Henri Nouwen "Questions About Peacemaking?" | 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 had just returned from a short sabbatical in Switzerland, where he wrestled with what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
This is the third in this series that Henri Nouwen gives on becoming peacemakers. If you’ve not already listened to parts one and two, I highly recommend you access these on our iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube channels, or you’ll find links in the show notes to Part One and Two. Taking time to listen to the first two talks will give valuable context for the questions that Henri takes from the audience in this session. And even though this was recorded four decades ago, it is both a fascinating and timely discussion for all of us to listen in on, as we face similar issues of war and the possible employment of nuclear weapons. Today, my hope is that you’ll enjoy the critical questions that Henri and his audience wrestle with so honestly.
Questioner 1: In the struggle for the divine “yes,” and the saying “no,” how is one also to respond to those who preach the gospel of deterrency, which is basically an understanding that power must be balanced with power, and that force must be met with equal force, and that there is a history of institutions balancing this power and maintaining a certain level of peaceful co-existence. My question is – I almost forgot my question – my question is, do you imply in your teaching that the struggle of the individual to become God in some way ignores the political reality that in some cases deterrency has in fact been successful? In some cases.
Henri Nouwen: Let me just start by saying simply, and I don’t really sort of have an answer, in the sense of that what I was just saying this morning doesn’t obviously make a lot of political sense for many people. The American bishops who have been together last week to discuss a statement on peacemaking – which has not yet been finalized, this discussion – have gone through an enormous amount of agony around that issue. And the attitude of the Catholic Church over the last 10 years is evolving around those problems very rapidly. Brian Hare [?], who is the advisor of the American Catholic Bishop Conference on peace issues, was still saying that the use of nuclear weapons is definitely immoral, but having them is not. You can see what a strange construction that is, because having them obviously doesn’t mean anything if using them is a moral impossibility. Nevertheless, this was said with also a very much of a pastoral concern for thousands of Americans and Russians and Christians of the world who in some way or another are involved in this very complex defense system.
Recently, one of the statements said, while having nuclear weapons can only be considered acceptable to the degree that the balance of power would be the starting point for mutual disarmament. That, in other words, they went one step further and said, having them is only, can only be seen as the way to disarmament, as the basis for the necessary disarmament, tops. Okay. I’m just saying that, just to give you a little idea of sort of the most formal statements that are having been made around this.
And also, now, there has become a new place for resistance, even officially. For a long time – I’m just speaking about the Catholic church for a second, simply because there have been so many changes there. For a long time, being a conscientious objector was sort of unthinkable for a Catholic, and now since Vatican II, there has been an explicit sympathy expressed for those who in their conscience can no longer participate in war. And so, there is a place for that. And now also later, much more positive voices are heard towards resistance against the nuclear arms race.
So, what I’m saying is there is a movement happening towards a new understanding of peacemaking. And it’s right, what you’re saying. The balance of power, in a way, has been always considered sort of a way to keep us from blowing up. I mean, that has been sort of theoretically the case. Nobody ever could test it out. Nobody could say, “we are not being attacked by the enemy because we have as many weapons as they have.” Or, you know, they are just mental constructions, while we pile up those things. Is it really true that the Russians are ready to attack or that the Americans are ready to attack, whatever? I mean, all of that is a lot of mental games going on in terms of what the other wants to do, and a growing amount of suspicion.
The issue that slowly is emerging, however, is that the balance-of-power thinking has in fact also developed into a new strategy, because the deterrence strategy of, like, we should deter each other from fighting by having more and more weapons to fight, is now also officially abandoned even by the United States thinking that first-strike capability is really what’s more important. That you can only win a war if you start one, practically, because if you have to be retaliatory, then you’re too late. You’re already gone before you can do anything.
I personally feel that the madness that we are involved in – and the madness is something like this: that millions of American people, good people, good parents, all the way to the presidents and the senators and the people who work in elected bodies, I mean, there’s nobody evil there. I mean, it’s such evil. We are all people who want peace in some way. But that the madness is that we all have come to, slowly on, be so pervaded with the powers of war and fear that our whole economy and even our whole society and even our whole way of thinking and living is somewhat done within the context of this nuclear threat.
