“Getting Into Trouble for Peace and Justice: The Next Step on the Path of Discipleship to the Nonviolent Jesus”

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Good morning and thank you all for all you do for peace and justice and the church and Jesus. Last month, I spoke at a Baptist College in Pennsylvania to 2,500 college students about the Beatitudes, and I said to them, “Now, let me get this straight: Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ which means he does not bless the warmakers, which means we are cursed if we make war, which means that to follow Jesus we have to be about making peace, which means we cannot support this awful evil war on Iraq.”
With that, the place exploded and 500 people stormed out and the rest started chanting “Bush, Bush, Bush.” That was the end of my talk. So I’m not at all surprised about the recent election. Like you, I’m deeply concerned about the church, the country and the world.
When I was invited to speak, I didn’t know where to begin or what I might offer, but I thought I could speak about the one thing I’m good at: getting into trouble for peace and justice. So I want to do three things 1) tell you some stories; 2) look at the Gospel, and 3) offer some suggestions about the next step on the path of discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus.
I’m 45, and have been at this for 25 years now, and my whole life experience in the church, in the Jesuits, in America is about causing trouble, getting into trouble for Jesus. When I was an altar boy and lector, after many years, we got a new pastor and he called a meeting of all the servers in the parish, but I couldn’t make it that afternoon, so a few days later, I received a letter in the mail which said, “Dear John, I regret to inform you. You’re services are no longer needed by the church.” I was 13 when I was first fired by the church.
When I entered the Jesuits in the early 1980s, I was told that if I participated in a civil disobedience demonstration, I would be dismissed. After 2 years of discussions, I was arrested at the Pentagon for a peace protest and the novice master told me I was dismissed, but then later the provincial told me I could stay, on the one condition that I would never tell anyone about this episode for the rest of my life. I felt like Thomas Merton, getting silenced for peacemaking, so I thought I must be doing something right.
When I went to Fordham for graduate studies in philosophy in the mid-80s, during Reagan’s contra war, we found out that the CIA would be holding a recruiting session. So we organized 100 students to protest the event, and 9 of them sat in at the Dean’s office, and the CIA recruiter left and said the CIA would never return to Fordham again!
We were thrilled because we saw the power of organized nonviolence at work. But the provincial called and told me that the Jesuit provincials had discussed this crisis at their meeting, and instead of sending me to Chile as I had hoped, he said they were sending me “to a place that had never heard of peace or justice: to teach sophomore religion in Scranton, Pennsylvania.”
After September 11th , 2001, I worked in New York as a chaplain and as a Red Cross coordinator of chaplains at the main Family Assistance Center, and at the same time, I was helping to organize protests against the U.S. war on Afghanistan, and after the bishops voted to support the bombing of Afghanistan, I wrote that this too was a scandal, that supporting the murder of children in Afghanistan was child abuse. The next thing you know, I got called in by both the New York and Maryland provincials and ordered to leave New York. I had 3 months to go anywhere, or they would send me back to teaching sophomore religion, this time in Philadelphia.
So two and a half years ago, I moved to New Mexico, the poorest state in the country, number one in military spending and number one in nuclear weapons, and I’ve been serving poor parishes and starting Pax Christi groups and calling for the closing of the nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos. Last year I planned a peace vigil on August 6th, the anniversary of Hiroshima, at Los Alamos, but the archbishop called me in and told me I was forbidden to pray publicly for peace, even though the Pope was blasting the U.S. government for bombing Iraq.
Then, one of my missions, a small, wealthy church in the mountains near a ski resort, comprised of a handful of devout, retired, military, Republican families from Texas, asked the Archbishop to kick me out because of my anti-war homilies. When I stood outside to shake their hands at the end of Mass, many of them would denounce me, so I easily kicked out. Instead of bringing peace as I hoped, I brought only division, but in a strange way I felt consoled because this is what happened to Jesus.
Then, last November, the local National Guard Unit was ordered to go to Iraq, and that night, the commanders met with the local mayor in my desert town and decided this was their chance to get me and the next morning at 6 a.m., 75 soldiers from the 515 battalion suddenly appeared marching around the rectory and church where I lived, in a quiet high desert town, and after an hour, the shouting got much louder, so I looked out the window, and there they were all lined up, right at my front door, filling the street, shouting, “Kill, kill, kill!” which was actually the battalion slogan, “One bullet, one kill!”
What do you do? I walked out into the street, right into their midst and said, “In the name of Jesus, I order you to quit the military, not to go to Iraq, not to kill anyone or be killed, and to start following the nonviolence of Jesus because God doesn’t bless war, God doesn’t support this war, God condemns our wars. So for the love of God, stop preparing for war and go home and live in peace. God bless you!” They stood there in silence for a moment, then broke out laughing and left. The next week, they left for Baghdad where they are now. I’m so notorious now that I tell my friends that I don’t have to go to a demonstration ever again: from now on, the soldiers come to me!
