On Not Having Answers: an Exercise in Paralysis

On Not Having Answers: an Exercise in Paralysis September 8, 2014

I am troubled by all violence.

I said this once to an Iraqi priest I had come to know and admire, and it provoked a look – almost with a start – of something resonating to the core.  I mention this not to suggest in any way that I can presume to speak for him or anyone living through the Iraqi Church’s present trial, but because, to the contrary, it encapsulates my own inability to speak to a situation like that much at all – and why I feel the need to say something anyway, even if it’s only to acknowledge how little I can say.

The actions of the Islamic State, and the ideology that drives them, horrify and confound me.  I am at an utter loss as to how anyone can spread so much death and destruction so systematically and genuinely believe that they are doing the will of God, or how anyone could even want to serve a God who would be pleased by all this.

It wrenches me to think of anyone equating rabid violence with the service of God.  And wrenching too is the equation of added violence with mercy.  This latter idea came to me by way of a former co-blogger who I believe is one of the most genuinely nonviolent people I have encountered anywhere – certainly in the infamous blogosphere – and more so than me, I suspect, in practice.  So I believe him when he says he came to that conclusion reluctantly.  And my own vastly clearer convictions about what the answer isn’t than any idea of what it is, short of some miraculous metanoia, leave me paralyzed.

Because of this paralysis I have largely refrained from adding commentary of my own, but I have felt a kind of sickened cynicism on seeing reports of humanitarian food drops alongside military airstrikes: I can only see this as feeding the dispossessed with one hand, and the militant zealotry of their persecutors with the other.  Justification aside, it’s been seen all too repeatedly how killing terrorists is like fighting a hydra, that many-headed monster of Greek mythology: cut off one head, and two grow back in its place.  This is not to deny America’s continued responsibility for the mess it had a hand in causing, but the problem is that the state, and especially its military, seems to know only one way of “fixing” things – the same “solution” that contributed so mightily to the problem in the first place.  I could not believe that the original mistake could be fixed with more of the same, even if I wanted to.  Or even if – God help me – some tiny part of me does want to.

Because compounding my ineradicably deep convictions that leave me so troubled by violence, in this case, is a personal and specific fear that makes it suddenly all too easy to identify with the perennial temptation to simply wish certain people away.  It’s a fear concrete enough to test even my resolve not to “trust in princes,” in the words of Psalm 146 which have consoled me in other turbulent times – or to trust in a government that only knows one response to conflict.

On one level, it still seems better to trust convictions over fear, especially if, as I have increasingly thought, most of the harm we humans inflict on each other and ourselves – theologically speaking, most sin – is ultimately rooted in fear.  And yet, the minute I make any pretense of expertise based on one personal connection, I embarrass myself.  Having that one connection in fact only makes me feel my own ignorance more acutely.  Knowing one person directly affected doesn’t make me an expert on anything; it only makes me even sicker over the violence than usual, and more unsure of my ability to say (let alone do) anything at all.

And yet again: I can’t help believing, despite my fear (which is only the faintest shadow of that which Iraqi Christians are facing whether in their country or abroad), that the greatest weapon of Christians anywhere is the ability to say in the face of persecution, in the words of Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, “What have [we] done … to be treated with such hatred and abuse? You rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others.”

At the same time, I also have to deal with the startling words of someone at the heart of the ongoing tragedy, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who wrote in a recent letter to Pope Francis and the patriarchs and bishops, “In fact speeches are good for nothing, so too declarations that rehash condemnations and indignation; the same can be said for protest marches.”  Being helpless to do much else, I have to admit this sentence stings.  I hasten to add that Patriarch Sako’s letter is not the literal call to arms that some have selectively made it out to be, as he goes on to say of the major world powers, “They are called to free themselves from their narrow interests and to unite themselves in a political and pacifistic solution that puts an end to this conflict. These powers must vigorously exercise pressure on those who support financially and train militarily these factions and so cut short these sources of violence and radicalisation.”  But that still leaves me with the question: what about the rest of us, who have little left but words?

