obeyed the emperor, should have long before been destroyed. Their act of civil disobedience risked severe punishment. Iconographers had been tortured, mutilated and sent into exile. The death of the emperor later that year was widely seen as heaven’s judgment of the emperor. In 843 his widow Theodora convened a Church Council which reaffirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. In The Orthodox Church, the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside henceforth to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
In more recent times, there is the story of Rosa Parks. She has become an kind of icon of the civil rights movement. Her name is up there with that of Martin Luther King, but, had it not been for her, perhaps his name would be unknown. She was active in a local black church in Montgomery, Alabama, and also had been the local secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1955, Rosa Parks was working as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store. On December 1st, at the end of her work day and after doing her shopping, she boarded a public bus, on which she reused to give up her seat for a white passenger. “I was too tired,” she later explained. She was arrested and spent some hours in jail before being bailed out. Even in jail segregation was rigidly enforced. She wasn’t allowed a glass of water because it came from a fountain reserved for white people.
Her small action inspired 40 pastors of the local black churches to meet that same night and found a group they christened the Montgomery Improvement Association. It’s initial project would be, they decided, a black boycott of the city’s segregated buses. They elected the city’s youngest pastor, Martin Luther King, the man with the least to lose should their efforts fail. But they succeeded, turning the United States in a new direction in the process. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court, decided that racial segregation in public transportation violated the Constitution and overturned her conviction. It was a major blow to the legal foundations of segregation. Yet the birth of the Civil Rights Movement came not from a Supreme court ruling but from the actions of ordinary people in a small southern city, largely black Christians who had walked many thousands of miles rather than board a bus, all the whole endured taunts, threats, abuse, and violence. Many had been jailed, and the home of the King family had been bombed.
I think of another person whose quiet protests had huge social impact.
In the same period when the buses of Montgomery were being boycotted, there was an annual civil defense test in New York City. This was a mass dress rehearsal for nuclear war. Everyone in the city was involved. School children had to take shelter under their desks. Traffic on Manhattan’s streets stopped as drivers and pedestrians sought refuge in subway stations. For a few minutes, Manhattan looked like a ghost town. Behind it was the idea that, if Americans only took shelter, the country could fight and survive a nuclear war.
Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement, refused to take shelter. Instead she sat on a bench with a handful of friends on a park bench in front of City Hall. She was arrested and served a sentence in the Women’s House of Detention. The next year she was again sitting on the park bench, not only with those who had been with her last time but a few more people, and again went to prison. This went on for five or six years — one of New York City’s ritual events, but by 1961, it had grown to a protest involving thousands of people. There were no more dress rehearsals for nuclear war. This was partly thanks to the best known participant in the refusal to play this homicidal game, Dorothy Day, whose main work in life was being part of a Christian community of hospitality and whose main action each day was going to Mass.
I mention these three stories because in each case they have to do with people for whom the Gospel was life’s main book. Here were gathered stories of how God took flesh and lived among us, showing us with each and every action he performed, each story he told, how a human being might life. He killed no one, blessed no one to kill anyone, took part in no wars, called no one to hate anyone, and healed many, some of diseases of the body, some of diseases of the mind and soul, some of both. In a country enduring military occupation, he showed a way of love and forgiveness that brings us closer to God and closer to each other.
Within all these actions of protest and so many more one could mention, there was the deeply-rooted spiritual life of the persons involved. They protested without weapons and without hatred. They gave us an example of nonviolent resistance to evil which seeks not the death or humiliation of the opponent but his or her conversion, and with it, the chance to make headway in our own conversion.
how do we practice peace in day-to-day life? What sort of spiritual life in involved? Here are seven aspects that seem to me are essential.
- love of enemies and prayer for them
- doing good to enemies
- turning the other cheek
- offering forgiveness
- breaking down the dividing wall of enmity
- offering nonviolent resistance to evil
- recognizing Jesus in others
Let’s look briefly at each of these steps.
