This article was originally published on June 15, 2015.

Fifteen thousand US soldiers had already died in Vietnam when, on October 27, 1967, Father Philip Berrigan and three accomplices entered the Baltimore Selective Service headquarters carrying a pitcher of blood. Locating the cabinets containing the records of men eligible for the military draft, they poured the blood over the open files. The Baltimore Four, as they came to be known, were convicted six months later on felony charges. Days before they were to stand for sentencing, Philip Berrigan, together with his brother (and fellow Catholic priest) Daniel and seven others, entered the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, hauled hundreds of draft files out onto an adjacent parking lot, and incinerated them using homemade napalm.

On hearing of the Berrigans’ action, we at the Catholic Worker house in New York City were astounded by their escalation of tactics. Philip was a dear friend – he had baptized my daughter the year before – and now I admired his daring, wanting to believe that he had enlarged the boundaries of nonviolent action.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Dorothy Day, the radical pacifist founder of the Catholic Worker, while not condemning the Berrigans, remarked pointedly: “These acts are not ours.” Property damage, in her view, was not part of the nonviolent arsenal. Burning one’s own draft card was one thing – Dorothy herself had publicly urged young American men to do just that. But destroying other people’s documents crossed a line.

The Catonsville Nine, as they were called, received prison sentences of two to six years. The Berrigan brothers and three others refused to surrender and went underground. Dorothy considered this a major breach of nonviolent principles. She, together with other prominent pacifists who had re-launched the American peace movement after World War II, were committed to nonviolent direct action in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi. This tradition required acting in “openness and truth” – including a willingness to stand before the courts and to accept whatever punishment they impose. The Berrigans did not agree.

Consistent with Dorothy’s reservations, the Catholic Worker newspaper remained largely silent about the Catonsville action and the trial that followed, despite widespread coverage in the mainstream media. (An article in June 1968 was the lone exception.) And in the four decades that followed, we published virtually nothing on the Berrigans and the Plowshares movement that, in 1980, they would help launch. This brave and occasionally spectacular antiwar and antinuclear campaign remains a going concern to this day.

Forging Plowshares

In July 2012, three Plowshares activists including Sister Megan Rice, age eighty-two, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which houses the world’s biggest supply of enriched, weapons-grade uranium. Cutting through four perimeter fences, they reached the site’s Protected Area without being apprehended, hammering on the uranium storage structure, pouring out human blood they had brought in baby bottles, and hanging banners and crime-scene tape.

The action garnered international attention, partly because it exposed the vulnerability of nuclear-weapons sites. Charged with federal felonies including sabotage, the three activists remain in prison. Sister Megan, who is housed in a dormitory-style cell with sixty other prisoners, has become an eloquent advocate for her fellow inmates, to whom she ministers selflessly.

Yet are such Plowshares actions nonviolent? Within the peace movement, many think they are – the War Resisters League has awarded Plowshares its annual peace award. From the Christian point of view, weapons that are intended to kill the innocent may surely be destroyed in justice. Justice may even demand it. And on a personal level, many of the men and women involved in Plowshares activities have been Catholic Workers and beloved friends and comrades; like Sister Megan, several have paid a heavy price in long prison terms, which calls for respect.

But is it nonviolence? Is it disarmament? Disarmament occurs when people lay down their weapons, not when their weapons are taken from them. That only moves belligerents to procure more and better weapons if they can. When activists destroy weapons, do they effect any conversion or change of heart in their opponents? Do they lead any to lay down their arms? Are such actions what we need?

There are practical concerns as well. The secrecy involved in Plowshares activities invites infiltration by spies and agents provocateurs. Openness and truth must be laid aside. Secrecy breeds suspicion within the group and creates a class system of those “in the know,” the “serious,” and those who merely attend to chores or lend moral or financial support. This lack of transparency can lead to problems of moral coercion: Jim Forest, a fellow Catholic Worker, has written that he was motivated to join a draft-board raid largely in order to stay in the good graces of the Berrigan brothers. Again, is this nonviolent? A nonviolent army, after all, has no cannon fodder.

Many in the antinuclear movement have literally put their lives on the line, risking being shot when they entered restricted areas. When Sister Megan was asked about these risks in an NPR interview, she answered that she was perfectly at peace with the possibility of being killed. Straight to heaven for her, no sweat! But how about the young security guard who might be obliged to shoot her? What of his mental and spiritual health after that?

What Is Christian Nonviolence?

The basis of Christian nonviolence is the same premise that underlies all of the church’s social teaching: that every man, woman, and child is created in the image of God. Persons are never a means to an end; they are ends in themselves, and thus are not to be violated in any way, either in body, mind, or spirit. Persons are not disconnected individuals in a war of all against all, as in the capitalist model; nor are they to be subsumed into a larger whole, as in the collectivist model. Instead, all are formed in, by, and for community. Thus Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, grounded his hope for peace in human rights.

