Wars and rumours of war and peacemaking

by Bishop Peter Cullinane

At times, life seems like a tug-of-war between cruelties and atrocities over against goodness,
grace and beauty, whether in nature or in human lives. I think the more we are touched by each, and by the conflict between them, the more deeply we live. After all, compassion
(“suffering-with”) is a deep and rich way of being, but it wouldn’t be at all if there were no suffering. Reconciliation can be an enriching and moving experience, but it wouldn’t be if there were not first some kind of alienation. And I think our commitment to peace-making will be shallow if we haven’t first wept over the suffering, waste, futility and personal
tragedies of war.
The tug-of-war is not an everlasting, unresolvable conflict. It reached a climax in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, when evil was not merely defeated; it was itself transformed by being seconded to the purpose of revealing the Resurrection and future life. Evil has no future.

St Paul spoke of creation “groaning in travail” as the prelude to sharing re-birth. Perhaps he could have said “straining towards ecstasy”, for isn’t that what we catch glimpses of in bird-song and Beethoven, in self-sacrificing love, in forgiveness and new beginnings? The ecstasy doesn’t merely follow on from the agony; it emerges from within the depths of the agony, and gradually transforms it.

It is the meaning of “gradualness” that I want to explore, because it calls for different ways of contributing to peace. Failure to recognise the implications of gradualness results in debates unhelpfully polarised between “war” and “non-violence”, or results in mere
repetition of the less sophisticated, more dialectic, wisdom of an earlier era: “. . . there is a time for killing, a time for healing; . . . a time for war, a time for peace . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:2)

Pope Francis speaks of “time” and the importance of process; Lonergan and others speak of shifting horizons, conversion and transformation when describing what happens to ourselves as we grow in knowledge; St John Paul II and moral theologians have spoken of  “gradualness” in the journey of personal development and moral growth. And if Jesus could speak of evils that “must happen”, this could only be because he did not expect the fullness of peace
until the end of the ages: “You will hear of wars and rumours of war; do not be alarmed, this is something that must happen, but the end will not be yet” (Matthew 24:6ff). What is the meaning of peace-making in that context? It has many forms, and they all point to the
end-time when peace will be God’s gift. The long wait serves to increase our longing and our capacity for it. It is also the only time available to us in which to become instruments of peace, which is at the core of every calling.

I confess to feeling weighed down by the terrible conflicts and cruelties depicted in documentaries on the History Channel and Al Jazeera. But I suspect the long-term cumulative effect of quicker communication and wider awareness of what is happening will
be good. By uncovering skullduggery in any of its guises, good investigative journalism deserves recognition for its contribution to truth, justice and peacemaking, (just as shonky journalism contributes to injustice and conflict).

When we look to the causes of the world’s conflicts, colonialism shows up as a prime culprit, both in its older form of “empire”, and in the still current ways that big business, munitions dealers and
financiers exploit and plunder, sometimes even with help from their home countries’ special forces. Moreover, the experience of being governed by outsiders, or by puppet dictators, did not help colonised people to gradually learn the skills and responsibilities of freedom. So, when liberated, many self-destructed from tribal rivalries or political corruption. Properly directed development
aid to exploited or repressed peoples is not charity; it is owed as reparation, and as contributions to reconciliation and peace. And those who owe it are all who have benefited by the spoils of colonisation.


It is well known, of course, that religions have played a part in many violent conflicts. This is what happens when religion is turned into ideology, with its impulse to impose and dominate. Faith, by contrast, respects the dignity and freedom of persons, human and civil rights, and the primacy of conscience. Christians, Muslims and Jews are among those who have taken a long time to fully realise this. They did not always see that it was incompatible with the nature of faith and the dignity of persons to impose the truth they wanted to share.

Some still don’t. Some Christians, especially of a fundamentalist disposition, still display an intolerance that falls short of full respect for human dignity and rightful freedom. (Fundamentalists
have yet to learn that what sacred texts actually teach is not necessarily the same as what they merely presuppose.) Echoes of ideologised religion also surfaced at the Second Vatican Council, but now live on only in groups that didn’t accept the council’s teaching
on ecumenism, inter-faith relations, and religious liberty.

Islam’s experience is ambiguous: The Ottoman Empire was Islamist, yet even though sharia was the law of the land, the Ottoman system did not impose Islamic culture on the empire’s Jewish, Christian or other minority communities. (Later clashes were reprisals
against nationalist and separatist movements during the break-up of the empire.) There, and in other parts of the world, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived harmoniously together, even under Islamic rule. But freedom of religion and of conscience vanishes wherever Islam has tried, or still tries, to impose its culture. There are human
and civil rights that have emerged in humankind’s consciousness where the Enlightenment has been experienced and its values critically assimilated. Much of the Islamic world has not had
that experience, — or is in shock at how the Western world has abused freedom.


People responsible for political judgments may wonder whether a state can claim to be acting in self-defence when it has blatantly provoked the frustration and reprisals of the people it oppresses.
Whatever about any political judgment, there is also a religious dimension to the modern state of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people: at the core of Hebrew faith was the discovery of God’s great and unmerited mercy, and the resulting need to show mercy (in ways that never occurred to ancient Israel’s pagan neighbours). Today, whatever about the trappings of faith, it is the
core of Hebrew faith that the state of Israel has lost.

Secularism itself is repressive in an inverse way when, acting out of its denial of faith, it moves in the direction of denying religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The impulse to impose and
dominate is common to all ideologies, religious and secular.

The Judeo-Christian tradition predicts a time when nations “will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles, and not lift sword against other nations nor train for war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). There are those who would turn such a prophecy into a moral principle for immediate and universal application. They
telescope the end-time into the present. But real time is needed for moral growth and human development. In this meantime, peace-makers include those who promote disarmament, “truth and reconciliation”, restorative justice, Medecins Sans Frontiers, etc.

There is a down-to-earth realism in accepting that forgiveness presupposes acknowledgement of the offences that need to be forgiven. “Only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real
healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu).

There is realism also in the Catholic Church’s treasury of Catholic Social Teaching — as well as in the commitment of people, of all faiths and none, who work to change the social and economic conditions that spawn injustices, resentments and wars. By the same token, these people are also “prophets”, because the deeds of justice, peace and reconciliation are experienced as
reminders of what our hearts are made for, and intimations that what we hope for can really happen.

Bishop Peter Cullinane is bishop emeritus of Palmerston North.

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