And it started affecting our teaching, our schools, our children, our thinking about the future, and slowly becomes more and more pervasive, and that somehow that cycle has to be broken. And I know very well that I or nobody or you or I can sort of do that, but somehow can we start thinking together and living together in a way that maybe that place of disarmament can open up.
Okay. Could you, would you come back? I mean, I’m just responding, but I’m not sure you’ve been answered.
Questioner 1: Thank you.
Henri Nouwen: You have to be sure, because it’s not an answer, I realize; it’s just a reflection.
Questioner 1: And the struggle I have is not with your theology. It’s with the political reality I have to live in, too, which is . . . I don’t even have a problem with the anger that’s directed at me, because I embrace life, because I think even that can be used creatively. And I speak as a priest. I’m a priest. So, my problem is with the political realities around me that are always attempting to draw me into fear and seduce me into believing that whatever is done is done in the name of peace. Whether it be the aggrandizement of the arms or the technological sophistication of the weapons and upgrading them and continuing some kind of technological balance. All of these things contribute to seducing me into believing that I’m safe. But what I see is, I’m not safe. In fact, I’m more in danger. How do I respond to that as a Christian? Do I ultimately say, well, heaven is on my side, and when I go, when the bombs drop, just let me be in the rump-faced position, you know?
Henri Nouwen: Well, the answer, no, that’s not the right answer.
Questioner 1: Thank you.
Henri Nouwen: But no, no, I think, see, there is some craziness about it, but it’s very important to say it. It is indeed important to continually to ask, what does it mean today when Jesus says, “he who loses his life will gain it.” And if our only concern is to gain our life, we’ll lose it. And that’s what’s happening. We’re all wanting to survive. But there’s a kind of panic concern about survival that means our spiritual, mental, and emotional, and human death. If I stand in the presence of God and say, “I’m alive and I killed about 50 million Russians in order to be alive,” then I’m not alive. I’m dead, totally dead. And somehow, I have to continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, who says that the physical survival is not our last concern. It is not our concern, strangely enough. I mean, it’s not what the gospel considered. Jesus never considered his survival the issue. The opposite: He said, “If I have to give my life for life, I will do so.”
The whole doctrine of the cross is didn’t the Christ have to die order to enter his glory this way. And I think we have to believe deeply in our heart that the life of God is stronger than death. The love of God is stronger. It’s only on that basis that we can live together. And if our only concern is, “How do I end up on the wrong side of the wall when the bomb falls,” I mean, that is in a way an act of faithlessness. That’s not faithful thinking. Faithful thinking is, if the Lord takes my life or wants me to surrender my life, I know that that life that I am giving will be gained in a whole new way, and I cannot exactly say how, when, and where. Now you’re speaking about “it’ll be all fine in heaven.” I am speaking about a deeper kind of belief, that the promise of God as a God of life is a promise that we build our whole existence on, and that we have to continue to hold onto that promise, even in the face of nuclear threat.
See, because sometimes we say, well, we hold onto the promise in a small, small war, but in the big wars we don’t. No. But, the agony of the world is the agony that Christ has suffered. And we should very realize. . . we’ll come to that a little later; that’s what happened on the cross. What happened on the cross. We only now start – not only now – we more and more start seeing the suffering of humanity that we are involved in, is the suffering that God has taken on the cross.
And as we see the agony of the world developing over the centuries, we really start discovering what indeed has happened when God died for us. And on that basis, that he died for this same world that we are in, that we can dare to give up our life. And I think the Christian community and the Christian mutual support is not consoling each other and saying, “Well, you know, if we had sort of spiritual or physical fallout shelters, because we might make it when the bomb falls.” That’s not even interesting; what’s interesting is we are faithful.
Questioner 1: But I’m asking the question: Are you implying that we surrender our political involvement?
