Call to Action National Conference. Milwaukee, WI. November 2, 2002
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I just want to thank you for all you are doing for the church, for peace and justice, and for God, and just want to encourage you, to be your coach who says, “OK, go back out there, you can do it, practice the nonviolence of Jesus!” I want to talk about the all-inclusive nonviolence of Jesus, and his call to love our neighbors and our enemies, but before we talk about his spirituality of nonviolence, I think we should talk first about the culture’s false spirituality of violence. As you may know, I lived in New York City for the last six years, and after the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, I started volunteering like thousands of other New Yorkers and I worked at the Family Assistance Center in Manhattan as a local coordinator of the Red Cross chaplains, supervising some 500 chaplains of all religions and personally met with over 1500 grieving relatives and escorted hundreds to Ground Zero, and also talked with hundreds of rescue workers at Ground Zero.
At the same time, like many of you, I was speaking out against the war on Afghanistan, organizing vigils, going to marches, engaging in civil disobedience, trying to practice these commandments of Jesus, that we love our neighbors and love our enemies. I remember on firefighter at Ground Zero who said, “I wish everyone in the US could see Ground Zero; then no one would support war.” And I’ve come to the conclusion that in his culture of violence, this world of global violence, with its 35 wars, its massive poverty, with 50,000 people starving to death every day, with 30,000 nuclear weapons, we have developed a very subtle, very sophisticated spirituality of violence, a spirituality of war, a spirituality of exclusivity, a spirituality of empire, which we are almost completely oblivious to, which has nothing to do with the living God.
In a spirituality of violence, the President is welcomed to the National Cathedral on September 14th, with the Joint Chiefs sitting in the front row, and calls down a blessing from the gods of war on our revenge and bombing of human beings in Afghanistan. In a spirituality of violence, the churches reject the Sermon on the Mount as impractical, takes up the empire’s just war theory, launch crusades and bless Trident submarines and enjoys the comforts of the culture of violence rather than the scary challenge of Gospel nonviolence, the risk of the cross and the resurrection. In a spirituality of violence, 190 of 194 bishops voted last November to bless and support the bombing and mass murder of the people in Afghanistan. We know over 4000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the first two months of the war. They claim they care about children and oppose child abuse from pedaphile priests, but they bless the bombing of Afghanistan; they do not see that the murder of children in Afghanistan is the ultimate act of child abuse!
Reflecting on our predicament, the heresy and blasphemy of the times, and the church’s false spirituality of violence, Daniel Berrigan said to me last November, “We should just call upon the country to burn all the gospels, and on Sunday morning, to process into Mass holding high the Air Force Command Book, and we will incense it, and read the great commandment: Kill Your Enemies!” But maybe we are learning the hard way the great truth that Violence doesn’t work. Violence in response to violence always leads to further violence. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword. Those who live by the bomb, the gun, the nuclear weapon, will die by bombs and guns and nuclear weapons.” You reap what you sow. The means are the ends. What goes around comes around. War can not and will not stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War never ends wars. War only sows the seeds for future wars. War can never lead to lasting peace or true security or a better world. War is not the way to become more human, or overcome evil or deepen our spiritual lives or follow the nonviolent Jesus.
If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to denounce the lie of the spirituality of violence and say that: War is not the will of God. War is never blessed by God. War is not endorsed by any religion. War is the very definition of mortal sin. War is not the way to follow the nonviolent Jesus and walk the road to peace. Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future and the God of peace. Love your neighbors and love your enemies. Instead of repenting the sin of war and practicing Gospel nonviolence, we are now heading toward the full-scale slaughter of the people of Iraq. As you know, since 1990, our sanctions have killed over 1 million Iraqis, most of them children, according to the UN, UNICEF, the Vatican, and WHO. We grieve the deaths of 2900 people in New York; they are beside themselves with the death of over one million Iraqis. No one supports Saddam or tyranny anywhere, but our country is the reason why these children have been killed, why they continue to die by the thousands each month. In March 1999, I led a delegation of Nobel peace prize winners to Baghdad. We met with religious leaders, United Nations officials, and non-governmental organizations, and even government representatives, but most importantly, we met with hundreds of dying children and saw with our own eyes the reality of suffering inflicted by the sanctions, because we have systematically destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure.