While the latter statement may relieve a bit of the earlier barb, I am wary of finding too much personal vindication in it, lest I too miss the point.  I may still need to consider that Patriarch Sako is admonishing me in my ignorance, and I may not even have any right to ask him not to deprive me of the one thing I can do.  Yet I have to voice my lament, I have to speak through my paralysis, even if it is no use.  Dare I even hope that he’s wrong on that point?  Right or wrong, I know a voice like his deserves to be heard more than mine does.  Still, at the very least, useful or not, it is a human need to cry out at human suffering, even – or especially – when we don’t know what else to do or say.

Sako concluded his letter with the prayer, “That God may grant us the grace and possibility to overcome this trial, that He removes from all hearts all hatred and violence.”  His prayer reminds me of a line that had come to me one recent morning, which I suddenly seemed to remember hearing somewhere: “Turn the hearts of those who do evil.”  Just that.  The source of this has so far eluded me, although I feel sure I’ve heard it somewhere before.  Wherever it comes from, it has become my prayer.  Can it do any good?  I wish I knew for sure.  But I can only keep coming back to it in the frequent moments when it is all I can say.

Turn the hearts of those who do evil.  Kyrie eleison.

Re-posted from Christian Democracy.

Note: given the nature of this piece as an “exercise in paralysis” and an admission of my own, the aim here is not to provoke an argument.  While thoughtful and honest dialogue is welcome as always, comments will be moderated for civility somewhat more closely than usual. -JS

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  • For those of us who stand at a remote distance to this tragedy, it resembles assembling at a wake or funeral. We share grief and loss, but are unable to enter fully into its depths. But this does not make us useless or helpless, on the contrary we may be better equipped to engage the underlying causes of this eruption of evil.

    I’m thankful that you had the courage to post your lament and sense of paralysis with us. And I’m particularly grateful for your echoing the message of Patriarch Sako which I missed hearing before. His letter is clear, prophetic, and at the heart of the gospel. But my reaction is not paralysis, but to take his prescription of combating the source of this evil more seriously.

    Unfortunately, the reaction of Reidemann that you cite from Zenit, descends from concern to a shameful rant, especially in his conclusion of ‘thanking God for the bombing raids’. If one reads both remarks, side by side, its obvious that the reporter has tortured the patriarchs message for his own purposes. His failure (and others too) to interpret the Patriarch’s message correctly is why St. Paul admonishes us with the remark: “Let your love be sincere…” or my preferred translation, “Do not let your love be a pretense, but sincerely prefer good to evil” [Rm 12:9].

  • I think the paralysis enters in when we find all lump all forms of force (necessary, and unnecessary) into a huge bin that modernity labels violence. reactive force to right a wrong , to end aggression and restore justice while violent in mean, is not necessarily intrinsically evil. if so successive waves of barbarism throughout history would have obliterated all traces of civilization, and with it, most likely Christianity.

    • Julia Smucker

      We may debate the justification of violence, but it’s still violence. I don’t see how insisting on calling it something else does anything but euphemize it away to make it appear more palatable. Even if we believe some violence to be justified (or maybe especially if we believe that), it must always be lamented.

      I also cannot agree that a faith that professes a God whose strength is made perfect in weakness would have been obliterated were it not for violence. To the contrary, it has often proven strongest when most threatened, and most weakened when its adherents have turned to violence themselves.

      • you misunderstand me- God would not be obliterated- however, most of His followers would, and so would civilization, which is a product of His mystical body. Posit; you walk down the street, and see a man trying to kill another man; a third man intercedes and tries to reason with the attacker. This third man with a heart full of love and compassion for all men, is killed. You are standing there, and you know in your heart that with force, you can overcome the attacker, and prevent further mayhem, even if it is unto his death- what do you do? I believe you should think about this, and read St Augustine’s City of God. God Bless you for your sensitivity and compassion.
        one last thing- violence is ALWAYS lamented by those who must use it in the defense of the innocent; ask any combat veteran who has killed his enemy so you and I can sleep in peace. Their lives have been marred forever, for our sake.

