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March 1, 2003

Letter If Today You Understood the Things that Make for Peace


In the early 1960s, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, Thomas Merton wrote to the Polish poet Czselaw Milosz that in order to experience authentic Christian hope, we have to enter the time's despair. Then we can speak for peace, resist war and pursue the nonviolence that comes with resurrection hope.

"If [we] are not nearly in despair there is something the matter," Merton wrote. "The only thing that is to be regretted without qualification is for one to adapt perfectly to totalitarian society. Then he is indeed beyond hope. Hence we should all be sick in some way. We should all feel near to despair in some sense because this semi-despair is the normal form taken by hope in a time like ours. Hope without any sensible or tangible evidence on which to rest. Hope in spite of the sickness that fills us. Hope married to a firm refusal to accept any palliatives or anything that cheats hope by pretending to relieve apparent despair. Hope must mean acceptance of limitations and imperfections and the deceitfulness of a nature that has been wounded and cheated. We cannot enjoy the luxury of a hope based on our own integrity, our own honesty, our own purity of heart."

As our country wages war on Iraq and terrorizes the world with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, many of us despair that we will ever know peace. In that place of rock bottom despair, we place our hope in the risen, peacemaking Christ and his active nonviolence, and take up his cross of nonviolent resistance.

Luke tells us that after walking for several years on a peace pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus broke down and wept when he saw the city, saying "If this day you only knew the things that make for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you. They will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation."(Luke 19:41-44)

Jesus wept over Jerusalem's injustice, violence, idolatry and complicity with imperial warmaking. Their preference for imperial violence and rejection of his divine nonviolence led to Jerusalem's actual destruction by the empire in the year 70.

But Jesus wept too because he saw that through Jerusalem, the whole world had rejected his gift of nonviolence in preference to global domination and imperial violence. He saw that violence in response to violence only leads to further violence, that war never solves our problems, that revenge and retaliation can only lead to our destruction, and that unless we adopt the things that make for peace, the way of creative nonviolence, we are doomed to a global holocaust.

Jesus wept but he did not give up. He took action. Luke records that Jesus proceeded directly into the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers in an act of nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice. "My house shall be a house of prayer," he announced, "but you have made it a den of thieves." For this dramatic civil disobedience, he was betrayed, denied, arrested, tortured, and executed. He gave his life resisting imperial violence. He never stopped trusting and hoping in the God of peace. When God raised him, he greeted his friends with the consoling words, "Peace be with you," and then sent them forth to carry on his mission of nonviolent resistance.

We take up where Jesus left off. As our country wages war on Iraq and the peoples of the world, we follow the Jesus who weeps over war and acts for peace.

Christian peacemaking begins with grief. We grieve for those who suffer and die from our bombs and wars. We weep over our own Jerusalems, for the people of Iraq, Palestine, and Colombia, for the world's poor, for New York City and Washington, D.C., for the world's crucified people, for ourselves. Like Christ, we feel the world's pain. Our hearts break. But this is the beginning of grace, wisdom and peace. We cannot love our neighbors and our enemies as Jesus did, if we do not first enter their pain as he did. We cannot show compassion without standing in solidarity with those who suffer, especially with those who suffer from our bombs.

As we weep and grieve, we repent of the sin of war and begin the Gospel project of conversion which leads to public, nonviolent action. Like Jesus, we do not stop with grief and tears. We act, and keep on acting for peace. We turn over the tables of the culture of war. We disrupt the culture of violence. We disturb the culture's false peace and demand true peace with all peoples, and so, join the struggle of the nonviolent Jesus and witness to the peace of the risen Christ.

In these days of despair, we side with Jesus, grieve with him, weep with him, act with him and learn from him the things that make for peace. We take seriously his commandment to love our enemies and his last words, to put down the sword.

As we side with Jesus and share his tears, his passion, and his resurrection peace, we take up his prayerful, public, prophetic and proactive nonviolence.

That means, each day now, we take quality time for prayerful nonviolence, repenting of the violence in our hearts, asking God to disarm our hearts, and welcoming God's gift of contemplative peace. We stand up publicly in his spirit of nonviolence, like the early Christians did. We practice prophetic nonviolence by breaking the silence of the church and the complicity of the masses to speak the truth of peace, that we must stop our war on Iraq, dismantle our own nuclear weapons and pursue nonviolent responses to conflict. As people of prophetic nonviolence, we denounce our government's wars, repent of our nation's global terrorism, and announce God's reign of peace. Finally, we engage in proactive nonviolence. Our Gospel nonviolence must not be passive or weak. If it is to resemble the life of Jesus, it must be active, creative, and provocative. It risks our own suffering, our participation in his cross. We vigil, march, fast, agitate, lobby, speak out, organize, cross lines, and resist war. We weep, we act, and we welcome Jesus' visitation in our hearts so that we might learn from him the things that make for peace.

"Life is on our side," Merton concluded. "It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But victory is certain--resurrection."

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