A Gift for President Obama

In early January, I made a decision to spend this year studying the great peacemakers of history. When a friend of mine learned of this decision and knew he would be seeing me the following week in Philadelphia, he brought along his copy of A Persistent Peace by Father John Dear and gifted it to me for my 30th birthday. 

I began reading the book on my flight home from Philadelphia and could barely put it down: in the airport, on the plane, and even in a reading room I discovered during my layover in Atlanta. 

The book is a first-person memoir of one Jesuit priest’s commitment to the nonviolent love of Jesus. It covers a period of about 30 years, from the earliest days of Father John’s faith into the long road for peace he has walked ever since.

In the pages of this book I encountered story, journey, questions, confession, and exploration. And because the story began at Father John’s beginning and tracked his progression of thought, faith, conviction, and experiment, I felt I was traveling with someone from the point at which I was now beginning, too.

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What About the Violent God of the Old Testament?

In all this thinking I’ve been doing about returning violence with love, one contrary thought continues to nag at me: What about the violence we encounter at the hand of God in the Old Testament?

The way of nonviolence would take the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus in his loving assumption of the cross as its authority for living nonviolently. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus blessing the peacemakers, saying that they will be the ones who inherit the earth. In this sermon, we also receive Jesus’s teachings to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to not return an eye for an eye, and to not only give our shirts and cloaks to those who ask for them, but to also walk an extra mile with someone who compels us to walk a mile on their behalf. And on the road to the cross, we see Jesus bearing the load in silence, not arguing with Pilate, and even asking God to forgive those who crucify him because they know not what they are doing.

In all of this, Ronald Rolheiser sees that Jesus teaches us a way to overcome injustice and hatred with love:

“We too often think of God as someone who will use violence to overthrow evil and bring about justice and peace. We conceive of God as a force for redemptive violence … We must be careful, particularly in trying to create justice and peace, not to confuse the Christian story of redemption with the myth of redemptive violence. We must try to bring about justice and peace as Jesus did, recognizing that the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ beats up no one. He does not vanquish the bad and vindicate the good through superior muscle-power, speed, or sharpshooting with a gun.” (From chapter 8 of The Holy Longing)

I can appreciate what Rolheiser is saying from the perspective of the New Testament and the example and teachings of Jesus I just outlined above. Where I run into trouble is reconciling his words with the God of violence I do find in the Old Testament.

For example, just this last week I’ve been meditating on Psalm 44, which says:

“You with your own hand drove out the nations, but them [Israel] you planted; you afflicted the people, but them [Israel] you set free … Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.”

We can’t hide from the fact that God used violence to overturn the foes of Israel. Clearly, he was for Israel and against others, and he used violence to accomplish his ends. This happened over and over in the Old Testament, so how can Rolheiser talk about “the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’” as one who “beats up no one”?

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Beyond Belief: Love that Conquers Hate

This past weekend I was on a group retreat for my Audire training program, and on one of the evenings we watched a film called Beyond Belief. This is the story of two 9/11 widows who founded a non-profit organization to help support Afghanistan widows once they learned that widows in Afghanistan rarely have a chance to survive and care for their children with dignity and hope once they lose their husbands. These two women were particularly struck by the fact that many Afghanistan women are being widowed now because of the war America has brought to their land in response to the 9/11 attacks. In the face of hate, we’re returning hate — but what if we brought love instead?

The documentary chronicles the grief these two 9/11 widows face at the loss of their own husbands, their coming together as friends over this shared grief, and their process of founding the organization that helps the widows in Afghanistan. It depicts their efforts to raise money by bicycling 250 miles from Ground Zero to Boston in 2004, as well as their eventual visit to Afghanistan to meet the women whose livelihoods they have enabled to thrive.

Ultimately, this film speaks of a shared conviction that hatred is learned but love conquers hate.

These women seem to embody the spirit of what I began asking here. Instead of hatred and retribution resulting in war, ought we be loving our terrorist enemies? What would such a love look like? Would it have the power to transform hearts? Could such love result in repentance? And even if it didn’t, should we do it anyway?

Are We Called to Love Al-Qaeda?

I’ve recently been reading Ronald Rolheiser’s book The Holy Longing, which includes a chapter on justice and peacemaking. Rolheiser notes that so often those who fight for justice, as righteous as their cause may be, often use tactics and language that are not all that different from those they oppose. As a result, they are ineffective. What will win the heart of the world, Rolheiser says, is a heart of love:

“A prophet … must make a vow of love not of alienation. The great modern-day prophets of social justice (persons such as Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Gustavo Gutierrez, William Stringfellow, Oscar Romero, Jim Wallis, and Richard Rohr) would all agree with that. Love, not anger, is the basis for nonviolence and nonviolence is the only possible basis for a new world order of justice and peace … Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example of the nonviolent peacemaker. He never mimics the violence and injustice that he is trying to change.”

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about America’s war against terrorism. We have been served evil, and we seek to combat it. We feel this is a cause of justice, not to mention security. And yet in fighting evil, we are bringing war. We bring anger and retribution against those who have brought us harm. We seek their ill. We even seek their destruction.

Is this how Christ would have us live? Christ, the one who asks us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, who says that vengeance is the Lord God’s alone? Christ, the one who was unjustly beaten and ultimately killed by those who hated Him and who chose to remain silent and to bear the anger with an ever-increasing love for His mission and those He came to save (which included those who raised Him onto the cross)?

Furthermore, are such tactics of war even effective? If we bring violence against violence, what really changes? Perhaps some people die, but the ideologies they espouse go on living. They take up residence in others who then carry on the mission to bring harm. The only thing that can dispel evil is love.

And so I confess that I wince when I ask this question, but: Are we, as Christians, called to love Al-Qaeda? Is love what would really end this war?