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Papal Perspectives on Peace

It’s a week for old wounds.

I realized as I greeted the incoming undergraduates at my university last week that the majority of the class of 2018 was in kindergarten during the 9/11 attacks. By and large, they were too young to recall what the world was like before. Even I can only dimly remember, and sometimes I suspect that my memory has been inflected by what I have been told about those years, and the depictions of them that I’ve seen in TV and movies.

But I know there was a change.

And that would likely be enough to dredge up old resentment, the fact that we’re still coping with the reality of a post-9/11 world. But this year in particular tensions are already high: With reports of brutality perpetuated by ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria arriving daily, many of us are revisiting the experience of trauma, fear, and loss acutely. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd argued that only Joe Biden’s now-notorious “gates of hell” comments had really captured how Americans are reacting to ISIS:

Joe Biden was the one connecting with Americans, promising to chase the ISIS savages “to the gates of hell,” while Obama’s subliminal, or not so subliminal, message was that before certain atrocities, the heart must muzzle itself, rejecting flights of anxiety, worry and horror as enemies of lucid analysis. In some situations, panic is a sign of clear thinking.

Dowd’s analysis of President Obama’s reserved affect joins a deluge of mounting commentary demanding that action be taken to destroy ISIS now, finally and forcefully. The rallying is especially hard to ignore given the highly publicized murders of two American journalists on film.

The growing intensity of American support for not only intervention, but swift and extreme intervention, puts Pope Francis’s cautious affirmation that halting ISIS’s destruction of innocents is legitimate but complicated in perspective. What was initially identified as a call for another crusade now seems in comparison to less nuanced proposals very much reserved and ambivalent. It’s worth considering why Pope Francis has maintained a consistently hesitant tone toward intervention against ISIS.

It isn’t as though Pope Francis isn’t horrified by the brutality exhibited by ISIS; he reportedly reached out to the parents of James Foley, the American journalist murdered by ISIS earlier in August. Further, (admittedly shaky) reports of ISIS’s designs on the Pope’s own life have surfaced, though the Vatican has played them down. All of this is to say that his sense of the human impact of ISIS’s cruelty is, therefore, assuredly keen: there don’t appear to be any delusions of their harmlessness belonging to Pope Francis or officials at the Vatican.

Nonetheless, Pope Francis has spoken of war not only in terms of immediate impacts, but of long-term repercussions:

Never war! Never war! I think most of all about children, whose hopes for a dignified life, a future are dashed, dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphans, children who have the leftovers of war for toys, children who don’t know how to smile. Stop it, please! I beg you with all my heart! It’s time to stop!

These qualities belong equally to wars with just motives that are carefully executed, and to those that are unjust and executed recklessly. The difference in proportion is notable, but doesn’t provide much consolation for innocents who suffer during and after conflict. Consider the haunting realities of those who survived the Rwandan genocide of the late twentieth century:

Niwemfite lives by herself, surrounded by stark walls taped with photos of Christian iconography. It’s been 20 years since her husband, children and entire family were killed in the genocide. Afterwards, unable to live in proximity to their killers, she moved into this village. “I’m just alone,” she now laments. Niwemfite is 65, suffers from asthma, and is unable to walk much due to problems with her legs sustained in a bad beating during the war. She says she spends two weeks a month in a hospital. She has no family left, so the daughters of her friends come to help with household chores and she earns an income from renting another home she owns. But she fears solitude as she ages.

Such are the wages of war. Widows, orphans, scars cut deeply into the tissue of society, which ache long after the conflict itself has ended. Even when violence comes to an end, therefore, it is possible to achieve a kind of cheap peace, analogous to cheap gracethat which is not only precarious but incomplete, weak, and insubstantial compared to the real thing. These are the outcomes that seem to inform the heavy-heartedness with which Pope Francis approaches the topic of intervention, a far cry from the full-throated, retaliatory tone some seem to be calling for.

Because Christianity is a religion of anticipation and waiting that is ruled by a Prince of Peace, we should understand our mission even in situations in which conflict is unavoidable as one that looks toward an eventual peace. And, like Pope Francis, we should hope that the peace we establish is genuine and strong, and for it to be so it will have to be heartier than the echoes of the violence it follows. We should, therefore, always keep in mind the dangers of immersion in the immediate moment, even when brutal violence seems to call for an in-kind response.


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  • Elias Crim

    Well said!

  • naturgesetz

    What Rwanda reminds us is that the evils of war can also be visited on people when there is no formal war.

    When we see the deeds of people like ISIS, to think of “war” as the bringer of suffering would be profoundly wrong, unless we recognize that ISIS is already warring. The question at this point isn’t war or peace, but how best to stop ISIS’ war and protect their victims and their targets.

    People in the 1960’s used to ask, “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?” An equally legitimate question is, “What if they gave a war, and only the unjust aggressors came?”

    • RS

      Your point is well made. As the author notes, the incredible suffering and despair of the Rwanda victims lives on. She may have been too young to recall the deep regret and very public penance of leaders who failed to intervene with force to prevent a genocide for which there was a deal of advance warning. These include General Dellaire, the UN ground troop commander, and Bill Clinton. Dellaire advised armed intervention then obeyed a direct UN order to desist. He later attempted suicide. They agreed post hoc that much victim suffering would have been prevented had they acted. In so doing, they denied themselves cheap grace.

      As for the Pope’s reticence to advocate force, it is hardly surprising. As Stalin noted, the Vatican commands no battalions and by advising other nations to deploy theirs he would only provoke the oppressors.

  • Thomas Storck

    If the United States does intervene further to stop ISIS, I hope we will have the humility and justice to admit that it was our stupid and criminal invasion of Iraq that above all permitted conditions to develop which brought about the rise of ISIS.