I will never forget going to the girls school in Baghdad, and being greeted by 500 school girls, with them singing in Arabic the old civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” “Deep in my heart, I do believe,” they sang, “We shall live in peace in someday.” Then, they said, “Why is your government trying to kill us? What have we done to you? We want to be friends with the kids in America!” Bombing the suffering people will not bring democracy to Iraq. It will not bring nuclear disarmament or peace to the Middle East. It will not prevent terrorist attacks. It will not help the international work of peacemaking and the UN inspections. It will not build community with the rest of the world. It will not help our economy. It will not fund jobs or feed the hungry or pay for healthcare, education, low-income housing, or environmental clean-up. It will not uphold international law. It will not solve our problems or lead us to true security. Bombing Iraq will only protect the oil companies; sow the seeds of further terrorism; set a horrible global precedent, that it is okay to bomb preemptively; and risk the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children. And in terms of the spiritual life, it leads to the loss of our souls. War with Iraq is not only illegal and immoral, it’s just downright impractical. It’s not justified or noble, just lethal and stupid. Instead of bombing Iraq, we should root out the causes of terrorism, by ending the real axis of evil, poverty, starvation, the degradation of the earth, the proliferation of weapons, and the existence of nuclear weapons.
Last weekend, I spoke to 3000 people in Taos, New Mexico at a rally and march to the home of Donald Rumsfield, and we said simply, Don’t bomb Iraq; Lift the sanctions on Iraq! Let the children live! Seek Peaceful alternatives. I think this is the role of the church, to love our enemies first of all by trying to stop our country from killing them.
The heart of all the problems in the world and the church, from Iraq to the Bishops, I think comes from this spirituality of violence, to the truth of who Jesus is, and what he did; in other words, was Jesus violent or nonviolent?
If he was violent, war making, dominating, if he built nuclear weapons, dropped bombs on people or executed anyone, then we can wage war. Did he do these things? No, of course not!
The only thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he practiced active, public, creative nonviolence. He called us to love our neighbors; to show compassion toward everyone; to seek justice for the poor; to forgive everyone; to put down the sword; to take up the cross in the struggle for justice and peace; to lay down our lives, to risk our lives if necessary, in love for all humanity.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who don’t know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians.
The most significant, revolutionary words he ever said are the climax of the Sermon on the Mount, which I would like to read from Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel:
“You have heard that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly God, for God makes the sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers and sisters only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? Rather, be compassionate and nonviolent as God is compassionate and nonviolent.”
If this is the message of Jesus, then everything has to change. If we want to be faithful to Jesus, we have to reject the spirituality of violence and the just war theory; start practicing the all-inclusive nonviolence of Jesus, and create a new church of Christ’s nonviolence. As it is, it reminds of Flannery O’Connor’s book, “Wise Blood,” and the Church of Christ without Christ; that’s what we have today.
Jesus organizes the poor and walks from Galilee to Jerusalem on a campaign of active nonviolence right into the Temple, the symbol of imperial and religious oppression of the poor, the center of systemic injustice, and in an act of peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience, turns over the tables of the moneychangers. “From now on, we are going to be contemplatives,” he said, “This is a house of prayer.” He doesn’t hurt anyone, kill anyone, or bomb anyone. But he does engage in peaceful, nonviolent action; he is not passive. For this, he is arrested, tried, tortured, and executed, a victim of the death penalty. His last words to the community, to the church, to us, as the soldiers drag him away, could not be clearer or more to the point: “Put down the sword.” He dies on the cross saying, “The violence stops here in my body, which is given for you. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not allowed to kill.” And God raises him from the dead, and he sends us forth as people of nonviolence into the culture of violence. From now on, we can no longer support war or killing; we have to love your enemies, beginning with the people of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Jesus’ all-inclusive love reaches from New York to Kabul to Baghdad, from Bogata to Beijing, Manila to Moscow to Milwaukee.
What is a spirituality of nonviolence?
The all-inclusive nonviolence of Jesus begins with the vision of a reconciled humanity, the reign of God in our midst, the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, all already united, and so, we could never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, builds nuclear weapons, and allows others to starve.
Nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. It is not passivity but active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, and resists systemic evil, that persistently reconciles everyone, but always renounces violence and killing and war no matter what.
Nonviolence insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of any human being; and instead of killing others, we are willing to undergo being killed in the struggle for justice; instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate, in the pursuit of justice and peace for all people.
