Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Reviews


Seeing With Peace Eyes

A Review of Gerald Vanderhaar, Beyond Violence: In the Spirit of the Non-Violent Christ

(1998, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Conn.)



By Walter Kendall



"That which we value more than anything else defines the direction of our life" Gerald Vanderhaar, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Peace studies at Christian Brothers University in Memphis and Pat Christi - USA Ambassador of Peace begins his new book Beyond Violence: In the Spirit of the Non-Violent Christ asserting "active nonviolence (positive action for true human good, using only means that help and do no harm) is the human spirit's best hope." This nonviolence is both new, "brought forward by Gandhi and King," and old, "the heart of Jesus' life and teaching." And it is at the same time end and means.

Active nonviolence is the "ultimate concern" or end that serves the "best interests" of people after this "the most violent century in human history;" and it is a transformative means that creates the end sought in the seeking. In his first chapter the author recognizes the limits imposed by language and human understanding on his project. All the images we have of God are more analogies. Not only are they incomplete, they can be misleading! That is because according to Vanderhaar we bring something of ourself to every "seeing," a combination of what we want and expect to see, and what's really there. "Happily, though, we have a more reliable way than human language to know God -" Quoting the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John "Whoever has seen me has seen Abba God." Vanderhaar sees the Jesus of the Gospels as a revelation of God. He, Vanderhaar, goes a step further and in reliance on the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, ". . . what you did for the last . . . you did for me . . ." sees God revealed and fully present "in those persons in need who cross our path." Thus, Vanderhaar is "confident that the Jesus who lives in the various places where we find him, in the gathering of believers, in scripture, in neighbors in need, is the Nonviolent Christ."

The remaining 17 chapters of the brief study (only 157 pages of text and notes) proceed from these assumptions. Nevertheless there is something worth reflecting on for non-Christians and Christian non-pacifists in the author's discussion of the challenges of trying to build what he calls a "compassionate commonwealth." Possibilities invisible thru a "realist" lens are disclosed. It becomes possible for individuals and the larger society to see steps along a path that has to be less violent than that trod this century.

Vanderhaar begins his concretization of the spirit of the nonviolent Christ with a brief discussion of Gandhi. This is to acknowledge that while operating in a different cultural and religious context, Gandhi's life nonetheless showed western Christians that "the Gospel understood in this light (of nonviolent love) can alter an empire." Ahimsa or non-harm, and satyagraha or truth force are the core values of Gandhi's principles and practices. These are made credible and efficacious by the nonviolent activists "willingness to suffer - to receive blows rather than inflect them." In the words of Louis Fisher, one of Gandhi's early biographers, describing the salt march "The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed nor complained nor retreated. That made England powerless and India invisible."

Here one can not help but ask what about Hitler? What about Bosnia or Rwanda? Vanderhaar has questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter. At this point he inquires "Gandhi believed that everyone can have some aspect of truth (which if sought together was transformative). Can you see any glimmer of truth in a Hitler . . .?" But he provides no answer; and that question is the only reference to Hitler. There are none to Bosnia or Rwanda!

The title of the next chapter "an epic change" and its epigraph from Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire "I believe we are on the edge of a quantum leap into a whole new way of organizing and living as a human family" in one sense side-steps these hard questions. Yet at the same time he recognizes that "there's no question that violence often 'works' to secure an immediately desired result." But after the experiences of the 20th century we know to ask "whether (violence) 'works' in the long run . . .?" and to acknowledge that "even in the short run (it) doesn't work all the time!" Perhaps more importantly there is "the other story." As the century progressed the practice of nonviolence became increasingly common. More and more people saw its possibilities; even its necessity.The list of the Nobel Peace Prize winners catalogues the most visible of these innumerable visionaries.

Before proceeding in this hopeful vein, Vanderhaar pauses to try to identify some of the components of the culture of violence. He mentions the Biblical powers and principalities, but focuses on us. He quotes Israel Charny, the author of How Can We Commit The Unthinkable? Genocide: The Human Cancer "human beings are at one and the same time generous creative creatures and deadly genociders," and discusses very briefly the seven Capital sins - pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth - and their role in the culture of violence.