Henri Nouwen: No, the opposite of that. What I’m implying is that we are politically involved and are really doing any possible thing to change, for instance, the disarmament, physical disarmament conference, Geneva, SALT, whatever, whatever. We are involved in that, but involved in the way of faithful people, and not in… I think the worst thing we can do is go to the mountaintop and say, “The world is terrible and we won’t have anything to do with that. We are God’s people and we are going to just be of God and let the world fall apart.” That’s anti-incarnational. That’s against the truth that God became flesh and he became one of us. And that we have to love one another very concretely. You have to love the Russians. We have to love the Americans. We have to love completely people, and people are people. And we have to do any possible thing to make that peace of God visible in the world where people live together, children, adults, families, the nations, groups. We have to be involved, because we have to be involved in it with the strength that come from a source that is not of this world. I mean, that’s kind of a paradox. I don’t know.
Questioner 1: Just as a closing thing, I’d like to tell you, share an experience with you. Once I was listening to a confession of a Vietnam veteran, and he told me that he had killed over a hundred people and that killing got so easy that one day in a firefight, he just decided he was going to kill his company commander. So, he shot him in the back and killed him. And then that young man looked up at me and he had tears in his eyes and he was smiling at the same time. And he said, “I have become Satan for my country.” Now that is the seduction. And I’d like to hear you deal more with that seductiveness.
Henri Nouwen: I will. Thank you.
Questioner 2: I was feeling a good deal of despair and confusion about the issue of saying “no” without getting sucked into the same hatred that you’re trying to resist. When you were reading the description of the massacre, it’s very easy for me to love the victim. I don’t yet understand in my heart, although I have read of witnesses like Corrie ten Boom’s sister in the concentration camp, who have managed to actively, not just intellectually, but actively love their enemies. Could you address for me how a Christian actively in the face of it is able to show love to one’s . . .?
Henri Nouwen: I cannot, but I will give you little stories, because they’re really coming. While you’re talking, I ‘m just getting little stories. My grandmother lived with my family in Holland during the German occupation. And the SS soldiers all the way came to the door to look for my father, who was hidden behind the windowsill on the second floor. And we were telling him to be very quiet, because every time the Germans could come in and take him out and send him to… And so, we are really full of hatred for those people who were trying to get my father. And my grandmother, who lived closer to the German border but happened to be with us because her house was destroyed, lived with us. And she was a very wonderful person. She was in her seventies then – sixties, 65, seventies. And the German big military guys came to our door, and my God, everybody panicking and they had helmets and so on. And my grandmother speaks a little German, because she lives on the German border. And so, she said, “Oh, you know, why don’t you come in the kitchen? I have a cup of coffee for you, because you must have been really hungry working so hard.”
And he was 18 years old at this. My grandmother saw an 18-year-old grandchild in front of her. And she saw this un-bearded little face under the big helmet and big… So, this guy was totally inappropriate. I mean, he was a soldier, but he was just a little boy. And she saw this young child who was become part of this huge army, and certainly was victimized by the enormous force, the demonic force. But he himself was not a demon. He was just… And I thought about it.
Another example that came to my mind is Timerman. Some of you might have read that book about Timerman in Argentina. Timerman was a very well-known journalist in Buenos Aires, and he was tortured terribly by the Argentina police. But the torture had become so institutionalized that they tortured people from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, or at eight at night, from seven at night, five in the morning or something, without even realizing, you know, the kind of inhumanity they were involved in.
Because after a torture session, and you know how they are from descriptions, the torturer sort of sat down, gave a cigarette to the guy who he was torturing and said, “Listen, you have some relations in the publishing world. My son is looking for a job. Do you know how I could get a job for him?” And suddenly, Timerman was realizing that this man was totally part of a system that was totally beyond him, and had sort of lost his soul in it.
All of that is simply to say that it remains of great importance for us to continuously realize that the people who are doing those things, like even the soldiers in Guatemala, are really like we are, and in many ways victimized by the same powers. And I think that is an important realization that can be lifted up in prayer, can be lifted up in discussion, can be lifted up and can be sort of the beginning of at least some peacemaking on that level in our heart. Will you want to say more?