        • Julia Smucker

          …violence is ALWAYS lamented by those who must use it in the defense of the innocent; ask any combat veteran who has killed his enemy so you and I can sleep in peace.

          I honestly don’t see any causal relationship between combat operations and my peace or freedom, although it is a much-repeated assumption, partly for the sake of seeking meaning in the veteran’s woundedness. As for the former proposition, I wish this were always the case, although it is evident that any participation in violence, even if one fully believes it to be justified, makes some level of internal conflict inevitable, consciously or otherwise.

          Also, your scenario does not work for me. Aside from the inherent reductionism of that kind of hypothetical scenario (in that it reduces the number of moral agents to exactly one), I personally know that I could not overcome an attacker with force, either physically, morally or psychologically. But if we’re going to make a supposition, I would consider that it may be the person who dies in a nonviolent attempt to save someone else’s life whose soul is most prepared for death.

  • Agellius

    Admitting my ignorance, from the little I’ve heard my impression is that ISIS needs to be defeated, every bit as much as Hitler did, and not merely controlled through the use of sanctions. In the first place, sanctions take time. It took four years of direct military attacks to defeat Hitler and in the meantime, how many Jews did he slaughter? How much longer would it have taken using sanctions, and how many more would have died?

    Supposing we did use sanctions against ISIS, and supposing they “worked” in sense of forcing them to moderate their behavior eventually, under what conditions could the sanctions ever be lifted? Do we think that ISIS would resign or promise to change their ideology in exchange for the lifting of sanctions? But if the sanctions went on for 10, 20 years, how would that affect the ability of the people of that region to live prosperous and happy lives?

    Of course non-violence is preferable, but isn’t it true that sometimes you just have to fight?

    • Julia Smucker

      Godwin’s law didn’t take very long to take effect here, I see.

      • Agellius

        “[Godwin’s] law and its corollaries would not apply to discussions covering known mainstays of Nazi Germany such as genocide, eugenics, or racial superiority, nor, more debatably, to a discussion of other totalitarian regimes or ideologies[citation needed], if that was the explicit topic of conversation, since a Nazi comparison in those circumstances may be appropriate, in effect committing the fallacist’s fallacy.”


      • Roger

        Using a “Godwin’s Law” reference on your part is weak.

        Angellius’ comparison is appropriate in this case. We’re talking about a large, organized group of Islamic terrorists who thus far have murdered thousands of innocents people. They plan to murder even more. A Nazi comparison is damn will appropriate.

        • Excuse me, but your readings of World Wars are the “received” ones, and they are becoming something akin to what Marx said about “history repeating itself as FARCE,” and the “history” being repeated here is the compulsion to justify the supposed “success” of one atrocity, one violent reaction with another. The outcome of World War II certainly was NOT a “success,” just as a crusade against Islamism is unlikely to be a “success” either.

          At the beginning of World War I, it was GERMANY that didn’t want war, and it was BRITAIN that was fueling an arms race. In World War II, it was Britain’s ill-advised guarantee of Poland’s security that prevented the likely outcome of the Marxist and Nazis totalitarian systems stinging each other to death, like two wasps in a jar–meaning that it was CHAMBERLAIN who was essentially correct in wishing to stay out of it. Had the Allies ignored Hitler’s drive toward the East, the conflict between Nazis and Communists might have been contained, suggesting that precipitous war-mongering in Western Europe actually made the World War worse than it might have been–especially for Jews, because all of the blather about the Shoah notwithstanding, Hitler only started the highly automated “Final Solution” (that is, the murder, rather than the deportation–with Zionist cooperation, e.g. see the “Transfer Agreement”) of the European Jews after it became clear that he would lose the war militarily.

          Julia is more right than wrong, but what she’s leaving out, in her emphasis on pacifism, is the STUPIDITY of such a precipitous resort to arms as what is being proposed by America’s dunderhead President. There’s nothing wrong with a “just war”–I’ve disagreed with her on that on these threads before–but even a STUPID “just war” like re-involvement, for “emotional reasons,” in situations that great powers like America or Britain cannot fix and will likely make worse–just as Churchill et. al. made World War II worse–IS a “crime against humanity.”

