Henri Nouwen "Peacemaking & Resistance" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a very special episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
In this podcast, we have a special treat for you: a recording of Henri Nouwen himself. Forty years ago, Henri Nouwen gave a series of talks to a group of Christian educators in the United States. He’d just returned from a short sabbatical in Switzerland, where he’d wrestled with what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Today, you’re going to hear the second in this series of talks on peace work. In this talk, Henri asks, “How do we make all that we do serve the cause of peace?” He introduces the role of resistance and prayer. I honestly don’t know when I have heard a talk by Henri Nouwen which is more passionate and challenging. I’m sure you, too, will be inspired by what Henri Nouwen shares.
Henri Nouwen: Now, we tend to think about peacemaking actions quite in a very limited way. We think about round-table meetings between countries, United Nations conferences on disarmament, large rallies and demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience. These often come to mind when we think of peacemaking acts. But these actions only involve a few people, or involve many people for only a short time. We might be tempted to say, “Well, we can pray for peace but we can’t do much, because we have our jobs, our families, our social obligations, and there just is no time left to work for peace.” You can do only so much and you have to accept your limitations.
Now, I’d like to show you how we as Christians, whatever our profession or family situation is, are called to make every movement of our life a form of peacemaking. The call to be a peacemaker does not necessarily mean that we have to do something extra or new, but it means that all that we do, say, or think should be done in the service of peace. Peacemaking is a way of living that involves our whole being, all the time.
Now, the word I want to make central now in these reflections is the word “resistance.” Peacemakers live their lives constantly resisting the powers that lead to war and destruction and thus making visible the peace of God to all people of goodwill. I’d like to say three things about resistance as a way of peacemaking. First of all, I’d like to describe resistance as saying “no” to the forces of death. Then I’d like to show that this saying “no” requires a constant and articulate “yes” to all the forces of life, wherever we encounter them. And finally, I want to explore how this saying “no” and “yes” can indeed be a true act of worship. So that is three subjects: no, yes, worship.
First of all, resistance as a core quality of all peacemaking means, first of all, saying “no” to all the forces of death. During the last decades, we have become increasingly conscious of the death power of nuclear arms. Richard Barnett writes, “According to estimates of the National Security Council, 140 million Americans would probably die within days after a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack, and more than 100 million Russians would die in the United States’ retaliatory attack. The United States alone has 3,000 weapons, each of them being 50 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb.” And so, it’s not hard to see how large portions of the world population are held hostage by these instruments of death. It’s obvious that as Christians who believe that God is the God of the living, we should say “no” to nuclear arms. A clear and unambiguous “no.”
The thought that human beings are willing to save their lives by killing millions of their fellow human beings, whether they’re Russians or not, is so preposterous that the words “saving life” no longer can have any meaning. One of the most tragic and, at first sight, unexplainable facts of our century is that this “no” has been spoken so seldom, so softly, and by so few. The obvious “no” has become buried under the anxious questions about the Russians, about our freedom, about our culture, about democracy, and about free enterprise.
Now, what all this shows is that we are already victimized by the powers of death, to a degree that we ourselves hardly recognize. Our willingness to even entertain the possibility of a nuclear war is part of a death orientation that pervades our lives on all levels. And I do not think that we will ever become true peacemakers if we are not willing to unmask these forces of death, wherever they operate. The nuclear threat should challenge us to see death at work, not only where cruise missiles and Trident submarines are being built, but also in places where we least expect them. The honest “no” against a nuclear arms race requires a “no” to death, even when hidden in the smallest corners of our hearts and minds.
Now, I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but let me try. I have a growing sense by just living around in this world, that we in the western world – that’s the world I know. I mean that’s not in contrast or anything else – it’s just that we have developed a strong and somewhat morbid fascination with death, and I’d like you to look at that for a moment. Millions of dollars are made on films, books, and shows in which deaths is the major theme. And many hours of our lives are spent filling our hearts and minds with images of shooting, hanging, torture scenes, and other forms of human destructiveness. Seeing people being killed on a television or a cinema screen is so normal that young soldiers in Vietnam had to learn that the people they killed would not return in the next battle. I heard it from somebody, I’m not just making it up. A young Vietnam veteran told me that that killing was so much part of his fantasy in growing up that when he had to kill, he couldn’t believe that the person he killed wasn’t going to show up in the next battle again, like he would show up in the next movie. A large part of our contemporary entertainment is entertainment with death. The attraction of many forms of contemporary entertainment is not very different from the attraction that centuries ago brought people to the scene of public executions. People are really fascinated by that.
