War and Peace: Thoughts on Protest and Pilgrimage

"Christ of the Breadline," by Fritz Eichenberg

It’s with trepidation that I watch the growing unrest in Oakland and other cities whose “Occupiers” are becoming increasingly rambunctious. Violence broke out in Oakland the other night, with a protester grievously wounded by an errant canister of tear gas; I worry that we may be in store for a convulsion of violence such as the Rodney King riots, les emeutes des banlieues in the suburbs of France in 2005, or the London riots of the past year. One hopes and prays that this will not be the case. But they say that every society is just three (or is it four, or nine, or some other number less than ten!) meals away from anarchy; and while it is easier to blame the “Occupy” crackdowns on craven city mayors who are sick of having to keep a nervous eye on these sprawling, squalid tent cities all day, I’m sure things aren’t helped by the worn nerves of the increasingly exhausted and uncomfortable protesters keeping their suspicious eyes on City Hall all day.

I should confess right away that I don’t have a bone in my body bent on protest. Some have held this against me, demanding to know how we can change an unjust system without making our voices heard loud and clear. I take this point. At the same time, I also want to caution that protest carries with it enormous risks. The brilliant Alasdair MacIntyre diagnosed things this way in his book After Virtue:

It is easy [to understand] why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. ‘To protest’ and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else.

But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestor can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective…

I’m sure that I agree with one or two or perhaps a baker’s dozen of the innumerable “anti-everything” messages the Occupiers are shouting about more or less incoherently and without anything like a platform, credo, or list of “demands.” (Even the word demand sits ill with me, though it is a hallmark of our contemporary sense of self-entitlement. Have you ever stopped to think how vicious the wording is of the instant-view television feature On Demand? It’s not On Request or On Order; no, we proudly sell and unthinkingly consume pure boorish brusqueness, the ideology that we deserve everything we want, right away. I suspect that some Occupiers share this materialist mindset with far more cogs in the capitalist machine than they would know how to admit.)

But I believe that “reason,” or “reasonableness,” is not just a sneaky tactic meant to produce, more efficiently than guttural howling, what one wants. It is not, in other words, a mechanism of power. Rather, it has some relationship to the truth; and the thing about truth is that no one person or party can claim exclusive rights to it. Truth opens us up to the possibility that the Other is right about something, too, and may have something to teach us. Belief in the truth makes us vulnerable at our core. This vulnerability proves that truth has little, if anything, to do with power, at the same time as the Other-orientedness of our cry for meaning also opens us up to the principles of empathy, respect, and compassion. It is through this lens that we must read St. Augustine’s pithy remark: “Only the truth can conquer, and the victory of truth is love.”

What happens when protest becomes not positive but negative; not protest for but protest against; taking as its byword not peace but what should be treated as its synonym, yet in practice often is not: justice? What happens, simply enough, is that anger replaces love in our hearts, and undoes the most radical injunction of all: that of Jesus, to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. We must be clear, if we are to be people of peace, that anger left unchecked and unabated always leads to the evil of violence — always.

First, the anarchy begins with small signs of disrespect, as when these Occupiers of Atlanta refused to let an honored civil rights hero speak to them, just so that they could make a dumb point about the evils of the “establishment”:

Then, it proceeds to somewhat bigger forms of violence, as when these Occupiers of Rome broke into a church, desecrated it, and smashed to pieces a statue of the Virgin Mary, all to a soundtrack of hollers and cheers:

And finally, we encounter out and out hysteria, as when these unrepentant anarchists in Oakland started throwing rocks and bottles at police (and then painted the law enforcement officers as the outrageous ones):

The final irony is that before the violence gets unleashed, the liberal-minded Occupiers always claim that they are fighting for the police, generously welcoming them into the 99%, too (at least, for as long as they share their politics). A liberal-minded thug, however, is still a thug. Granted that there are many, many different “types” in your average Occupy movement, the ones that wield the most influence and push things out of hand are almost always the professional rabble-rousers. Their true colors will show, in the end.

How, then, are we to protest the dreadful iniquity of Wall Street? (If we may narrow our focus to this particular Mammon, among the Occupiers’ many targets.) I’m not, myself, prepared to offer a complex model for the fight for social justice. Others have done so admirably in word and example, borrowing more from Reverend King than from Malcolm X, who seemed to me to be the main spiritual inspiration of many of the outraged remarks graffitied on the sidewalks of Dewey Square when I visited the Occupy Boston site the other day. Of course, even Malcolm X had his share of righteousness. My point is not that we should give up the Occupiers’ message(s) or even their basic tactics of protest and demonstration; only that we should refine them. Their cry for a more equitable distribution of goods, for a market with a conscience, is prophetic and true enough; it simply lacks something, for it to be morally satisfying as a total system of thought. What it lacks, I think, more than coherence or the aforementioned list of demands, is something striking, even spiritual, enough to remind us of our common humanity once we have so confidently broken society down into the haves and the have-nots, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and, in the end, the bad guys vs. the good guys, the monsters vs. the heroes (a distribution which is never so obvious as 99% vs. 1%).