Love of enemies and prayer for them
In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy, if anything can.”
He is referring to Christ’s new commandment: that we love each other as he has loved us. But here we have a damaged word. Love has been turned into something sentimental, a nice feeling toward a person who we especially enjoy seeing and being with. But the biblical meaning of the word is quite different. Christ calls on his followers to love their enemies. This is at first glance one of his strangest, least possible demands. But if you understand love not as a euphoric feeling as but as doing what you can to protect the life and seek the salvation of a person or group whom we fear and hate, that’s very different.
Love is impossible without prayer. Christ tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-46) Love of enemies begins with prayer. That’s the first and most important step. It is the radical act of connecting yourself invisibly to the person for whom you pray, whether it be the Ossama ben Ladin, George W. Bush, your ex-wife, the boss who fired you or the drunken driver who killed your child. Once you are praying for another person, you find it more and more difficult to seek his harm or destruction. Your prayer is for their well-being, for the healing of soul and body, for his conversion and your own.
Again to quote from a letter of Merton’s to Dorothy Day:
“Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the ‘impersonal law’ and to abstract ‘nature.’ That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him . . . and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who ‘saves himself’ in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.”
[ Letter to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961; HGL, 140-43.]
Doing good to enemies
Jesus calls us not only to prayer but to action: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28) Prayer is not an alternative to action. In fact prayer empowers us to take personal responsibility for what we wish others would do, or God would grant in some miraculous way without our having to lift a finger.
Jesus’ teaching about a compassionate response to enemies was not new doctrine. We find in the Mosaic Law:
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under a burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” (Exodus 23:4-5)
Under the Mosaic Law, Jews are forbidden to destroy the fruit trees of enemies or to poison their wells. The Book of Proverbs calls for positive acts of caring for the well-being of adversaries: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread.” (25:21) This was taken up by St. Paul:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will reap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:20-21)
Paul is simply amplifying the teaching of Jesus. He does so without encouraging unrealistic expectations that peace can be obtained simply by one’s own peaceable behavior. The suffering that Jews and Christians had experienced despite exemplary behavior was clear evidence that there was sometimes no defense at all against the evil done by others. Paul must have often recalled the stoning of the deacon Stephen, whose death he had witnessed and which occurred with his consent. Paul may even have been among those actually throwing the stones. (Acts 7:58-60)
Paul calls on Christians to live peaceably with others no matter how unpeaceful those others may be, and in no case to seek revenge. If vengeance is required, he says, that’s God’s business. But for followers of Jesus, far from striking back at those who strike us, we are to do what is “noble in the sight of all,” responding with care to the needs of our enemies. In doing so, he says, we place “burning coals” around the enemy’s head. This is like the “burning coal” with which God purified the mouth of the prophet Isaiah so that he could preach God’s thoughts rather than his own. Good deeds done to enemies may similarly purify their thoughts and lead them in an entirely different direction.
The teaching to doing good to enemies is viewed as particularly idealistic and profoundly unrealistic. In fact, it is a teaching full of common sense. Unless we want to pave the way to a tragic future, we must search for opportunities through which we can demonstrate to an opponent our longing for an entirely different kind of relationship. An adversary’s moment of need or crisis can provide that opening.
This is what the Samaritan was doing to the Jew he found dying on the side of the road in Jesus’ parable of the compassionate enemy. (Luke 20:30-37) In offering help to an enemy in his distress, he immediately altered or even destroyed the wounded Jew’s stereotype of Samaritans, the enemy image he held. That man would never again think of Samaritans without gratitude.
The very last thing our enemies imagine is that we could wish them well or do them well.
Often gesture must follow gesture. It is the second mile Jesus asked us to walk. The most insignificant gesture sometimes proves to be the most transforming.
