The path to peace, The Anchor, November 11, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
November 11, 2011

At the end of October, Pope Benedict convened religious leaders from most of the world’s religions in Assisi for a day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world. It was held to mark the 25th anniversary of the memorable 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace convoked in Assisi by Blessed John Paul II and to continue its commitment. Assisi was, then and now, a fitting place for such prayer and commitment because not only is St. Francis, as some have said, the “one saint whom all religions recognize” but because his life provides a model for every religious peacemaker.

At the beginning of his address to the interreligious leaders, Pope Benedict spoke dramatically about the power of prayers for peace. Back in 1986, he recalled, the world was still caught up in the Cold War and few saw any end in sight. Three years later, however, the Berlin Wall had fallen. While there were certainly political and economic factors in the collapse of communism, he said that the “deepest reason” was spiritual, because communist states lacked the “spiritual convictions” to sustain their materialist philosophy against the human quest for freedom and peace. To some extent, he declared in a way that captured international headlines, “We may in some way link all of this to our prayer for peace.” The 1986 gathering, in other words, wasn’t an international kumbaya festival of utopian peaceniks, but an event that, like Joshua in Jericho, brought down seemingly indestructible walls through prayer.

After that introduction on the power of praying for peace, Pope Benedict then sought to identify the two “new faces” of violence and discord in the world since 1986, so that religious leaders might, in their own ways, pray and work for these walls to be dismantled as well.

The first, he said, is terrorism. With comments that would certainly apply to Islamist terrorism, the anti-Christian pogroms of Hindu fanatics in India’s BJP, as well as abortion clinic bombers in the U.S., Pope Benedict forthrightly added, “Terrorism is often religiously motivated and the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended ‘good.’ In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence.” Religiously motivated violence “should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons,” he declared, because violence is “not the true nature of religion” and is in fact “the very antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.”

On this point, he candidly admitted “with great shame” the historical fact that the Church has also used force and violence in her history, “It is utterly clear,” he stressed, “that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature” and something of which the Christian faith must be fully purified. That “nostra culpa” was an opening, it seems, for similarly candid confessions on the part of leaders of other religions; it also provided an obvious area for prayer and for joint action. The only way that religious leaders can argue “realistically and credibly” against religiously motivated violence, he said, is when they together — through individual prayer and commitment, interreligious dialogue, and the purification of their lived religions from those who abuse it to justify violence — can show the world that true religion brings peace.

The second new type of violence today, the pope said, is motivated “precisely in the opposite way,” through the absence or denial of God and the loss of humanity that accompanies it. While post-Enlightenment critics of religion like to argue that religion is one of the principle sources of violence, Pope Benedict stated, “The denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds.” This is a consequence of atheism’s recognizing no judge or criterion above ourselves and our desires. He referenced the horrors of the concentration camps, but he likewise could have listed the unspeakable atrocities in Russia, the Ukraine, Cambodia and so many other atheist hell-holes. Rather than focus on these easy targets of the inhumanity of state-imposed atheism, however, he wanted to speak about the consequences that flow through the practical atheism of the worship of mammon, which he believes are even “more dangerous” because they’re often imperceptible. The worship of possessions and power that characterizes secularism today, he said, seduces people into acting as if it is “no longer man who counts but only personal advantage.”

Rather than respecting others’ human dignity and rights, we begin to use them for our own ends. He specifically brought up the scourge of drug dependency, which is one expression of the degeneration of the desire for happiness into an “unbridled, human craving” that others readily manipulate for profit. Drug use not only damages individuals but destroys peace, peace in families and peace in communities and countries, as those in Ciudad Juarez or in Colombia can readily attest, where the violence done to individuals spawns into widespread corruption and violence done to protect the drug trade. “Force comes to be taken for granted,” Pope Benedict said, “peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.” This lack of peace that comes from a militant or practical atheism likewise needs to be opposed by the prayer and work of the world’s religions.

How are Christians specifically to respond to the lack of peace that still plagues our world? Pope Benedict didn’t raise that question in the interreligious setting of Assisi, but he did the night before in Rome at a Vespers service with Christian participants.

The first thing that Christians are always called to do is to pray. “The most precious contribution we can make to the cause of peace is that of prayer,” the pope preached. “The Lord can enlighten our minds and hearts and guide us to be builders of justice and reconciliation in our every day lives and in the world.” Pope Benedict focused particularly on the way Jesus brought peace to the world as the path each of us must take. With characteristic eloquence, the pope stressed that Jesus came into the world not as a “king who presents Himself in human power with the strength of armies” or “dominates through political and military force.” Rather, He is born in a stable and rides, not on war chariots, but humbly on a donkey. He is a king who brings peace paradoxically by the Cross, which is a “sign of the love that is stronger than all violence and oppression,” a sign stronger even than death. Pope Benedict stated that the Cross is the greatest witness of how “evil is conquered with good, with love.”

When Jesus sends us out to announce His kingdom as “lambs in the midst of wolves” (Lk 10:3), He is calling us to follow Him in the path of peace He trod, the pope continued. Christians “must never yield to the temptation to become wolves in the midst of wolves; it is not with power, with force or with violence that Christ’s kingdom of peace is extended, but with the gift of self, with love taken to the extreme, even toward our enemies.” This is because “Jesus does not conquer the world with the strength of armies, but with the strength of the Cross, which is victory’s true guarantee.” That leads to a clear but challenging conclusion: “For the one who desires to be the Lord’s disciple ­— His messenger — this means being ready for suffering and martyrdom, being ready to lose one’s life for Him, so that good, love and peace may triumph in the world. It is not the sword of the conqueror that builds peace, but the sword of the sufferer, of the one who knows how to give his very life.”

To ask God to make us “instruments of His peace,” in union with St. Francis and with all those who in Assisi have made His prayer their own, is to ask Him to make us soldiers capable of giving our lives to battle and overcome evil not with violence but with self-sacrificial love. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:9), our becoming peacemakers in this way is the path not only to becoming true “children of God” but also of experiencing the beatitude that such a Christ-like life brings.