Category Archives: peacemaker

Following our deepest impulses

Joy and growth come from following our deepest impulses,
however foolish they may seem to some, or dangerous,
and even though the apparent outcome may be defeat.
A .J. Muste

A. J. Muste, who died at the age of eighty-two on February 11, 1967, was one of the most important leaders of active nonviolence in the US in the twentieth century. Born in Holland, A. J. (Abraham Johannes) had been a Dutch Reformed minister in Michigan until his pacifist opposition to World War I led his congregation to dismiss him as their pastor.

Though he is relatively unknown, he had a major impact on efforts for peace, in part during his role as executive secretary of the U.S. Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist group. But he made a major impact on peace efforts after he left that role.

I have seen pictures of him climbing over a fence to protest nuclear weapons, standing with Dorothy Day to witness the burning of draft cards during the Viet Nam war. The year before he died he made a trip to North Viet Nam to see the devastation wrought by US bombs.

He seems to have been a gentle soul, though resilient in his struggles for peace.

Some may think all this was foolhardy – but as he said to a reporter questioning a vigil outside a nuclear weapons base, “I don’t do this to change the world. I do it to keep the world from changing me.”

He followed his deepest impulses and is an example to many of us who still hold the dream of nonviolence and justice, who see the wisdom of one of his most famous statements:

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

Gentle strength

There is nothing so strong as gentleness
and there is nothing so gentle as real strength.
St. Francis de Sales

Today is the feast of Saint Francis de Sales, a Swiss bishop who pioneered a spirituality for lay people which emphasized patience with oneself and living God’s love.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, a Dubuque Franciscan sister, who died in 2008 at the age of 94.

She was a remarkable little sister, a tireless advocate for peace and human rights. She took part in one of the walks for peace across the United States and continually protested against war in all its forms.

She was arrested several times, including an arrest at the age of 88 at the School of the Americas, protesting US involvement in Latin America.

In this she remembered the witness of her brother, Ron Hennessey, a Maryknoll missionary in Central America who lived under the oppression of the indigenous in Guatemala. (Ron’s witness is told in Thomas Melville’s Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America.)

Her persistence in witnessing for the poor and oppressed is a sign of how God uses all sorts of people to show His love and justice.

Today is also the anniversary of the death in 2011 of Don Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. A detailed homage can be found at Mex Files here.

He was a bishop totally devoted to the poor, especially to the indigenous in his diocese in southern Mexico, who called him Jtatic Samuel. Although despised by those in power he was asked to meditate during the Zapatista rebellion because he was probably one of the few persons the people trusted. He had spent his life with them and had risked his life many times.

He also was not always appreciated by the Vatican, especially for his efforts to promote indigenous deacons in the diocese. A coadjutor was appointed, Monseñor Raúl Vera, who ironically has become one of the most progressive bishops in Latin America and is now the bishop of Saltillo, Mexico.

Don Samuel was beloved by his people. I saw a manifestation of that love when I visited San Cristobal in late January 2012 for the wedding of a friend. His tomb, behind the cathedral’s main altar was decorated with flowers.

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

But he was more than a beloved pastor. He was a prophet.

Reflecting the words of Mary in her Magnificat, he once said:

Justice means bringing down from their throne those who are privileged and elevating those who are humble to the same heights.

The gentle strength and the strong gentleness of Sister Dorothy and Don Samuel offer us a way into living the Gospel, in solidarity with the poor.


A Jewish prophet and prayer as subversion

Prayer is subversive.

You only have to read the canticle of Hannah in 1 Kings 2: 1-10 or the canticle of Mary in Luke 1: to hear how God wants to turn this world upside down.

The bow of the mighty is broken
but the weak are girded with strength
1 Kings 2: 4
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts
and raised up the lowly.
Luke 1: 52

All too long the poor have been victimized by systems and powers that seek to hoard the goods of this world and to keep the poor in line.  But God wants something different.

Forty years ago today, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died. He was a Jewish theologian and philosopher who shared his learning with the world, not only within the Jewish community. He also shared his learning by living it in the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., for racial justice, and marched with people of many faiths (and no faith) to seek an end to the war in Vietnam.

One of his quotes has touched me deeply for many years:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.

During this time of darkness and hope, let us pray prayers of subversion and live them, especially Psalm 72 which speaks of the good ruler:

May he defend the poor of the people,
and save the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
For he shall save the needy when they cry,
the poor, and those who are helpless.
He will have pity on the weak and the needy,
and save the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their souls;
to him their blood is dear.
Psalm 72: 12-14

Would that nations and peoples lived the prophetic words of scripture! This year is a time to start.