Turning the other cheek
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other also.” (Mt.5:39; Luke 6:29)
How different this is from the advice provided in the average film or novel! There the constant message is: If you are hit, hit back. Let your blow be harder than the one you received. In fact, as we see in the US war on Iraq, you needn’t be hit at all in order to strike others. Provocation, irritation, or the expectation of attack is warrant enough.
While I was a student at the U.S. Navy Weather School in 1959, I recall a fellow sailor who borrowed a dollar from me and then never got around to giving it back. He had the job of distributing the mail every day, a job with an ounce of power among lonely people starved for letters from home. Wearing the role as if it were a crown, he was not above delaying delivery of a letter addressed to anyone who annoyed him. Little by little we all came to regard him with loathing.
One morning I demanded the return of my dollar. He looked at me with contempt, reached into his pocket, took out a dollar bill, held it in front of my face and dropped the money on the floor.
Leaving the money where it was, I grabbed him under the arms, lifted him off the floor and threw him against the wall. It still amazes me to remember how light he felt, how easily I made his body fly across the room. He came back with his fists flying. Far from being alarmed, I rejoiced in the combat, hammered away, hardly aware of the crowd that gathered around us. The fight might well have gone on until I had done some real harm to him had not the bell summoned us to inspection. As we stood at attention outside the barracks, I remember taking great pride in his bloodied lip and bruised face. Fortunately, when the inspecting officer asked him what had happened to his face, he told the military prescribed lie — he had tripped on the stairs.
This battle earned me a good deal of admiration at the time. I was immensely pleased with myself. The fight remains a bright memory, though I was astonished (and perhaps also alarmed) to discover what strength and deadly will I possessed when my anger was sufficiently aroused. Probably that fight had something to do with the particular attention I later gave, when my conversion to Christianity began, to what the New Testament has to say about hatred and violence, for by then I knew this wasn’t something directed at other people.
“Turning the other cheek” is often seen as an especially suspect Christian doctrine. Some see it as promoting an ethic of self-abasement that borders on masochism. Others would say it is Jesus at his most unrealistic: “Human beings just aren’t made that way.” For a great many people the problem can be put even more simply: “Turning the other cheek isn’t manly. Only cowards turn the other cheek.”
But what cowards actually do is run and hide. Standing in front of a violent man, refusing to get out of his way, takes enormous courage. It is manly and often proves to be the more sensible response. It’s also a way of giving witness to confidence in the reality and power of the resurrection.
“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering,” as Dr. King explained again and again, “with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws… And in winning our freedom, we will win you in the process.”
One of the saints of the early church, the Desert Father Abba Moses, had a witty way of living of the gospel. He was once asked to take part in a meeting of the monastic brotherhood which was preparing to condemn a certain lax brother. The old man arrived at the meeting carrying a basket from which sand was pouring out through many openings. “Why are you doing that?” he was asked. “You ask me to judge a brother while my own sins spill out behind me like the sand from this basket.” The embarrassed community was moved to forgive their brother.
Forgiveness is at the heart of faithful living. Nothing is more fundamental to Jesus’ teaching than his call to forgiveness: giving up debts, letting go of grievances, pardoning those who have harmed us. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are telling God that we ask to be forgiven only insofar as we ourselves have extended forgiveness to others: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Mt.6:12; Luke 11:2-4)
A few verses later in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching on this point continues: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?” (Mt.7:1-3)
On another occasion, Peter asks Jesus how often he must extend forgiveness. “As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt.18:21-22) This is a way of saying forgiveness has no limit.
Who doesn’t know how much easier it is to ask God to forgive us than to extend forgiveness to others? For we are wounded and the wounds often last a lifetime; they even spill across generations. As children, as parents, as husbands or wives, as families, as workers, as jobless people, as church members, as members of certain classes or races, as voters, as citizens of particular states, we have been violated, made a target, lied to, used, abandoned. Sins, often quite serious sins, have been committed against us. We may feel damaged, scarred for life, stunted. Others we love may even have died of evil done to them.
