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    The nonviolent activist and priest Daniel Berrigan at Cornell University, 1970.

    Death Knell for Just War

    The Vatican’s Historic Turn toward Nonviolence

    By John Dear

    October 27, 2016
    • Julia Smucker

      As a Catholic reader, I would like to clarify a point regarding Fr. John Dear's call for a recommitment to gospel nonviolence. While I agree wholeheartedly with Dear that our church should visibly commit to a more unequivocal articulation of the centrality of nonviolence to the gospel, I believe he is mistaken to frame this in terms of discontinuity - as a call for the church to "change course from the last seventeen hundred years." But since he does, it is understandable that Tom Cornell (Letters, Winter 2017) reads him as opting for a "fallen church" narrative in which "the Holy Spirit abandoned the church" for most of its history. Cornell is right that the Catholic Church could not faithfully adopt such an ecclesiology, and that it instead "builds in continuity with the past." But this does not mean the Catholic Church cannot make a clearer commitment to nonviolence. Catholic Social Teaching takes the presumption against taking life as a starting point, and the exceptions it allows to this have gradually narrowed. It remains to be seen whether those allowances for violence can ever narrow to the point of disappearing altogether, but contrary to what Dear suggests, the trajectory of Catholic teaching has been moving in this direction for some time. What the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative should be asking Pope Francis to do is to continue this course. Regarding Cornell's point about the disciples as poor students if Jesus taught nonviolence, that is exactly the image we see of the disciples throughout the gospels (what some scholars call "evidence from embarrassment"). If we can recall Peter's willingness to wield a sword on behalf of his master without also recalling Jesus' rebuke to him to put the sword away, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52), we probably need a few repeat lessons ourselves.

    • Rowland Stenrud

      I believe that the Christian vocation is antithetical to service in the nation's military establishment. But this isn't because of the need to support nonviolence. Violence is at the very core of Creation. Every human being dies, and dies within a hundred and twenty year time frame. If human life is so sacred to God, why has he programed every human being to grow old and decrepit and then die? Why has he made the human body in such a way that it can be burned by napalm, sliced to bits by shrapnel, or cut open by swords and knives, etc., etc. ? Why are there earthquakes and plagues that carry away millions of human beings? Why drought? Even if no human being ever raised a fist against another, the world would still be a violent place to live. The Bible has a story about God killing every man, woman and child on earth in a world wide cataclysm. The Bible criticizes militarism, not because of its violence, but because militarism is idolatrous. For the Christian to depend on modern weaponry, a standing army, and military leaders rather than on God for security, constitutes the sin of idolatry. And killing for the state is also idolatrous. But the Bible is not against the Christian killing a madman who is rampaging through the neighborhood killing people. In fact, the Christian is doing the murderer a favor. I certainly would prefer being killed by a fellow Christian should I go off the deep end and start killing people. I would not want him to stand there and let me do this horrible thing. Plus, as I have said, I am going to die anyway some day. Love for and trust in God along with love of neighbor is at the root of Christian peacemaking, not pacifism and not nonviolence pre se. Love of God and love for neighbor may require a Christian to use violence against wicked people in certain contexts. But such violence should not be in the context of fighting for one's nation. Let the nation's non-Christians fight their nation's wars. And certainly, Christians shouldn't be killing other Christians simply because their national leaders have asked them to. WWI and WWII would most likely not have been possible without German Christians being willing to kill French and Russian Christians and vice versa. Also, true Christians are a small minority of the world's people. Most people love violence. Just look at what people do for fun. They play war video games, watch or play violent sports like American football. They pay millions to watch violent movies and spend hours watching violent TV shows. Down through the ages young men have engaged in the violence of war because their humdrum lives bored them to death. Find a cure for boredom and the world will have fewer wars. Winston Churchill said that he never felt more alive than when he was involved in a war (not an exact quote, but close). Also, men have killed other men in war for pay or the promise of war booty. Except for the 19th and 20th centuries, most wars were fought by mercenaries, not patriots. (Patriotism is a form of idolatry.) Money is root of all evil, even the evil of war. And many young men have gone to war out of being shamed into it. During WWI young women would give young men not in uniform a white feather which was a statement meaning, "You are a coward". Young men would rather suffer having both legs blown off before being shamed by a young woman for being a coward. The elite have also seen war as a way of promoting their status in society. Men have become tribal chiefs or national leaders due to their success on the battlefield. The Church will have no more success in stoping the violence of war than it has had in stopping the violence of theft, murder, fornication, adultery, sodomy, disrespect for parents and lawful authority, blasphemy, perjury, lying, etc. All sins are acts of violence.

    • Michael McCarthy

      I am afraid that John Dear is very much misinformed regarding Christian military service, including as fighting soldiers, prior to Constantine. There is plenty of evidence Christians fought in the Roman army dating from the time of Our Lord himself. A perfunctory search of the internet will yield incontrovertible evidence. I am afraid John Dear is spouting nonsense?

