Learning to be Peacemakers

lecture given by Jim Forest at the Catholic Peace Fellowship conference in South Bend, Indiana, on 24 March 2007

Every Christian is called to be a peacemaker. In the Beatitudes, Christ’s own brief summary of the Gospel message, he identifies peacemakers as children of God. But in fact, even after years of effort, not many of us are very good at being peacemakers. What we are good at is creating division, irritating our neighbors, ignoring and avoiding a great many people, thinking all too often how much better the world would be if only this person or that would disappear. We tend to love ideology — or theology — more than we love our enemies. We find a great many things to argue about among ourselves.

Yet, despite our many failures at being peacemakers, we keep trying and sometimes we even achieve something. Occasionally figs grow from thistles. Occasionally water turns to wine.

What I would like to talk about is some aspects of what I have learned about peacemaking over the years, and — as this is a Catholic Peace Fellowship gathering — I’ll try to connect it to the early history of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Perhaps the first lesson is that even very small endeavors can have significant results. When we started the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964, we had only the faintest idea that it might make a positive difference in the world or in the Church.

The creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was originally an idea that came to us from John Heidbrink, a Protestant minister on the staff members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. John was deeply impressed by Pope John XXIII and also an attentive reader of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. When John wrote to me suggesting starting the CPF, it was toward the end of 1961, only about half a year after I had left the Navy as a conscientious objector. Since my discharge, I had been a member of the Catholic Worker staff in Manhattan. I shared John’s letter with Dorothy. She was skeptical — “Those Protestants just want to use you,” she told me. But when we actually started the CPF in the Fall of 1964, she immediately joined it and became at the same time a member of CPF’s advisory board.

In fact the Catholic Peace Fellowship was nothing more than a twig on the Catholic Worker tree. Tom Cornell and I had both been part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. Everything worthwhile we have done with our lives ever since is in large measure the result of having been close to Dorothy Day. Had there been no Catholic Worker movement, there would have been no Catholic Peace Fellowship.

In starting the CPF, Tom and I, and those who were cheering us along, wanted to concentrate on one aspect of the Catholic Worker message: its insistence that people called to do the works of mercy were not called to commit acts of war. You should not feed the hungry with one hand and destroy their crops with the other. You should not clothe the naked with one hand and drop bombs on them with the other. Conscientious objection was something incidental — you couldn’t be a guardian of life and have your finger on the trigger at the same time. Since its early years, the Catholic Worker had supported conscientious objectors, even calling for the formation of “a mighty league of conscientious objectors.”

In 1964 the Vietnam War was heating up. That August US troop levels were raised to 21,000 — not even half the number of US soldiers who were to die in Vietnam before the war ended eleven years later. In 1964 no one had any idea how huge a war America was wading into, how life-consuming it would be, and how much havoc it would cause. I was a journalist at the time, working for a daily newspaper on Staten Island. One of my earliest CPF undertakings was, in my spare time, to write a short history of the war in Vietnam. I recall being surprised, as I combed the public library for information, how little there was about Vietnam.

By the start of 1965, thanks to several donors, there was enough financial support for the Catholic Peace Fellowship for me to quit my newspaper job and to work full-time for CPF. We rented an unused room from the War Resisters League down on Beekman Street, just a block from City Hall in lower Manhattan. Tom Cornell soon joined the work, giving up a teaching job to do so. Financially, we were both walking on thin ice on a salary of $65 a week.

We published a newsletter and launched occasional projects, but it soon emerged that our main work was draft counseling. It was not unusual to have fifty people a week in need of help and advice. Some of it was done by letter, some by phone, and some face-to-face.

