Lately I have been more and more impressed with the undeniably nonviolent character of the life and teaching of Jesus. I believe it has tremendous significance for our day and age as Christians seek to answer the question: What does it mean to follow the Lamb who was slain?
Yesterday I was talking with a good friend about the plight of the poor and oppressed (news concerning the death of Fidel Castro got us moving in this direction). While I wondered how world leaders could speak admirably of a man who allegedly murdered so many people, my friend urged me to consider the political and historical context that formed Cuba’s circumstances in recent decades.This led to a discussion about the role of violence in resisting evil: To what extreme must we who follow Jesus hold the conviction of nonviolence? What allowance should we make for those oppressed peoples who finally break under pressure and decide to hit back? How much can I really relate to their suffering as a white American male living in the shadow of the world’s greatest superpower?
Then today I came across an excerpt from the autobiography of Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and social activist who was no stranger to controversy in his day. It was so good I felt the need to reproduce it here for any of you who may be asking similar questions. This is a letter Daniel wrote to Ernesto Cardenal, a brother who helped establish a Christian community on Solentiname Island in Nicaragua, on the eve of Cardenal’s public support for certain members of the community who had taken up arms in the fight against Samosa. The copy of the letter I have in my possession is entitled, “Guns Don’t Work.” It is a bit long for a blog post, but you can follow this link to read the entire letter. Here are the most relevant quotations:
Dear Brother Ernesto Cardenal,
Your account of events in your community of Solentiname has been widely distributed in the United States, especially by the religious press. One translation appended a word: “It is important for us in this country to be able to listen and not to judge this.”
Indeed. But at least we can talk together. Please consider what follows, then, as a continuing reflection on matters you have had the courage to open up, and indeed, to act on…
I am not going to start with the customary disclaimers about your statement. Such are not only superfluous, they verge on insulting. What Yankee doesn’t know by now the deadly mutual interests which in Washington prop up the Nicaraguan military government of the Somozas? And who would regard you–an exile, a priest who must now anoint your forehead with the ashes of your dream–regard you convictions, your choices, with anything but the utmost respect? All this is implicit in friendship itself…
Let me say too that the questions you raise are among the most crucial that Christians can spell out today…
What then nags at me, when I ponder your words? I have some inkling of what you face, what your companions face, the students and workers and peasants of your country. I know that the Somozas, given the leash, could swallow all of you tomorrow…
I say this in no spirit of cynicism. Merely to suggest that in a way I find both strange and exhilarating, your situation lies quite near the realities of the gospel. It ought not, after all, depress us beyond measure, if the empire finds you and me expendable. That is quite normal and constant in the history of such entities. What is of import finally is whether we are able to salvage something in the open season on humans.
I do not mean salvage our lives; I mean our humanity. Our service to one another, of compassion–our very sanity.
I hope I am inching toward the contents of your letter. You discuss quite freely and approvingly the violence of a violated people, yourselves. You align yourself with that violence, regretfully but firmly, irrevocably.
I am sobered and saddened by this. I think of the consequences of your choices, within Nicaragua and far beyond. I sense how the web of violence spins another thread, draws you in, and so many others for whom your example is primary, who do not think for themselves, judging that a priest and poet will lead them in the true way.
I think how fatally easy it is, in a world demented and enchanted with the myth of shortcuts and definitive solutions, when nonviolence appears increasingly naive, old hat, freakish–how easy it is to cross over, to seize the gun. How easy to conclude: the deck is stacked, first card to last, in favor of the Big Sharks; the outcome of the game, of life itself, is settled before the cards are dealt. Why then isn’t taking a few lives (of dubious value at best, torturers, lackeys, police) preferable to the taking of many lives of great value, students, the poor, the victimized and defenseless, the conscientious, those easily identifiable as gospel brothers and sisters? There is, after all, a long tradition of legitimate self-defense…
You may be correct in reporting that “those young Christians fought without hate”… Your vision may one day be verified of a Nicaragua free of “campesino guards killing other campesinos.” The utopia you ache for may one day be realized in Nicaragua: “an abundance of schools, child care centers, hospitals, and clinics for everyone–and most importantly, love between everyone.” This may all be true: the guns may bring in the kingdom.
But I do not believe it.
From there Berrigan goes on to question the validity of “just war” theory, whether it originates from the political right or left. “The leftists kill the rightists, the rightists kill the leftists,” he lamented, and “both, given time and occasion, kill the children, the aged, the ill, the suspects.” More than that: “Given time and occasion, both torture prisoners.”
The result, according to Berrigan? “Of course nothing changes. Nothing changes in Beirut, in Belfast, or in Galilee, as I have seen. Except that the living die. And that old, revered distinction between combatant and noncombatant, which was supposed to protect the innocent and helpless, goes down the nearest drain, along with the indistinguishable blood of any and all.”
His final remarks are the best:
Of course we have choices, of course we must decide. When all is said, we find that the gospel makes sense, that it strikes against our motives and actions or it does not. Can that word make sense at all today, can it be something more than utopian or extravagant?…
We really are stuck. Christians are stuck with this Christ, the impossible, unteachable, irreformable loser. Revolutionaries must correct him, act him aright. That absurd form, shivering under the crosswinds of power, must be made acceptable, relevant. So a gun is painted into his empty hands. Now he is human! Now he is like us…
In this bloody century, religion has little to offer, little that is not contaminated, or broken or in bad faith. But one thing we have: our refusal to take up bombs or guns, aimed at the flesh of brothers and sisters, whom we persist in defining as such, refusing the enmities pushed at us by war-making state or war-blessing church.
This is a long loneliness, and a thankless one. One says “no” when every ache of the heart would say “yes.” We, too, long for a community on the land, heartening liturgies, our own turf, the arts, a place where sane ecology can heal us. And the big boot comes down. It destroys everything we have built. And we recoil. Perhaps in shock, perhaps in a change of heart, we begin to savor on our tongues a language that is current all around us: phrases like “legitimate violence,” “limited retaliation,” “killing for love of the kingdom.” And the phrases make sense–we have crossed over. We are now an army, like the pope’s army, or Luther’s, or the crusaders, or the Muslims. We have disappeared into this world, into bloody, secular history. We cannot adroitly handle both gospel and gun; so we drop the gospel, as impediment in any case.
And our weapons?
They are contaminated in what they do, and condemned in what they cannot do. There is blood on them, as on our hands. And like our hands, they cannot heal injustice or succor the homeless.
How can they signal the advent of the Kingdom of God? How can we, who hold them? We announce only another bloody victory for the emperor of necessity, whose name in the Bible is Death.
Shall we have dominion?
Brother I think of you so often. And pray with you. And hope against hope.
Amen. We hope against hope.