But how to establish and protect human rights? Most people throughout history have assumed this is only possible through physical force. An ancient Latin adage goes, Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you desire peace, prepare for war. That’s like saying, “If you desire grapes, sow briars.” Christian peacemakers would rather say, Si vis pacem, para pacem – if you desire peace, prepare for peace.

Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.”
—from The Catholic Worker, Dec. 1965

Christian nonviolence fits comfortably into the larger fabric of a more universal nonviolence. The US Catholic bishops acknowledged this when they cited Mohandas Gandhi along with Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. Christian nonviolence takes a lesson from Hindu tradition in avoidance of harm, ahimsa, and in acknowledging the power of truth, satyagraha – “soul force,” as King translated it.

Yet Christian nonviolence is also rooted in the gospel. It looks to the teachings of Jesus, the victory of the cross, the resurrection, and the witness of the church of the first three centuries, before the Constantinian accommodation. And it draws from a constant if submerged nonviolent tradition through subsequent ages: the witness of the Franciscans in the thirteenth century and since, the Quakers and Anabaptists from the seventeenth century to the present, and a minority of Catholics through the ages, even as the Just War tradition was dominant for fifteen hundred years.

An Alternative to War

Christian discipleship will be judged by the criteria of the Last Judgment: the works of mercy that Jesus describes in Matthew 25. As Dorothy Day pointed out, war may be judged by these criteria too, for the works of war are the exact opposite of the works of mercy. Feed the hungry? No, destroy their crops! Give drink to the thirsty? No, poison their wells! Shelter the homeless? No, bomb their village! The weapons of Christian nonviolence include the spiritual works of mercy; again, the works of war are the exact opposite. Instruct the ignorant? No, lie to them! Counsel the doubtful? No, draft them or imprison them! Console the bereaved? Give them more deaths to grieve! Forgive injuries? Not on your life! Make them pay, ten times over!

Authentic nonviolence must be revolutionary because the social, political, economic order we live under violates the human person in fundamental ways – body, mind, and spirit. The present order is more accurately called dis-order. It kills and maims the body by war and by withholding the means to life from the poor. It violates human intelligence because it thrives on lies – truth is always war’s first casualty. And it violates the human conscience, which instinctively shrinks in horror from killing our own. As documented by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the West Point psychology professor who pioneered the conditioning technique known as killology, overcoming our natural aversion to homicide is a prime task of military training. Wars can be fought only by stilling the voice of conscience.

Evgeniy Vuchetich, Let Us Beat Swords Into Ploughshares Photograph public domain

By contrast, nonviolence operates in transparency, openness, and truth. Nonviolence recognizes the humanity of the opponent and appeals to “that of God in everyone,” as the Quakers put it – that which the Creator breathed into our first parents and which we all share, even the boss, the landlord, the racist, the oppressor, the warmonger. In struggle, the nonviolent activist does not seek victory but reconciliation, the redemption of the opponent, never his humiliation or annihilation. Therefore, the nonviolent activist always allows the opponent a way to retreat with dignity, an honorable way out of any conflict.

The principal weapon of nonviolence is dialogue. Genuine dialogue assumes the good faith of partners and avoids invidious language and ad hominem argument. Dialogue may be suspended at an impasse, but resumption is always a goal. The nonviolent armory includes protest, public dissent, noncooperation, and active resistance, but always with the purpose of re-establishing dialogue. Civil disobedience is the last weapon to be used, not the first, and should be undertaken after careful discernment under spiritual direction.

A Spiritual Discipline

Christian nonviolence is a way of life, not a tactic. Those who make the principles of nonviolence their own find that they change their way of working, of giving orders and taking them, of teaching, of preaching and ministering, of relating to spouses, children, elders, strangers, and friends as well as opponents. Often adopting nonviolence is part of a conversion process. The nonviolent activist is a man or woman of spiritual discipline, who has peace within, for one cannot give what one does not have.

In order to practice Christian nonviolence we have to prepare ourselves through study – nonviolence doesn’t come naturally for most of us. Thomas Merton, the well-known author and Trappist monk, pointed to the superficiality of much of what he saw coming out of the peace movement of the 1960s: lack of clarity in the use of terms, shoddy thinking, and gratuitous assertion. If anything, the years since his death have seen worse. We Christians need to recover what our ancestors in the faith knew about peacemaking.

And we need a revolution of the heart. To purify our wills we need to pray. To tame our lusts we need self-control, discipline, and fasting in one way or another. Only then can we come to the study of nonviolence with the realistic hope of putting it into useful practice. One need not be a saint, but the intellectually slothful and the self-serving will not make effective nonviolent practitioners. The way of nonviolence must proceed person by person.