Questioner 2: There are moments when I listen to you where it almost sounds very Pollyanna-ish, where to me, I guess, the struggle is to see the whole person in that soldier. I mean, to see, for example, your grandmother seeing a young Nazi soldier and she was beautifully able to suddenly focus in on that’s an 18-year-old boy who needs a cup of coffee. Part of me says, “Isn’t that wonderful?” And part of me says, “Yeah, but she’s ignoring the other part of who that person is.” I mean, he is an 18-year-old boy who needs a cup of coffee, and. And I think that to be Christians in the world, we are forced to complete the and for it to be valid. I mean, if we all go around encountering that kind of evil and saying, “Well, there’s just a 33-year-old overgrown child…”
Henri Nouwen: No, no. I just wanted to give a beginning to that and another response, which is a little more deeper, which I really need some more time for really to think about it. But it happened that is just a spiritual response in line with this. But it is somehow essential, and maybe it doesn’t make much sense to you, but somehow, real compassion – which means to suffer with, okay, to suffer with. That’s what the word compassion means: pati com, to suffer with – in a spiritual sense, means that we connect our lives with the suffering of God. That’s really what compassion in its most profound sense means: that God came to suffer. That’s the whole story of our revelation: that God came to suffer, that he’s a suffering God. This is a contradiction in terms in a way, but that’s the mystery that we’re involved in.
And that compassion, like St. Francis had, is not simply feeling good about individual people. And that’s what my grandmother… that was the story. But basically, it means to see all human suffering connected with the suffering of God. That’s really what it in the deepest sense means – that every suffering that would make me angry, confused, upset, hostile, and so forth, is a suffering that is not alien to God. The spiritual life, in a way, is meant to help me interiorize that, appropriate that truth. So, I see killing, I see suffering, I see torture, I see pain. But what I really see is the suffering God. See kind of with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of the Spirit. Happy are those who see.
What you see is God’s suffering, and the mystery is that by seeing God’s suffering, we also see that that suffering was a suffering to life. You cannot see God’s suffering without seeing that the suffering was a suffering for salvation, or suffering to resurrection was a suffering to a new life, see. It’s not a suffering that leads into a dead-end street. It’s a suffering that has, in its heart, God’s love, and therefore a love that is greater than death, so it keeps breaking out, breaking up the deaths that it lives out. And I think that my grandmother’s sympathy for this 18-year-old boy was sort of a psychological translation of a much more spiritual event that she had been involved in. Because I know that she couldn’t just see any human suffering without continuously seeing it in the light of her faith, and that made her very realistic in one level, but made it somewhat difficult for her to even let destructive hostility to enter into her life, see? And so, anyhow, that’s another way of speaking about it, but maybe a little more developed.
Questioner 2: So, what I’m thinking now is that the only way to actually confront that is not with my mind, because my mind would go crazy with that, but with the mind of Christ. It has to have the mind of Christ, or you’ll break.
Henri Nouwen: And see, now you say precisely what I didn’t say, but that needs to be said. But it’s very hard to say it so that it makes sense. But indeed, you know, have the mind of Jesus Christ, Paul said to the Philippians, who did not cling to his divinity, but emptied himself and became as we are. It is in that mind that we can start living in the world without being of it, somehow, because we don’t cling to that power. Now my question is and also question for ministry is, is not if this is true or not, because it’s true – it’s in the scriptures – but how to let that truth descend from the head into the heart. How to let what I know with the mind become a reality of the heart. And that is, that’s just formation, that’s training, that’s spiritual discipline and all of that. And we need each other badly for that – set up schools of spiritual life. The churches should be that school, but in a way, many of the churches don’t even know the treasures they have to work with, see?
Questioner 2: Would that be part of the peace institute that you were talking about?
Henri Nouwen: See, I am thinking very concretely about a network of peacemakers who are constantly willing to deal with those questions and deal in their hearts, which means really dying from the old self and living the new life. But you can’t do that just once. It’s not just you do it once and now you’re there. It’s just an ongoing way of being and calling each other back to that place.