Now, besides this crude and explicit manifestation of our fascination with death, which is exploited to the hilt by the entertainment business and the world and by writers, and also by movie makers and by ourselves, and we want to get . . . and in sport, it’s also pleasurable. There is something morbidly interesting in seeing people playing with death. He could die, he could be killed in a knockout or he could fall from the cliff or he could be shot. And he could just make it or he could just survive. And the kind of sensational involvement that we spend a lot of our fantasy in is sort of playing around with death. It’s just overwhelming, if you think about it.
I was just talking to somebody who said that in some countries in film today, you were allowed to see a lot more sex but much less death. And that in our culture, the United States, shooting somebody publicly on the television screen is something that is not forbidden. To show somebody dying, to show somebody, seeing blood coming all over, slowly falling apart . . . you can sit there and watch that for 10, 20 minutes, without that is considered to be pornography – which it is.
Now besides this crude and explicit manifestation of our fascination with death, there’s another less spectacular, but no less damaging, expression of this marked preoccupation. And I’m going to make a big jump here, but I hope you’ll stay with me. Many conversations between people are death-centered. Often, we talk about people in a way that they become dead for us. So, with judgment, stereotyped remarks and verbal rejection, we freeze others into a situation that allows us to take them seriously no longer. The remark that says, “Oh, forget about him, he cannot be trusted,” is a form of moral killing that we continue to engage ourselves in. Many social gatherings, particularly in this very competitive world that we live in, are pervaded with so-called death-talk, in which people are evaluated, found guilty and discarded. There even seems to exist a morbid eagerness in us to kill others this way. Just as General Patton could walk through a field with the scattered bodies of killed German soldiers and sort of feel proud of himself, so we, too, can often create a strange sensation of self in us, by declaring others of no use.
Somehow, we have come to a spiritual place in which we find comfort in the uselessness of others. We say. . . For instance, I remember myself, for instance, you come to university and it’s kind of competitive and people say, “Oh, this is one of the brightest people we have around here.” And so, you feel a little nervous being with him. And if you then later on find that really there are a lot of weaknesses there, you start feeling good about it: “Oh wow, I don’t have to take that seriously.” But really, really, somehow there is something in us that feels good about making other people, sort of fixing them in places of no use – for us, at least – so that our place in life, our importance in life somewhere starts to be connected with the unimportance of others on all sorts of levels.
Okay, there’s one thing more. The great fascination with death also is visible in the way we think about ourselves. Our most intimate, inner thoughts can be tainted by death. This manifests itself when we think of ourselves as worthless, as unimportant, as neglectable. And one of the greatest sources of human suffering in our days is the self-loathing that fills the hearts of many people. We are constantly tempted by self-rejection on all sorts of levels. And underneath much self-assured behavior, deep self-doubts are often hidden and very operative. And thus, an inner darkness can slowly develop, that shrouds much of our daily activities.
Let me tell you a few more things about it. I really think you will find constantly in counseling, in pastoral care, but also in in work with congregations and community. Do your people really think about themselves as people who are self-confident, who believe that they have a contribution to make to the people of God? A lot of people have a sense about themself that is very low. In this country it’s true, but it’s even more true, obviously, in countries with a low socioeconomic situation: “We don’t have anything to offer.” And if you read the gospels, you might slowly realize that this predilection with our own worthlessness is very much against what the gospel speaks about.
Now, at first it might seem very contrived to bring these three very different phenomena, which are public entertainment with killing, interpersonal stereotyping and self-loathing together as three ways in which our fascination with death manifests itself. But different though they are, they are all characterized by a pull to the fixed place. A pull to the fixed place. Living means always changing. As long as there is life, there is a movement, and there is growth. Wherever life manifests itself, we have to be prepared for surprises, unexpected changes, and constant renewal. Nothing in life is the same from moment to moment. To live, therefore, is to face, over and over again, the unknown. A stone is a stone, is a stone, is a stone, is a stone. But a plant, an animal, and a human being are never the same.