I tell you all of this not to whine or complain but to share with you my experience. And I am learning that this is the good stuff, this is where the blessings come. I am learning that if we’re going to follow Jesus, if we are going to seek God’s reign of peace and justice, if we’re going to try to implement the Sermon on the Mount, if we’re going to love our enemies when everyone else is cheering the killing of our enemies, we are going to get into trouble. This is our calling.

  • If you practice nonviolence in a world of violence, you are going to get into trouble.
  • If you call for peace in a culture of war, you are going to get into trouble.
  • If you denounce the empire and its injustices and corporate greed and the nuclear arsenal, you are going to get into trouble.
  • If you pursue the vision of a peacemaking church, you are going to get into trouble.

“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” Jesus tells us. Imagine a pathetic, vulnerable, fragile little lamb surrounded by a group of starving wolves. What are they thinking? “Get the mint jelly, fellas, it’s lamb chops for dinner!” If we’re going to follow Jesus, we’re going to be devoured. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to cost us.
But for some reason, we think subconsciously that since we are Americans and Catholics, we can work for peace and justice, we can be active in the church, we can even try to end war and change the world and the church–without getting into trouble. We think that we can do these things without causing problems or upsetting people or getting kicked around like Jesus did, that we don’t need to take up the cross or suffer or risk our lives, that somehow or other, we won’t end up as he did, that we will make everything work out alright with no discomfort at all. And the moment we face opposition, we get upset, we complain, we give up and we walk away. We want everything to be easy.
I’m here to tell you that if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to become his authentic church, if we want to put the Gospel into practice, if we want to help end war and disarm nuclear weapons and serve starving humanity, if we really want to change the church, we have got to expect that we will get into trouble. We have to expect a difficult lifelong struggle because the status quo of injustice is not going to cave in easily. We have to risk the cross and resurrection, we have to enter the Paschal mystery, and it’s going to be messy and we’re not going to like it and everyone’s going to be upset with us and we will feel like failures.
And when this happens, I submit, then we’re finally getting somewhere. Dorothy Day once said that we measure our discipleship to Jesus by how much trouble we are in. So my message is: Become holy troublemakers for peace and justice just like Jesus.
I would like to look at one scene in the Gospel to see how Jesus acts. This is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3:
Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death. — Mark 3:1-6.
Let’s look at this day in the life of Jesus for a moment. First of all, Jesus is active, creative, provocative, dramatic, bold, and outrageous. He is always nonviolent; he is never passive. Everything he does is illegal and civilly disobedient. He’s a one person crime wave. This is the person we follow. He enters the religious sanctuary, faces the religious leaders, exposes the violence in their hearts, confronts their hostility, heals a poor person, and is so controversial that eventually the authorities kill him. As his followers, we too have to confront injustice with total disregard of the consequences.
The religious officials could care less about the man with the withered hand. They certainly would not consider his withered hand an urgent need or a religious issue or a moral concern. They considered such activity to be illegal because it violated the cleanliness laws and the Sabbath. Anyone who violated the law was punished and excommunicated. Their supported the empire and its wars and invoked God’s name to legitimize their violence.
But Jesus walks right in there and confronts their hostility head on. He calls the suffering man to come forward, to stand up publicly in the center of the sanctuary, and he forces everyone to deal with the suffering of the poor and marginalized.
I have a new book out this week from Doubleday called “The Questions of Jesus” about the 307 questions which Jesus asks, and I hope you will all read it and give it to friends as Christmas gifts. It’s about how Jesus is not just the one with all the answers, but the one with all the questions, most of which are never answered. This question here is critically important: Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”
The religious officials would have answered: it is illegal to do good; it is illegal to save life! So Jesus breaks the law and heals the man and as far as the religious officials are concerned, he is neither pious nor law-abiding nor holy. He is a troublemaking, law-breaking, disruptive, revolutionary fanatic, so they kill him.
Jesus teaches that the purpose of the Sabbath and all laws should be to do good, to save life, to heal the sick, and to serve humanity. He is not primarily concerned with laws, rituals, traditions, religious observances or obligations. He cares first and foremost with doing good and saving life. He wants to heal people, show compassion, make us whole, and he will not stand by as systemic injustice oppresses the poor in God’s name. If Jesus is willing to risk his life on behalf of a man with a withered hand, imagine what he would do in our age of war and nuclear weapons and bombing Iraq!
And if the religious officials say it is illegal to do good and to save life, they would also say it is legal to do evil and destroy life. Likewise today it is perfectly legal to bomb Iraq, starve the poor and build nuclear weapons, and we invoke God to bless these horrors. We turn our backs on the homeless, the hungry, and the ill. As in Jesus’ time, it is legal to do evil and to destroy life. It is illegal to do good and to save life.
So how would Jesus have us answer his question? He wants us to do good and save life, and break any law which legalizes evil and destroys life. He wants us to heal one another, disarm one another, and live in peace with one another.
