Peace must be dared

I have a correspondent, near Ottawa of all places, who has the delightful habit of transcribing passages he has found in great authors. These he forwards, unsolicited, for my edification. They are never glib, “throwaway quotes,” such as might appear on commercial greeting cards. This gentleman, who prizes his anonymity, has put me in his debt many times, and yet he credits me for putting him in mine. If there is a principal gift, sent back and forth between us, it is the bottomless Christian religion, in literature and art. An example was ping’d into my inbox this morning:

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won where the way leads to the Cross.”

We are confronted with an injunction that is candidly naïve: by a pacifist, unusually willing to suffer the consequences of his beliefs. Indeed, he came from a family with a facility for being executed by Hitler’s flunkeys, more often than not for some plausible reason. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was famously a public opponent of Nazi eugenics, and genocides. He had a curious history as a plant within the Abwehr (military intelligence), which I won’t get into. He was hanged as the Nazi regime was releasing its grip on history (9 April 1945), and is taken for a Protestant saint and martyr. His very return to death-defying service in Germany, during the war, from safe exile in the United States, illustrates the quotation above.

In my inadequate understanding, the quotation becomes flawed as it drifts from the personal, and Christ-like, to the political, and Caesar-like. We approach God, even as a legion, in single file, as it were. Faults like our selfishness should be confessed singly, case-by-case; rather than by class, or collectively. Bonhoeffer himself was sometimes, even admirably, confused, between his nation which was incapable of sin, and its many citizens who behaved abominably.

They were not “collectively guilty” of the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime. Convicting them thus makes us feel so comfortable, but is of null effect.

A man can be a pacifist. But only a tyrant and demagogue can be a pacifist, on behalf of his whole nation. He leads his people to an involuntary fate, just as he would lead them into a destructive war. He may be called, by his sycophants, “a man of peace,” but he is the opposite.

For peace is not merely the avoidance of war, or we would have it already. It exists only within the mystery of persons. It is not the product of any clever programme of diplomacy, public or private, but rather the acceptance of sacrifice — of a holy sacrifice.