Preaching of Peace in Times of Impending War

A presentation from the GTU's Panel Discussion on December 6, 2002

by William R. O'Neill, S.J.
Associate Professor of Social Ethics
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley


"Preach!" But
the world is vile and violent, Lord;
there is no word of peace.
Because the world is vile and violent;
be my word of peace.

My very first homily, now many years ago, was given in Tabora, Tanzania. I had been invited to preach, while still in language school, by the pastor of our large parish. And I had spent the better part of a month trying to put my words into reasonably acceptable kiswahili. I was, understandably, quite nervous. As the entrance hymn began, the pastor asked to see my text. I handed it to him, the words I had labored so long over, and without even looking at it, he ripped it up, and said, "Go out now and preach!"

Perhaps many of us this morning feel much as I did then. Our familiar scripts have been torn from us; and in the daily talk of war, the seeming inevitability of violence, it may seem as if we are foundering in language not our own. "Go now and preach!" A hard grace, indeed, but grace for all that. For in having no words of my own, perhaps something of the Gospel showed forth.

In times of terror, impending war, we are summoned no less. But how do our flawed words become Gospel? We must begin, I think, with the Gospel's saving irony, the evangelical paradox . For the preacher's first and greatest "resource" is the Gospel itself.

"So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world—war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers. We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning. In a way it is like the paradox of the Gospel, of giving up one's life in order to save it."

So wrote Dorothy Day in September, 1957. September, again, has raised such questions for us: how in a time of terror, we preach the Gospel of Peace (Acts 10:36; Eph. 6:15). Surely at the heart of our faith lies the God of peace, shalom (Rom. 15:33)-the God who desires peace for all people far and near (Ps. 85; Is. 57:19); who in Jesus summons us to "walk in the way of peace" (Lk. 1: 79).

Then, as now, walking with Jesus is costly. The great 16th Century British physician, Thomas Linacre, it is said, first opened the New Testament only late in life. On chancing upon the "hard sayings" of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount he was horrified: "Either this is not the Gospel," he exclaimed, or "we are not Christians." Linacre, his biographer tells us, "flung the book from him, and resumed his medical studies." But for us, gathered this day, the issue is not so simply resolved. What does it mean for us to preach the "Gospel of peace?"

Our rhetoric, unfolding daily under the crawling banner, "America at War," after all, leaves little "place" for evangelical paradox, much less, a role for the preacher who would invoke it. Already our "ceremonies of innocence are drowned" in the rhetoric of "rage and retribution." In Time Magazine's memorial edition, Lance Morrow urges us to "relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred." In the polemics of "focused brutality" and "self-confident relentlessness," rage has found a voice, seductive and ancient.

And what are we to say? The public voice of theology seems dulled, discomfited: shall we take refuge in the "grace of doing nothing," as H. Richard Niebuhr once counseled-the ecumenism of irrelevance? Or do we play the role of Reinhold's "Christian—or Jewish or Muslim—realists"? Yet even here we seem but supernumeraries, poor players in a drama of muscular religion. Before all else, I believe, we must be good physicians and remedy the moral myopia that denies us a place. The preacher must imagine otherwise.

For if we fail here, if by our silence or unwitting complicity we tacitly underwrite what Jean Bethke Elshtain calls" the "absorption of politics by the language and imperatives of war," we risk giving up "our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning." Let me then, all too briefly sketch what such a theological "place" might look like for the preacher. In his essay, "War as Crucifixion," written in 1943, H. Richard Niebuhr invites his readers to take a "moral squint" at war; and though we may favor different metaphors or interpretations, I propose we do just this.

Suffering Innocence

So let us take up the metaphor of crucifixion as we reflect upon what we will say. In the first place, the metaphor of crucifixion speaks to innocent suffering. September's terror is a moral tragedy. Indeed, suffering innocence is at the heart of Christian profession. Yet precisely so, we cannot say "everything has changed," much less that America has lost its innocence. That innocence, as Niebuhr wrote, was "slain from the foundations of the world." And if the cross speaks of innocent suffering, it does so sans qualification: not only Americas figure in the calculus of such suffering, but all those "crucified on many an obscure hill": the innocent Afghani civilians killed as collateral damage, the children malnourished, the families displaced. Innocence, of course, is never policy; but the metaphor of crucifixion extends our gaze to every cross and every obscure hill, whether in New York, or Afghanistan, or Iraq.

For those with their eyes on the prize, the biblical ideal of shalom, of rightly ordered relationships, invites us to discern from the perspective of "the crucified people." Our "option for the poor" must define our "moral squint" at impending war. Moral tragedies, of course, are never comparable: there is no simple scale upon which suffering innocence can be weighed. Indeed, as Martin Luther King reminds us, they are linked; for "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Yet for this very reason, in seeking to redress injustice suffered by Americans, we cannot turn our back upon the suffering innocence of our world.

Several weeks ago, the World Food Program reported that 16 million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea now join the 14.4 million people in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Losotho facing starvation. They are a familiar litany: the millions of poor and hungry, victims of uncivil strife. In the eyes of the world, their lives are not important failures; they number among those whom the theologian, Jacques Ellul, once called the "uninteresting poor." Yet they figure no less than Americans in the calculus of innocence betrayed. What makes our anger righteous, if indeed it is, is the willful destruction of innocent life: September 11th was a moral tragedy, not merely an American tragedy. And suffering innocence is morally imperative wherever it may be. Failing to heed the claims of the crucified people; much less, threatening countless innocent lives, directly or indirectly, through our war-making or arming of tyrants (including, ironically, Saddam), we betray the justice of our own claims. Human rights are finally indivisible. We cannot be both victim and executioner.