It’s therefore understandable that living requires a very great trust. We can never know how we will think, feel, and behave next week, next year, next decade. Essential to living is trusting an unknown future. It requires a surrender to the mystery of the unpredictable. Death, to the contrary, is returning to the fixed stage. Death is the same always. It is solid, unchangeable, predictable, uniform. When I kill myself or someone else physically or morally, I create a fixed, final, unchangeable situation. By killing others, I cut them out of my life. They no longer exist for me and they no longer are subject of my hopes or of my fears. And by killing myself, morally or physically, I take away the uncertainty of who I will be tomorrow. The great attraction of death is the certainty it brings. This is not only true of physical death, but also of moral and spiritual death. Once I have decided I’m worthless, I can stop growing. I can simply live with that morbid certainty. A lot of people do that way. They say, “Well, I’m 50 years old, this is how I am. You’d better live it up with me. You accept me. I’m neurotic, okay, so try to make something. I know myself.”
You know, a lot of people think themselves to death. They have analyses of themselves of how they are, what their problems are, and in a sort of strange way, are proud of it, because “at least I know how thick I am and I don’t have to deal with it. And at least that’s what is sure.” I have seen it so much happening that people were against healing, because it would change the situation for whole families who were structured around their mutual illnesses, and the whole idea that suddenly everybody would be happy and healthy would create an immense amount of problems. In a time like ours, in which everything has become unhinged and in which there is little to hold onto, the uncertainty of life has become so frightening that we are tempted to prefer the certainty of death.
What I’m trying to say is that in our time, there is a particular reason to become fascinated with death, because everything in the future is so totally uncertain and unclear and so frightening for many people. It seems that many people say in words and actions, “It is better to be sure of your unhappiness, than to be unsure of your happiness.” Now, translated in different situations, it reads: It’s better to have clear-cut enemies, than to have to live with people of whom you cannot be sure that they will remain your friends. It’s better to ask people to accept your weaknesses than to constantly be challenged to overcome them. It’s better to be defined as a bad person than to have to be good in always new circumstances. It is shocking to see how many people choose the certainty of misery in order not to have to deal with the uncertainty of joy.
And this is a choice for death, a choice that is increasingly attractive when the future itself seems to be no longer trustworthy. The nuclear situation in which the future itself has become uncertain has made a temptation to indulge ourself in the fascination with death greater than ever. The nucleus threat, therefore, not only is the threat that life on this planet may come to an end, but also, which is much more important, the threat that the fear for such a final catastrophe may take away the trust necessary to choose life. Once the trust in a livable future is weakened or gone, we will soon be surrounded by an explosion of death-oriented self-indulgence.
That’s what Jesus keeps speaking about: Indulge yourself. Debauchery. Drunkenness. Live it up. Self-indulgence chooses the certainty of the moment above the uncertainty of the next day. It’s therefore not so surprising that increasing fascination with death and increasing hedonism and sexual confusion are intimately connected. Both lust and death keep our eyes away from the uncertain future and imprison us in the satisfaction of the moment. Resistance, as an essential trait of peacemaking, requires a clear “no” against death in all its manifestations. We cannot say “no” to the nuclear death if we are not also saying “no” against the less spectacular forms of death.
As peacemakers, we have to face the intimate connections between the daily expressions of our contemporary fascination with death, and the death caused by nuclear holocaust. By recognizing in our own day-to-day life our many “innocent” death games, we gradually come to realize that we, too, are part of that complex network of war-making that finds its most devastating experience in a nuclear holocaust. Real resistance requires the humble confession of being partners in the evil which we want to resist. And here it becomes visible that we are faced with a task to say “no” that involves all levels of life: family, school, professions, sports, entertainment. Wherever we see the fascination with death at work, we have to say “no.” And the more we say “no,” the more we will recognize the pervasive influence of death in our society, and the more we will come to understand the dynamics of evil that form the foundation of the nuclear arms race.
Okay, that was the first point. Secondly, resistance means saying “no” to the forces of death that pervade our lives on all levels, but saying “no” to death carries a great danger with it. The danger is that those who are involved in this struggle become themselves victims of the forces they fight against. When all attention goes to protesting death, death itself receives more attention than it deserves and so does the dark forces of death seduce those who try to resist it.
