Constructive Pacifism, Our Only Hope

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 22, Advent 2001
by Jim Consedine

On the day following the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington DC, I rang the New York Catholic Worker house which is situated just a few blocks away from the twin towers. The Christchurch Catholic Worker community wished to offer their solidarity and support to our friends there. In the course of the ensuing conversation, Jane Sammon, who has served the poor in Manhattan for nearly 30 years, remarked that sooner or later the US had had to pay a price for the mayhem it has created in so many countries over the previous century. ‘How the world must hate us’, she said. Jane, who has picketed innumerable times, vigiled at prisons, witnessed outside government installations, been arrested as a peacemaker, fed thousands of poor people and served the needs of so many refugees from American aggression in Central America and around the world, had put her finger on a major issue. Deep down, she had feared that the desperation of the world’s rejected people would eventually come back to haunt her country. It seemed that day had arrived.

This was not the first attack against a US installation. In recent times, there has been the suicide bomb attack in 1983 on the US military compound in Beirut, the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, the bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998 and against the USS Cole in Aden last year. But because of the way the media in the US is structured, controlled and manipulated by powerful political and business interests, the American public generally seem to have little concept of how the rest of the world sees their government. Their mindset is fashioned through the filter of corporate America – CNN, NBC, CBS, Time, Newsweek and other print media. The effects of the propaganda are all-pervasive – America the brave, the free, the just avenger, the generous, the tolerant, the world’s leader in everything, number one, simply the best. This duplicity has seduced the public as much as anybody. The dark side of their nation, built as it was on violent revolution followed by civil war, on the genocide of its indigenous people, on slavery and rampant racism, on its military might, on fundamentalist sentimental religiosity, and on the persecution and imprisonment of its poor, is too often blissfully ignored.

Hence among the general public there is little understanding of why the US government is hated by so many. US governments have been dealing in death and destruction ‘to protect American interests’ for so long most of the public have no concept of the devastation wrought in their name. The Gulf War was just the latest major excursion. But don’t forget all those blood thirsty regimes supported for generations in Latin and Central America in order to protect ‘American interests’ there. That means their god – capitalism and its golden calves.

In the past few years alone, the US has arrogantly declined to participate in almost every major global treaty including the Kyoto Protocol and the Ban on Landmines and instead has sought to impose its ways on the rest of the world. It is poised to scuttle the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty so as to begin a new arms build-up spearheaded by the National Missile Defence System, the new Star Wars. This is a defence shield, situated in space to supposedly protect the US from attack. In reality, it will be a system that will also improve the ‘first strike’ capability of the US nuclear arsenal. The US has rampantly promoted ‘free trade’ through NAFTA, GATT and the WTO despite the global resistance these policies have evoked. Always it is their own interests that are paramount. Two of their international banking arms, the IMF and the World Bank, are arguably responsible for more deaths through ‘structural adjustment ‘ programmes than many past wars and epidemics. US-led sanctions against Iraq have killed more than one million people since the end of the Gulf War and are continuing. This is simply a war against the poor. For the victims, it is terrorism, pure and simple. The continued support for the militarisation of Israel in their war with the Palestinians is another form of terror. The Palestinians are a displaced people, not unlike the Jewish Diaspora prior to 1948. They need a safe homeland too.

I am finding this very difficult to write. The United States is a fantastic country. It has been a land of opportunity for so many. Its people generally are hospitable and thoroughly decent. It is one of nature’s great playgrounds, with vast areas of natural beauty. It has spawned some of the world’s great movements for social justice. I have hundreds of wonderful American friends, some here in Aotearoa/New Zealand, most in the US. But interestingly, nearly all agree with this analysis. Many of them have been to prison to protest their government’s foreign policy and its war on the poor at home. Indeed, some like Jeff Dietrich, Phil Berrigan, Susan Crane and Steve Kelly are in prison now. It was from such an analysis that the Catholic Worker was founded in the US back in 1933. The causes of poverty, war, unemployment, racism and the desperation of the poor have changed little since that time. That is, except in terms of intensity. The imbalances are so much greater now. They’ve become a chasm.

Dorothy Day knew that the great American weaknesses were money, violence, racism and the abuse of power. ‘This filthy rotten system’ is what she called capitalism. Hence her promotion of Christian personalism, community living, non-violence, pacifism and voluntary poverty. She knew such a witness would stand in stark contrast to the values of the society she lived in. It is same money, racism, violence and the abuse of power that now sit at the heart of the global ‘new world order’, which dominates American foreign policy today. There is little place in that new order for the poor, for the ‘dark skinned’ peoples of the world, for the powerless, for the weak, for the vulnerable. And that’s why millions of them, from the Kalahari in the west to Lima in the east, from Manila in the south to Vladivostok in the north, find the idea of a ‘new world order’ led by the US so repugnant. There is no place in such an order which shows any respect for them. Is it any wonder millions are angry, frustrated, desperate? In truth, it would be a new world dis-order!