  • Chris Sullivan

    I am convinced there are always non-violent solutions. Take the funds off the violent parties, give aid to the victims.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists at least 3 times that one must not do evil even if good result. It is evil to do violence to another human perosn made in the image of God, even if that person is an agressive and violent terrorist about to comit genocide.

    Bombing the “enemy” is exactly the failed tactic that created ISIS in the rist place.

    God Bless

    • bill bannon

      ISIS is making between a million and two million a day by selling oil at one third the going rate from the oil fields she captured in two countries. How do you see that stopping and by what non violent means?

  • bill bannon

    The Pope said this week that war is never necessary:


    Then why has he no stopped ISIS from murdering thousands with his alternatives to war?

    • Julia Smucker

      Maybe that’s why he found pastoral delegations so urgently important and may even go himself.

      By the way, Bill, you are asking some hard and valid questions; I just ask that you please keep them in a spirit of dialogue rather than one of argument.

      • NIck

        If the Pope wishes to push forth the message that war is never necessary and that dialogue is the best avenue to resolve differences, then that dialogue has to include clear condemnation of any religion or religious group that sanctions murder in the name of God. And the condemnation must be clear and unequivocal.

        • Julia Smucker

          I agree, and so does Cardinal Sandri.

        • I have to say, as someone presently living in a Muslim country that is struggling with religious fundamentalism, that this is an absolute necessity. There are positive aspects of the Muslim faith, but the jihadists go unchallenged in the Muslim world, largely because the public are terrified of them. The moderate Muslims MUST get some influential allies in the West who will challenge Koranic verses that incite to violence in the name of religion, because there are such verses, just as there are similar ones in the Christian so-called “Sacred Scriptures” (which Julia likes to overlook).

  • Ronald King

    In 2006 I wrote a letter to Pope Benedict asking him to lead us in a pilgrimage to Darfur to care for all those who were suffering from the violence being inflicted on them. This is what I received:
    “From the Vatican, 7 November 2006

    Dear Mr. King,

    The Holy Father has received your letter and he has asked me to thank you
    in his name. He very much appreciates your concern about the tragic situation in
    Darfur and your reflections on the love of God. As you may know, he wished to
    devote his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, to exploring the inseparable link between love of God and love of neighbor.

    His Holiness assures you and your family of a remembrance in his prayers.
    Invoking upon you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ, he cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing.

    Yours sincerely,

    Monsignor Gabriele Caccia

    Violence cannot end without an equal and opposite reaction of peaceful sacrifice. If we presume to be Catholic then it would seem that we would be willing to sacrifice our lives just as Christ did for those who suffer from violence, that would be the victim and the perpetrator. That would mean we would face death as a universal Church led by our Pope among millions facing an army of hatred devoted to killing them.
    That is the only alternative I can see which might stop the march of violence in human relationships.

    • Mark VA

      Mr. King, with all due respect, what are you saying?

      Considering the totalitarian and industrial nature evil has acquired over the last century, this sounds like a prescription for suicide. Please tell me that I’ve misunderstood something.

      • Ronald King

        I did not desire this thought. I read about Christ’s sacrifice and the saints who have sacrificed their lives which have resulted in conversions and I do not believe it is suicidal. Ultimately which reality do we choose, the one we see or the one not seen. Christ said there is no greater love than… You know the rest. I am on my phone and there is much more to write Thank you for your question. More tomorrow

      • You obviously would have said the same thing to Gandhi, Mark VA. The use of ahimsa takes IMAGINATION.

      • Julia Smucker

        Sometimes the gospel does sound like a prescription for suicide. But there was a certain other Mr. King who had an exceptionally strong grasp of its counter-intuitive power.

        • Mark VA

          Julia and Dismas:

          Hold your horses please, ladies and gentlemen – we may all be talking apples and oranges here. Let’s wait for Mr. King’s elaboration.