Love of Enemies

A second lesson: the metaphor of crucifixion, Calvary's silence, enfleshes the great command, "love your enemy." For Christians, this is the touchstone of discipleship. Renunciation of violence marked the Church from its inception. Christians are summoned to seek those things which "make for peace" (Lk. 19:42), to embody, personally and collectively, the "Gospel of peace." In the words of the Scripture scholar, Wolfgang Schrage, "The dynamism and creative power of God's peace that comes with the kingdom, which the disciples hand on as 'messengers of peace' (Luke 1-:5, 16), seek to be incarnate on earth in the peacemaking of the disciples."

And so it was, strangely enough, even for those Christian theologians often depicted as the authors of the "just war" theory. In the new Constantinean dispensation, the Church of the poor and outcasts had become the proprietors of an empire; Christian thinkers for the first time addressed the question of using limited violence to preserve an earthly peace. Pacifism, it must be remembered, was retained as an overarching ideal, but now largely confined to the monastic and priestly caste.

War, for Augustine, was a tragic necessity, the consequence—and remedy—of fallen nature. The "love of enemies" admits "of no exceptions," yet the "kindly harshness" of charity does not "exclude wars of mercy waged by the good." Inspired by the "severity which compassion itself dictates," such "wars of mercy" presumed that those inflicting punishment had "first overcome hate in their hearts." Neither Ambrose nor Augustine permitted violent self-defense; for only defense of the innocent neighbor could satisfy the stringent claims of charity.

Even Thomas Aquinas recognizes the normative primacy accorded nonviolence in Christian life, posing the question thus in his Summa, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 40 "Whether It Is Always Sinful to Wage War?" Harking back to their Thomistic heritage, the Renaissance Spanish schoolmen Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez fashioned the just-war tradition as we know it today in the law of nations or international law-law ordained, in Vitoria's words, to "the common good of all," including that of one's enemies. Violence, even when believed justified, is thus always tragic. In James Turner Johnson's words, an analysis of the origins of the just war tradition "leads to the somewhat startling discovery that pacifist and non-pacifist just war Christians have something profoundly in common: a searching distrust of violence." For Christians, then, deep antipathy to violence renders war always the exception; indeed, the just war norms represent reasoned exceptions to a general rule of nonviolence.

Now my intent is not to offer an apology for the just war, but rather to show how far we have fallen from it. I am myself pacifist and question whether the norms of the "justum bellum" retain their force or validity in our postmodern world. Even so, the discourse of just war is entrenched in international law; favored by the Roman Catholic bishops, and remains the lingua franca in which Mr. Bush couches his warmaking. Hence, it is of the utmost importance that we bring our moral squint to bear on the use of just-war rhetoric. For the differences between Christian pacifist and just war advocate pale in comparison to the differences between those who cherish Augustine's "kindly harshness," and Machiavelli's "armed prophets."

Bringing the Church's "moral squint" to bear on the likelihood of a "pre-emptive" strike against Iraq, Bishop Wilton Gregory, as President of the USCCB, thus wrote in his Sept. 13th letter to President Bush that "We conclude, based on the facts that are known to us, that a preemptive, unilateral use of force [to overthrow the government of Iraq] is difficult to justify at this time." The rights of the innocent, after all, are the moral grammar of redress; the moral repugnance we feel for September's tragedy constrains us in our response, lest we become, however unwittingly, what we abhor.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

And so a final lesson. The metaphor of crucifixion beckons us to forgiveness and reconciliation. Machiavelli (whose infamy is exceeded only by his emulation) bequeaths us an armed peace in which there is no "place" for shalom. We must create that place, or better reclaim it. And there is no more miraculous transformation of the ordinary, no greater "ordinary" miracle, than forgiveness. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, true social reconciliation rests on the biblical promise shalom, a right and just ordering of social relationships. Reconciliation must not be less than just. But achieving justice in the midst of violence and uncivil strife may require finally what is more than just. There is, says Tutu, "no future without forgiveness." Forgiveness tempers our imaginations, it figures deeply in our Christian remembrance of love crucified. Love crucified because it is love. As so the way of discipleship is cruciform, costing, as Eliot once said, "not less than everything."


In the African-American and Hispanic community in which I live and worship, September's tragedy did not drown our innocence, so much as reveal the illusion of our nation's innocence. I have learned there, too, that in a world of perjured innocence, where violence is too often at our door, forgiveness must go deep with us. The hermeneutics of hatred is not, after all, something we must relearn. It is a weapon we have wielded often and well in the past.

Perhaps we must rather relearn, in Augustine's words, that for those called Christian, "love of enemy admits of no exceptions," and that those inflicting punishment must "first overcome hate in their hearts." A hard lesson, to be sure, but enmity cannot be a fitting memorial to our grief. Nature, graced even in tragedy, has equipt us with other, better weapons. If September's tragedy has taught us anything, perhaps it is to imagine otherwise: in the words of Dorothy Day, whom Machiavelli would deride as unarmed prophet: "Yes we go on talking about love. St. Paul writes about it, and there are Father Zossima's unforgettable words in the Brothers Karamazov, 'Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams'. What does the modern world know of love, with its light touching of the surface of love? It has never reached down into the depths, to the misery and pain and glory of love which endures to death and beyond it. We have not yet begun to learn about love. Now is the time to begin, to start afresh, to use this divine weapon."

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