Part of this influx of young people seeking counsel was the consequence of our having published a small booklet, “Catholics and Conscientious Objection.” We had worked hard on the text. Various scholars and writers — one of them was Thomas Merton — read the draft text and helped make it better. Finally we submitted it to the Archdiocese of New York, applying for an imprimatur — an official declaration that the text contained no theological errors. To our astonishment, the imprimatur was given. We would not have been more pleased to have received the Nobel Prize for Peace. This imprimatur made it a good deal easier for the booklet to be accepted for use in churches and parish school. By the war’s end in 1975, CPF had printed more than 200,000 copies of the booklet. Undoubtedly it was a factor in the many thousands of Catholic conscientious objectors who refused to take part in the Vietnam War.

Peter Maurin said, “If you want to talk to the man in the street, you have to be on the street.” It’s useful to publish, even essential, but words on paper aren’t enough. Tom and I did a great deal of public speaking all over the country — at churches and schools, at seminaries and universities. Events were organized by the local CPF groups that had sprung up. Doors seemed to fly open, though sometimes it was the back door. I recall being invited to meet with a group of students at the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, but it was definitely an unpublicized, off-the-record nighttime conversation by invitation only. The seminary rector would not have been pleased.

As was clear that night at the seminary, the word “peace” is often a problematic word, a word that alarms many people. Certainly the New Testament meaning of peace was far from obvious to a great many people, including lots of Christians. Part of our work was to try and restore the word, it having been so damaged by political abuse.

In contemporary usage, the word “peace” has been used by war-applauding politicians of every party and in many countries. The result is that, for many Americans, “peace” is synonymous with “Pax Americana” — a world conformed to the will of those who shape the policies of the USA.

Half a century ago, when I was growing up in New Jersey, I recall a slogan that was then being used to cancel postage stamps: “Pray for peace.” Every envelope that came into our house bore these three-words. Meanwhile, while every citizen was being urged to pray for peace, the government was exploding nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert and the South Pacific and fighting a war in Korea. In the same period, the US Strategic Air Command, the section of the Air Force responsible for fighting nuclear war, adopted the slogan: “Peace is our profession.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they use it still.

Not long ago, when there were still two Superpowers, the Soviet Union had its own similar ideas about peace. If you had a dollar for every Soviet poster and banner that had the word “peace” on it — “Mir” in Russian — you would be nearly as rich as Bill Gates. For the leaders of the Kremlin, peace meant a world whose political and economic structures were in harmony with the USSR.

For both Superpowers, weapons of mass destruction (not only nuclear but chemical and biological) were an essential element in their strategies for peace. Peace was thus a consequence of the readiness to commit mass murder.

In nearly every context of common use, the word “peace” has to do not with what is but what could be. Peace is seen as a future consequence of right choices made in the present.

What about “peace” in the New Testament? Here it’s a word used well over a hundred times. Remove the verses in which it occurs and you no longer have the good news of the Gospel. For example consider these familiar words from Christ: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Or this: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The remarkable thing about peace, as Christ uses the word, is that it’s a condition that exists in the present tense, not something to hope for in the future once we have improved society. But from the point of view of the peaceless world in which we actually find ourselves, is such a thing possible? Does it make sense? How can one speak of being at peace when there is no peace? As the poet Bertold Brecht wrote, “A smooth brow betokens a hard heart …. He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” In brief, a socially responsible person has no right to be at peace. How dare Christ give anyone peace in a world of daily crucifixions? What he should have done was to bless the troubled of heart.

From time to time peacemakers have to open the dictionary and do a little verbal archeology. The earliest New Testament texts are in Greek and here the word normally translated as “peace” is eirene. The noun has its root in the verb eiro: to join, to connect, to unify. It’s a verb that suggests being in communion. If you consult a biblical dictionary, eirene is defined as a state of national tranquillity, a time of exemption from the rage and havoc of war; peace, harmony and concord between individuals; a condition of security, safety, prosperity, felicity. Getting to deeper waters, it’s not something we achieve but something that is given — it is that peace which only can be given by the Messiah. Eirene sums up what it means to be in the kingdom of God and thus a person no longer paralyzed by fear of death, or, to put it positively, someone in a Paschal condition — a person who is risen from the dead.

