Page 7, 24th February 1989

24th February 1989
Page 7
Page 7, 24th February 1989 — When freedom and justice are empty words

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Locations: Salvador


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When freedom and justice are empty words


Jesuit provincial Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston reflects on violence in our Lenten series

HOW can the use of violence be squared with the teaching of Jesus who exhorted His followers to turn the other cheek and told Peter to put away his sword because "all who use the sword will perish by it"? Is there any Icgimatc use of violence that might be called "Christian"? Or are all followers of Christ meant to follow their master who was led meekly to His death, like a lamb to the slaughter.

These are not easy questions. They have been debated and agonised over in every age and country. To renounce violence is certainly the better way, more in line with Christ's injunction to forgive others as we would be forgiven by the Father, and even to love our enemies. In an ideal world these are the options we would all make, since their implementation would be straight forward. But the world of Afghanistan, Central America, the Lebanon, Northern Ireland, etc., is far from ideal. What may be better in theory is not always so in practice.

In the tiny country of El Salvador, Christians are daily faced with the dilemma to accept or reject violence. A bitter civil war has been waging for the past 11 years and on both sides committed Christians believe they are doing the right thing in Lighting and acting in accordance with God's law. Who is right? Or are they all wrong?

The immediate cause of Archbishop Romero's assassination nine years ago was his call to the ordinary soldiers in the army to stop killing innocent civilians and heed God's command "Thou shalt not kill", even if this meant disobeying the orders of superior officers. Yet he himself was accused by many of fostering violence, of being on the side of the rebels, Ilow did he answer these charges? Let us listen to what he said in his fourth pastoral letter, written in the last year of his life.

"The Church must always strive to seek the peace Christ promises in the Gospels. But such a peace can only come through justice. Therefore judgements on violence cannot be made in isolation from the demands of justice. And these judgements will differ according to the different types of violence, in such a way that it cannot simply be said the Church condemns every type of violence."

He then considers the different types of violence afflicting the world in general and El Salvador in particular. He rejects as unjust the "structural" or "institutionalised" violence of a situation in which the majority of men, women and especially children in a society or country are deprived of what they need to live. Similarly he rejects the arbitrary and repressive violence of a state that deprives its citizens of their fundamental rights. The violence of terrorists or extremist political groups of whatever persuasion is also rejected as being contrary to the values of the Gospel.

But the traditional teaching of the Church has always allowed a place for the violence of a legitimate uprising in the case 01 "manifest, long-standing tyranny, which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country" (Populorum Progressio: para 31). Similar to this, and thereforee also justified, is the violence necessary for legitimate self-defence against an unjust act of aggression.

However the conditions limiting the use of such violence are severely restrictive: (1) The violence used must not he greater than that employed by the unjust aggressor. (2) All other peaceful means to reach a solution must have first been tried and failed. (3) The consequences of using violence must not bring on greater evils than they are trying to remedy.

These conditions are clear in theory but extremely difficult to implement in practice. The counselling of restraint when conflict has already broken out is akin to asking a defender to remain always one step behind the aggressor. If one waits to try all peaceful methods first, it may well be too late to defend oneself when they have failed. And who can foresee all the consequences of a conflict before it breaks out? In the final analysis, it is probity or rectitude of intention that counts.

I saw examples of such probity during the years I worked among the displaced in El Salvador. They arc simple peasant people who have been forced to flee from their homes to save their lives from military incursions or aerial bombardment. Many have suffered grievously at the hands of the army, witnessing sometimes the beating, torture or massacre of children, parents, brothers and sisters, or close friends. They sympathise with the rebels and some have members of their family fighting with them.

Yet there is no hatred in their hearts, no desire for revenge, no determination to repay their attackers in kind. On the contrary, they are able not only to forgive but to pray for them. It was a humbling experience to hear a mother whose children had been tortured and killed asking the Father to forgive those responsible "because they know not what they do".

Archbishop Romero described this attitude well: "We will be faithful and firm in defending our rights — but with a great love in our hearts, because when we defend ourselves with love we are

seeking the conversion of sinners. That is the Christian's vengeance." It is precisely this that distinguishes a Christian use of violence from a non-Christian one: "The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the

violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work".

How much of this is relevant to the world in which you and I live in Great Britain today? We should not be over-hasty in believing that our democratic and peaceful societies in the industrialised West are so far removed from causes that might justify violence, that the problem is purely hypothetical.

For non-violence to prevail in human society, three conditions. are required. First, we must build a genuine community or fellowship among people based on respect and love for each other. Secondly, such a community has to be grounded in freedom which provides the only basis for responsible development and adaption to change. Finally, it must be a just community, for justice alone can give it coherence and stability.

Last year's UNICEF report "The State of the World's Children 1989" shows how far we are falling short of these conditions, not only in Third World countries, but in the wealthier nations as well. About half a million children died in the developing world last year because their debt-burdened governments had to cut back on social spending to meet interest payment to foreign banks and institutions. One death in every three in the world is that of a child under five, caused by infection and malnutrition. Most could be prevented by methods any developing nation can afford to implement For less than the price of ten advanced fighter planes, the great majority of children could be immunised by 1990 against the six main diseases killing them. Yet no action is taken and the developing world continues to transfer to the developed millions of dollars a day more than it receives in so-called "aid" and loans.

In such a situation, community, freedom and justice become empty words. Facing such widespread institutionalised violence, it is to be wondered that the legitimate violence of selfdefence is not more widespread.

Let us therefore beware before we condemn violence too lightly as being non-Christian. As David Alton points out in his book What Kind of Country, "A nonviolent society must be our clear objective but not everyone lives in the comfortable surroundings of a parliamentary democracy where the pious espousal of such principles from king distances must rankle with men and women faced by the immediacy of violent or oppressive regimes". One might add: we should look more closely at the causes for some of these violent or oppressive regimes to see if they do not originate much nearer home than we might care to admit.

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