I think we live in an empire which is bringing war, starvation, poverty and death to the world, and that instead of fulfilling its vocation to resist the empire through Gospel nonviolence, the church has become actively involved in the empire and its wars. This is our history, from the just war to the crusades to the countless bishops who supported Hitler and Marcos and DuValier and Somoza to the priests who bless nuclear weapons at Los Alamos and the bombing of children in Iraq. It’s blasphemous, idolatrous, and heretical, not just disobedience to the law of God, but the betrayal, denial and crucifixion of Jesus all over again. And through our silence, the church has developed a spirituality of war which says that violence saves us, might makes right, God blesses war, nuclear weapons are our true security, and the good news is not love of enemies but the elimination of enemies. The empire always tries to instruct the church on sin and morality, saying such and such personal behavior is immoral, and saying nothing about the killing of 100,000 Iraqis last year, as if that were perfectly moral.
The empire needs the church to bless and support its wars, or at least to remain passive and silent. If we do that, we are no longer faithful disciples of the troublemaking Jesus. We become good Pharisees, powerful religious people who support the culture and its wars. We become a church of Pharisees. All I’m trying to say today is, “Don’t become good Pharisees.”
There is a greater history to be part of. We can still try to follow the nonviolent Jesus, and instead of becoming devout Pharisees, we can still choose to follow Jesus as holy troublemakers. Jesus was always in trouble–healing the wrong people, loving the wrong people, speaking the wrong truth, worshipping the wrong way, doing the wrong things. All the saints and martyrs and prophets and peacemakers were holy troublemakers–from Francis and Clare to Ignatius and Dorothy Day to Dr. King and Oscar Romero.
Like them, we have to resist the empire, repent of the sin of war, practice Gospel nonviolence, and explain that war is not the will of God, war is never blessed by God, war is the ultimate mortal sin, war is demonic, anti-human, anti-life, anti-democracy, anti-God, anti-Christ; war is not the way to follow the nonviolent Jesus. From now on, we are people who put down our swords, forgive one another, love our enemies, and are as compassionate as God.
So I want to offer 3 little suggestions for your next step on the path of discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus:
First, Be Holy Troublemakers for Peace and Justice
In this culture of war and violence, make trouble for peace and nonviolence. In this culture of injustice, make trouble for justice. In this culture of hatred, hostility and division, make trouble for all-inclusive, universal, unconditional love, for the reign of God. In this culture of nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, make trouble for disarmament, for a world without weapons or war or starvation.
There are a million things we can do. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Last year, on Feb. 15th, over 12 million marched against war in 430 cities on every continent in the largest single day of protest in human history. The world is marching. I hope we can all be part of it. I am going to join the protest next week at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and I hope you will all join me. (see www.soaw.org)
Next August 6, 2005, marks the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I hope we will all start organizing vigils, teach-ins, and demonstrations in your local community to call for nuclear disarmament. In New Mexico, we are planning a peace vigil at Los Alamos. Just do something publicly for justice and peace, and do it in a spirit of love and creative, active nonviolence. (see www.paxchristiusa.org)
Second, Be Holy Troublemakers in the Church
Stir up discussion about justice and peace within the church, only do so through the lessons of Gandhi and Dr. King. Practice satyagraha and nonviolence on the church to change the church. Don’t just sit back and be angry and mean and whine and complain. Love your priests and bishops; meet with them. Get to know them, talk to them, and win them over with love and truth to the wisdom of peace, justice and equality.
I want to offer a specific suggestion to Call to Action. As I understand it, in the 1970s and 80s, CUF, Catholics United for the Faith, sent hundreds of thousands of letters to the Vatican demanding change, calling for conservative bishops and the end of the Second Vatican Council in practice. I think we need to start a similar letter writing campaign to the Vatican, to get one million loving, kind, respectful letters calling for change, for the complete rejection of the just war theory, for more work for justice and peace, and for the ordination of women and married priests. If the bishops in Rome received a million letters from American Catholics, they might sit up and take notice. I hope CTA will start such a campaign.
Finally, Be Holy Troublemakers for Jesus
There are many problems in the church, and many problems in the world, but there are no problems with Jesus. He remains wonderful, gentle, loving, inviting, and disarming, and he is busy at work transforming our world. My hope and prayer is that we can learn his story more and more, listen to his words, do what he says, become his friends, and get into trouble like him, that we can be nonviolent like him, compassionate like him, and dangerous like him.
So I wrote a little litany for you:
In a world of hate and fear, be holy troublemakers of all-inclusive, universal love.
In a world of merciless cruelty, be holy troublemakers of compassion and mercy.
In a world of lies, be holy troublemakers of truth.
In a world of injustice, racism and sexism, be holy troublemakers of justice and equality.
In a world of death, be holy troublemakers of life.
In a world of despair, be holy troublemakers of hope.
In a world of war, be holy troublemakers for peace.
In a world of violence, be holy troublemakers of Gospel nonviolence in the name of the troublemaking, nonviolent Jesus. Thank you and God bless you.