Peace theology needs more than tinkering

By Terrence J. Rynne
Published by Orbis Books, $25

No question about it, Terrence J. Rynne thinks highly of Jesus Christ and his ministry. The attraction, Rynne explains in the tonic introduction to seven chapters of often lucid prose, is "Jesus' clear rejection of violence" in his personal, political, teaching and spiritual lives.

Rynne has a diverse background. Once a parish priest in Chicago who taught at the archdiocesan seminary at Mundelein, he was a hospital administrator who went on to found the Rynne Marketing Group, a health care firm. He is the co-president of the Sally and Terry Rynne Foundation, which gave a $500,000 four-year matching grant to Marquette University in Milwaukee to open a Center for Peacemaking in 2008. Rynne, who has a doctorate in theology and whose valuable earlier work is Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence, currently teaches peace studies at Marquette.

Rynne's focus here is Catholicism, from its origins as a band of Jewish dissidents refusing to cower under Roman rule to the 21st-century American wing of a doctrine-laced hierarchal church of 1.2 billion people. In his early pages, he draws on the works of contemporary thinkers -- John Howard Yoder, Richard Rohr, Richard Horsley, Walter Wink and others -- to assert that "Christianity grew because Christians in community followed the nonviolent Jesus in their daily actions."

For Rynne, Jesus "not only rejected violence as a personal option; he also fought the structural violence that was embedded in the institutions of his nation. His nonviolence was the nonviolence of resistance and building up the human community, the nonviolence of the peacemaker."

Given the clear example set by Jesus, the question, then, must be raised: What entered the bloodstream of Catholicism, whose veins and arteries have carried along the just war theory for 16 centuries?

Consider the realities of the church today, where American bishops happily cooperate with power by supplying chaplains to the Pentagon; where prelates support the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services; where none dare to instruct Catholics not to fight in the country's endless interventionist wars; where conscientious war tax resistance is not a staple of church teaching; where prelates sound off on the Affordable Care Act, but are mute on legislation sanctioning weapons procurement; where presidents of Catholic colleges and universities proudly support ROTC programs. Marquette itself hosts units of the Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC. The university's Army ROTC -- called "the Golden Eagle Battalion" -- has five professors teaching military science and leadership.

Tepidly, Rynne gives church leaders a pass. It could be that I hang around too much with Catholic Worker pacifists like Arthur Laffin, Colleen McCarthy and Kathy Boylan, or admire too greatly Roy Bourgeois, or take to heart too many authority-challenging NCR editorials, but I don't see the evidence, as Rynne claims, that the church "has clearly become a 'peacemaking church.' "

As an incrementalist, he sees progress where others would see stagnation. He praises the American hierarchy for its 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," which upholds the just war theory while also extolling nonviolence.

In other words, let's have it both ways. Let's be nonviolent between wars. Rynne has appreciative words also for Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who "in their pastoral preaching hold up nonviolence as the ideal way of life for Christians precisely because it was the way of Jesus -- even to the cross. They point us back to the way the early church practiced it and how the early Church Fathers taught it."

If that's the case, why did neither John Paul nor Benedict instruct Christians against joining armies, as early fathers Tertullian and Origen did? On their trips to the United States, neither pope went to the cellblocks to comfort nuns, priests and laypeople doing serious prison time for anti-war civil disobedience. Why have papal tours, ornamented as they are with crowds being blessed by the Holy Father, not included visits to the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, where papal teachings on social justice are practiced?

With sincerity, Rynne writes, "Nonviolence can accomplish just about anything, it would seem. It can overthrow dictators, gain civil rights, garner economic rights, wrest independence from imperial power, secure peace between warring factions." True, but when will we ever have a pope write an encyclical declaring that Catholicism is a pacifist church, as it once was?

Rynne doesn't offer a guess on when that blessed day will arrive. He argues only that "the time is ripe for a new theology of peace." Obviously and desperately so, but does the ripening mean it's time to tinker, as Francis does? Or is it time to overhaul the economic, political, environmental, corporate and military systems that support structural violence -- the kind, as Rynne rightly stresses, Jesus took on?

Absent from the text is a chapter on why church leaders have yet to call on their followers to withdraw from inflicting violence on animals. Worldwide and annually, billions and billions of creatures that walk, fly or swim are cruelly raised and mercilessly slaughtered for food. Except for a lone voice or two like Bruce Friedrich, a Catholic and a vegan, and Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest, a theology of animal rights goes all but unexplored -- much less heralded as ethically just.

[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington D.C.]

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