There is a solid, old piece of wisdom that comes from the third-century monks of the Egyptian desert, called the Desert Fathers. They said, “Do not combat the demons directly.” The Desert Fathers felt that a direct confrontation of the forces of evil required so much spiritual maturity and so much saintliness that very few would be ready for it. Instead of paying so much attention to the prince of darkness, they advised their disciples to focus their hearts and minds on the Lord of Light, and thus indirectly undo the power of evil. The Desert Fathers thought that a direct confrontation with the demon would give the demon precisely the attention he’s trying to get, and once he has attention, he has the chance to seduce us.
After all, that’s the story of the Fall. Eve’s problem was not so much eating the apple as getting into a conversation with a demon. Once Satan had her attention, it was not hard for him to make her eat from the forbidden fruit. So, there is something about, I’ve seen it a lot in people who get so against something that their whole personality becomes an “against” personality, and you see some darkness there that is really very, very frightening. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the peace movement who I got scared of, because of their anger, their ferocity, their “if you don’t do this do you know how many people will be killed?” And you could see their heart was not at peace at all. They were really fighting against saying “no” to all the dangers of the world, but somehow their heart got fascinated by itself.
Okay, now this early Christian wisdom of the Desert Fathers is very important for peacemakers. The great temptation of peacemakers is to attack the forces of death directly and thus to underestimate their power. By succumbing to this temptation instead of overcoming them, peacemakers become their victims. And then the same fear that leads war-makers to war starts to affect the peacemakers. And then the words of anger and hostility that creates division and conflict and war also enter into the language of peacemaking. And then the sense of urgency and emergency that motivates the rapid escalation of the arms race also become the driving force of the peacemakers. And then indeed, the strategy of war and the strategy of peace have become the same, and peacemaking has no heart anymore.
And this is not a theoretical impossibility. One of the reasons that so many people have developed strong reservations toward the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. And often what they see are fearful, angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protests. And these peacemakers often show more of the demon they’re fighting than of the peace they want to bring.
And therefore, resistance must mean more than saying “no.” To be truly peacemakers, the “no” must be part of a larger “yes.” Resistance for the Christian is first of all a resistance in the context of a strong “yes” to life, and only in the context of a “yes” to life can the power of death be diminished.
I’d therefore like to emphasize here our primary Christian task to call forth, to affirm, and to nurture the signs of life wherever we find them. For death is unchangeable. Death also is big, boisterous, noisy and very pompous. A military parade in which tanks and missiles are proudly shown, proceeded and followed by disciplined, uniformed soldiers is sort of a typical manifestation of such a death force. But life is different. Life is very vulnerable. Life, when first seen, needs protection: a plant slowly opening its buds, a bird trying to leave its nest, a little baby making its first noises. It’s very small, very hidden, very fragile. Life does not push itself to the foreground. It wants to remain hidden, and only hesitantly reaches out. Life is soft-spoken. Sounds of life come gently and often seem part of the silence in which they are heard.
Life moves graciously – no quick, brisk steps – but it grows, so imperceivable, that we never really see it, only recognize it. Life touches gently. It does not slap or beat, but caresses and strokes. Life makes us caring people. It makes us speak a tender language: “Be still, she’s asleep. You can come and look now. Isn’t she beautiful? Do you want to hold her for a moment? Oh, be careful. Ah, she smiled. Yes, she loves you.”
It’s very gentle, soft, vulnerable, and those who resist the power of death are called to search for life always and at all times. I personally am deeply moved by war resisters who give a day or an afternoon of their week to visit the sick, to help retarded children, to work with the elderly, or to spend time with lonely people. This is as convincing a peace witness to me as public demonstrations against the arms race. Because in these small and unspectacular services, real hope in the future becomes visible. Saying “yes” to life is a humble, compassionate, and joyful resistance.
First of all, it’s a humble resistance. The word “humble” comes from the word humus, which means soil. A humble person is close to the soil and is sort of able to see the beauty of new life breaking through the soil. Humble persons do work that others often find uninteresting, unimportant, or unsatisfying. The reason is it’s not noticed, spoken, or written about. When we spent a quiet afternoon with a friend who is in distress, it will not give us much notoriety. It might even be considered to be a waste of time. Some voices might say, “Oh, he’s old enough to take care of himself. You better do something that makes a different in this world.”