Young prayerful peacemaker – John Leary

Thirty years ago a young man named John Leary died on the Boston Common while jogging home from work. But he was not an ordinary young man.

I met him a few times at Haley House, a Catholic Worker house, in Boston where he lived and worked among the poor. A bright young man – graduate of Harvard – he was a light in many ways to the darkness around the world in the early 1980s. He had a great spirit that you could experience meeting him.

His life was grounded in an active commitment to the poor, serving them, but he also a strong advocate for life. He co-founded and worked at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

He was a member of the Ailanthus Resistance Community and was arrested for protests against nuclear weapons at a local laboratory. He also was arrested several times protesting abortion.

He was a truly consistent advocate of life.

But there is another aspect of his life which intrigues me.

John Leary began to participate in the Melkite Catholic Church and was, I presume, influenced by Eastern Christian spirituality.

He used to run on his way to and from work at a center for Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge). Gordon Zahn, a co-founder of the center, asked John about his running, which seemed so mundane and boring. John replied that he prayer the Jesus prayer while running.  In all probability, on August  31, 1982, while running home to the Catholic Worker John died, praying the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus prayer comes from the Eastern Christian tradition, praying many times a  formula based on the prayer of the publican in the Gospels: “Have mercy on me a sinner.” The most common form is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I wrote a post on the prayer earlier this year here.

It is a prayer that nourishes me.

Today, remembering John Leary, I pray that like him my life may be a witness to the God of life who became poor for us, by living and working with the poor, rooted in God’s love. And may I die with the Jesus prayer on my lips.


A Catholic witness of conscience – against war

As the Catholic Church in the US ponders questions of conscience, it might be helpful to recall the example of  Ben Salmon, US Catholic pacifist, World War I conscientious objector, husband and father, who died eighty years ago on February 15, 1932.

Ben Salmon grew up in a working class Catholic family in Denver, only studying until the eighth grade. He was active in the church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as in union organizing. He had a strong commitment to social justice and lived it.

He was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” to recall today’s lectionary reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James.

When World War I started,  he refused to serve, claiming that cooperation with war was a violation of his conscience. But the US would not recognize a Catholic pacifist and so he was arrested in 1918, court-martialed, and imprisoned, sentenced for twenty-five years in prison.

The end of the war did not bring his release. After a hunger strike he was released in 1920.

He may have felt alone in his witness, as prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was opposing the pope; some priests actually refused him the sacraments, seeing his pacifism as heresy.

But he persisted, and even wrote a two hundred page manuscript critiquing the just war theory in justification of his nonviolence.

He took a stand for life and suffered for it. This was not easy, but with a deep faith he persevered. His quiet witness has only recently come to light, especially in a 1989 biography by Torin R. T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War.

The root of his simple, straightforward pacifism are clear from this quotation:

“I believe it is clear that, if we are going to show our love for our neighbor, we must adopt some other means besides tattooing his body with a Lewis machine gun. If you love me, I really prefer that you show your love in some other way besides massaging me with a bayonet. . . .

“Love, of course, is like everything else, relative. Christ does not expect me to love a stranger as much as I love my mother. But even though love is relative, it never reaches a level so low as to warrant an injury. The opposite of love is hate, and the amount of hate that finds an expression in every war, of which we found an appalling example in the recent conflict, warrants the conclusion that war is hate [and] peace is love.”

A bishop for peace and the family farm

Twenty years ago, on February 1, 1992, Bishop Maurice Dingman of Des Moines, died.

Bishop Dingman was a champion for the family farm and spoke, wrote, and stood by family farmers, especially as the 1980 farm crisis affected many farmers in Iowa.

He was also an outspoken advocate of peace, speaking out against nuclear weapons and other threats to peace. he even demonstrated against a nearby military base.

In addition, Bishop Dingman had a concern for Central America, during the 1980s when US back wars raged in El Salvador and Nicaragua and a genocidal war continued in Guatemala.

He saw the links between the farm crisis and the inequality and injustice in Central America. I remember that he once spoke of the centralamericanization of agriculture in the US – referring to the concentration of land ownership which still ravages Honduras and other countries in the Americas.

Once he wrote:

“You are to look forward to the future. Make the work of the future your task. It is an immense task, and you do this in three ways: be a spark of light, a center of love, and a leaven in the world in which you live. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. All we really have to do is to open ourselves to these possibilities. I ask you to continue to search for truth. I urge you to continue your lives in a fashion so you can hear the word of God, put it into your own idiom, and then live it out.”