    • Erna Albertz,

      Thank you for reading this article. What do you think? It is time for the church universal to embrace a commitment to complete nonviolence? Why or why not?


      I think Dear drastically overstates the biblical and historical arguments for pacifism, besides not even mentioning its many practical deficiencies. There good reasons that pacifism remains a minority viewpoint among Christians.


      I recommend the April 25, 2016 commentary by William Doino in the journal First Things for an alternative analysis of this Vatican conference.

    For its first three centuries, Christianity required the practice of active non­violence as taught by Jesus. Early Christians refused to serve in Rome’s armies or kill in its wars. All that changed in the year 313, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and established it as the official religion of the empire. In effect, he threw out the commandment to love one’s enemies and turned to the pagan Cicero to justify Christian violence, sowing the seeds for the so-called just war theory.

    During the seventeen centuries since, Christians have waged war, led crusades, burned women at the stake, persecuted Jews and Muslims, kept slaves, run concentration camps, prayed for successful bombing raids, and built and used nuclear weapons. Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence have rarely been discussed, much less implemented. Even as recent popes have proclaimed a “Gospel of Life,” they’ve made exceptions, leaving loopholes for justified killing.

    That may be about to change. In April 2016, eighty prominent Catholic peacemakers from twenty-five nations were invited to the Vatican for a conference to discuss formally abandoning the just war theory. The event was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Peter Turkson, the leader behind Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, opened the conference by reading a long letter of welcome from Pope Francis. Cardinal Turkson participated in the conference and approved the closing statement, which was then presented to the pope.

    The nonviolent activist and priest Daniel Berrigan at Cornell University, 1970.

    The nonviolent activist and priest Daniel Berrigan at Cornell University, 1970. In April 2016, just weeks after the Vatican convened a conference on nonviolence, Berrigan died at age ninety-four.
    Photograph by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images.

    For three days, we deliberated about questions of violence, war, and nonviolence. Many attendees shared personal experiences practicing nonviolence, often in warzones. I was asked to speak about Jesus and nonviolence. That’s easy, I said: Jesus did not teach us how to kill or wage war or make money; he taught us how to be nonviolent. In the Sermon on the Mount he says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, they are the sons and daughters of God. ... You have heard it said, thou shall not kill; I say to you, do not even get angry. ... You have heard it said, an eye for an eye; but I say to you, offer no violent resistance to one who does evil. ... Love your enemies.” Nowhere does he say: “ ...but if your enemies are really bad, and you meet these seven conditions, kill them.” There is no just war theory, there are no exceptions.

    During the closing hours we debated, approved, and released a statement calling on Pope Francis to write an encyclical that would formally reject the just war theory once and for all and return the Church to the nonviolence of Jesus. The statement offers four points: that Jesus was nonviolent; that there is no just war; that nonviolence works; and that the time has come for the Church to apply and teach nonviolence at every level around the world. To quote some highlights:

    We live in a time of tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence. In this context of normalized and systemic violence, those of us who stand in the Christian tradition are called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus; to the life and practice of the Catholic Church; and to our long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet. ...

    The time has come for our church to be a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence and in forming and training our Catholic communities in effective nonviolent practices. In all of this, Jesus is our inspiration and model.

    In his own times, rife with structural violence, Jesus proclaimed a new, nonviolent order rooted in the unconditional love of God. ... Neither passive nor weak, Jesus’ nonviolence was the power of love in action. In vision and deed, he is the revelation and embodiment of the nonviolent God, a truth especially illuminated in the cross and resurrection. He calls us to develop the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking.

    Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice, or war. We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the gospel many times, by participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.

    We believe that there is no just war. Too often the just war theory has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a just war is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict. We need a new framework that is consistent with gospel nonviolence. ...

     “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.” Daniel Berrigan

    Among other points, the statement specifically challenges the church to develop its social teaching on nonviolence; to promote nonviolent practices such as restorative justice, trauma healing, and unarmed civilian protection; to no longer use or teach just war theory; to continue advocating for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons; and to support and defend nonviolent activists whose work for peace and justice puts their lives at risk. I encourage you to read the full statement at

    If it heeds this call, the Catholic Church could change course from the last seventeen hundred years, opening up a whole new history for Christianity and returning us to the spirit of the early church, where no Christian was allowed to participate in war, prepare for war, or kill another human being. If Pope Francis writes such an encyclical, it could have an impact far beyond the world’s one billion Catholics. He could help us all better understand how war has become obsolete, how nonviolence offers far better prospects for conflict resolution, and why the time has come to abolish war and nuclear weapons.

    Also read John Dear’s Remembrance of Daniel Berrigan.

    Related Article Remembering Daniel Berrigan – by John Dear Read
    Contributed By JohnDear John Dear

    John Dear, a Catholic priest, is the author of thirty books on peace and nonviolence, including Walking the Way, Living Peace, and his latest, The Beatitudes of Peace.

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