The world says there are two options in the face of violence: you can fight back or run away. Jesus gives us a third option: creative, active nonviolent resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist war publicly, through creative nonviolent love, trusting in God, loving even our enemies.
Nonviolence begins in our hearts, where we renounce all the violence inside ourselves, and then moves out with active nonviolence to our families, communities, our church, our cities, our nation and the world. When organized on a large level, active nonviolence can transform nations and the world, as Gandhi demonstrated in India’s revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu and the churches of South Africa showed against apartheid.
Following the teachings of the nonviolent Jesus, There’s no such thing as a Just War. It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus. It was invented by Cicero, a Roman pagan, as a way for the empire to get more people involved in their brutality. It has nothing to do with the nonviolent Jesus or his church of nonviolence. Even if you wanted to follow it, as Thomas Merton said, it’s conditions cannot be met, such as the condition that non-combatants, civilians, will not die. With our weapons of mass destruction, dropped from 35,000 feet, we kill ordinary people. Even the just war theory forbids that, so war can never be justified again.
One of my parishioners is mad at me because her husband is flying over Baghdad this week and dropping bombs and she to me minutes after I gave her communion, but we prayed over it and the church says we can bomb people. I said Jesus says NO. Then she said, well of course, there’s going to be collateral damage. I said we are not allowed to kill one person, no collateral damage is allowed. Jesus was collateral damage, and said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” I like what Bishop Dozier said, that the just war theory belongs in the same drawer as the flat earth theory.
I’m mourning the death of my friend, Richard McSorley. He once said, “OK, if you want to get around these commandments and come up with this loophole to kill, let’s also invent the just adultery theory, and outline the conditions. As long as it’s a just cause, a legitimate authority, a peaceful intention, a last resort, a good chance of success, and the damage is proportionate to the good achieved, you can all practice adultery; we no longer have to take Jesus at his word.”
No, the bottom line is: we are not allowed to kill or wage war. From now on, we are a people of Jesus’ all-inclusive nonviolence, who love our neighbors and our enemies.
If we don’t, we’ll lose our souls and destroy the world.
The night before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
I’m praying this week for my friend and hero, Philip Berrigan, who was supposed to be here, but is ill. On December 7th, 1993, Phil, two friends, and I walked onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, right through the middle of wargames, and invoking the biblical commandments to beat swords into plowshares and love our enemies, hammered twice on an F-15 nuclear-capable fighter bomber in a “Plowshares disarmament action.” We were surrounded by soldiers and I said on behalf of the group, “We are unarmed, peaceful people; we mean you no harm; we’re just here to dismantle this weapon of death.” And we all hoped, that everyone would come to their sense, and the soldiers would say, “What were we thinking? Of course, go right ahead. Thank God you came.”
For that action I faced twenty years in prison. I was found guilty of two felony counts, destruction of government property and conspiracy to commit a felony crime. I spent eight months in a tiny jail cell with Phil and never left it except for the few days we went to court. It was a powerful experience of God, from the action to our imprisonment to the trials. It felt to us like the ultimate exclusion of society, but we were trying to engage that all-inclusive nonviolence of Jesus, to say, “No more killing, because as you know, nuclear weapons are the ultimate exclusion; they don’t just marginalize you, they vaporize you, and that’s the basis of our foreign policy.”
This Summer, I moved to the desert of New Mexico where I serve as pastor of eight churches with 1000s of disenfranchized parishioners. Let me just say, it’s a little different than the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The land the mountains are spectacularly beautiful, and so are the people. New Mexico is now officially the poorest state in the US, and also number one in nuclear weapons spending because of Los Alamos. So my going there is an effort to practice the Gospel’s preferential option for the poor, and the preferential option for peace. And the people are so friendly, I think, that growing up in poverty but surrounded by the most beautiful land and the spiritual tradition has made them natural born mystics.
I would like to propose six ways for us to love our neighbors and our enemies. We have to become prophets, activists, apostles, contemplatives, churchworkers and visionaries of nonviolence.
1. We have to become prophets of nonviolence
I think the task before each one of us now and for the rest of our lives is to break the silence, the complicity and acceptance of our culture of war, to disrupt the culture of war, to denounce the false spirituality of violence and speak the truth of peace and nonviolence. From now on, each one of us must speak out as never before against our country’s wars and nuclear weapons, and call for peace, justice, and nonviolent alternatives.