  • Mark VA

    Czesław Miłosz (a Nobel laureate in literature) once remarked that in totalitarian regimes, it wasn’t those with the cleverest minds who became dissidents, but those with the weakest stomachs. That is, while the human mind can rationalize much, too much, even evil, the stomach can only take so much:


    Julia, I propose that the paralysis in question is something more or less analogous to what Miłosz was talking about:

    Pacifism may seem intellectually defensible for as long as evil remains at a certain “rationalize-able”, or “nuance-able”, distance. However, when its reality crosses a certain barrier, the gut can no longer digest pacifism. Hence the paralysis of the will, and the subsequent “… inability to speak to a situation like that much at all”.

    • Julia Smucker

      Mark, you are correct that my deep convictions about violence and nonviolence contribute to my sense of paralysis, but it also comes from the fact that I am observing the situation from a (physical) distance, as most of us here are. We all need to admit to our lack of easy answers to such evils.

      I would seriously question the assumption that nonviolence requires more psychological distancing from evil than violence does. It’s any knee-jerk response that does that. We must consider the consequences of any solution we deign to propose, whether our solutions allow for violence or not.

      • Mark VA

        Very well put, Julia, but then what are the answers to this particular evil?

        • Julia Smucker

          If I could pretend to know that, this would have been a very different post. Bravado fails me now.

  • Brian Martin

    Sanctions are crap. They are as big of an act of terror as bombing civilian targets. The only people hurt by sanctions are the ordinary people. How many children died in Iraq between the wars due to sanctions?

    • You know what; you’re right, but, if you study the “sanctions” carefully, you will discover that they seem almost “tailored” to never touch the plutocrats or the arms merchants who enable the vicious regimes. They hurt the common people the most, and very little is built into them to emasculate the kleptocrats who manage the aggressor governments, e.g. no policing of borders to nab the dictators’ enablers and try them in the Hague, no serious blows against the Western arms merchants who continue to provide materiel. The sanctions ARE a joke, because they’re too cautious. Members of Assad’s family and his associates frequently could have been kidnapped and arrested, as they took their vacations on Greek islands and in plush resorts in the Levant. They were left alone, to continue to support and fund the dictator’s genocide of his people.

      • brian martin

        I agree with everything you say, but even in the case of aggressive sanctions, more harm would be done to innocents.. and western arms merchants? you mean the western governments acting through international arms companies..right? As far as arresting members of foreign governments on vacation etc. That would open our own leaders for arrest. too often the mythical statement supposedly made by FDR about Samoza “He may be an SOB, but he is Our SOB” has been and is the attitude of the US government toward dictators and authoritarian regimes who are “enemies of our enemies”

  • “Turn the hearts of those who do evil.”

    Julia, your prayer is no small thing…while this gift of wisdom arrives in a moment of anguish, it is given to you for your benefit. If you hold to it tightly, you will see in time how weapons fall from the hands of others. Apparently, one can’t insert non-violence into a mind…it springs from the heart when the crust is removed.

  • Melody

    Julia, I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion, except to say, I hear you. And to echo Patriarch Sako’s prayer, “That God may grant us the grace and possibility to overcome this trial, that He removes from all hearts all hatred and violence.”

  • Mark VA


    Your account of WW II several posts above sounds very much Pat Buchannanesque.

    For serious, scholarly, and reliable accounts of this war, I would recommend relying on world class professional historians instead. For example, the excellent book “No simple victory” by Norman Davies readily comes to mind.

    • I don’t agree with Buchanan about much, but, as regards World Wars I and II, and the way that the British Foreign Office was able to manipulate the Americans into joining both World Wars and making the outcomes of both worse than they might otherwise have been, I most certainly DO agree with him. Knowing the history of the predatory British Empire, and knowing the Anglophilia of WASP politicians like Roosevelts and Wilsons, I think it entirely appropriate that Irish Catholic commentators would be highly suspicious of so-called “world class professional historians.” Remember what Napoleon and Voltaire said about “history” and “historians,” please.