Another word to consider is “blessed.” Christ says, “Blessed are peacemakers.” But what does “blessed” mean? The Greek word for blessed is makarios. Dig into the roots of makarios and you discover it means sharing the condition of gods, whose main attribute is immortality. We might say “Risen from the dead” in place of “blessed.” Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are those who mourn. Risen from the dead are the meek. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure in heart. Risen from the dead are those who make peace. Risen from the dead are they who accept persecution for Christ’s sake. All the Beatitudes — a ladder of divine ascent — have to do with how we enter the kingdom of God. It’s a project that has nothing to do with future expectations or the result of social restructuring, but simply how we are living day-to-day, here and now, in this damaged world. If we don’t know Christ’s peace today, neither will we know it tomorrow.

There is a much loved Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who taught this simple maxim: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” When others encounter Christ’s peace in those who follow Christ, they can see the possibility of not living a death-driven, fear-centered existence. This is why saints are so important, saints being those people in whom we see the Beatitudes being lived. You meet a holy person and your life changes.

Consider the incredible influence one modern saint, the servant of God Dorothy Day, has had on so many people, and still has many years after her death. She has given us a vivid idea of what it means to follow Christ, an impression of what it’s like living in the kingdom of heaven, living in Christ’s peace, even though we find ourselves in a world of bloodshed, of injuries and death, a world of cruelties and tragedies.

To be missionaries of Christ’s peace was what we had in mind in starting the Catholic Peace Fellowship back in 1964. It was not an ideological or political enterprise. Journalists later came to speak of something called “the Catholic left,” but in fact we had nothing to do with the left. We knew considerably more about Saint Benedict and Saint Francis of Assisi than about Marx and Lenin. Our inspiration came from the Gospels, the sacraments, the liturgical life, the witness of the saints, and the teaching of the Church.

While many people helped us, our two principal mentors were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy was close at hand. We talked with her often and were part of the Catholic Worker’s extended community. In Merton’s case, though there were a few visits at the monastery, the contact was mainly by letter. These letters remain timely. I urge you to read them. You will find them in a book called The Hidden Ground of Love. Much that the Catholic Peace Fellowship did in those years was in large measure thanks to Merton’s guidance.

As they had so much influence on what we did, perhaps it’s helpful to consider what Merton and Dorothy had in common.

I would put at the top of the list their great gift for hospitality — their ability to make people feel welcome.

In Dorothy’s case, the greatest monument to her life are all the houses of hospitality that exist thanks to her. We even have one in Amsterdam, not far from where I live.

As a Trappist monk, Merton was part of an ancient tradition formed by the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, one of whose precepts that “each guest shall be received as Christ.” Not only was Merton part of a community of hospitality, but he managed personally to reach out, through letters and visits, to all sorts of people who in those days would not have expected a friendly dialogue with a Catholic monk.

For both Dorothy and Merton, to imitate Christ meant to welcome the other. The other is the neighbor, whether familiar or unfamiliar — including the stranger, the outsider, the afflicted, the alien, the misfit, the bum, the enemy. Hospitality was a refusal to treat anyone, even your enemy, as an enemy.

As Merton wrote in an early draft of The Seven Storey Mountain: “The ascent of the soul to personal mystical union with God is made to depend, in our life, upon our ability to love one another.” [The Thomas Merton Reader, p 146]

There is something else they had in common. Both Dorothy and Merton were people of prayer. For Merton, as for any Trappist monk, prayer was life’s main event. It was to lead a life of prayer that Merton went to the monastery.

While Dorothy was no monk, I have never known anyone with a more rigorous prayer life or a greater commitment to attending Mass than Dorothy Day. When I think of her, my primary image is on a woman on her knees at prayer — at one of the several churches near the Catholic Worker or at the chapel we had at the Catholic Worker farm. (We had permission from the archdiocese to reserve the sacrament.)