But we are not only victims. In various ways we are linked to injuries others have suffered and are suffering. If I allow myself to see how far the ripples extend from my small life, I will discover that not only in my own home but on the far side of the planet there are people whose sorrows in life are partly due to me. Through what I have done or failed to do, through what my community has done or failed to do, there are others whose lives are more wretched than they might have been. There are those dying while we feast.
All the while we renew our collective preparations for a festival of death such as the world has never before witnessed: a war fought with weapons of mass destruction which we want others to do without but insist of having for ourselves. The argument is put forward that such war-preparations and our development of weapons of mass annihilation will actually prevent the dreaded event. But in fact we are like children playing with matches in a sand-box filled with black powder.
We are moved to condemn the evils we see in others and to excuse the evils we practice ourselves. We fail to realize that those who threaten us feel threatened by us, and often have good reasons for their fears. The problem is not simply a personal issue, for the greatest sins of enmity are committed en masse, with very few people feeling any personal responsibility for the destruction they share in doing or preparing. The words of Holocaust administrator Adolph Eichmann, “I was only following orders,” are among humanity’s most frequently repeated justifications for murder, heard as often from those who profess religious convictions as from those who deny them.
Breaking down the dividing wall of enmity
In Christ enmity is destroyed, Saint Paul wrote to the church in Ephesia: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity…that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bring enmity to an end.” (Eph. 2:14-16)
Walls would have been on Paul’s mind at the time; in the same letter he mentions that he is “a prisoner for the Lord.” His words of guidance were sent from prison.
“The dividing wall of enmity” stood massively between Jews and Romans. But one day an officer of the Roman army turned to Jesus for help:
“The centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.’ And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… But say the word and let my servant be healed’… When Jesus heard this he marveled at him… And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.” (Luke 7:1-10)
It must have been hard for the more zealot-minded disciples to see Jesus responding positively to the appeal of a Roman soldier, and galling to hear him commenting afterward, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
In recording this story, both Luke and Matthew comment that Jesus “marveled.” Jesus marveled at the faith of the centurion, who believed Jesus didn’t have to be physically present to heal. He must have been equally astonished that a soldier in a pagan army would approach a Jew with respect, and with a request rather than a command. The centurion in fact points out that he is used to governing others: “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes.” He had the legal right to give orders; this applied even to people not in the army. A Roman soldier could demand that anyone he met on the road carry his gear for up to one Roman mile. Jesus was referring to this Roman law when he said that the faithful should then volunteer to go a second mile freely. (Mt. 5:41) One Roman soldier was to conscript Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross when Jesus no longer had the strength to do so.
Jesus had a third reason to marvel; the centurion was seeking nothing for himself or a family member but trying to save the life of his slave. Probably the slave was Jewish. We are told that the centurion was a man who respected the Jews. Assuming that Jesus would not believe this, he had enlisted Jewish elders to tell Jesus that this Roman soldier loved the Jewish nation and had even contributed the money to build a synagogue.
It is an amazing story: Roman and Jew reaching out to each other, and armed man toward an unarmed man. They are brought together by a dying slave. In their encounter, the dividing wall of enmity collapses.
We live in a world of walls. Competition, contempt, repression, racism, nationalism, violence and domination: all these are seen as normal and sane. Enmity is ordinary. Self and self-interest form the centering point in many lives. Love and the refusal to center one’s life in enmity are dismissed as naive, idealistic, even unpatriotic, especially if one reaches out constructively to hated minorities or national enemies.
Many wars are in the progress at the moment, with many thousands of Americans involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost in money, homes destroyed, damaged sanity, in lives and injuries is phenomenal. There are also less tangible costs, spiritually, psychologically, for we have become a people who make war and preparations for war a major part of our lives. We hear of many people who expect to die in a violent death and who live in a constant state of “low grade” depression. Despair is widespread. Various stress-relieving pills, which already sold well before September 11, are selling better than ever in today’s world.