      • Mark VA

        Dismas, you wrote:

        “Had the Allies ignored Hitler’s drive toward the East, the conflict between Nazis and Communists might have been contained, suggesting that precipitous war-mongering in Western Europe actually made the World War worse than it might have been–especially for Jews, because all of the blather about the Shoah notwithstanding, Hitler only started the highly automated “Final Solution” (that is, the murder, rather than the deportation–with Zionist cooperation, e.g. see the “Transfer Agreement”) of the European Jews after it became clear that he would lose the war militarily. ”

        This line of thinking is problematic on several fronts:

        (a) It ignores the fact that in the geographical and cultural spaces between these two barbarians (the Nazis and the Communists), exist other nations and cultures. Thus, for Western Europe to remain aloof in this conflict, would mean turning a blind eye to atrocities scarcely imaginable to healthy minds:


        (b) To advocate for remaining distant and disengaged while evil is taking place literally on one’s doorstep is, frankly, immoral;

        (c) The line of thought advanced by you is historically very speculative, and ignores a much more likely outcome: one barbarian side would emerge victorious, and then set its gaze on the next conquest;

        (d) I will leave alone your comment about the “blather about the Shoah”, since it’s not clear what you are thinking about this subject;

        (e) Norman Davies highlights his Welsh origins, and in my view exhibits neither Anglophilia or Anglophobia. I recommend you give him a try.

        • To advocate for remaining distant and disengaged while evil is taking place literally on one’s doorstep is, frankly, immoral

          Poland was not Britain’s “doorstep,” and Iraq/Syria is not ours. The Poles were not angels in their conflict with Germany over such places as Danzig, and it may be legitimately argued that the West has enabled ISIS by supporting, for over a year, Syria’s “insurgents.” The people who need to do something about ISIS are the Saudis, the Iraqis, the Turks, the Kurds (with our help, I’ll agree, because they really are a natural ally of Western societies) and the oil-rich Emirates that would rather spend their trillions on “the tallest building in the world” and Ramadan tent-party orgies, but our involvement in more internecine Muslim wars is GUARANTEED to create more bloodshed, more violence, longer conflicts. Believe me, I live in this part of the world–the Muslim world, which is almost thoroughly and completely radicalized by more and more Western interventions.

  • Mark VA


    Now that we’ve established your sources of history w.r.t. WW II, let’s put this subject aside.

    Regarding the current state of affairs, you wrote several posts back:

    “Julia is more right than wrong, but what she’s leaving out, in her emphasis on pacifism, is the STUPIDITY of such a precipitous resort to arms as what is being proposed by America’s dunderhead President.”

    Well, our President has proposed creating a coalition of the willing, which we’ll support (btw, I think this is the right proposal at this time). Next, a line in your post above states:

    “The people who need to do something about ISIS are the Saudis, the Iraqis, the Turks, the Kurds (with our help, I’ll agree, because they really are a natural ally of Western societies) and the oil-rich Emirates…”

    This seems to be in general agreement with our President’s proposal. Thus, do you still think there is anything “dunderheaded” about our approach to this situation?

    • HERE is why he’s an idiot of a President: contrary to his stated intentions, when he tricked the people of the United States into voting for him in 2008, he is vastly increasing the powers of the “unitary executive.” He has NO RIGHT to take the United States into a war without the consent of Congress. When he invades the sovereign nation of Syria, even by air, he is committing the United States of America to war. Putin, unfortunately, is right when he says that this is a violation of international law.I hope the Republicans impeach him if he does this without Congressional authorization; it definitely is an impeachable offense.

      • Julia Smucker
        • And to Julia’s great song about repeating history as farce, I’ll add THIS . It seems the people are always to be the gulls and victims of the sociopathic “political leaders.” ISIS is certainly no better and no worse than the “Black Hand” in their ferocious blood-lust, but neither was ever worth the terrible war the politicians were and are plotting.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I come late to this discussion, but it seems to me, reading all of the comments, that the defense of violence has become too quick in our culture. Folks are very quick to point to the handful of examples which are easily read as good defeating evil by violence, and then ignoring the multiple instances where violence only beget more evil. I am no fan of Ho Chi Minh, but did the Vietnam war accomplish anything except the death of millions? Did American support for the Afghani resistance accomplish anything except to sow the seeds from which al-Queda eventually sprang? What, precisely, was gained by the Gulf War, or the Iraq war?

