We can't compromise on violence

By  Deacon Steve Barringer, Catholic Register Special
  • December 9, 2008
{mosimage}Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call to Creative Non-Violence , by John Dear S.J., (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, softcover, 216 pages, $18.50).

The title of Fr. John Dear’s latest book comes from Jesus’ instruction to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane as He was being arrested. Dear makes the point that Jesus’ call to “Put down your sword!” is particularly significant to us today. They were the last words Jesus spoke to His assembled disciples — to the church. The disciples all ran away at that point and the other, more famous last words of Christ were in truth spoken to others.

A clear message emerges in the book that Jesus’ message does not give us permission to compromise on violence. Jesus said “Put down the sword!” when with a word He could have raised an army of zealots to challenge one of the most oppressive invaders of history, but He didn’t. Facing His own execution, He pointed out that He could have raised a legion of angels to fight for Him, but He didn’t. When most of us would have considered His situation cause for a just war, He didn’t. The challenge He makes to our accepted way of dealing with conflicts in our society is unmistakable.

{ sa 0802863574}This is not really a single book, but rather a collection of articles and diary entries on peace, assembled around a theme. It is less than 200 pages but each section seems designed to give you permission to take a break when you finish, rather than luring you to keep reading long after bedtime.

Once you’ve put it down, it’s hard to pick up again — you can’t read very far without asking yourself the question, “Am I ready to face more of these challenges?”

There are inspiring stories, especially one about the newly beatified Franz Jägerstätter, who has been recognized for standing up to Hitler and refusing to be part of the violence. The church at the time scorned him. Now we call him a saint.

The book points out that the difficulty of recognizing holiness continues today. I realized that this is not a foreign problem, because even in Canada we continue to deport war resisters while the church stays silent.

Dear reminds us that we remember those who stood up to violence and oppression years later. We just ignore them at the time. How many of us could name the pope who started the Crusades? Very few unless we were also historians. But we all remember St. Francis of Assisi who lived through them and spoke out for peace. We remember Cesar Chavez who organized the farm workers, but not who was governor of California at the time of the grape boycott.

A particular target in the book is the nuclear weapons industry in the United States and Canada’s complicity in continuing to be the world’s nuclear supplier. His message echoes Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous admonition that the choice today is not between non-violence and violence, but between non-violence and non-existence.

Put Down Your Sword contains a new fashioning of the Beatitudes, a chapter on famous people of peace and another on Nobel Peace Prize laureates. There is a wide spectrum of material that opens your eyes on the many different ways people can act to support non-violence. He shows that each of us, no matter how different our priorities, can find the motivation to begin and the inspiration to learn how to carry on. He gives us a four-step primer at the end, based on the life of Thomas Merton, on how to grow from being a simple contemplative of non-violence right through to being an active apostle of non-violence.

The book sells hope, but at the same time makes it difficult to hope. The statistics of the culture of death that he presents are truly daunting, but he walks us through some other impossible goals that have already been achieved through non-violent action —  abolition of slavery, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the independence of India and many others. To that impossible list, we might now add the election of an African-American president who has spoken out against nuclear weapons. To quote the author’s long-time mentor in the quest for peace, Daniel Berrigan, “We are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful.”

After finishing the book, it’s hard not to notice how many of the people the author admires have been oppressed, imprisoned and killed. You can feel the simple, calm acceptance in Dear’s understanding that this too may be his fate. But the Jesuit peace activist is faith-filled and lacks fear. Following his example we may actually begin to believe that more of us will develop that same courage to face violence and oppression, our hearts filled with the Spirit and our hands empty, having put down our swords.

(Barringer, a deacon in the archdiocese of Toronto, is a founding members of Catholics for Peace, Toronto.)

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