Thursday, May 19, 2016


REMBRANDT, c. 1648-1656

Last week I posted a piece about my joy at the Vatican's recent rejection of the just war theory. In the light of our capacity to build nuclear weapons, such a theory in light of the Gospels, no longer has a place, if it ever did.

I went on to write of a friend, Dennis Apel of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker, who is serving 120 days in MDC, the federal prison in downtown LA, for peaceful vigil against war and nuclear weapons at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

One lovely reader commented:

"I want to pray for Dennis too and his family. I agree how the just war theory is not interpreted correctly in so many circumstances. But I do think we needed to step in when Hitler was in power- and when we see evil in such a way to oppress helpless people then I do think we are called to act. But I can't say I agree with many of the modern "just" use of violence in our culture.

I hate to say this but I am kind of angry when I hear good people like Dennis who disobey some stupid rule be punished and his family. Is it worth it? If he knew he could go to prison? I guess I'm curious to understand more about that. There is a lot of injustices in our current court system and in so many right here in America. Maybe I am a but pessimistic but I've come to believe certain things won't really change when it comes to this big systems we have in place and we can only do something small to show our love in our daily lives. God bless Dennis and his family- they are added to my prayers!"

I think we are all "curious to understand more of that." I think all people of good will and who love the world grapple with these very challenging, very difficult questions. So for whatever it's worth, here is the response I worked up.

The way I understand nonviolence is that it's not limited to pacifism in the face of war. It's not an ideology in response to any one given situation. It's the Way, the Truth and the Life of Christ. Creative nonviolence is how we carry out Christ's commandment to love one another as he loved us in every situation, every area of our lives.  

I think it's safe to assume that every reasonably intelligent person who espouses creative nonviolence has considered Hitler. One such person was Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian peasant, husband and father, and a Catholic, who was conscripted by the Nazi army. As a follower of Christ, his conscience was deeply troubled. The priests and bishops he consulted said, as many would today, “Going up against them isn’t worth it.” Like many would today, they said, “Certain things can't change when it comes to these big systems so just go along.” 

Franz did what I venture to say about .00001 percent of us would do--he said no. He was severely criticized, including by his fellow Catholics, for "deserting" his wife and children. He was guillotined by the Nazis. 

So you could say that Franz's lone little stand wasn't "worth it."  But the Church later apologized for its silence during the Nazi regime. And Franz has been declared a martyr and beatified.

The Church has always been built on the blood of the martyrs. So we can't both exalt the little act, and dismiss it as useless. The “little act” is all we’ll ever have. Going to prison, unseen, unremarked-upon, has got to be one of the ultimate "little acts." Nobody is patting Dennis on the back and holding him up as a champion of human rights in federal prison. He’s 65 years old.  He was stripped of his garments and assigned to a cellmate who was kicking heroin. The first thing the other inmates ask is, "You're not chomo, [a child molester], are you?" Chomos by unspoken inmate law must sit at a separate table at meals and go directly back to their cells or be beaten if not killed.  As he cheerfully says, “I'm the scrawniest guy on the cell block by a long shot.”

The thing about the little act--or any act grounded in Christ--is that it's almost by definition inefficient in worldly terms. Christ, too, was up against systems that seemed unimaginably powerful and intransigent: the Roman government, the chief priests, the Pharisees, wealth, military might, religious self-righteousness and ridigity. What was his response of creative nonviolence? He said When a man asks for your tunic, give him your cloak as well. He said take the last place. He said wash  one another’s feet. Love one another as I have loved you. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Nothing could have been seemingly smaller, more ineffective, more of a cataclysmic, humiliating, final, worldly failure than the Crucifixion. No act will ever bear more eternal fruit.

What’s really ineffective to bear eternal fruit--to bring the Gospel values into being--is committing violence  (as opposed to consenting to allow violence to be committed upon you, as Christ did). Violence never ever bears eternal fruit. Violence always leads to more violence. Christ’s life, death, and teachings were precisely to deliver us from the "system" of tit-for-tat, ever-escalating violence that now threatens to destroy our planet.

And while I think it’s safe to assume that any reasonably intelligent person who abhors  war and our culture of death has considered Hitler, I hope it’s also reasonable to assume that every reasonably intelligent person recognizes that the United States is not a humanitarian aid station; it’s a military power whose principal aim is to consolidate and enlarge its power.

The U.S. hardly went to war against Germany in WWII, for example, to save the poor Jewish people. Germany declared war on us first, plus we wanted vengeance for Pearl Harbor. Our primary aim, as always, was to protect, consolidate and enlarge our economic and military interests.

“History is written by the victors,” as Churchill observed. And you don’t need to be a history buff to see what the United States is, what it values, what it stands for, and what its version of victory costs. Just study some photos of the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just read up a little or watch some documentaries about the suicide rate of our returning soldiers, about the hideous devastation wreaked  on our young people who we send off to wage our modern warfare. Just do a quick google pie-chart of our national budget. The United States spends more on “defense and security,” i.e. protecting and consolidating our power, than every other nation of the world combined. From the Washington Post: “Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion — and that's before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” as Patton said. “Americans play to win all the time.” Instead of recognizing that Christ cared absolutely nothing for such worldly power, worldly triumph, we have conflated him with the nation-state, armed him to the teeth, and tried to make him into our version of a “winner.”  

One reader, for example, wrote to ask, “If Christ came to deliver us from violence, greed, and was, just how has he succeeded?” Succeeded!? Christ succeeded, absolutely, in the Crucifixion. That so few of us follow his teachings is our failure, not his. That so few of us acknowledge that it is unthinkable to imagine Christ carrying a gun, dropping an atomic bomb, or approving of a 530 billion dollar expenditure for war, when our children go hungry and uneducated, our infrastructure deteriorates, our poor go without health care,  our prison industry flourishes, and we ravage the planet is what we will have to answer for, not him.