Okay, thank you. Yes.
Questioner 3: Father, I was wondering, just as a footnote to what she’s saying, and I’m listening to you, that if I see someone who is ill and has a broken arm, I may want to share my energies and my time to help them to get to the hospital. If a person objectively is ruthless spiritually and has this, perhaps as a Christian, if I have love, I may want to share that. Not only is there a physical illness, but there’s also the spiritual, and therefore maybe it makes it a little easier to reach out to that person and to give what one might have – that love as a Christian – to a person who may not have it in that particular moment as someone coming down. That’s the thought I was thinking.
Henri Nouwen: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.
Questioner 4: So, this one thing struck me about what you had spoken of earlier, and towards which this lady’s wonderful question addressed itself. But in thinking of your grandma seeing that soldier who to her was an 18-year-old, she insisted that there is a reality in which we have to say “yes,” he is an 18-year-old and. It seems to me that great help is found in being able to acknowledge that I have to say that I am a 52-year-old [inaudible] and a jerk.
Let me immediately acknowledge that. I find it more possible to obtain the mind of Christ, to have compassion on that man.
My ability to say and to understand without being cute, but with being honest with myself, that I am what I hope is nice and hope is good, but I am also this and that. My ability to live with that and confess that every day makes it possible then for me to have a hint of the mind of Christ, so that I can love somebody else who is this and the other.
Henri Nouwen: Thank you. Yeah, I can affirm that. That’s just spiritual realism, you know, and very important. There’s nothing so bad as sentimentalism in this. I think you don’t want an answer, do you?
Thank you. Yes?
Questioner 5: How do we make sure that our good deeds are not anxious attempts to promote our own cause? In other words, what I’m trying to say is that in the scriptures, Jesus talks about blessed are the poor for they shall inherit eternal life and this sort of thing. And people therefore say, “Okay, let’s all be poor. Let’s get rid of all our possessions and let’s be poor.” And thereby what they do is they set up a standard of good deeds that will thereby give us some sort of salvation. And in essence, I’m sort of drawing on the same idea of salvation by works. How do we make sure that what we are doing, the good works that we do, are not for our own pride and are not to make our own causes made manifest?
Henri Nouwen: In a way, the answer is very simple. You make sure of that by continuously submitting yourself to the confronting and forgiving reality of the Christian community. In other words, you are there to be always obedient to Christ. But obedience to Christ doesn’t mean to Jesus, simply, who lived 2,000 years ago. It means always – obedience come from the word “listening,” obedir, to listen, to be open, to be part of a living body that is the body of Christ. And therefore, to say you don’t have to sit down and continuously try to figure out if you have the motives right, because you never will find out. I mean, I might talk to you all about Christ and basically do it for all the wrong reasons. I mean, in a way. But if I am willing to submit myself to the larger questions, to the larger community, then I think I also will continuously be asked to empty myself out again and again and again. And so, it is not an individual act.
Questioner 5: Can you give an example of what would be submitting oneself to the larger community? I mean, Paul speaks of what good is it? Uh, excuse me. He says that if some people preach the gospel out of deceitful gain, yet still God is glorified because the message is being preached. What would be a concrete example of submitting oneself to the larger community?
Henri Nouwen: Well, it means – and I will talk about it in the presentation when it comes – it means to constantly see my work or my prayer as part of the work of the body. That’s a whole, big thing. I mean, I am not Christ, but we as a community are there to give visibility to his presence in this world. I am a part of a body and in that sense, continuously responsible to that body.
That has very concrete meaning for me as a priest, because there are very concrete things that I have to – you know, I can’t even go around and speak here, if the church doesn’t want me to do that. I mean, that’s why I’m sent to preach. And if I’m not sent here, this is just an ego trip and I love to do it and I might even get a lot out of it and that’s all the wrong motivation. But I can hold onto the fact that what I’m saying, I’m saying not in my own name, but in the name of the church, the name of Christ and the name of God.