But peace is not made with the help of statistics, measures of success, or popularity contests. Peace is as life itself. It grows quietly, silently, and gently. Who knows if the so-called lost afternoon is in fact not much more than an interruption of the so-called real peace work? It might be the most real contribution to peace. Who knows? When we encourage each other in this humble service of life-affirming, then we really make each other into peacemakers.
Saying “yes” to life is also a compassionate form of resistance. We modern people have to fight the temptation to see primarily problems and issues in the world. Some people visit a foreign country and come back with stories about poverty, oppression, exploitation, without having met anybody. I’d be overwhelmed with that. Poverty, oppression, and exploitations are true death forces, and we need to say “no” to them. The people are not problems. They smile, they cry, they work, they play, they struggle, they celebrate. They have names and faces to remember.
Compassionate resisters are attentive to the uniqueness of every individual and try to respond to the very specific needs they encounter. A compassionate resister looks in the eyes of people and overcomes the human inclination to understand the real problem too soon.
There’s no question about the need for critical analysis of the world crisis in which we live. We have to try constantly to identify the main dynamics that create poverty, hunger, homelessness, oppression, and war. Sure, helping individual people is not necessarily the final answer, but when we become so overwhelmed by the abstract problem that we no longer consider the concrete, daily pains of men, women, children worth our attention, then we have already been seduced by the powers of the demon.
That’s precisely what happened in the Second World War, when Hitler decided that the Jews were the problem that needed to be solved, an abstract reality that meant the deaths of millions. And even when we want to help people, we should also prevent to help abstract problems. Jesus understood the problems of our world in the most radical way, but wherever he went, he responded to very concrete needs of people. The blind man saw again. A sick woman was healed. A possessed boy was freed from the demonic power. A mother saw her dead son come back to life. An embarrassed wedding host was given the wine he needed, and thousands of hungry people received food and fish to eat. Jesus left no doubt that the help he offered was only a sign of a greater renewal that was needed. However, he never let that truth prevent him from responding to the concrete and immediate concerns of the people he met. And this helps you and me to see that the work of resistance is also a very joyful work. Sadness, somberness, and melancholy are not characteristics of the peacemaker. By the way, I could say that of the spiritual life – that’s a deep intuition of all spiritual writers: Sadness is not of God. It would be, if resistance would just mean saying “no” to death. Then sadness would become part of peacemaking.
Affirming life, however, brings joy. It is amazing to see how people who work with the poorest of the poor are often radiant with joy. I’ve been in Peru for a few months just recently, and I couldn’t believe that those men and women who work with the poorest of the poor are always . . . it’s an incredibly joyful place. They were always so. . . the more individually involved, the more joyful they were. When we hear about the miserable conditions of many of these poor people, we would expect that working for and with them would create depression and an atmosphere of despair. But the opposite is the truth. Caring for and supporting their lives brings immeasurable joy. It is the joy that is inherent to life and therefore there is a good reason to be very suspicious towards doom prophets. Anyone who announces the end of the world in grim terms and thus hopes to move people to work for peace is not a peacemaker. Rather, there we find joy, there we find peace, because there we find something worth living for. In the gospel, joy and peace are always mentioned together. The angel who announces the births of Christ to the shepherd says, “Listen, I bring you news of great joy, joy to be shared by the whole people.”
And when Jesus had completed his task on earth, he was lifted up to heaven and then the disciples returned to Jerusalem, full of joy, it says. Through the first word and the last word in the gospels speaking about joy, the gospel of peace is also the gospel of joy. And so, joy is one of the most important characteristics of the Christian. The work of resistance therefore must be a joyful work.
Okay, so we see that we are called to say “no” to death in the context of a humble, compassionate, and joyful “yes.” And this makes resistance such a true, Christian task. The present-day social, economic, and military situation in the world offers many excuses to be very fearful and very sad. But, as Christians, we know that in Christ we have already died. Death – individual as well as collective death – has no more power over us. Our dwelling-place is in God, the God of life, life eternal. And that reality allows us to be fierce resisters against death while fearlessly and joyfully proclaiming life wherever we go.