    Further, in discussing violence, it is worth remembering that we are talking about violence between states and and quasi-state actors such as ISIS. Analogies with what individuals would do or not do in a given situation are tempting, but not illuminating: far more is different than similar to allow such casuistry to succeed.

    One of the difficulties with non-violence as a means of action is that it is slow and must be turned to long before the fighting starts. There could have been non-violent responses to the Nazi regime, had the Europeans been willing to take them. (A boycott was attempted in the mid 30’s, spearheaded by several international Jewish organizations; had it led to sanctions, the course of history might have been changed. We do not know.) The Marshall Plan is an example of such foresight: by rebuilding Western Europe, the US managed to end a cycle of violence that stretched back centuries. The nearly 70 years since the end of WW II marks the longest period without a war in western Europe since the middle ages.

    Unfortunately, we are now confronted with a situation where we did not choose the nonviolent options. We did not rebuild Iraq in any meaningful way, we ignored Syria, and we turned a blind eye to Saudia Arabia and the Gulf States funding Islamist organizations for their own ends. So now what do we do? A military response may, in the end, be necessary. But there is limited righteousness in our cause, and when the last bomb drops we, as a nation, need to do the hard work of preventing this from happening again.

  • Mark VA

    Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

    I think the concept of “non-violence” would be more palatable to those who suffer from violence and oppression (that is, the presumed “beneficiaries”), if it was much more aggressive and courageous in speaking truth to power.

    At the very least, those who perpetrate atrocities need to warned, in no uncertain terms, that their evil acts are plain and obvious to the eyes of the world. They need to be made to feel that their evil will not be tolerated indefinitely (that is, non-violence has clearly spelled out limits). This at least would give some measure of hope and solace to those who suffer.

    To do this requires empathy and courage, and less focus on one’s own “exquisite” abilities to endlessly rationalize. Thus, the proper response to evil is less an exercise in philosophizing, and more a question of morality, honor, and human solidarity.

    Would you agree with this qualified endorsement of non-violence?

    • Julia Smucker

      Speaking for myself, actually, I would (depending on what you mean by limits).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Mark VA,

      like Julia, I would, subject to clarification of what you mean by limits. However, you also write

      “This at least would give some measure of hope and solace to those who suffer.”

      The point I was trying to make was that non-violence requires outreach and solidarity to those who suffer, before that suffering erupts into violence. This is an idea I want to explore more in a post, but the idea is that when Jesus said “pick up your cross” he did not necessarily mean our own (self-referential) burdens, but one of the many crosses in the world which is not “ours” but is “ours to pick up.” I hope this makes sense!

      • Mark VA

        Julia and David:

        I would propose that while non-violence is a necessary part of any conflict resolution, it sometimes proves to be an insufficient means of reaching this goal (I’m using the words “necessary” and “sufficient” in their ordinary meanings).

        The lives of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and the struggles of the Solidarity movement, show the necessary and sufficient conditions. World War II, and the present situation with the evil of ISIS show, in my opinion, the necessary but insufficient conditions.

        I would say that when we evaluate a given situation, we should try to discern which condition most likely applies. Plus, our goal should always be relieve suffering, and not settle for some phony “peace”.

        I would go even further and say that non-violence is not only a necessary, but also a primary means of conflict resolution. It can go far if applied with courage, steadfastness, and imagination.

        • Julia Smucker

          I mostly agree with you here, Mark. I wonder if you might still be underestimating what we mean by nonviolence, because I fully agree that it should always aim to relieve suffering and not merely be a false peace. It is often pointed out that biblical shalom is much more than the mere absence of conflict. The real work of reconciliation is usually much harder and longer (than either violent conflict or a superficial peace that is no peace), and there indeed is the rub.

  • Mark VA


    Perhaps I am underestimating what you mean by non-violence. What do you understand by “non-violence”?