Prayer undergirds hospitality. Prayer is a pathway to meeting others no less than meeting God. For both Dorothy and Merton, it’s impressive to see their capacity to enter into dialogue with others, not only Catholics but other Christians, and not only Christians but people of other religious traditions, and not only religious people but people estranged from belief.

Anyone who was close to Dorothy and Merton learned by their example how important it is to live a deeply rooted, disciplined spiritual life. Prayer and sacramental life are not items to be worked into our agenda if we happen to have a little spare time. They are absolutely basic. Without them all sorts of worthwhile things we might wish to do are likely to go off the track, or to become extensions of our own greedy egos rather than acts of love and prayer.

Both of them made good use of confession. I think of Dorothy heading off every Saturday night to go to confession. I once asked her what she had to confess. “My bad temper, my impatience,” she said. On another occasion she told me confession gave her an opportunity to nip sins while they were in the bud.

I recall a story Dorothy told me about advice she received in confession one year before I had known her. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her hardest voluntary sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker community was pleading with her to light up a smoke. Stubborn lady that she was, Dorothy didn’t give in but it was a grueling act of abstinence and hardly less grueling on everyone close to her. With another Lent approaching, Dorothy was resolved to once again fast from smoking and told her confessor of her intention. He responded by urging her not to give up cigarettes that year — it was too hard on her co-workers — but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” Dorothy told me she used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, realized she didn’t want it — and never smoked another.

Both Merton and Dorothy were ascetics. Trappists did not own anything, period. Catholic Workers didn’t own very much. Dorothy called this voluntary poverty. They set an example of not seeking happiness in possessions.

Just as challenging to me as Dorothy’s personal ascetic discipline was her attitude toward the Church. She was often criticized for being so disobedient in the political world and yet so obedient as a Catholic. It isn’t that she wasn’t aware that the Church is always urgently in need of reform — she was quite able of comparing certain priests and bishops to blowfish and sharks and on one occasion went so far as to join in picketing the New York Chancery Office in support of a strike by grave diggers. But her basic attitude toward the Church was one of obedience and gratitude. This wasn’t simply a tactic she embraced in order not to be so quickly dismissed by the hierarchy. As she once said to me: “We don’t save the Church — the Church saves us.” There were some minor church teachings that she more or less ignored — she once chastised me for putting something in the paper about a plenary indulgence that had been authorized by Pope John XXIII — but I don’t recall her ever rejecting anything that was in any Catholic catechism, including plenary indulgences. She saw herself not as a prophet whom God had commissioned to chastise the Church, but simply as a woman struggling to live the teachings that Jesus announced to his followers and grateful to be a member of the Catholic Church which, for all its human failings, preserved the Gospel message and welcomed her to sacramental life.

Another point Merton and Dorothy had in common was a commitment to nonviolence. Not once in her 47 years as editor of The Catholic Worker did she publish any words of approbation regarding violence but rather continually reaffirmed her commitment to imitate Christ, who neither killed anyone one nor blessed any killings.

Merton had made his views known early on, in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in explaining his reasons for being a conscientious objector:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel…. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do…. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’.” [ SSM, pp 311-2]

Years later, in the period when he was one of the main advisors to the Catholic Peace Fellowship , Merton wrote: “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 [the Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” [Seeds of Destruction, p 129]

Merton may have been, in the Latin sense of the word, a pacifist — a peacemaker — but he was certainly not in favor of passivity. What Merton found most valuable in the just-war tradition was its insistence that evil must be actively opposed. It was this that drew him to Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King.

One of the most significant publications that the Catholic Peace Fellowship produced in its early years was an essay by Merton, “Blessed are the Meek.” Merton’s topic was the Christian roots of nonviolence. It was especially written for CPF. Perhaps it’s time for CPF to reissue the booklet — and also make it available on its web site.

Another area of agreement for Dorothy and Merton was their non-confrontational approach to reform and renewal in the Church.