Okay, that was the second point. There’s still energy for one more point? It took a little longer than I thought it would, but I’m finding it out as I go along. I think this time I won’t drop it like I did the first time. Okay, so it’s got about another 15 minutes, 10 minutes maybe.
Okay. Now the third point is this, that at first sight, it might seem that resistance is the active part of peacemaking, in contrast to prayer, sort of the contemplative part. Now, although the terms prayer and resistance easily suggest a distinction like passive/active, it’s nevertheless very important to stress that that’s a very artificial distinction, just as I try to explain that prayer of the peacemaker is an action of resistance. If you go into solitude and sit there in the presence of God, you’re not doing something passive, as I explained in that question, you’re actively involved in the struggle of peacemaking, even when you’re alone in your prayer and solitude.
So, I now want to show that resistance is real prayer. This might seem a play of words but much more than words are involved here. By thinking about resistance in terms of prayer, resistance can regain its spiritual dimension, which it so often lacks, if really resistance has to be a spiritual event. Now, why is it so important to say “no” to death and “yes” to life? Now many people, if you ask that question, they will say the following, “Because conflict, wars, and nuclear holocausts will be prevented and we human beings can stay alive.” But by responding this way, we have indirectly said that the reason for resistance is to bring about changes in the social, economic, or political situation that threaten to destroy us. And although such changes are critical and need to be worked for, I doubt if we will find there the basis for resistance. Many people have lived and worked for years with the hope to bring about changes, and have finally sort of given up in despair: “I’ve been working on this for so long and look, nothing has happened. I’m not going to continue doing that. I know it’s all not going to work.” When they realized that things did not get better but worse, even, that political parties, business corporations, elected officers did not change their way of thinking or acting, those resisters withdrew into passive resignation, no longer believing that it would be worthwhile to keep struggling. They said, “Why should we keep resisting, when it really makes no difference?”
But Christian resistance is a spiritual resistance, a resistance not based on its results but on its spiritual value. When we have entered in the house of the Lord of Peace through prayer, and thus can live in the world without being of it, then our resistance can be free from the need to be useful. The heart of resistance consists of witnessing to the living God in the midst of a death-oriented world. Resistance challenges us to proclaim here and now that God is God not of the dead, but of the living, and whatever we do to resist the powers of death, it must first and foremost be an expression of our faith in the living God.
This is very hard to learn, especially since we are such insecure people and we are always inclined to affirm ourselves instead of God, and therefore we need results. But when we have found that God affirms us in his limitless love, in his absolute love. . . somebody was just saying to me that’s one of our problems. If you don’t believe in the absolute quality of love, we get in trouble because we really consider love a relative thing. But when we really have found that God affirms us in his limitless love, then we are free to proclaim his life-giving presence, whether this brings us praise or blame.
And here we come to see that peacemaking fundamentally is an act of worship. It is a bold expression of our deep conviction that God is the God of all the living and is to be glorified at all times and all places. To look at resistance as a form of worship might seem very strange at first, but a closer look at some concrete forms of resistance, such as public demonstrations or civil disobedience or whatever, may show that both aspects of peacemaking are closely connected. Many of you may have a strong problem with the whole issue of civil disobedience, but I’d just like to share with you my observations of a group of people who are very much involved in that, and just say the following: Often, small groups of people gather in front of places where the escalating arms race is most visible. For instance, at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, where the Trident submarine is being built, or in Puget Sound in Washington state, where this new nuclear weapon finds its port. At the Pentagon, where nuclear strategies are planned. At the arms bazaar in Washington. You have demonstrations all over the country where new weapons are being displayed and sold.
Some of these demonstrators – some of them, I’m not speaking about all of them, some of them – come to the decision to act in civil disobedience. They chain themselves against pillars at the entrance of the Pentagon, they enter military bases and pray in front of missile hangars, they pour their blood on military files, hammer down nosecones of nuclear weapons, block the entrance to a nuclear plant to occupy a nuclear submarine. You know, all of that’s happening right now.
And what is the sense of all this behavior? Does it do any good? It seems that during the last years, the arms race buildup has only increased and there are no signs that the many demonstrations and forms of civil disobedience have had any effect on the decisions of those who are in power. A “no” being assigned to them. But is that the question? Is that really the question? Is the value of those who are saying “no” to death dependent on changes in government policy? Isn’t there something more important, yes, more simple to do? To witness for the God of the living precisely at the places where the forces of death are so blatantly manifested. Maybe the final question is not how can I change others, but how can I remain my true self?
