I am winding up a ten day retreat/vacation here in Assisi and feel renewed in every aspect of my life as a friar and priest. I look forward to quietly celebrating my 40th anniversary as a priest one week from today after participating in the ordination of two friars on Saturday, May 21.
What is very much on my mind these days is the figure of St. Francis as the saint of peace, the peace of Christ. As a young man he was a soldier, but a soldier who became disillusioned with war. After heading off to battle he returned to Assisi in disgrace because he failed to pursue the military career for which his father equipped him. He later went to the middle east, along with the crusaders, not to fight, but to preach to the Sultan, who while not converting to Christianity, came to respect Francis as a truly holy man.
What is keeping this aspect of Francis' life before me is the debate that has been going on since the death of Bin Laden. People have been asking "Was this the right way to go about things? Could there have been another way instead of just killing him?" All of this against the background of the entire situation since 9/11 regarding our dealings with the Muslim world.
When I talk of non-violence or even of dialogue with the Muslims I often get a lot of grief. "Come on Fr. John, get real, look what these people have done to us," say some. Others say, "When they dialogue with us we'll dialogue with them." Yet, my friends, I belong to an order founded by a man of non-violence and entrusted by the Church with outreach to the Muslims. My task is religious before it is political, and yes it is unreal because it calls us to move beyond where we are, to think outside the box when it come to dealing with conflict. From one point of view it is quite rational to say that we must defend ourselves against random and irrational terrorists, and indeed we must. The question is how. Non-violence does not mean that we let people walk all over us. It means that like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. we learn to resist and defend in a non-violent way. Dialogue does not mean just play nice. It means finding common ground on the one hand, but also asking the hard questions on the other. Believe me there are some challenging questions I would have in dialoguing with Muslims and I assume that they would have hard questions for me and other Christians. But that is how progress is made.
I believe that it is important to realize that it is easy to pontificate about what world leaders should do and to challenge them on various issues. At the same time we need to ask where we are personally A little incident from my own personal life highlights that point. I still need to grow.If I'm honest I have to admit that I'm not there yet. As a youngster fighting never made much sense to me. In the back of my young mind when other kids talked about needing to use your fists to be a man I never bought it. I thought of myself as superior to the "thugs" who were always getting into fights. Nonetheless there were a few times when I had to stand up to them and I got into a few fights for that reason. One time however I told one kid who challenged me that I preferred to use my brains rather than my fists to settle things in life. He walked away sneering not knowing what to do. Was this non-violence? Maybe, but I also felt smug and arrogant, so not quite. About 10 months ago I was threatened at knife point on the streets of St. Petersburg by man who didn't like the way I looked at him. As he approached my I gave him a punch and he fell back. The police came and that was the end of it. I did tell them that he was drunk or high and needed help. I did not press charges. I went home and thought about what happened. I had not struck anyone with my hands since I was a teenager. I did not feel guilty or think that I had sinned, but I asked myself, "Could I have done better? Could I have handled it in another way?" I still need to learn the way of non-violence.
As I leave Assisi, feeling at peace and full of the spirit of Francis and more importantly of Christ, I think that the question for all of us in this violent and conflicted world is "Can we do better? Is there another way?" We Franciscans must always be raising that question.
For some further great reflection on this topic click on the link below to the blog by my brother friar, Dan Horan, OFM
Bro. Dan Horan's Blog--article on Thomas Merton