And When They Shall Ask

Photo: Deacon  Tom Cornell, taken by Fr James Martin SJ

Pax Christi Scotland member Ross Ahlfeld reflects on examining our consciences as people of nonviolence

Back in August last year, we learned the sad news that Deacon Tom Cornell, the well known veteran Catholic Peace Fellowship founder, had passed away. During his long years of activism, Tom had been a member of the executive staff of Fellowship of Reconciliation and he was also on the executive committee of Pax Christi USA.

Tom was probably best known as a Catholic Worker and the editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper, and for me he leaves two highly relevant lessons for our contemporary situation, particularly in relation to what form our solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter should take.

Deacon Tom once said – “The Civil Rights movement came to a head in 1965 and we had been involved in that consistently, all the way through but never in leadership positions, that would be inappropriate for white people, but when black people asked us and invited us, we go, we go all out!”

For me, this is the template for solidarity with movements such as BLM today, Tom Cornell went on to say – ‘There’s always a sub stream of nonviolence in Catholicism, which is now coming right up to the full light of day. Christian nonviolence is now being recognised as an authentic tradition.’

I believe that it is our responsibility to continue Tom’s work by showing solidarity with all and continuing to give witness to nonviolence, not as a radical countercultural reaction but as a mainstream and normative Christian response to violence.

However, there is perhaps a lesser known aspect of Tom’s passing which is also worth sharing: One of his final requests was that he be laid to rest in a simple wooden coffin, made by his friends at the Bruderhof community, just as Dorothy Day’s plain casket had been manufactured by the Hutterites, as a final sign of love and solidarity with our dear brothers and sisters in the Anabaptist peace churches, with whom we share so much.   

Because of our long-standing collaboration with those peace churches, those of us within the various Catholic peace fellowships such as Pax Christi and Catholic Worker, are often (and sometimes dismissively) described as ‘Quakers with rosary beads’ or ‘Papists-Amish’. As if our peace work is an add-on or affectation, rather than being at the core of what it means to be a Catholic Christian, as Deacon Tom believed.

I was recently reminded of our Mennonite, Hutterite and Quaker brethren, while reading a message from a church leader in Ukraine, who was appealing for aid and support on behalf of his congregation and community. This particular pastor stressed the need for medical supplies, especially bandages, dressings, sterile gauze and tourniquets for all individuals who have been injured, not just civilians hurt in Russian bombing raids but also Ukrainian fighters injured during combat.

In his note, the pastor says that these vitally important medical supplies are especially difficult to obtain because his fellow Christians in the west are reluctant to contribute to the war effort or assist those engaged in violent conflict. He makes no judgement on those unwilling to support the war effort, nor does he make any apology for his own effort to support those fighting.

Nonviolent Christians have wrestled with this moral dilemma for centuries, since the earliest days of the Church. Our cognitive dissonance around providing medical assistance to both civilians and frontline troops, while objecting to our Governments supplying weapons, rather than pursuing a diplomatic solution, is not new.  

During the First World War, peace activists and conscientious objectors could be split into two distinctive groups.

All refused to take up arms but some became medics in the trenches and stretcher-bearers on the frontline – Christians such as Desmond Doss who saved 75 men during the battle of Okinawa, becoming the only conscientious objector to be awarded a Medal of Honor. Many other Christian conscientious objectors refused to participate in supporting the war effort and subsequently served time in prison and work camps.

I think we should now ignore those polarising voices that view such difficult decisions in simplistic terms; ignore the glib partisans who would happily boil this painful question down to militaristic ‘armchair general’ Christians who’ve sold out peacemaking to embrace the idolatry of war, versus ‘armchair pacifist’ Christians who are happy to enjoy the comfort of safety of military protection, while condemning fellow Christians such as the Ukrainian pastor, faced with reality of an invading force.

We have to search our own hearts, so that when they shall ask if we are ‘supporting the troops’, we may reply truthfully and sincerely, in response to the movement of the Holy Spirit and the community of faith.

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