What I’m saying here is nothing that you haven’t known yet. All the things I’ve said this morning you have already heard before, but still, for the upbuilding of the body, I’m saying it in your name, which is the body of Christ and also in the name of the church. It’s a larger reality, see, so that I can’t take some risks, because I know somewhere that if I really be faithless, somebody will pull me back. And in that sense, now, that means in family life and in the way you be a part of the community and support.
Questioner 5: The reason I bring it up is because there is a tendency to have sort of an ingrown piety. That is, if I am afraid of being prideful in, say, standing on a street corner and saying my loud, ostentatious prayers, then I don’t say anything. I don’t sit on a bus and read my Bible, or speak openly about my faith and this sort of thing. And the end result of this ingrown piety is no action at all. And so, it’s an issue that I often have dealt with.
Henri Nouwen: Yeah. I think that’s very important. And there’s a lot of that sort of individual, self-enhancing kind of thing going on and we have to be very honest about it.
Questioner 6: I really would like to ask you for some addressing of the tension in our personal realization that we as humans, as citizens of the world, as well as parts of the body of Christ, have never had a precedent such as the threat of a nuclear holocaust. On the other hand, we don’t have much of a precedent in terms of our effectiveness as a preventative body and, in terms of being preventative, if we can do our good deeds and try in our personal lives to affect a moral, responsible response to the world and our communities, and yet our little, personal, good deeds and moralities seem to be overwhelmed when you open a Time magazine and look at the destruction that’s going on all around us and how do we address, as Christians, as the body of Christ and as citizens of the world, that tension between the overwhelming magnitude of the task that we have and our sense of being pioneers and pilgrims and doing much of anything about addressing it.
Henri Nouwen: Okay, I’m going to present this lecture, because I think 90% of the responses are right in there, but just to you, personally, I think you and I have to really unmask the illusion of the statistics. I mean. It’s a very great temptation to keep saying, “Well, I am only me or we are only us, and the world is so big.” The whole history of Christianity speaks about creative minorities, about the 12 disciples, a small bunch of people, the pure reformers. And if we believe in the power of God’s love, the question is no longer if there are a hundred involved or two. Now, that sounds sort of a cop-out, but it isn’t really meant to be. I have seen in my own life the enormous transformation taking place that came from one or two people, by the way they lived out faithfully their vocation.
And it’s very important that you and I find that vocation, that we are really discovering what is my particular role of life. You don’t have to take up the problem of the world, Christ did that, but you have to find what particular vocation you have. That might be family, that might be work, that might be living together a certain way. But, somehow, the question always is, how can I discover and discern my particular task in my life as peacemaker, and trust that if I be faithful to that task, many things will happen? A lot of things that I don’t even, will never witness. That’s somehow that crazy confidence that the Christian is supposed to live with. Let me leave it by that, okay? And then, we’ll talk about it. Maybe you can come back afterwards, if that’s okay.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. Wasn’t this question session fabulous? I’m sure you still have your own questions and will want to listen to the next and final talk in this series. Henri Nouwen stated that to function in this world, we need to have the mind of Christ. This means we can live in the world without being of it. And Henri challenges us to let this truth descend from our heads to our hearts.
Next week, we will bring you the fourth and final talk from this unique and powerful series on peacemaking by Henri Nouwen, recorded in 1983. If you missed Part One and Two, you’ll find links to them in the show notes of this podcast. Henri Nouwen continued to develop this theme, and eventually it 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.
For more resources related to today’s talk, click on the links on the podcast page of our website.
I hope you have already signed up to receive our free, daily meditations written by Henri Nouwen. If not, you could do that on our website @HenriNouwen.org. Remember, they’re free and they’re a wonderful way to stay informed about the various things we have to offer to those who are enjoying the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen.
We’d also be so grateful if you’d consider donating to the Henri Nouwen Society. Your resources help us share the daily meditations and these podcasts right around the world. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d appreciate if you’d take time to give us a review or a thumbs-up, and pass this on to your friends and family.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!