That means that we must spend the next few months saying out loud, “Don’t go to war with Iraq; don’t bomb Iraq, Don’t kill the children of Iraq. Instead, lift the unjust sanctions on Iraq, and love the people of Iraq, and pursue nonviolent alternatives for peace with Iraq through the UN and the inspectors.”
We must also call for an immediate end to all U.S. military aid to Israel; demand our country stop funding the occupation of the Palestinians; stop supporting Israeli war criminals; and start supporting nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. We have to say that we’re not anti-Semitic nor do we support suicide bombers, but that we want the Jewish vision of shalom, that we support the 1000 Israeli reservists who refuse to go into the West Bank. We must also demand our country stop bombing and sending military aid to Colombia and the Philippines; close our own terrorist training camps, like the School of the Americas, as well as the CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon; and lift the entire third world debt.
We must call for dramatic cuts in our military budget; an immediate end to the Star Wars missile shield program; and the abolition of every nuclear weapon and weapon of mass destruction, and demand that our country undertake international treaties for nuclear disarmament; join the world court and international law; and then, redirect those billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace through international cooperation for nonviolent alternatives; to feed every starving child and refugee on the planet, end poverty, show compassion to everyone and protect the earth itself.
Whether we are heard or not, whether our message is accepted or not, our vocation is to proclaim it. We must speak the truth of peace and justice; otherwise our silence is complicity with the culture of war. We have to become prophets of nonviolence, a prophetic people who speak on behalf of the God of peace.
2. We need to become activists of nonviolence.
I asked Cesar Chavez shortly before he died, what we should do for peace and justice. He said, “Public action, public action, public action! Tell everyone they have to act publicly for peace and justice for the rest of their lives.”
Recently I came across a great quote from Pope John XXIII. He said you cannot just pray for peace; if that is all you do and all you teach, you are in heresy. He said you must act for peace as well.
Each one of us has to get involved in some public action against war, and stay with it, and invite others to join us. We don’t have to do everything, but we all have to do something. The early church was all about public action, that’s why they call their story, “The Acts of the Apostles.” That has to be our story too. They were constantly in trouble for public nonviolent action for faith-based peacemaking, for disrupting the culture of war and the false spirituality of violence. We need to vigil, march, organize, leaflet, protest and cross the line for peace, to keep the peace movement moving! In particular, we need to love our enemies, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Colombia and elsewhere.
3. We need to become apostles of nonviolence, that is, teachers of nonviolence.
We need to study nonviolence, discuss nonviolence with one another and teach nonviolence. We have to become missionaries of nonviolence to a culture of violence, pioneers of nonviolence in a culture of violence, champions of nonviolence in a culture of violence. Please teach your families, your children, your priests, your bishops, your churches and everyone to embrace Jesus’ all-inclusive nonviolence.
The churches have failed to teach Gospel nonviolence. The Bishops are not going to do it; our priests are not going to do it; you have to do it. We have a particular mission to teach nonviolence to the people stuck in this horrible culture of violence and its false spirituality of violence.
4. We need to be contemplatives of nonviolence, mystics of nonviolence.
The only way to deepen in the all-inclusive nonviolence of Jesus is through prayer, which means we have to become contemplatives and mystics, people who sit with the God of peace, who take intimate time each day for our relationship with the God of peace, who allow the God of peace to disarm our hearts of our violence and the wars within us so that we can be disarmed and become people of nonviolence.
Keep giving God your own inner violence and resentments. Grant clemency and forgiveness to everyone who ever hurt you, and move from anger and revenge and violence to nonviolence and compassion for everyone, so that we can become people who radiate personally the peace we seek politically.
I think the AA model is right: in a culture addicted to violence, if we want to become sober people of nonviolence, we need to turn to our Higher Power for help, confess our violence, and support one another through our communities of nonviolence.
When Jesus called us to love our enemies, he said we should do this because God does this. God let’s the sun shine on the just and the unjust, and the rain fall on the good and the bad. God is compassionate to everyone, and we should too. This is the heart of his spirituality of nonviolence.
As you work for peace and justice, you learn, contrary to what the Pentagon and the warmaking culture says, that our God is not a god of war, but the God of peace; not a god of injustice, but the God of justice; not a god of vengeance and retaliation, but the God of compassion and mercy; not a god of violence, but the God of nonviolence; not a god of death, but the living God of life. We discover a new image of God.