The thing about the Nazis is that they roamed the earth seeking the ruin of souls 70 years ago. We may have “won” WWII but  Naziism--as evil always does in response to more evil--simply took on other, myriad forms: Mao Ze-Dong, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung, the 2nd Amendment enthusiasts in our own country who have committed civilian massacre after massacre with the guns we provide them in the name of freedom, bravery, honor and justice for all.

Nuclear weapons are the logical and inevitable conclusion to a system based, as our system is, on power for power’s sake.  In 2016, nuclear weapons are our Hitler. Except this Hitler threatens to destroy not just one race, but the entire human race.  We have finally reached the point where the only response to another country’s nuclear weapons—which could destroy the planet—are more nuclear weapons—which could destroy the planet. To espouse such a system is insanity. To shrug our shoulders and say the systems are bigger than us is unworthy of the follower of Christ.

As St. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long;   we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[Romans 8:35-39].

So, like Franz Jägerstätter, Dennis is fighting "Hitler." While it may be hard to imagine a smaller act of resistance than a lone man crossing the trespass line at Vandenberg Air Force Base and spending 120 days in prison shut away from family, friends and the poor he serves, it would also be hard to imagine a greater act of courage, or of love.

He is joined by Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, who is also serving 120 days in MDC, Michael David Omondi, who is serving 60 days, and all prisoners of conscience, former, present, and future.

So whatever our way, whatever our station, let’s all continue to participate in  Christ’s triumph of love over death and fear. Let's continue to pray for them. 

If you would like to write, their addresses are as follows:

John Dennis Apel
Register Number 26142-112
MDC Los Angeles
Metropolitan Detention Center
P.O. Box 1500
Los Angeles, CA 90053

Robert J. Dietrich
Register Numeer 81196-02

Michael David Omondi
Register Number 94638-020

And let me pray for my own continuing conversion.


  1. Well said my friend. I pray everyday that hearts and minds turn to Christ. So sorry for my sins and wounds inflicted on others.

  2. Please hasten to assure Dennis, Jeff, and Michael of my prayers. I would write to them, but am balked by the knowledge that these men are so much closer to God than I am, and could teach me much about walking in the pathways of grace and courage and human solidarity.

  3. As always, am bowled over by your depth of understanding of issues I have barely considered. I am not American but the issues you speak of are universal. You have opened my eyes to the "other side" of Christianity ... a side I hear so little of. And you have increased my understanding of Romans 8.

    Like Thomas above, I feel humbled by the actions of the men you speak about. You do them a great service by placing their actions in a context that people like me can understand - by explaining their actions so well. Your words change the attitude of less courageous people - whereas the actions alone of the men may not have that effect, due to people failing to really appreciate or understand their non-violence. So thank you.

  4. I am very moved by what you have written, and will pray not only for those brave people who are performing such true genuine asks of courage, but also that I might be graced with just a small fraction of their bravery.

  5. I always feel like I can learn from your writings, and I think you are hugely insightful about things , but I am against pacifists because of the Syrian situation especially.They carry 'Don't Bomb Syria' signs, but they end up , objectively, meaning 'Don't respond to Hezbollah and Russian , and regime barrel bombs and sarin'. That is how I see it. And their non-violence and the inaction after the mass murder with sarin in Ghouta has emboldened the mass kllers and torturers. Everything , both violence and non-violence , in this world , leads to violence. Violence of all kinds seems to be part of the set up. I can understand turning against the world totally in a non-violent way, non-engaging way, like a Gnostic, but to say ' In this world, this world as it is, if we all turn to Christ then we can eradicate violence from it' - well, that is 'millenarianism' and I would rather be on the side arguing for response after Ghouta and sarin, and endless barrel bombs, and arguing for a no-fly zone, even if it means risking violence, than on the side arguing for world wide pacifism and 'believing in Christ', which means believing in handing the world over totally to the ruthless in the meantime. I think I'm saying 'violence only leads to more violence' is only true in the broadest terms, in specific cases, as in the Syrian situation now it seems to me it is far more the abdication of a countervaling superpower to Russia and Iran that is leading to prolonged violence and the crucifixion of an entire section of a population.

  6. I'm so glad you wrote more on this, grateful actually is a better word. After reading what I wrote and your response I couldn't help but think of Peter when Jesus rebuked him and said " Get behind me Satan."
    When we just see things with worldly eyes we miss the redemptive meaning. I also think a part of my response was a big lack of trust because if we are followers of Christ we are called to pick up our crosses and follow after him and in the worldy sense that may mean disaster -actually it must. You know I hate when I see good people suffer. But if those who pick up their cross and bravely follow after Christ suffer with Him then we I guess we can expect that they also will be glorified like him. Thank you Dennis for giving me courage to try and live more fully like a follower of Christ and pick up my cross and trust that whatever we suffer with the love of Christ is redemptive and authentically meaningful.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Fyi, The Santa Barbara Independent is publishing a series of Dennis' prison journals. Here's #2:

    I've been reflecting upon how so many of us view worldly failure as a MORAL failure. At the sentencing hearing for Dennis and his two companions, the federal prosecutor kept saying, "Nothing changes! They keep doing their little actions and nothing changes!" In that view, we're to plan and plot and strategize and if our actions aren't geared toward, and don't produce worldly results, all the world, in and out of the Church, jeers--is offended, somehow.

    It was just the same with Christ. If the Crucifixion didn't produce universal worldly results, we can be sure our actions won't either. But "My kingdom is not of this world." We're not to gear our lives toward earthly results. We're to gear them toward Christ's question: "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"


I WELCOME your comments!!!