I can tell you a little story here. There was a prophet who for many years went through the streets of his town preaching against the decadence and the moral perversion of his people, going around and preaching and preaching and preaching for years. And one day, a little boy came up to him and said, “Hey prophet, you’ve been preaching now against those people for 10 years. And look, they’re still sinning. They’re still only old sinners, so nothing has changed.” And the prophet looked at the little boy and said, “Well, friend, I’m not just prophesizing to change the world. I am prophesizing, first of all, to prevent the world from changing me.”
So, more important than our effect on people is our own spiritual integrity. If we want to be faithful to our new self, which we have received from our Lord Jesus Christ, then we cannot remain silent and passive in the presence of the mounting forces of death. We owe it to God and to ourself to say “no.” Because silence means becoming an accomplice in war and thus losing the gift of peace that God has given us. And here, we are touching the core of our resistance. It is an act-flowing force from our own deepest understanding of who we are. It is an act of authenticity and personal integrity. It is a way of proclaiming the peace that we have found in the house of God. It is an expression of whom we have become through the transforming power of Jesus Christ. And thus, that is an act of prayer.
And still there is more to say about the intimate connection between resistance and prayer. Resistance not only is an act of personal worship, but also a liturgical act. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia. It means the work of the people. It is the communal work of worship. That’s what liturgy is about. And many Christian demonstrations for peace have the quality of liturgy. Words from the scriptures are read. Psalms are recited or sung, and food is shared. I’ve been part of a small community that was very much involved in that explicit resistance. And the longer they did it, the more they thought about it as a form of just praying in front of places that are very frightening. In this way, the works of the demon are condemned, the power of God proclaimed, and the victory of life celebrated.
I think it’s important to claim this liturgical quality of the work of peacemaking, because it makes it possible to continue our resistance, whether it works or not. Wherever people are found praying together and witnessing together for the God of the living, there they are making peace, because by this worship, they are creating together the new heaven and the new earth in which peace will be realized. Liturgy, the work of the people of God, is bringing the kingdom of God present in our midst, and this liturgy is peacemaking. When we come together for worship, we are in fact laying the foundations of the kingdom. Where we make ourself vulnerable to God and to each other in prayer and share in a very simple way the sign of peace, we are building God’s dwelling-place right in the heart of this world. And thus, we continue the incarnation of the Word in time and place, and invite those who are in darkness to enter with us in the house of life. Those demonstrations – whatever quality they have – in the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ can indeed be seen as somewhat of a liturgy on the streets.
Now, not every Christian will feel called to participate in peace demonstrations, and quite a few will even feel very critical about them, especially when civil disobedience is involved. Important, however, is not that all Christians act in the same way for peace or even agree on every style of peacemaking, but important is that the varied actions are all done and experienced as a form of personal and communal prayer and worship, because only then can there be lifelong resistance.
Resistance may mean participation in special educational programs. It may involve public speaking or writing. It may be a gentle response to a friend who is for fighting. It may be visiting the sick, helping the hungry, or protecting the weak. As long as any of these actions comes forth from an angry, hostile heart, they may do more harm than good. But when they are an expression of thanks to the living God, then we won’t have to worry about its fruitfulness, since what comes from God never returns to him empty. It is hard to see how prayer can be real when it does not bring us in a new and creative relationship with people. It’s also hard to see how resistance can be real when it does not deepen and strengthen our relationship with God. Prayer and resistance, the two pillars of Christian peacemaking, those are two different ways in which we give expression to the peace we have found in the dwelling-place of God, and they come from the same source and lead to the same goal.
And now we can see also that Christian resistance is a disarmed resistance. Why? Because the peace we want to bring is not of this world. It is brought not by enslaving the enemies, but by converting them. Not by proving to be strong, but by sharing in the confession of common weakness. Not by becoming unapproachable, but by making ourself vulnerable. Not by retaliation, but by turning the other cheek. Not by violence, but by love. Jesus shows the way. When Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “Mine is not a kingdom of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.” And he, who could have asked and received more than 12 legions of angels to his defense, chose to die on a cross – lonely, naked, vulnerable, defenseless.