There are even Christians who see war — even nuclear war– as God’s will, the fulfillment of prophecies, the means whereby God exercises judgement and cuts the thread of history. It’s not hard to find those who preach nuclear holocaust with enthusiasm and look forward to the ungodly being consumed while the elect are lifted rapturously into heaven. Their theology could be summed up: “And God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”
One of the insights Thomas Merton came to in his last years was the realization that reconciliation is not simply a formal coming together of people who have been divided. It is prefigured in our spiritual lives. He wrote in his journal:
“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.”
[The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, edited by William Shannon; Farrar Straus Giroux, New York; p 272]
To “contain the divided worlds in ourselves” means that, no matter what objections we have to the Soviet political system, we have to learn to value the people whom at present we are fully prepared to kill.
To overcome the propaganda of enmity, we need to discover what Merton called “the human dimension”:
“The basic problem is not political, it is human. One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing that these are largely fabrications and that there is a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely to themselves.”
I recall a small incident of breaking through the dividing wall of enmity that I witnessed in a Moscow church at a time when a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States seemed likely.
I was in Moscow with a few friends from the West to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was Sunday morning. We were in the Epiphany cathedral, one of th the few churches still open in Moscow. Believers were packed together like match sticks. There were no chairs or pews — Russians pray standing up, with just enough room for the half bows that the Russian liturgy requires.
Margareta, a Protestant friend from Sweden who had never before made the sign of the cross, found the older Russian woman at her side assisting her into doing so. Shed simply took Margareta’s hand, as of this visiting Swede were her grandchild, and showed her how to draw the holy and life-giving Cross on her body. For Margareta, it was a small resurrection. Afterward she needed no assistance is this simply gesture that unites body and soul.
Love as resistance to both evil and violence
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.” (Mt. 5:38-39)
When Peter used violence to defend Jesus, he was instantly admonished, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” (Mt 26:52)
Jesus’ last healing miracle before the resurrection was done to an enemy, the victim of Peter’s sword, a slave of the high priest who was among those who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani. Jesus admonished his disciples, “No more of this!” Then he touched the wounded man’s ear and healed him.
For several hundred years following the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were renowned for their refusal to perform military service. But since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, when church and state were first linked, Christians have been as likely as any other people to take up the sword.
The refusal to take up arms against enemies has always been remarkable, even scandalous, from the point of view of those in government as well as many others who see no practical alternative to armed defense. Conscientious objection has cost not only many years of imprisonment and suffering. Many have given their lives rather than perform military service, among them people recognized as saints in the early church. The issue is still a matter of passionate debate even among Christians.
Thomas Merton was among those who helped renew the witness of Christian conscientious objection. Before becoming a monk, he had himself decided he would not take part in killing others. He got into a good deal of hot water during the Vietnam War for his close association with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and for what he managed to say about war and peace in books published in the last years of his life. In Seeds of Destruction, for example, there is this passage:
“The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Greek: the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.”
The refusal to kill others can be a powerful witness. In the Orthodox Church, preserving canons of the early Church, it is required of priests and iconographers that they not have killed anyone even by accident. Yet conscientious objection is only the negative aspect of a positive commitment to care for the lives of others. Christian life is far more than the avoidance of evil. In the parable of the tidy but empty house, Jesus says:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, “I will return to the house from which I came.” And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Mt.12:43-45)
A startling parable. The meaning is that one can drive an evil spirit from one’s life but, if nothing new and positive fills the space, a vacuum is created which not only draws back the exiled evil spirit but seven others even worse than the first. A vacuum cannot be filled with a vacuum; evil cannot be overcome with evil.
Responding to evil with its own weapons, though it can seem such an obvious good, results in a life that is centered on evil. Very often people who live in fear of armed men become armed men. They take up the same weapons and even adopt characteristics and hated practices of the adversary. When the Nazi forces bombed cities, there was immense revulsion in Britain and the United States, but in the end the greatest acts of city destruction were done by Britain and the United States.