There is no time here to go into detail, but both of them, along with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, were deeply involved in the Second Vatican Council. Especially the content of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Council’s final document, owes a great deal to Merton and Dorothy and even to the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

Another lesson in peacemaking we drew from both Dorothy and Merton is that, difficult though it may be at times, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak openly about God. God is a three-letter word that many people go to great lengths to avoid. Merton and Dorothy took pains not to secularize their vocabulary. It was Dorothy who said, “If I have achieved anything in my life it was because I was not afraid to talk about God.” Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “The important thing is not to live for contemplation but to live for God.” Or as he put it in a letter to me at a time when I was struggling with discouragement: “All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

Let me conclude by focusing on another lesson in peacemaking that was central to the example of both Dorothy and Merton: their amazing compassion toward people with whom they were at odds, and their readiness to meet and talk with opponents.

In Dorothy’s case, I recall how surprised I was to hear her speak in positive terms about bishops, such as our own Cardinal Spellman, who were regarded with outspoken contempt by most liberal Catholics. She was very resistant to the kinds of enmities that easily take root in people at odds with the world they live in. While Dorothy could sometimes be quite abrupt and on occasion lose her temper, in fact patience and kindness were her default settings, and they extended to cardinals and politicians.

Compassion was certainly a major theme in Merton’s letters to would-be peacemakers. Again and again he urged us to have more sympathy for the people who felt threatened by protest. He tried to convince us that self-righteousness will benefit neither ourselves nor anyone else. But without compassion, Merton pointed out, the protester tends to become more and more centered in anger and — far from assisting others on the path to conversion — easily becomes an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others. As he put it in one letter to me:

“We have to have a deep patient compassion for the fears of men, for the fears and irrational mania of those who hate or condemn us. . . . [These are, after all] the ordinary people, the ones who don’t want war, the ones who get it in the neck, the ones who really want to build a decent new world in which there will not be war and starvation.”

Yet, as Merton pointed out, most people are irritated or frightened by agitation even when it protests something ? militarism, nuclear weapons, social injustice ? which objectively endangers them and those they love. As he put it in another letter, “[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb . . . but they feel terribly threatened by some . . . student carrying a placard.”

Without love, especially love of opponents and enemies, he insisted that neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur. The paramount importance of love was a point he dwelled on in a letter to Dorothy Day, no doubt aware she would read it to all of us on the Catholic Worker staff:

“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 another 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; H.L., 140-43.]

Merton noticed that when compassion and love are absent, actions that are superficially nonviolent in fact mask deep hostility, contempt and the desire to defeat and humiliate an opponent. As he put it to me in a very insightful letter:

“One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations. I think this is especially true when there are … elements that are not spiritually developed. It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. It may even in some cases separate men out and drive them in the other direction, away from us and away from peace. This of course may be (as it was with the prophets) part of God’s plan. A clear separation of antagonists…. [But we must] always direct our action toward opening people’s eyes to the truth, and if they are blinded, we must try to be sure we did nothing specifically to blind them.

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…. In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds — race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation…. We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we ‘use’ truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” [Letter to Jim Forest, February 6, 1962; HGL, pp 263-4.]

Both Dorothy and Merton were firm believers in patient efforts simply to communicate to others what the Gospel is all about, what the Church teaches, and the value of paying attention to saints who in various ways set a timely example. This is not so much carrying out what are sometimes called “prophetic actions” as engaging in ordinary acts of communication. While being patient and even supportive of me and others who engaged in such dramatic acts of civil disobedience as breaking into draft offices and burning draft files, neither Dorothy nor Merton recommended such tactics as a method of protest.

Forgive me for speaking at such length! Though it’s nearly twenty years since I was received into the Orthodox Church and have been deeply engaged in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ever since, I still feel a deep bond with the Catholic Church. I thank God daily for all that I have received from the Catholic Church and for having been close to such God-revealing people as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. I still feel part of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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Text as of March 17, 2007
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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Jim’s e-mail: [email protected]
Jim and Nancy Forest web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com
Photo web site: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
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