1995 Jan 1 – World Day of Peace (Prison Writings)
Mt 5, 38 – 48
“I SAY TO YOU. LOVE YOUR ENEMIES AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. . . FOR IF YOU LOVE THOSE WHO LOVE YOU WHAT REWARD WILL YOU GET?” Matthew 5:44-46
New Year’s Greetings from Club Fed Yankton. The Church gives us the option of celebrating the World Day of Peace in today’s liturgy. It should come as no surprise that I am taking this opportunity to focus my New Years reflection to you on the concerns of peace.
The Gospel text for today’s World Day of Peace Mass has always been a challenge and a stumbling block for me. I first looked at this text, seriously, in 1974 while in the seminary at Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque, IA. I remember the class. It was a 2nd semester Introduction to the New Testament course. Anyone who has ever gone to seminary will tell you that one’s introduction to scripture classes initially makes your head spin. Inevitably, sometime during the course, your faith is severely shaken. It feels as though everything you thought you believed about the Holy Scriptures is proven wrong. For most students this usually has to do with the miracle stories found in the Gospels. Or it can come with the study of the Resurrection. Questions like: “Did Jesus really rise from the dead or did somebody steal his body?” “What about the empty tomb?” And, “Where did his body go after it left earth?” Questions like these in a modern scripture course can test the faith of the most sincere seminary student.
As for myself, none of these questions really concerned me. The text that tried my faith was the text we have for today’s World Day of Peace liturgy from Matthew. It was precisely in Jesus’ ethical teaching of “love your enemies” that I thought Jesus was going beyond reason, asking us to do something that felt unnatural.
It was at this time that I actually considered becoming Jewish. Why not? The Jewish people believe in the same God as we do. They have their own Holy Book. And they are God’s chosen people. They will be God’s chosen people until the end of time. And their moral and social ethics are eminently reasonable and generous. The measurement of being a good Jew, according to the prophets, was how well you took care of the poor and the least in your midst. The truest and highest expression of your love for God was demonstrated by the love you showed your fellow human beings. In Judaism justice was measured more important than cultic ritual, at least that is what the prophets taught. But, should your enemy be marching on you, intent to kill you and destroy your people, according to the Old Testament, you have every right to defend yourself by any means necessary up to, and including, the use of lethal force. This is only reasonable. However, if your enemies were poor and hungry you were also obliged to feed them and take care of their basic needs; this was generous!
In the New Testament, there is no such “lethal defense” clause. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus give his followers permission to kill anyone, for any reason, at any time. Jesus tells us a lot about how to lay down our lives and die for another, but nowhere does he tell us to kill for another. Jesus himself was a victim of the death penalty and would never be its advocate.
It’s not that Christians are to stand idly by while injustices are taking place. No, that is not at all what Jesus would have us do. Clearly, the Gospels teach us that we are to do everything in our power to right the wrongs of the world. We have every right to defend others and ourselves from aggressive unjust behavior, even if we must risk our own lives. Yet every right has its limits, and the right to defend yourself in the New Testament rules out the use of deadly, lethal force. Killing an enemy is not how one loves one’s enemies.
It is precisely in this universal ethic of love that expands the concept of our neighbor to include all peoples, even our enemies that sets the teachings of Jesus apart from all other religions and faiths. The early Church understood very clearly this ethical teaching of Jesus to love one’s enemies. They were strict pacifists and did not allow any of their members to kill in wars. For them killing was killing was killing, no matter what. In the early Church killing was not acceptable regardless of the just cause or virtuous end. The early Church had a truly consistent life ethic.
Then something happened. Sometime after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 300’s, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Emperor and St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians the Church ever had, came up with something called a Just War Theory. The Church made a radical departure from its strong anti-killing, anti-violence stand. Ever since then the Church has sided with the State in its right to defend itself from lethal means, and pacifism disappeared from the Roman Catholic Church. A review of the history of Western (Christian) Civilization will show it to be filled with fighting, killing and wars, in most cases with the Church’s blessings and approval. Some of these wars were even initiated and fought by the Church’s own armies, a tragic and ugly legacy, every bit as tragic as the Church’s record with the institution of slavery.
Now we live in this, the last decade of the 20th Century, the most war torn bloody century the world has ever known, with the instruments of self-destruction, nuclear weapons, in place and ready to be used, and I can’t help asking, “How did this happen? How is it that the vast majority of the century’s bloody wars have been initiated and fought by so called Christian nations? How did we get so far away from our Lord and Master’s spirit of love and nonviolence? Isn’t it time to make a readjustment on our Church’s position on war?
95 01 01
A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR THE CHURCH IN THE 21ST CENTURY
As we enter into the 21st Century, the overriding human task will be to save the planet. And who will we need to save the planet from? Ourselves! More than anything else, what the world needs from those of us who claim to be Christians is a rediscovery and a putting into practice Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of loving one’s enemies. It is the greatest gift our faith tradition can offer the future.
Today the Roman Catholic Church has two official positions on the issue of war. The first and most dominant one is the Just War Tradition. This tradition goes back 17 centuries, back to St. Augustine and the Roman Empire. Until just recently, it was the only position the Official Church accepted and practiced. The second position is both the newest recognized position and the oldest held position on this issue. It is the newest because it has only become an acceptable position for Catholics to embrace since the Vatican Council II. It is also the oldest held position because it dates back all the way to Jesus and the 1st Century Church. It is the Pacifist tradition.
Right now Catholics can choose either position when dealing with the ethical issue of war. The Just War Tradition, however, is the most widely accepted position. It is the position embraced and put into practice by the Official Church and its institutions. The Pacifist position is the lesser position in the life and body of the Church. It is only an option reserved for those individual Catholics who in good conscience cannot accept the use of violence or killing even in a just cause for just war. It is considered something only an individual can embrace. It is not binding on the Faith Community as a whole. It is strictly an individual thing.
My proposal for the Church is that we keep both positions, the Just War Tradition and Pacifist Tradition, but flip-flopping our emphasis and institutional practices. By this I mean from now on the Church would emphasize the non-violent pacifist position, the earliest and oldest tradition practiced by the Church. The Church would put all its resources and institutional backing and practice behind this tradition and not the Just War Tradition. The Church would no longer bless and support any more wars or the preparation for war. When wars happen, we would universally condemn them as wholly out of spirit with the demands of the Gospels and recommend Catholics not to take part in them in any way or manner.
We should leave open the possibility for individual Catholics, who in good conscience cannot embrace the higher ideal of non-violently loving their enemies, to embrace the lesser Just War Tradition. But this should only be allowed as an individual choice, a choice the larger Church would counsel against but tolerate grudgingly.
What would happen if the Church were to embrace such a proposal? Would wars cease to happen? No, I doubt it. But at least the world will know where we stand. It’s like the sin of adultery. The Church has always been opposed to adultery, yet people continue to commit this sin, but there is no doubt whatsoever where the Church stands on marital infidelity. We are against it and it should be the same way with war and killing.
If the Church were to follow this suggestion in time our recommitment to the original nonviolent spirit of Jesus’ ethic of loving your enemies will start to take form and shape within our Faith Communities. It may well help the larger world see nonviolent options to human conflicts that have previously been hidden or not thought possible in the past. I know one thing for sure, we will never know unless we try.
If we, who claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, are not willing to embrace his radical ethic of loving our enemies, who will? I believe the integrity of our Faith, if not the future of the human race demands we try.
Fr. Frank Cordaro #13093-047
Durand/FPC PO. Box 700
Yankton, South Dakota 57078