But what is one to do? Christians cannot be passive about those events and structures which cause suffering and death.
For centuries men and women have been searching for effective ways of both protecting life and combating evil. It is only in the past hundred years, because of movements associated with such people as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, that nonviolent struggle has become a recognized alternative to passivity, on the one hand, and violence on the other.
A life of recognizing Jesus
St. John of the Cross said, “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.” This summarizes much of the gospel, and has to do with God’s final weighing of our lives:
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you…?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food…’ Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry … and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'” (Mt. 25:31-46)
In practically any ancient church in Europe, one finds at least one visual representation of the Last Judgement, the blessed processing off complacently to the left, the damned — rather pathetic figures — being shoveled by grotesque devils into the fiery jaws of a dragon.
On the south porch of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres, in France, one of the world’s most unhellish places, this scene is carved in stone. In medieval times, the stone was brilliantly painted. The effect must have been stunning — and perhaps alarming. In Moscow’s Kremlin, over the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, summoner of the Last Judgement, there is a large icon over the entrance way portraying the same scene.
At both churches, I have heard similar answers to the question: “Why are we judged together and not one by one when we die?”
It is because each person’s life is far from finished with death. Our acts of love and failures to love continue to have consequences until the end of history. What Adam and Eve did, what Moses did, what Herod did, what Pilate did, what the Apostles did, what Caesar did, what Hitler did, what Martin Luther King did, what Dorothy Day did — all these lives, with their life-saving or murderous content, continue to have consequences every single day. This same principles applies equally to the least person. What you and I do, and what we fail to do, will matter forever.
It weighs heavily on many people that Jesus preached not only heaven but hell. There are quite a lot of references to hell in the gospels, many of them in the Sermon on the Mount. How can a loving God allow a place devoid of love?
The only response to that question which makes sense to me was a sermon I heard in an old gothic church in Prague in 1964, during an assembly of the Christian Peace Conference. The preacher was a particularly courageous man who has seen a great deal of prison from the inside. It is now too many years for me to put what he said in his words, but this is what I remember of it, or perhaps what it has become for me in the passage of nearly 25 years.
God allows us to go wherever we are going. We are not forced to love. We are not forced to recognize God’s presence. It is all an invitation. We can choose. Perhaps, in God’s mercy, we can even make the choice of heaven in hell. But very likely we will make the same kinds of choices after death that we made before death. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has a tour bus leaving daily from hell to heaven; it is never full and it tends to return with as many passengers as it took on the trip out of hell.
The older we are, the more we live by old choices, and defend those choices, and makes ideologies, philosophies, even theologies out of our choices. We canonize our choices by repetition.
We can say not just once but forever, as Peter once said of Jesus, “I do not know the man.” There are so many people about whom we can say, to our eternal peril, “I do not know the man,” to which we can add he is worthless, has no one to blame for his troubles but himself, that his problems aren’t our business, that he is an enemy, that he deserves to die whether of frostbite or violence matters little.
St John Chrysostom, a bishop and liturgist of the fourth century, said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the “wrong ideas,” if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those whom I avoided every day of my life?
Christ’s Kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division.
At the heart of what Jesus says in every act and parable is this: Now, this minute, we can enter the Kingdom of God. The way into it is simply to live in awareness of God’s presence in those around us. Doing that, we learn the truth of what St. Catherine of Siena said: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.'”
Peacemaking is one of the eight Beatitudes that Christ announced in his summary of the Gospel, the Beatitudes. It is not an easy path. As Thomas Merton reminded me in a letter written during the Vietnam War:
“We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really, we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man…
“The whole problem is this inner change… [the need for] an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This has to take precedence over everything else. If He lives and works in us, then our activity will be true and our witness will generate love of truth, even though we may be persecuted and beaten down in apparent incomprehension.”