If we can begin to imagine the peace and nonviolence of God; to worship the God of peace and nonviolence; if we can help our communities to worship the God of peace; then in the process we will refuse to support war and become people of peace and nonviolence.
5. We need to help welcome a Church of Nonviolence
These days, we are all heartbroken and appalled by what has happened with the scandals, by the fact that children have been hurt, and hurt by priests, and we have to keep apologizing for this atrocious behavior, and make sure it never happens again, and that means we have to help change the church move from power and domination and secrecy and sexism to become the community of peace and nonviolence that Jesus wants it to be.
But I think we need to call not just for an end to domination and power and secrecy in the church, and for the ordination of married people and women and the inclusion of everyone and accountability and equality and democracy, but the rejection of the just war theory and the practice of Gospel nonviolence, so that church leaders never again bless or support war, but that instead, our church leaders will engage in active nonviolence, get arrested, even risk martyrdom for nonviolent resistance to our country’s war making. Then the church will become what Jesus wants, his community of nonviolence. Until the church embraces the nonviolence of Jesus, none of these other changes will happen.
It’s critical that we help with the conversion of the church, our conversion to nonviolence, because in the end, only the churches, the synagogues and the mosques, the communities of faith, can save us from the brink of global destruction. We are the only ones with the vision to see the humanity in the eyes of our enemies, the ones who will defend the poor and oppressed and our enemies; the ones who will gives our lives for them.
Just because the bishops don’t practice Jesus’ nonviolence, doesn’t mean we don’t have to. I think we have all we need to help transform the church, through the ways of active nonviolence, Gandhi’s satyagraha, prayer, and fasting; but we need to let go of our anger, resentment, bitterness and hatred, and start meeting with our bishops, and win over our priests and fellow Catholics and inundate the Vatican with loving letters calling for the church’s conversion to nonviolence with all its implications. We have failed to do these things with love and compassion, and I’m not even sure that we have tried, that we are willing to go deep into suffering love for the truth of Gospel nonviolence.
6. Finally, I think we have to become visionaries of nonviolence
We live in a time of terrible blindness, moral blindness, spiritual blindness, the blindness that will lead us over the brink of global destruction. Our mission is to uphold the vision of nonviolence, to point the way forward, the way out of our madness, to lift up the light, to lead us away from the brink. As the book of proverbs says, “Without a vision, the people perish.”
One of the many casualties of the culture of violence is our imagination. People can no longer imagine a world without war or nuclear weapons or violence. They can’t even imagine it, because the culture has robbed us of our imaginations.
We need to be the community of faith and conscience and nonviolence that lifts up the vision of peace, to help others imagine a world without war or nuclear weapons, the vision that teaches that we can resist our country’s wars. We need to be like the abolitionists who imagined a world without slavery and build a movement to abolish war, poverty and nuclear weapons.
The question before us this weekend is from the Gospel of Luke, “Who is my neighbor?” But this was not Jesus’ question. Jesus had just said we are to love God with all our heart, our souls, and our mind and our neighbor as ourselves, and a lawyer asks: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, how a man journeying on the dangerous road to Jericho, was robbed, beaten, and thrown into a ditch. Just then, a bishop passed by, and then a Jesuit, and they kept on walking. But along comes a Samaritan, the hated enemy of the Jews; in other words, along comes an Afghan woman, an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a homeless person, a Muslim, a lesbian, a death row inmate, a disabled person, a woman ready for ordination, the person we resent and hate the most.
It is this person in Jesus’ story who heals the beaten victim, tends to his wounds, takes him to a hotel, pays his expenses, and promises to come back and care for him. Instead of answering the lawyer, Jesus asks him a question: “Which one of these was neighbor to the victim of violence? And the lawyer answers: The Samaritan. Then, Jesus issues the new commandment, Go and Do Likewise!
Jesus was a prophet, activist, teacher, contemplative, mystic and visionary of nonviolence, and he says to us today: Go and Do Likewise: Love your neighbors and love your enemies.
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t despair. Don’t be afraid. Don’t give up.
Keep on speaking up.
Keep on rejecting the false spirituality of violence and practicing the true spirituality of nonviolence.
Keep on loving your neighbors and loving your enemies.
Keep on becoming prophets, activists, apostles, teachers, contemplatives, church workers and visionaries of Jesus’ all-inclusive nonviolence. Thank you, God bless you.