Action for Peace, the Task at Hand (March, 2002)

In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, several hundred people of faith and conscience gathered in New York City for a weekend of prayer and discussion about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, the U.S. sanctions on Iraq, the U.S.-funded occupation of Palestine, and Dr. King’s teachings on nonviolence. Then we all walked to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for a vigil.
Forty-seven of us blocked the entrance to the building, held banners calling for an end to the war, sang hymns and read from Dr. King’s speeches. After an hour, we were arrested and carted off to jail until early the next morning.
You may say, “Well, what good did that do?”
My friends and I have come to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words, that years of peace pastorals, encyclicals, sermons, conferences, and petitions will not break the culture’s addiction to war. As the Gospel makes clear, only active nonviolent resistance, a direct intervention, can help us take a step toward peace.
When we read the lives of the great Catholic peacemakers from Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day, it is clear that their deeds, not just their words, made the difference. They were not concerned with big numbers and dramatic results, but deeply committed to putting the Gospel into practice in their own lives before God. They spoke out for peace with their very lives.
Francis walked into enemy territory in a time of war to meet the Sultan. Dorothy sat down in Washington Square in New York City, refusing to cooperate with the U.S. nuclear air raid drills, was arrested and jailed. Their small, loving actions continue to reverberate throughout history.
Liberation theology insists that we cannot think ourselves into a new way of acting; we have to act our way into a new way of thinking, of being, of living.
Had the chance to spend an evening in conversation with Cesar Chavez shortly before he died, and asked him what Catholic peacemakers should do. Without missing a beat, he said adamantly, “Public action! Public action! Public action! Tell everyone to act publicly for justice and peace. We have had enough books on nonviolence from people like you,” he said with a smile, “enough homilies, conferences, and classes. We need to act publicly for peace and justice.”
The Pentagon, White House, weapons manufacturers, and corporate executives want us to bicker over questions of morality and the just war theory so they can keep on murdering thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere half way around the world without any disruption from us.
But our silence is complicity. To make true peace we have to disturb the false peace. The Gospel demands we disrupt the government’s wars.
“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good,” Gandhi taught. We can’t worship both the God of peace and the false gods of war. We must obey God’s law of nonviolence and that requires disobeying the culture of war.
“But peacemaking is not my vocation,” many people say to me. I think every Catholic, every Christian is called to be a peacemaker, to live the life of active nonviolence in confrontation with the state’s systemic violence.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus declared. “They shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” Every one of us is a son or daughter of God, every one of us is the beloved child of the God of peace. That means, every one of us is a peacemaker. We all need to engage in the public witness for peace, whether we like it or not.
As Catholics living in this culture of war, our first allegiance is not to the Pentagon, the flag, the government, the president, or America; it is to the peacemaking Jesus.
Jesus lived a life of action. He practiced public, provocative, creative nonviolence, with regular acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. He was a one person crime wave, breaking every law that violated God’s law of peace. He organized the poor in Galilee and walked to Jerusalem in a campaign of active nonviolence. He entered the corrupt Temple, turned over the tables of the money-changers, drove out the cattle, and declared the place as house of prayer. He did not hurt or kill anyone, but he took dramatic, direct action for justice. For this deed, he was arrested, tried, tortured and executed.
As his followers, every one of us has this same vocation of active nonviolence. We are all called to love our enemies. Right now, that means simply trying to stop our government from killing them.
“But how can my government be so wrong?” people ask in disbelief. “And what will people think of me if I get involved in these messy issues?”
Our government has been waging war since its founding, and war is the ultimate mortal sin. But the media have long supported the Pentagon, and the church has justified war for centuries, in violation of the Gospel. If we pledge our allegiance to the God of peace and start acting publicly like Jesus did, then many eyebrows will be raised, people will get upset with us, and some relatives and friends may even walk away from us. But we will become faithful disciples.
Long ago, as I was beginning to grapple with this scary Gospel life, I asked Daniel Berrigan for advice. He said the whole point was somehow to get your story to make sense in light of the Great Story, the story of Jesus. I found that very helpful. Nowadays, when people criticize me and harass me for acting against the government’s wars, I take heart knowing that Jesus certainly faced constant criticism and harassment and was eventually assassinated for this work, and I feel my life is beginning to fit into his story.
I recall too the last Beatitude. “Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice. Rejoice and be glad!” As Dorothy Day said so often, when people criticize me, I feel like I’m moving in the direction of the Gospel. It’s when they praise me that I start to worry and wonder if I’m really following Jesus.
The real challenge is to confront our fears and our indifference. We have to recognize our fear, hear Jesus’ repeated call not to be afraid, remember that thousands of people are dying because of our government, and just stand up and say No to war.
I have found two fundamental ingredients which enable me to overcome my fears: prayer and friendship. Through regular quiet meditation, I feel new energy from the Holy Spirit to take that next step. Through the love of my friends, I share my fears and find myself less afraid. With God and friends, I realize I am not alone. I can stand up, speak out, and even when necessary, sit down and block a doorway.
In New York, a group of us hold a weekly vigil every Saturday in Union Square, calling for an end to the war on Afghanistan. We have had several marches and rallies, and are planning the annual Good Friday peace walk and civil disobedience. Plans are also underway for a national march against the war on Saturday, April 20th, in Washington, D.C. (See
With every new step on the road to peace, with every public action for justice, with every creative engagement of nonviolent resistance, we discover our true vocation. We become disciples and apostles like the early Christians. We begin to participate in the paschal mystery of Jesus. We learn what it means to be blessed by the God of peace.
But the blessings come only after we take action for peace