I write in an effort to achieve what Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “the clarification of thought.” Which led, if memory serves, to the regular Friday (?) evening sessions with guest speakers and open discussion at the Worker House in the Bowery. Dorothy Day still lived there the one time I attended one of these sessions for the clarification of thought.
It’s a regularly forgotten commonplace that truth is the first casualty of the fog of war.
So I really hope that my quick and fragmented and probably simplistic thoughts here might serve as an invitation to others to join me (hopefully with responses and reflections on this site) in an effort to clarify thought about Ukraine and Russia, the US and Nato, and more broadly about Israel and Palestine, the Sudan, and all the other places where wars are murdering innocents and combatants alike. And also about violence here at home which not only increases in our cities and towns but threatens our democracy. And also to ask the perennial question about where God is in all this?
Here, then, the first of my fragmented thoughts. I’m guessing that Putin is a messianic megalomaniac. With models in Russian history from both Tsars and the Commissars (think Stalin), and more broadly from mass murderers like Mao and Hitler. Now once again with the blessings of his Orthodox bishops and a sacralizing state media.
I see Trump in similar terms, a madman albeit with fewer models he can explicitly endorse and (so far) more limitations imposed by democratic processes, yet equally dangerous and probably at least somewhat to blame for Putin’s seeming fearlessness about the US.
Biden is (as I see him) a pretty unrepentant cold warrior in term of foreign policy, a man well-schooled over many years in the instincts and ideas of the US Foreign Policy establishment. I like Joe, admire what he’s trying to do in domestic policy. Yet I believe he and most in DC (and most in US politics generally) want to expand NATO and stiffen its opposition to Russia (and, by the way, expand US arms sales to the region as throughout the world). I hope that Francis has called Joe about Ukraine and other wars, and I wonder what he said to him.
Francis himself has already said so many important things — strong criticisms, calls for diplomacy and a negotiated peace — and done some extraordinary things such as inviting himself to the Russian Embassy in Rome for a full half-hour “visit,” then speaking directly with the President of Ukraine, and (I suppose) ratcheting-up multiple charities for refugee and war relief. And he has prayed for peace and urged us to pray and act for peace — in this major European crisis and in all the other wars throughout the globe. His writings have made it very clear that the Catholic Church no longer considers a just war possible and they also express his withering criticisms of the arms industries (led internationally by the US and Israel and Russia ? and ???).
I can still remember vividly (because I watched it on TV) the first visit of a pope to the UN (and thus to New York). Paul VI spoke in French to the UN General Assembly in 1965, just when our war in Viet Nam expanding. “Jamais plus la guerre! Jamais plus la guerre!” he exclaimed loudly and dramatically. “Never again war! Never again war!” Some years earlier, Vatican II had declared the legitimacy of Catholic pacifism and conscientious objection to war. And since then the moral teaching of the Church has gradually loosened its millennia-long embrace of the idea of a just war. Francis’ latest statements make it clear, though many Catholics including I suspect many Bishops haven’t heard the message, that no warfare can be morally justified because, as Ukraine is showing us once again, notions like the proportional use of force and the protection of innocent civilians are simply absurd given the nature of modern weapons and the tactics they dictate.
I hope Francis talks, in his paternal and challenging way, to Joe about this. Yet I doubt it will dent this decent Catholic president’s conscience. Nor, more to the point, am I sure how I personally receive this teaching. I escaped participation in the war in Viet Nam only because I happened to be in the Catholic seminary at the time. I have two good friends who fought in that war, and two good friends who are deeply committed pacifists, one a Catholic Worker who spent hard time in a federal prison for draft refusal. Yet I was happy this morning when I read that Germany too is now supplying armaments to the Ukrainians, as I’m glad every time I see a news photo of a blown-up Russian tank or plane. I’ve never been able to be a pacifist. Too little faith or courage. Maybe that will change with this latest and closest war — involving modern white Europeans just across the pond, in cities like many I’ve visited and lived in.
Permit me to shift focus (and please allow yourself to skip this section) to another violent conflict I’ve been studying for years and have written about quite often on this site — the Israeli-Palestinian war. I will not here repeat what I’ve written previously, but I call attention to the reporting done by B’Teselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territory. Indeed I urge you to spend some time on their website learning or renewing your understanding of the brutalization of Palestine by Israel’s apartheid regime. And I note that Catholic Joe has long been one of the major Washington supporters of that Israeli regime and that Congress across all aisles continues to fund that brutality to the tune of 3-5 (I’ve read different figures) billion dollars annually in military aid.
As was evident when he spoke in 2015 before that same Congress — when he held up as models of American peacemakers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and if I remember correctly, Abraham Lincoln and when he openly criticized the greed of the arms industry — as was evident when the camera took in an audience filled with stone-faced patriots, Francis has a lot of work to do in this country, as do those who profess to follow his lead in following the Prince of Peace.
Finally, then, the inescapable question for believers, where is that Prince in all this mess of violence and hardened hearts along with so much compassion and peace work?
I have for almost two years been involved in a “Cosmic Christ Reading/Zoom Group.” And that has been, in one way or another, our constant question. We’ve read Rohr and Teilhard, Pope Francis and N. T. Wright. And we’ve discussed practical efforts for justice in our country which reveal or express the Presence of the Kingdom. That the God of Mercy, through the Spirit of Jesus, is active and present, bringing the Kingdom in both unexpected and obvious ways, I think the entire group does not doubt. How that Spirit is moving us through the mess, through what’s happening in Ukraine and on the streets of our towns and cities — there we have helped each other by discerning the Presence of the Kingdom each in our different ways.
A closing image from Francis: It is through the deep furrows carved in our hearts and in our world by evils like war and the suffering of much pain — it is through these deep wounds that the grace of the Holy Spirit flows to nourish seeds of new ways of thinking and acting about how we live together in this world. To which I add, I hope so.
I’ve rambled enough. SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? What might you, dear reader and friend, add, by of objection and criticism or of addition and elaboration, to this exercise in the clarification of thought? What might you say to shed light amidst the continuing fog of war?