I met him a few times and was impressed by his gentleness. He was a great witness to the love of God for all, especially for the poor, and for God’s Kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

May more of us followers of Christ listen to the wisdom of Bishop Dingman and other like him.

The Servant of Peace

Lanza del Vasto was a disciple of Gandhi, founder of the Community of the Ark, in France. Gandhi gave him the name “Shantidas,” servant of peace. He died on January 5, 1981.

In the 1980s I ran across his tale of his spiritual journey,  Return to the Source, where he relates his trip to India. In his search he encountered Gandhi and eastern sources of thought. He returned to Europe a Christian, but with a nonviolence that opened him to all peoples and religions of the world.

He and his wife, Chanterelle, founded a Gandhian style community in France that embraced nonviolence, simplicity, use of simple means to live (avowing much technology and using almost no electricity.)

I visited L’Arche in France in 1973 at the end of a summer bicycle tour/pilgrimage throughout Europe. I was impressed by the community but it is so much of an alternative to the world – almost an interfaith activist Amish community – that it has never been large. But its influence has been great, particularly in some parts of Latin America. The Mexican who has mobilized the anti-violence campaign was influenced by L’Arche and Lanza del Vasto.

Lanza del Vasto’s writing are often quite esoteric, especially some of his scripture commentaries but I appreciate much of what I’d call his basic wisdom of the ages. A number of them can be found in his book of short sayings, Principles and Precepts of a Return to the Obvious. Here are a few examples.

“Learn that virile charity that has severe words for those who flatter, serene words for those who fight you, warm [words] for the weary, strong for the suffering, clear for the blind, measured for the proud, and a bucketful of water and a stick for the sleepers.”

“Science can lend itself to any use; the conscience cannot. Intelligence can lower itself to any scheme; wisdom cannot. Power can stoop to anything; self control cannot. Money can be put to all kinds of uses; honesty cannot. Courage can defend any cause; charity cannot. Power can be used to any purpose, but nonviolence or the Power of Justice can serve only Justice.”

“Whoever fasts becomes transparent.
Others become transparent to him.
Their suffering enters him and he is defenseless against it.
So take care to stop up your sense by eating well
if you don’t want to be devoured by charity.”

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I. It is also the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a bishop known for his charity for the poor, who died in 397.

When he was a soldier of the Roman army he cut his cloak in half for a beggar. That night he had a dream of Christ wearing the cloak he had given the beggar.

But Martin is also known as an objector to war. When he was called upon to actually engage in battle, he refused, saying, “I am a soldier of Christ; I cannot fight.” His superiors considered him a coward, but he offered to walk unarmed at the front of the army. He didn’t have to, since that night the opponents sued for peace.

Many centuries later, a retired US general, Omar N. Bradley, spoke out strongly about war.

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. [Humanity] is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Today is also the anniversary of the death of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, in 1855. His biting critique of bourgeois Christianity is at the center of his “existentialist” philosophy. He once wrote, “What this age needs is not a genius, but a martyr.”

Ours is an age of martyrs who sought justice, without revenge and without violence. They are the true geniuses of our day.

Jesus in every human being

Eileen Egan, peacemaker, advocate of nonviolence, friend of the world’s poor, worker with Catholic Relief Services, co-founder of Pax Christi USA, and author of Peace Be with You: Justified Warfare or the Way of Nonviolence, died on October 7, 2000. She was a friend and associate of both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She also was instrumental with Catholic Relief Services in the role that the US Catholic Church played in the rebuilding of post-World War II Europe.

In the early 1960s she had worked to encourage the bishops at the Second Vatican Council speak out against nuclear war

I met her once when she received the Diocese of Davenport’s Pacem in Terris award. She was a woman of great piety who surprised her hosts in insisting on fasting for peace on Friday as the US bishops had urged the faithful in their 1983 pastoral letter  The Challenge of Peace.

She once wrote:

“My life has had a single strain: to see Jesus in every human being, to realize that each one is inviolable and sacred in the eyes of God, and then to translate that into everything I do. This is the heart of anything I’ve done, the heart of my peace work.”


The dignity of work

Mohandas K. Gandhi was born on October 2,1869.

Not only was he only the leader of the nonviolent movement for the independence of India from Great Britain. His campaign for Swaraj – self-rule – included the call for manual work as a way to live well in community, independent of the great powers. Thus he knew and affirmed the value of work. As he said:

“Whether you wet your hands in the water-basin, fan the fire with the bamboo bellows, set down endless columns of figures at a desk, labour in the rice-field with your head in the burning sun and your feet in the mud, or stand at work before the smelting furnace, so long as you do not do all this with just the same religiousness as if you were monks praying in a monastery, the world will never be saved.”