What about Defending the Innocent?

At this point, a reasonable objection confronts the pacifist. Jesus counsels that I turn my own cheek, not my neighbor’s. Do we not have an obligation to protect the innocent? Does it not happen sometimes that the only effective way to protect the innocent is by force, even force of arms? Is it not a crime that cries to heaven that the international community did not intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda and in Sudan?

Refusal to support military force in defense of the innocent for reasons of conscience does not extricate anyone from the moral dilemma. One response is to practice nonviolent action as an alternative. Advocates of nonviolence have pioneered peaceful ways to resist aggression or home-grown tyranny. Religious groups such as Maryknoll and the Quakers have long prepared for re-entry into conflict areas in Asia. Other groups such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and Voices for Creative Nonviolence have sent trained activists into conflict areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and Central and South America as “accompaniment teams” to document abuses and to train others in the work of resistance and reconciliation.

Another response, suggested by Gandhi, is to build up community, creating “cells of good living” in a violent world. This is what Catholic Worker groups, the Bruderhof, and other intentional communities strive to do in ever increasing numbers. In these communities the poor and marginalized may be sheltered. According to Werner Jaeger, a classicist of the last century, such communities may play a crucial role in the re-ordering of society in times of social disintegration; one need only recall how the monasteries preserved culture in Europe during the Dark Ages. The mission of these communities is “to build a new society within the shell of the old,” words that appear in the 1905 constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World, authored by Thomas Haggerty, a Catholic priest.

All the same, there is weight to arguments for forceful intervention to protect the innocent. The innocent do need protection, and the world as we know it does need a police force. International police action is different from war. That is why, though I am a pacifist, I also believe there is a place for Just War thinking in Christian social teaching.

(Un)Just War

Just War theory was never intended as a framework by which war may be justified or as a means to deny the obvious meaning of the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Instead, it aspired to be a rational means for limiting war. It grapples with the questions: When is it justifiable to go to war (jus ad bellum)? What is permissible in warfare – are there any limits (jus in bello)? And what of the aftermath of victory – are there moral obligations that bind the victors (jus post bellum)?

Just War thinking evolved from attempts to answer these questions and to limit the destructiveness of warfare. Since it is based on reason rather than scripture, it belongs to the realm of moral philosophy, not theology. Though primarily associated with Catholic teaching going back to Augustine of Hippo, it has also been developed by Protestants, chief among them Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century and Paul Ramsey of Princeton University in the twentieth.

According to a widely accepted definition, modern Just War theory holds that war may be resorted to: 1) under legitimate authority; 2) for sufficient reason; 3) with a just intention; 4) with reasonable expectation of success; and 5) as a last resort, all other options having been tried and failed. Once war has broken out, Just War theory requires that the means employed to fight it must be: 1) proportional, causing less evil than they remedy; and 2) careful to preserve civilian immunity, though Just War theory tolerates noncombatant deaths as “collateral damage” if they are not directly intended and if they are not causal to victory.

Is Just War Theory Meaningless?

What are Christian pacifists to make of Just War theory? Some have suggested that it should be entirely abandoned, on the grounds that it contradicts Jesus’ clear teaching and has proven meaningless in practice. They have a point. Ever since Just War theory was invented, every side of every Western war has used its language to justify self-interested claims, and done so with ease. After all, no government has ever announced its intention to wage an unjust war. Never has it been observed that war planners, chiefs of state, and their cabinets met with their joint chiefs of staff to discuss how to apply Just War requirements to their agendas. No victorious nation has ever attributed its success to its own evil deeds, nor have its leaders ever been indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes. That happens only to losers.

Church leaders have had no better track record than the statesmen and generals. Throughout the ages, they have written a blank check to their governments on every side of virtually every war. (One exception came in 1971 when the US Catholic bishops judged the American war in Vietnam to be disproportionate in its evil effects, and therefore immoral. They did not, however, broadcast this decision with any clarity, vigor, or urgency.)

It might seem high time, then, to consign Just War theory to the scrap heap of church history, along with other discredited relics such as limbo for unbaptized infants. But this would be imprudent and premature, at the very least. Having put the Just War tradition aside, as some pacifists imagine they have done, they quickly reclaim its language whenever they criticize atrocities such as the targeting of civilians.

Consider the alternative to Just War theory: a world in which there are no limits on warfare even in theory, and in which what can be done may be done. This is clearly an amoral position, one that has proved dangerously attractive to some recent Christian thinkers. After the United States began to threaten preemptive war against Iraq in 2002, prominent Catholics such as Michael Novak and George Weigel argued for updating the Just War theory to allow for the Bush administration’s actions. The problems with such opportunistic flexibility are obvious.