In a separate chapter Vanderhaar argues that there is "no good violence," that "the belief that good violence is sometimes necessary to counteract bad violence" or what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence, shrouds the truth in an ethical fog. Violence by definition "violates." It can be argued that, for instance, a just war is not violence, but the slogan "War is hell" captures the reality. Even law enforcement often involves violence, "the exercise of physical or emotional force to injure someone." Ideally, as the saying goes, only when absolutely necessary to prevent greater violence. But notice, it is recognized as violence!

Nevertheless Vanderhaar's conclusion is not Hobbes. He recognizes our flawed humanity, but insists it does not justify either violence or passivity. It justifies, in fact requires pacifism - a pacifism that emanates from The Nonviolent Christ, but clearly one that is accessible to all. "It is not appeasement, not giving in or selling out. It is an attitude of refusing either to meet violence with violence or to bow down in face of it. It is an attitude of engagement, or respect for opponents and enemies, of searching for peaceful means of resolving conflicts."

And what does all of this lead to? It leads to the "compassionate commonwealth: positive action for true human good, using only means that help and do no harm; courageously standing up to opposing forces; being willing to take blows rather than give them; knowing that some goodness resides in everyone no matter how unpleasantly they may be acting at the moment; overcoming our fears and anger to reach that goodness, confident in the power of redemption over retribution and revenge."

In a sense all of the above is preface. The middle third of the book is concerned with some of the many and varied challenges and opportunities we meet in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the nearest Thou at hand." The anecdotes and insights are from Vanderhaar's life, and from people as diverse as Lao Tzu, Albert Camus, and Donald Cabance, a former executioner for the state of Mississippi. The incidents include threatened rapes, robberys, muggings, and the myriad of petty and not so petty annoyances from difficult people.

However, much of this is almost provocative in its simplicity. One chapter's theme is Thomas Merton's notion that the beginning of nonviolent living is "closing doors slowly." Another chapter has a women preventing a rape by asking "what time is it?" and an armed mugger thwarted by the victim calling out "in her best school teacher voice 'go away, stop bothering us, just leave, right now!'"

Yet it has long been known that just as in physical combat the unexpected is often the key to success, so also in the compassionate commonwealth. What Richard Gregg calls moral justice does really work. Not all the time to be sure, but . . . and violence is often no more successful and worse tends to provoke more violence in response creating the spiral of violence that only death or non-violence can break. And of course there is the little way of St. Therese, so maybe Thomas Merton ison to something.

The last part of the book deals with some of the unavoidable involvements in the larger culture of violence that is modern society. We are part of the economy whether we like it or not. And the economy is violent, is about profit not peace; there are winners and losers. We need to eat, find housing, wear clothes, pay bills. Time is limited, there is only so much one will do, so hard choices must be made.

Simple living, shepherding time and other limited resources, having a plan, all the usual formulas. Yet more than that. There is a sense Vanderhaar is able to communicate that this, or at least some of it, is doable by each of us; and worth the sacrifice and risk. As John Dear put it "Vanderhaar helps us to see with peace eyes." Again and again he reminds us of the horrendous and pervasive violence of the 20th century, and the Biblical promise that God is and will be with us forever. This combination of truth and faith gives one hope and thereby courage to take a step "Beyond Violence."

However, it has to be added the book is woefully deficient on the question of political involvement and one's duties to the state. Vanderhaar does recognize that "we cannot not be involved in politics. There is no such thing as being apolitical . . . To refuse to take part in the affairs of our community is, in effect, to allow them to go on as before . . ." He does mention voting, writing letters and taking stands on issues. But he says nothing directly about the many issues raised by a conscientious commitment to nonviolence in a democratic society. Among them are the following: If one will not go to war to defend the country can one run for public office? If one does not believe in capital punishment, can one be a lawyer or a judge? If one believes in the ultimate authority of conscience, can one take anoath to support and defend the Constitution? Does the Pledge of Allegiance violate the first commandment? If the government affirmatively supports abortion or euthanasia what is one's duty?

But maybe that's criticizing the author for not writing a book other than the challenging primer on the beginnings of a life of nonviolence he did write.



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