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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nate Wildermuth on Benedict XVI, pacifism and "bending my stiff neck"

"Bending my Stiff Neck" - Vox Nova's Nate Wildermuth -- an 'absolute pacifist' (to the point of condemning even justifiable defensive force, and with whom I have had scores of debates) -- wrestles with the words of the Holy Father:
Over the past three days, I've had my 1000% daily recommended dose of 'Pope': waving "hi" and "bye" at the National Shrine, attending the mass at Nationals Stadium, reading his flurry of speeches/addresses/homilies over and over again, and most importantly - praying that the Holy Spirit will open my heart to learning from our Church and its leader. But I wasn't quite prepared for the opening salvo of our Holy Spirit, coming in the Pope's words at the White House:

"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience — almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad."

These words crushed me.

How could the Pope repeat United States propaganda, and express admiration for US bloodshed? I racked my mind for ways to interpret his words in another way, but I couldn't. ...

I have so much to learn.

After a great deal of reflection and prayer, my heart has moved, my neck has bent. I have seen something startling: we live in a society where "defense of life" and "nonviolence" are mostly mutually exclusive, and because the defense of life must take priority over a commitment to nonviolence, most Christians are duty-bound to defend life with the least amount of violence possible.

Did I just write that? I did. But only after three days of gut-wrenching prayer!

I am not suggesting that violence is good, or even Christian. I am suggesting, however, that the circumstances of our society require us to choose defense of life over nonviolence. In other words - if the only way I can defend life is to use a gun, then I must use a gun.


Strikes will not stop robbers from breaking into our homes. Nonviolent communication will not stop those who do not wish to communicate. We have no nonviolent alternatives to police forces or militaries. We have no nonviolent alternatives to courts and prisons. Nonviolent means of defending life are mostly confined to idealistic exhortations to "love your enemy and trust in God's grace to work miracles."

Nonviolent means of defending life must be reasonable, passing the common sense rule, being as readily available as the gun in Target, or a call to 911. To criticize those who use violence to defend life when there are no other ways to defend life is . . . well . . . possibly scandalous.


Instead of offering concrete ways of defending home and family without violence, I have condemned all violence in every situation. I forced people into a corner - demanding they renounce violence while giving them nothing in its place - asking them to be "like a worm at the bidding of a bully."


My advocacy of nonviolence has consisted in saying, “no, no, no!” to America. But our Pope tells us that Christianity is not “no, no, no,” but is “yes, yes, yes!” All his words and actions reverberate within the great “yes” that is Christ our hope. Not one word of “no” passed through his lips over the past three days, even as he spoke of evil. Instead, he proposed solutions aimed at transforming our society into one of peace and justice - a world where men and women can finally embrace nonviolence, “a world where it is easier to be good.”

It is time for me to do the same.

It’s amazing what a Pope can do. I feel like I’ve been through a war, and that this little reflection is but a brief respite. But thank God, and praise Him. He is GOOD.

Praise to Benedict XVI for teaching by the force of his words and presence what positively reams of blogging and combox debating could not. And to Nate as well for his thoughtful post (and courage in publishing it).

I can relate (to some extent), Nate -- my father's side coming from a Mennonite background and being politically-left / pacifist, I had to likewise reconcile long-held assumptions.

Just as Catholic tradition makes a distinction between 'killing' and 'homicide', it seems to me that rather than condemning any and all use of armed force as "violence" [= evil], the Catholic tradition rather evaluates the use of force, judging its worth according to moral criteria.

The former has often been dubbed the "‘dirty hands' tradition" (whereby to pick up a gun, even defensively, is to unavoidably involve one's self in sin), the latter the "just war tradition" of moral-reasoning and a moral evaluation of armed force. (My father examined this in an essay "War and the Eclipse of Moral Reasoning" back in 2002).

None of this discounts the witness of pacifists -- who by their actions and adherence to nonviolence anticipate and manifest in this reality a time where the lion will truly "lay down with the lamb", where all swords will be "beaten into plowshares."

Probably no movie illustrates this ongoing debate between the two traditions than one of my favorite movies, Robert Bolt and Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission.

* * *

Nate Wildermuth blogs at Vox Nova and Catholic Blues.

Related Reading

  • Good Wars by Darrell Cole. First Things October 2001.

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