Jesus’ way is the way without curses, without weapons, without violence, without power. For him, there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only men, women, and children to be loved. And love does not use weapons. Love is not made manifest in power, but in powerlessness. And the way of Jesus is the way he challenges all his followers to take, and is the way of disarmed, nonviolent, powerless resistance. Those who have chosen that way have discovered its spiritual force. Cesar Chavez said, “Once people understand the strength of nonviolence, the force it generates, and the love it creates, the response it brings from the total community, they will not easily abandon it.”
And Martin Luther King, Junior explains this when he writes, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
This disarmed resistance, which is the resistance through love, becomes possible when we no longer look at the world through the eyes of fearful, suspicious, insecure people, never sure if anyone can really be trusted, but through the eyes of God, who loves every individual being with infinite and unconditional love. And the resistance that brings peace is a resistance that does not divide the world into friends to be protected and enemies to be crushed. God has invited us to his dwelling-place and there we see that such a distinction is made in the world, (like “Made in the States,” “Made in Holland”) made in the world and unknown to God. Thus, Jesus could say, “You have learned how it was said: You must love your neighbors and hate your enemies. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven, where he causes his sun to rise on bad people as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest as well as dishonest people. You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Wow. These words invite us to be like God himself in our way of dealing with the world. There indeed is only one way of peacemaking and that is God’s way, and God’s way is the disarmed way, revealed to us through the death of Jesus.
Paul says, “What proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us.” By following this way, the way of love, the way of peace, the way of the cross, so we become God’s children. Paul says, “Try to imitate God as his children that he loves.” And John echoes these words in his first letter, when he says, “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called his children, and that is what we are.” Indeed, peacemaking is imitating God’s indiscriminate love as his own sons and daughters. “Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God.” Resisting hatred, divisions, conflict, war, and death is divine worship. The great French Christian pacifist André Trocmé, writing about nonviolence, says, “Nonviolence is above all a witness to God. Should nonviolence become a mere method to gain the whole world, it would quickly be used by political parties to ends of dubious integrity, and then what would be left of it?” As an act of worship, resistance, just as prayer itself, is truly the core of peacemaking.
Okay, let me just conclude this now. Resisting is saying “no” to death, but not a morbid, angry, frustrated “no,” but a “no” spoken as the consequence of a deep faith in the God of the living, who reveals himself in always new and surprising ways. Thus, resistance is worship, because it is a participation in God’s way of seeing the world, the way of self-giving love. And as such, resistance is a disarmed resistance that shuns power, manipulation, and exploitation at all times and in all places. Jesus leaves little doubt that the resister will not be welcome in this world: “Men will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogue and to imprisonment and bring you before kings and governors for My name. And if the world hates you, remember that it hated me before. If they persecute you, they have persecuted me before.”
Those who have come to know God and have come to belong to him have made themselves strangers to the world. Their “no” and their “yes” will not be understood by those who are fighting. Their resistance will lead to anger, hostility, and aggression. It will even lead to imprisonment, torture, and death. The message of peace is not a welcome message in the world. Our time is proving this, day after day. Seldom have basic human rights been violated on such a massive, organized, and intentional way as in our days. And indeed, much of that is done in God’s name as if it were a holy duty.
I leave you with this question: How, then, can we Christian peacemakers live in this world if this is true? And the only answer is: together.
Karen Pascal: Henri Nouwen has stated that the core quality of peacemaking is saying “no” to all the forces of death. He identifies resistance as a strong “yes” to life. Ultimately, Henri Nouwen sees the way of Jesus as the greatest force of non-violence in the world. I found this message so packed with thought-provoking original ideas, that I know I’m going to need to listen to it again. You may feel the same.
Next week, we’ll bring you the third talk in this series. If you missed the first one, you’ll find links to it in the show notes of this podcast. Henri Nouwen continued to develop this theme, and it eventually formed the basis of the book, Peacework. You’ll find a link to this book and a special discount code, if you wish to purchase the book from Orbis Press.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. In our next episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then, we will continue to offer the recordings from this unique and powerful series of talks on peacemaking by Henri Nouwen, first recorded in 1983.
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