If there is any period in the Christian calendar when we should become conscious of our addiction to violence, it is along the Lenten road: destination Easter. No other event has so exposed the root of human sacrificial violence, the mechanism of exclusion upon which we build society.
We esteem the giants of nonviolence, but seldom does it enter our minds that active non-violence should be a consistent Christian discipline. One that is practised, rehearsed, alive to the vagaries and complexities of present time and place, alive to the challenges of a culture that accepts redemptive violence as fait accompli.
As it is, we don’t study peace; we study war.
In refusing to accept the rationality or the morality of war — our war in Afghanistan, for example — I do not wish, in the least, to dishonour the soldiers who have been killed, or the troops engaged or preparing to engage in active duty.
And yet, I accept being misunderstood here because I see how difficult it is to disentangle a condemnation of the war from an expression of earnest support and compassion for the lives and the families of soldiers. It’s like condemning a tattoo my son has consciously chosen as his form of self-expression and self-identification. My reassurances of love fail as my son reads my disapproval of his tattoo as my rejection of him.
But even this comparison falls short, for the issue of war and nonviolence is more than skin deep. In the eyes of most people who are supportive of our military, a pacifist stand is near treasonous. I think this, because I once thought of pacifists this way.
Pacifism has a positive mystique but a negative pragmatism. It’s held romantically, if not quixotically, in the mind, as in, "wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all peace loving people?" But it’s dismissed as a realistic position; "imagine what would have happened if we didn’t stop Hitler."
There is also the charge of pacifism’s seeming self-righteousness, its unwillingness to get its hands dirty and the implicit accusation of cowardice. These are important criticisms. But we do have examples to counter these charges.
Not many would accuse Justin Martyr, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and, in our own day, Jesuit priest John Dear and Austrian antiwar activist Hildegard Goss-Mayr of pharisaism or cowardice. Active non-violence, that is true pacifism — the opposite of passivism — requires courage (to say nothing of a creativity) that is at least equal to that required by active involvement in war.
But what propels these peace-wielders to throw themselves, unarmed, between persecutors and the persecuted? What is it that is obvious to them regarding the upshot of Jesus’ life, that is for us shrouded in pragmatic and theological trade-offs? It’s as though — while the rest of us debate the currency of just-war theory — a huge, harm-revoking love has ruptured their day-to-day lives.
They appear caught by the Spirit through the Jesus of Easter; love is their omega point. They are marked by empathy, compassion, a holism that refuses moral categorization between personal and public, and the inability to dehumanize and subsequently dispatch an enemy.
And before all this, they are marked by the ability to detect envy, rivalry and violence in their own hearts. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, they have come to know, "Nonviolence is not just one implication among others that can be drawn from our Christian beliefs; it is the very heart of our understanding of God."
We hold the Gospel as fundamental guide, hold it as close to its literal reading as scripture itself allows, and yet support "refined interrogation techniques," military campaigns that protect economic interests and war; and we sit confounded as to why violence at home is growing.
We study war because we are addicted to violence, particularly redemptive violence. And our addiction holds because violence — in lock-step with any deep dependency — works for a while.
Easter opens to us the opportunity for detoxification like no other event in the Christian calendar.
Caught in the Easter eyes of the victim, forgiven, divisions drop away and the possibility dawns for life lived as though death is behind us. With death no longer our orientation, false peace through aggression is undone.
Active non-violence, practised in love over time, answers both the rational and moral arguments for war. At the same time Christian peace activists withhold judgment upon those trapped by starvation, or the brutalized, who resort to armed resistance. Here, a true pacifist’s only witness is her presence.
For the rest of us, we have the God of Easter to undergo. In the end it’s not about pacifism or non-pacifism, it’s about doing the truth in love within the unfathomable freedom of death-defeated.