Christ has already proclaimed the ‘new world order’. Fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, where ‘God will rule over the nations and settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not raise sword against nation; they will train for war no more’, Jesus taught that the ‘new world order’ occurs when ‘the poor are clothed, the hungry fed, the sorrowful comforted’. He taught us ‘to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, forgive those who persecute you.’ He taught generosity of spirit through the transforming stories of Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the parables of the vineyard workers and the prodigal son, the woman caught in adultery. He taught us compassion and mercy, justice not vengeance, to walk the extra mile, to share the shirt off our backs, indeed ‘to love our neighbour as ourselves’. He taught us the ‘new world order’ is one of justice, non-violence and respect, where the poor play a full part. It is not an empire of economic and racist domination.

The reflection by the Synod of Bishops held in Rome during October brings into focus some of these pieces of the puzzle. Their declaration contained a two-pronged approach to the issue of terrorism. It utterly condemned the attacks of September 11 ‘which nothing can justify’ and declared that ‘evil will not have the last say’. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa’eda network must be held accountable if they are responsible. But the Synod’s declaration linked that condemnation to the ‘structures of sin’ which have created the climate spawned by horrific structured injustice where such terrorist attacks become not just possible, but inevitable.

At the heart of the post September 11 debate is the question, how does a liberal pluralistic society remain free? How does it defend itself? These are major issues for all. We believe a huge piece of the answer lies in practising justice and non-violence. With freedom goes an equal portion of responsibility. The First World has failed to exercise that responsibility in creating and maintaining such massive injustice for so many of the citizens of the planet through its worship of the golden dollar. Unless we place issues flowing from September 11 within such a context, we will never understand why it happened nor be able to create a truly free and safe environment for the future. We must remove the major causes of the desperation which led to these horrible attacks.

It is also timely for the Universal Church to return to its pacifist roots. Constructive pacifism is the only sane, just and Christian way forward. There is no justification whatsoever for endorsing war in this day and age. The weapons of war preclude any possibility that a ‘just war’ can be conducted. The Church is not the State. We don’t have to answer every question asked in the political arena. We have to be true to the teachings of Christ. Of course there are many issues in relation to terrorism. Some of them are mind boggling and very scary. The Church is no expert regarding terrorism but certainly needs to be part of the debate. What we do know about are sin and grace. We know that we are called to be peacemakers. We know about how desperate hungry people get and we are called to feed the hungry. And we are called to work to establish justice in our time, justice that reflects God’s kin-dom in our midst. That is our mandate. These are the works of constructive pacifism which takes a positive engaging non-violent approach to life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.

The Church has much to answer for in failing to be ‘the light in the darkness’ and the voice of hope to these teeming millions. For too many, it is too tied to the established order of things which is failing so many. In the west in particular, it needs fresh initiatives to lead and promote its great message. It still has a chance to really be a beacon of hope to people everywhere. But it needs to take the Gospel message much more seriously. It needs to be more inclusive and just towards women and its own membership. It needs to be better resourced and focused on issues of justice, which after all, are issues of life and death for most. It needs to put aside its trappings of wealth and prestige and learn to walk with the poor. The recent Synod reiterated this point. It is primarily among the poor that the Risen Christ is experienced.

If it says it believes that violence is not the answer, then it needs to work assiduously at developing programmes of non-violence, through schools, communities, internationally. The Mennonites and the Quakers have done that for centuries. Where are the mainstream Churches in these processes? Why aren’t they known as Peace Churches? If the Church claims to want to speak for the poor as Jesus taught, then it must promote and expand programmes that will do that and make the promotion of simple living, non-violence and justice cornerstones of Christian practice. If it is truly against war as Jesus was, then it needs to educate its people to these truths and live them.

We New Zealanders need to tell our government to bring home the SAS. We need to detach ourselves from the coat tails of the UK and US and stand for what is right, not what is politically correct. We need to continue to lobby hard internationally for stronger treaties against war in all its forms. We need to withdraw formally from ANZUS, even if it is perceived as being ‘stone dead’ in the water already. We need to give up chasing continued expanded economic growth as if it was the panacea for all ills. It is not. What’s the point of a high standard of living if people have lost their economic sovereignty, have forgotten the skills needed to grow food and live healthy lives, if the air and rivers are being poisoned by gases and chemicals, if the very climate itself is being destroyed?

If September 11 taught us one thing among hundreds of others it is this. No amount of sophisticated technology can make us safe from desperation. Injustice breeds desperation and desperation creates the climate for what happened. We need to remove the conditions leading to desperation. That means structural change by us who have much. It means fair trade. It means decentralised control of resources. It means fair wages for work. It means outlawing things that endanger the environment. It means the promotion of community living and sharing in the face of individualism and self centredness. It means human rights within the context of the common good. It means justice on earth. It means constructive pacifism, not military might. It means a rediscovery of a living faith, a reason to do such things. The Gospel lived seriously is a great starting point for that. Internationally, we need each other as partners, not competitors. The rich and powerful can no longer act as if they are the only worthy people on God’s planet. Surely it is not too late to learn these simple but profound lessons? It may be that September 11 can yet be a catalyst for our own redemption.

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