(A final, dreadful irony, so remarkably demonstrated by Rene Girard, is that in the paroxysm of violence, allegiances can get reshuffled; friends can turn on friends in an instant, submitting them to the senselessness of the scapegoating mechanism, or the guillotine, in their urge for release, even compromising on their values and becoming like the ones they not so long ago detested. The final image of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs eat at table with the farmers, is haunting, here; and Girard suggested that the most sinister verse in all the Gospels is when, after the crucifixion, Jesus’ two executioners, “Herod and Pilate, who till then had been enemies, on that day became friends.” Lk 23:12.)

No, I do not have a program, a “better idea” than the protests. Modestly, I would just like to remark on the Church’s efforts for peace and justice which sort of went under the radar this week. Not assuming they are better than anyone else’s, but because whatever is true, noble, good, and pure deserves to be contemplated (Philippians 4:8).

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, actually came out in support of the Occupiers’ message a few days ago, asking rhetorically, “Do people at a certain time have a right to say: ‘Do business differently, look at the way you are doing business because this is not leading to our welfare, to our good’? Can people demand this of the people of Wall Street? I think people can and should be able to.” His office at the Vatican has just put out a 41-page document (short version here) proposing a dramatic reform of the global financial system, and which many commentators are calling left, even, of Dodd-Frank.

That is not all: Cardinal Turkson had another coup this week, with the success yesterday (though admittedly it was not as exciting as the Occupy protests!) of a “pilgrimage for peace” he organized, which brought Pope Benedict XVI together with over a hundred other world religious leaders, and four prominent atheists and secular humanists, to release doves over the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and renew their commitment to world peace. The pope’s speech was remarkable for its frank admission of the role that religion has often had in fomenting violence:

We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that 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…As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.

Predictably, he had words, too, for militants on the opposite flank:

If one basic type of violence today is religiously motivated and thus confronts religions with the question as to their true nature and obliges all of us to undergo purification, a second complex type of violence is motivated in precisely the opposite way: as a result of God’s absence, his denial and the loss of humanity which goes hand in hand with it. The enemies of religion – as we said earlier – see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.

But Benedict being Benedict — the pope who insisted that four atheists be invited to journey with him to Assisi — the conclusion of his speech concerns the role precisely of the agnostic in the quest for peace. I reproduce his final paragraph here in full:

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God.” They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.” They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practiced. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force. Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.

What does the Pope have to say to the Occupiers, here? That which they perhaps already know, but are constantly, especially when tensions flare, in danger of forgetting: that solidarity with the oppressed, a “decisive stand for human dignity,” calls for a radical commitment of love, yet not, perhaps, of ideological thought. Where our political allegiances are concerned, we must “ask questions of both sides,” and renounce the “false certainty” of partisanship.

Yet the most beautiful thing, for me, about this gathering in Assisi is that it was for something, not primarily against; it was a pilgrimage, not a protest. The Occupiers may retort that it also happened to be completely useless. I am not sure that the Occupancy will settle all it claims that it will, nor am I sure that the invisible seeds planted in Assisi will not grow into flowering trees in the fullness of time (Matthew 13:32). Either way, I insist, as I mentioned before, that the truth of peace involves vulnerability for us, and even impotence. It may be that we will not win every battle. This is not an excuse to become impatient and resort to force; adding violence to the equation when one senses the revolution of freedom faltering is the logic not just of certain rock-throwing Occupiers, but of the neoconservative architects of the war in Iraq. Nor is this a reason to stop fighting and abandon the call of justice. We should avoid false dichotomies, and the decision between the fury of violent indignation and the torpor of resigned indifference is the falsest of dichotomies.

Yet this is a reason to abandon the logic of power altogether in this fight, and to understand that a life of love can sometimes appear absurd, can sometimes even appear as defeat. W.G. Sebald, in his eloquent review of Peter Weiss’s drama of fascism and communism, The Aesthetics of Resistance, describes the Marxist project “not only as the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption, but as an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time.”

Do we love the world enough to become its victims?

And can it be that faith in the transcendent, however this is understood, is our greatest means of transcending all these false ideologies and divisions, and the brutish animal, the choking toxin, of violent protest? Our truest means of discernment, of finding truth in hopeless situations, when all seems lost? No one has put it better than the great Henri Nouwen, in his famed and magnificent work The Wounded Healer:

My own involvement in the spasms and pains of nuclear man [that is, humanity which “has lost naïve faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new life styles carry the potential for self-destruction”] makes me suspect that there are two main ways by which he tries to break out of his cocoon and fly: the mystical way and the revolutionary way…

It is my growing conviction that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary ways are not opposites, but two sides of the same human mode of experiential transcendence. I am increasingly convinced that conversion is the individual equivalent of revolution. Therefore every real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart, and he who walks the mystical way is called to unmask the illusory quality of human society.

…Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense he also remains for nuclear man the way to liberation and freedom.

– October 28, 2011, the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude

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