The Just War tradition thus remains a crucial measuring stick. This is true not just for its adherents, but also for pacifists seeking to discern how to respond to a given war. Not all wars are equal, and pacifists’ choice of response – ranging from protest to noncooperation, obstruction, and even sabotage – may depend on the degree of injustice perpetrated by the war-makers. During World War II, for instance, the pacifist movement in America generally did not attempt to impede the war effort, implicitly recognizing the element of justice in the Allies’ cause. Dorothy Day, for one, protested the killing, especially the bombing of civilians. With A. J. Muste and the historic peace churches such as the Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren, she urged young men to refuse military service. Yet she did not attempt to block arms shipments.

Every Church a Peace Church?

Just War theory has far more to offer pacifists than a useful tool. It can become a path to the abolition of war. An extreme speculation? Not if we take the Just War criteria seriously. Whatever we may make of the near total absence of Christians in the military before AD 313, and however we may evaluate conditions in past ages, in the present day war almost certainly cannot be defended as a last resort, nor can it be waged in a proportionate manner and with respect for civilian immunity. In other words, modern war by its nature is not just, nor can it be. That is why the Catholic Church is becoming, if not pacifist, then at least a peace church. Other major Christian communions are on a similar journey.

Already in 1947, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani wrote that war has changed in specie, in its very nature, and must be altogether forbidden. He would prove not to be an outlier. Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris, taught that “it is contrary to reason to hold that war is any longer a suitable way to restore violated rights.” And the Second Vatican Council unequivocally condemned the use of weapons of mass destruction, urging Catholics to consider questions of war and peace “with an entirely new attitude” (Gaudium et Spes).

Imagine solid ranks of Catholic conscientious objectors heeding the call of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations on October 4, 1965: “No more war, war never again!” His message was echoed by Pope John Paul II when he addressed the youth of Ireland at Drogheda in 1979: “On my knees I beg you to turn from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace. … Violence only delays the day of justice. Violence destroys the work of justice. … Do not follow any leaders who train you in the ways of inflicting death. Love life! Respect life, in yourselves and in others. Give yourselves to the service of life, not the service of death. … Violence is the enemy of justice. Only peace can lead the way to true justice.”

In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II again pleaded, “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems that provoked the war.”

The Catholic Church is becoming, if not pacifist, then at least a peace church.

And Pope Benedict XVI has said: “I would like to call out to the consciences of those who form part of armed groups of any kind. To each and every one, I say: Stop, reflect, and abandon the path of violence!” (Angelus message, Jan. 1, 2010). And more: “It is impossible to interpret Jesus as a violent person. Violence is contrary to the kingdom of God; it is a tool of the Antichrist. Violence never serves humanity, but dehumanizes” (Angelus message, Mar. 11, 2012).

Let us hear no more, “Yes, but …”

When war is outlawed, as it must be if humanity is to survive its penchant for self-destruction, our progeny will look back on justifications for war with the shame we do today on justifications for slavery by Christian theologians a mere one hundred and fifty years ago. If Christians are not in the vanguard of the war against war, if that is left to nonbelievers, then we will have deserted the field, cowards indeed, and other generations, if there be any, will have to restore the credibility of the gospel of the Prince of Peace and the integrity of his church.

Christians must be at the vanguard of the war against war.

Disarmament must be a top priority. Most people would agree in principle – popes and presidents included – but there is no will to do it. It’s been over fifty years since we had a broad-based disarmament movement in the United States or the world. Meanwhile the nuclear threat has only become more severe as nuclear-weapons capability proliferates.

In their 1983 letter, The Challenge of Peace, the US Catholic bishops challenged the nuclear deterrent, calling it morally acceptable only temporarily and conditionally, to buy time for multilateral nuclear disarmament. But that time has already run out, according to the Vatican, which already called for the universal abolition of nuclear weapons in 1997. More recently, Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has gone even further: “Individuals and communities have the duty to express clearly their complete and radical rejection of all forms of violence, especially that fueled in God’s holy name” (Zenit, Feb. 19, 2007).

So we have calls for disarmament from the Vatican itself! In the Catholic Church, a grassroots peace movement among the laity has been growing – and not just among the usual suspects in the Catholic Worker, Pax Christi, and Plowshares movements. Academic groups such as the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame are contributing too.

Even more Christians must rise to meet the challenge. As Thomas Merton wrote: “The duty of the Christian in this [present] crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war” (The Catholic Worker, Oct. 1961).

So let us get to work. The first words I ever heard from Dorothy Day, sixty-one years ago, were, “There are great things that have to be done, and who will do them but the young?” No cause is more noble or more necessary. Pray and study first, then get out there and start moving.