    • Julia Smucker

      That’s a very good question, and one I should have been more prepared to answer although it would almost seem to require a book-length response. I can tell you that it’s not a mere negative, and much less is it inaction, yet it still seems easier to define some things by what they are not. A sufficient positive response requires more reflection than I have time for this evening, but please don’t let me forget to come back to this, because it’s a crucial question.

    • Julia Smucker

      Actually, I’ve thought of a few things:

      Nonviolence is shalom: it is reconciliation, restoration, transformation, setting things right.

      It is reverence for life and human dignity.

      It always has its naysayers; let’s remember that the people who have proven it can succeed have all been told in their own times and places that conditions were not sufficient.

      It is more often than not a long, hard journey, as it demands the formation of relationship.

      It also demands justice. And truth.

      It is prophetic resistance whose weapon is refusal to obey injustice or participate in it; refusal to strike back when provoked; refusal to let the vicious self-feeding cycle continue; refusal to play the world’s game by the world’s rules; refusal to hand one’s enemies the justification to demonize that they are looking for, thus heaping burning coals on their heads (cf. Romans 12:20), the mercy that is the bitterest response one can give to someone bent on vengeance. Whose weapon, in other words, is love.

      Most centrally, it is most fully seen in Christ on the cross, suffering with us and for us and because of us, absorbing the suffering rather than inflicting it, forgiving his killers in the very midst of his agony, defeating death, the final enemy, through the very act of dying.

      Thank you for spurring this. Perhaps more later if it comes.

      • Julia Smucker

        I should also add that, while certain powerful examples are easy enough to find (I offered a few here), it’s not for me to say what all this must look like in the concrete for someone else when I have not been put to such trial myself. And that’s where I get stuck. That, and being an N on the Myers-Briggs: articulate, but never too good at the practical implementation side of anything (not just this).

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I think Julia has done a good job of capturing the complexities of non-violence: I was waiting for her answer before responding, but while waiting I was having the same problems she was having.

        Let me just add that non-violence must include the recognition and acceptance that there is violence in the world, and that there will be pain, and suffering and death. It is not pollyanish in this regard. If I were to be pushed into a corner and asked for a very short answer, I would say that to be non-violent is to accept that you may have to see other people suffer because of evil in the world, and in fighting this evil, you may suffer and even die. But non-violence is also the conviction that you should not kill to fight evil.

        This injunction against killing can be absolute or contingent, apply only to states or also to individuals, but this is what separates the just war tradition from the pacifist tradition. The dividing line is blurry, but it is there.

        • Mark VA

          David and Julia:

          I think we have given each other plenty to think about. I agree with the observation that some of the dividing lines are blurry – I would add, even in retrospect. On top of it, it seems that practically all our solutions to the evil of violence will be necessarily proximate.

          I think this highlights the importance of of studying history, for guidance and reflection.

          On a lighter note:

          Julia, I noticed that the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator Test has not two, but four dichotomies! Wow! Is it something like eating a quadruple chocolate cake?


          • Julia Smucker

            Ha. Well, this is a total tangent, but I like the Myers-Briggs because it’s more of a spectrum than a strict either/or, and they all interact with each other. Anyway, I’ve been told that the purpose of knowing one’s type is not to make excuses for one’s behavior but to develop the complementary traits and strive for balance.

    • Julia Smucker

      One more thing: nonviolence is liturgy.

      It is the sign of the cross.

      It is Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

      It is Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.

      It is You alone are the holy one, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high, Jesus Christ.

      It is one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

      It is one Lord, Jesus Christ … and his kingdom will have no end.

      It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life … who has spoken through the prophets.

      It is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

      It is Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.

      It is Through him and with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever, amen.

      It is Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

      It is The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.

      It is Peace be with you.

      It is Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; grant us peace.

      It is Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.

      It is the body of Christ, amen.

      All this is to say that every Eucharist, if we are paying attention (and maybe sometimes when we’re not), is a powerful antidote to all the fears and idolatries that tempt us to react in violent ways.

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