For the past fifty years January 1 has been celebrated as a World Day of Peace. There is hardly a country in the entire world that has not been involved in wars, police actions, uprisings or violent oppression of human rights. Does the Day of Peace mean anything or is it merely a pious idea pushed by the Pope year after year? This question can only be answered in the human heart of every person who has lived during these past fifty years.
Some have never heard the word of peace and have lived in the midst of and perpetrated violence in its many forms: domestic and international. Some have heard the word, embraced it for a time and then resorted to violence in their own interpretation of extreme circumstances. Some have heard the cry for peace, prayed for strength and courage to whomever they name as their god, and held fast to the desire for peace by the nonviolence of their own lives.
For those of us who have been claimed by Jesus Christ, who profess allegiance to him above all others, there is really no choice. Jesus taught peace; he lived peace; he died forgiving his enemies. However it did not take his own followers, his Church, long to turn away from his teachings and practice and to decide that war is a necessary although undesirable option at times. From a few hundred years after the death of Christ, the Church has sanctioned, initiated, blessed or allowed for wars as part of the Christian life.
Christians on both sides of wars call on Jesus to bless their efforts to kill their enemies. In spite of the fact that Jesus clearly told us to love our enemies, Christians assume their God-given right to kill them. Love of enemies and peace-making are considered preferable but unrealistic in the real world. Peace is not pragmatic and is left for dreamers. We applaud the words of people of peace and we admire them, but we do not think following their lead to be a viable option for every day life.
Pope John XXIII’s final days on earth in 1963 were spent writing the document, “Peace on Earth.” He dragged up energy he didn’t have, while dying of painful stomach cancer, to leave this last testament of peace for the world. Pope Paul VI cried out at the United Nations in 1965, “No more war, war never again!” The world cheered but continued to build and trade arms. Pope John Paul II in 1979 spoke against violence of any kind, “Violence is a crime against humanity, for it destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, and the freedom of human beings.”
Pope Benedict questioned the very concept of any war being justified for any reason, “Today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a just war.” Finally our current Pope Francis is clear on any form of violence, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War brings on war. Violence brings on violence.” “Above all we want to make the voice of Jesus heard. He was always a man of peace.”
In Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace, he says, “Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world.”
Francis may be speaking of a historical view of wars and their effects from centuries of waging them, but he is mainly speaking of Jesus and his life and its meaning for us today. “To be true followers of Jesus today includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”
Jesus Christ became incarnate, a human being among us. He was born into a poor family in a land where they were oppressed. Jesus became a migrant while still a baby, being forced to flee his birthplace for a safer country. The story has been repeated millions of times throughout history, of poor people leaving their own country out of fear of their lives. War forces them to flee.
If we dare to call ourselves Christian, war and hatred have no place in our lives. Peace is our calling because it was the desire of Jesus. That is the only reason necessary.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.