Book reviews: Seeking Peace and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Reviewed by PETER J. McCORD

Seeking Peace by Johann Christoph Arnold was a kind of Christmas present from the editor of The New Catholic Miscellany. And what a delightful present it was! Arnold is an elder and writer from the Bruderhof Christian communities and is third-generation in the community. His parents were pacifists during World War II and were punished in a variety of ways for taking this stance. Arnold is still a convinced pacifist, feeling that no war is justified and therefore participation in a way is contrary to the Gospel.

His little book (248 pp. Plough Publishing House, 1998) is filled with gems, not just from the Gospels to lay the foundation for his position, but from a variety of other sources, e.g. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Father Henry Nouwen, the Berrigan brothers, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others. Indeed, one could say that much of the value of the book lies in the many quotations from other sources. Arnold has marshaled as many well-known and a few obscure sources as might be imagined to support his thesis that the Gospel demands a radically different approach to evil in the world, dealing with our corporate anger and desire for revenge and relating to the global community, with its seemingly incessant civil wars, ethnic and religious persecutions, predatory leaders and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.

It happened that I read this book in tandem with another book I had ordered, Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, a paperback Image Book originally published by Doubleday in 1966. This was a fascinating process, since these are journal entries made by Merton in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the time of the Cold War, nuclear arms buildups, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vatican Council. Merton’s comments are amazingly astute and even prophetic. They are also very contemporary.

Perhaps Merton’s central insight into modern society was his sense that we live, many of us, with a “divided consciousness.” This means that we have trained ourselves to support, simultaneously, contradictory value systems. In other words, he found many Americans able, without challenges to their conscience, to support a militaristic stance politically and a Christian position of peace and justice on Sunday and in religious gatherings. He was appalled by the perceived excesses of both “conservatives” and “liberals” before, during and after the Vatican Council and was concerned about the possibility of a future split over these issues. But, deep down, he wanted to be a contemplative, a person who had somehow reached into the center of his soul, found God there, and armed with this peace of inner wisdom, able to see the world and relate to it with a unified vision and a unified message. In struggling to find this center and operate out of it, he was seeking the same Gospel of peace that Arnold speaks about in his book.

In our parishes today, we are encouraged to have initiatives relating to justice and peace issues. These are very difficult issues to deal with, given the diversity of views even among the average lay person, not to mention all the other commitments that most of us have. But the events of our world, which seems to become more perilous by the day, demand that we give serious consideration to these issues and formulate plans and programs, with our available resources, to deal with them. Persons inspired to get involved with these issues will certainly derive encouragement from the two books reviewed here and perhaps also by the words of Archbishop Romero, from his book, The Violence of Love, “A Church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone; that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those people who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in.”

Peter J. McCord of Taylors serves on the diocesan Christian Formation Board and the faculty of the Institute for Parish Leadership Development.