Pax and Peacemaking

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

As I was proclaiming the gospel today on this Solemnity of Christ the King, a thought occurred to me as I read Jesus' response to Pilate: "If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here."

I was about to read it again, momentarily forgetting that I was in front of a large congregation. So I left it, but was resolved to return to it later. The reason I was struck by this text is that my students were recently required to attend a full day retreat given by Christian pacifists who advocate complete and total non-violence. Not only is war never justified, students were told that should someone break into their home while they are present, they should offer no physical resistance whatsoever, but should instead talk to the criminal, appeal to his humanity, perhaps call a friend to come and join in peaceful discourse; but under no circumstances should they reach for a two by four, a knife, much less a hand gun to deter him from his criminal intent and drive him out. After proclaiming that gospel, I thought: "Jesus was no pacifist". Had the very idea of a physical battle been morally repugnant to him, he would not have said "my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews"; it's just that there is no human way to battle against the enemy that he really came to defeat, and the only way to defeat that enemy was the Way of the Cross.

Although I have never been a fan of violent sport, never have I had any sympathy for absolute pacifism. And after reading the New Testament repeatedly for the past 35 years or so, not once had I the impression that the teachings of Christ in any way provided the slightest support for absolute pacifists. Jesus made a whip out of chord and drove the money changers out of the temple, overturning their tables; he didn't talk to them, appealing to their humanity. He knew the human heart, which is why he likened some human beings to swine and others to dogs: "Do not give to dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs" (Mt 7, 6), and he foretold his passion and death more than once.

The seventh beatitude, which seems to be the cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of Christian pacifism is built, is "Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called children of God". The Greek term 'peacemaker' is derived from eiro, which means to join or tie together into a whole. The Latin pax has the same meaning, which is 'unity'. A person who disturbs the peace is one who divides.

Most of us misunderstand the meaning of pax in that we associate it with an absence of conflict; its more direct and positive meaning is 'unity'. A virus is a threat to an organism's unity or physical integrity, which is why a very complex biochemical army goes to work to eradicate the virus. Our immune system is a peacemaker, for it preserves the integrity, the unity or pax of the organism. The state of peace as absence of conflict is the result of the work of the immune system, which is a work of conflict, a battle. Without that biochemical army, there is no peace, whether that is taken to mean integrity (unity), or whether it is taken as a state characterized by an absence of conflict.

Similarly, every nation and city has its own immune system, which is its military and police force respectively. Without them, there is no "pax", no peace.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with repelling an aggressor with sufficient force, that is, a force that is proportionate to the aggression - a tank is not repelled by a shotgun. Killing only becomes homicide when the act is accompanied by a contra-life will, and homicide is never justified. But the death of the aggressor can also be praeter intentionem, that is, outside the intention of the agent, as it is in legitimate self-defense cases. My intention is to stop the aggressor, and if the only way to stop him from harming my family is to hit him over the head with a two by four - or perhaps to use a gun -, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing so, even if the action results in the aggressor's death.

Jesus was no pacifist, much less was he a political activist driven by an unscrupulous optimism; he is, rather - at least according to the faith of the Church -, the Saviour, and eternal Person of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who joined a human nature in order to defeat an enemy that man had no power to defeat: "It was to undo all that the devil has done that the Son of God appeared" (1 Jn 3, 8). The parables in the synoptic gospels are not dreams of an ideal state; they are parables of the kingdom of God, a kingdom not of this world. For if a utopia was what Jesus came to establish, then his followers would be fighting. But they are not fighting, not because self-defense is a bad thing - Peter carried a sword (Mt 26, 51-53) -, but rather because Jesus had come to conquer an invisible enemy, a kingdom of darkness, the debt of sin, and its wages, which is death: "Now sentence is being passed on this world; now the prince of this world is to be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself" (Jn 12, 31-32).