Christmas Day. Very late on this day and into the morning of the 26th in 1776, George Washington led a surprise night crossing of the Delaware River and bloody pre-dawn attack on unarmed hung-over-from-Christmas troops still in their underwear — a founding act of violence for the new nation to proudly remember as the progenitor of either the crimes of its “special” forces all over the globe or of peace on earth, I can never recall which.
A more useful memory is certainly that of the 1914 Christmas truce, which was actually more than one truce that year and in the subsequent years of the Great War. This is a true story of people not just managing to speak to each other but actually becoming friends with not just people they had a disagreement with but people who a moment before and for a longtime running had been trying to murder them. It’s a story of war enemies figuring out that the actual enemy is not any people but war itself. And they did it on Christmas. Maybe we can do something good on Christmas too.
Better still is the memory of Jesus, whether fictional character or real man, stripped of all the magical powers, but understood as an innovative and courageous nonviolent activist, or — if you prefer — engager in active nonviolence. In the account Terrence Rynne gives in Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence, edited by Marie Dennis, Jesus lived in a violent time and place, the people around him full of rage at the Roman occupiers and their proxy tyrants. (Maybe I should just say a violent time, as the place is still violent and full of rage at distant occupiers and their proxy tyrants.) Jesus predicted catastrophe if the violence was escalated, and he was not heeded, and he was proved right. But his unheeded advice has often been put to use and can still be put to use.
If an occupying soldier smacks you, you can calmly and courageously and lovingly look him in the eye and offer your other cheek. If he takes your coat, you can expose his cruelty by offering your shirt too. If he forces you to carry his pack for a mile, you can make him see your humanity by offering to carry it a second mile. Those of us in the heart of the empire can block distant operations and ask that only the person who has never done anything wrong fire the first missile. We can confront fictional humanitarian justifications with the principled clarity of Jesus who preferred to be killed rather than condone the use of violence against the Romans. We can reject the morality that places politeness above saving the world from climate chaos or nuclear war, with the righteous loving anger of a nonviolent activist overturning the tables of the oligarchs.
A still better memory, though we don’t quite have it and need to create it, is the memory of the cultures displaced by the war-mad Western culture that adopted Christianity and turned it into a powerful argument for both war and sloppy thinking through just war theory. I’m reading right now a book called Kayanerenko:Wa The Great Law of Peace by Kayanesenh Paul Williams, about the law of peace created among the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca who became collectively the Haudenosaunee. There is as much to be learned from cultures that did not invent imperialism as from those that invented both it and ways to resist it.
There is the possibility of something being done for peace. President Donald Trump claims he will remove all U.S. troops from Syria. There is very little correlation between what he says and what he does, but if he does this, we need to be prepared to thank him, to celebrate such an action, and to insist that bombing cease as well, and that actual humanitarian aid and unarmed peace workers replace the military force, and that weapons sales and gifts to the region be ended. Trump needs to be shocked by the support for this act from unexpected places.
The U.S. Congress is making a lot of noise about possibly for the very first time using the 1973 War Powers Resolution to end a war, the war on Yemen. We need to make sure this happens and then celebrate it, while insisting that the law be complied with, that all loopholes in it be closed, and that weapons sales and gifts to the region be ended. Similar talk is beginning about also ending the war on Afghanistan. Our responsibility there is the same.
If any of these wars can be ended, we need to rapidly build on that success to end more wars, and more wars, and the funding of the preparations for wars. The United Nations says that $11 billion per year could end the lack of clean drinking water globally. The United States is building a single ugly boat for $13 billion that has no defensive purpose but is likely to start wars. It’s time to change course.
Three years ago, the Pope said this to the U.S. Congress which stood and cheered for it:
“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
If anyone else had said that — I mean anyone else at all — he or she would have been denounced and mocked by members of Congress and by the corporate communications system in the United States. The Pope was cheered instead (and then ignored rather than heeded) not because he has established himself as a moral leader. It’s not that he hasn’t, so much as that we just don’t have those in U.S. corporate media; it isn’t done. The Pope was cheered and tolerated because he is understood to be speaking as a moral leader and is widely believed to be associated in some way with magical powers.
This makes the project that so many great Catholic peace activists are engaged in of trying to move the Catholic Church toward a complete rejection of war very valuable. It also makes it valuable for us all to use Christmas as an occasion to urge the consideration of morality in the question of war or peace, and to demand an end to weapons dealing and death dealing, base building and occupying, killing and maiming and destroying, and threatening fire and fury, in every corner of the world.