Letters to the Editor: April 1986
Give Nobel Peace Prize to Vanauken
Thank you for publishing two extremely helpful articles on the “Seamless Garment” (Jan.-Feb.). Though upon a superficial reading they may seem contradictory, since Vanauken seems con and Doerflinger pro the “garment,” I believe the two articles are beautifully complementary. I do not see a single specific contradiction between them. All four of us, in fact — Vanauken, Doerflinger, myself, and Cardinal Bernardin — agree on the morality of human life issues that our common Teacher has spoken about, for we all refuse to say “mater si, magistra no” to our “mater et magistra,” as famous individuals on both Right and Left have done.
I am especially grateful for Vanauken’s corrections of my earlier article (April 1985). He is absolutely right, and it is a joy to be corrected by a man like him, simply because he speaks the truth.
The garment remains, but it is a soft garment, not a hard one. Neither I nor Doerflinger nor Bernardin believe in a hard, all-parts-equal garment. Obviously capital punishment cannot be equated with abortion any more than a just war with an unjust war — and Vanauken does not believe in no garment, as is evident from his moral horror at the prospect of a nuclear war.
Nuclear weapons are like enormous abortion clinics, fully staffed but not yet supplied with victims. The Pope and bishops have stated unequivocally that both atrocities must be disarmed, and that the present nuclear “balance of terror,” or “Mutually Assured Destruction,” is morally intolerable. It is also practically intolerable, for the same reason that Gandhi’s pacifism, which worked against the honorable British, would not have worked against the Nazis: our present policy of deterrence (i.e., bluffing, possessing nuclear weapons without the immoral intent to use them) will work also only against a sane opponent but not against a madman like Ghadafi or Idi Amin. Eventually some madman is bound to push the fatal button. And since we will always have madmen, we must cease having buttons.
Since it is much more important to invent some workable alternative to Mutually Assured Destruction than to cure cancer, I propose Vanauken be given the Nobel Peace Prize for his cockamamie but charming idea for disarmament without surrender. It’s just crazy enough to work. Only a child could have thought of it. In fact, the only thing I’ve ever heard of that seemed crazier and also wiser had something to do with a Cross.
Prof. Peter Kreeft
Department of Philosophy, Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
An Open Letter to Sheldon Vanauken
For the last year I’ve been doing research for a book on Christian peacemaking. Though I am well aware of the diversity of opinion surrounding this topic, I must admit to being greatly disturbed by your article “Seams in the Seamless Garment?” (Jan.-Feb.). The title of your piece, Mr. Vanauken, would more appropriately have been “Splitting the Hairs of the Seamless Garment”!
You affirm all life as sacred, and then you proceed, quite painstakingly, to differentiate between innocent and guilty life — the former being worthy of preservation, the latter not. I found it upsetting that not once in your entire article did you mention the only Standard by which humankind could ever hope to issue such proclamations: our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant Who instructed that vengeance was His, not ours, that because He died for all (and none being without sin) and thereby reconciled all unto Himself, we are to love our neighbor and enemy alike, presenting ourselves as “living sacrifices,” and living anew as one and at one with Him and His.
Referring to an individual’s “Mini-Just-War” against a mugger or armed robber, you stated, “If the Christian is to resist evil, here is evil to be resisted.” Jesus taught, “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil…” (Mt. 5:39, NAS). You, as so many in the history of the Church — and when I use that word I use it inclusively to embrace ail believers in Christ — seem to have been blinded by what you referred to as “the influence of secular liberal thought upon Christianity.” That blindness prevents us from seeing the example of Christ as normative, eternally relevant and binding.
Let me ask you, Mr. Vanauken, can you imagine your Lord and Master looking at an “innocent” child and gesturing thumbs up, but viewing a hardened and “guilty” specimen and motioning thumbs down? You and I know very well that His life and teaching on this earth never projected that kind of double standard or conditional love. And He was God. How can you hope to do such a thing? How can anyone else? Who gives you the right to pass a judgment unto violent death on any fellow human being that Christ admonished should be forgiven “up to seventy times seven”? Certainly not the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all life! Ours is not to determine the value of defender vs. aggressor, innocent vs. guilty, penitent vs. remorseless criminal; that is God’s territory.
The Old Testament teaches us about a God who led His people to victory only when they obeyed His voice, not their own; the Law and its implementation belonged to Yahweh. In the New Testament, God goes a step further and instructs us to view our enemies in a new way — His way, with agape love. Christ’s Law of Love, and not any state’s, is the highest authority for the Christian.
You went to great lengths to justify the Athenian defense and victory at Marathon 500 years before Christ, claiming (ironically, much the same way Truman did after obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that so many more Athenian lives would have been lost had they not fought the Persians with such military zeal. The assumption is made that, like the Japanese, somehow you and God alike find one group of people less sacred, precious, or worthy of survival. You stressed not only quantity, but quality, writing that a host of civilization’s most ingenious sculptors, writers, scientists, and architects would never have been born or grown to maturity had the Athenians not used military force. You emphasized “loss,” and “glory,” and all I could think of was our Lord’s voluntary mortal loss and the forfeiture of His earthly glory. Quite a contrast!
By now you should be screaming, “What would you have expected the Athenians to do? What about the mother whose child is being abducted before her very eyes? Or the countless other hypothetical situations in which conventional violent resistance appears desperately inevitable?”
It was once written, “Christianity has not failed; it has never been tried.” The same is true of nonviolent resistance. Documentation has only begun chronicling the successful nonmilitary campaigns against tyranny throughout history. But if we study the already established “victories” of the early Church, the Hungarians in the 1850s, Germany in 1923, India in the 1940s, as well as the Bulgarians, French, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns during World War II, and Latin America’s nonviolent campaigns to overthrow dictatorships, we can just begin to see that there do exist alternatives. There do exist possibilities that more closely conform to the example of Jesus in our modern world.
No, pacifists do not have all the answers; nor does the military or the state, and they’ve had centuries more practice! But it only stands to reason that with continued commitment, education, and practice, other options to violent resistance can become available. And instead of dwelling on practicality and victory, shouldn’t we, as Christians, be most concerned with obeying the will and way of God? Our God taught, by personal example, that to lose one’s life following Him is to gain it, to lower oneself to seeming defeat is, ultimately, to share in His victory. In our sophisticated, modern world, what better example could you have, especially as a Catholic, than John Paul’s response to the terrorist who attempted his assassination?
You have been trying to split the hairs of God’s Limitless Love Doctrine, Mr. Vanauken. Christ told us this cannot be done; His Cross showed us that.
You stated, “Human life is sacred, but that does not mean that human beings cannot forfeit their lives.” Jesus said, “If you love those who love you…if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same thing…. But love your enemies, and do good…for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…do not pass judgment…. For whatever measure you deal out to others, it will be dealt to you in return” (Lk. 6:32-38, NAS).
God’s majestic creation — all of His life — symbolizes His sacred, Seamless Garment, to be fashioned and perfected by the Creator, in His time, and in His way.
Vanauken’s Misreading of History
In the Jan.-Feb. issue Sheldon Vanauken claims to have discovered the “classical Just War” in the conflict between the Persian king Darius and Athens, culminating in the decisive Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 B.C. He can succeed in such a claim only by ignoring certain details of the historical record, and distorting others.
First, Vanauken neglects to explain why Darius was “sorely annoyed” with Athens. It will not suit Vanauken’s purpose to present the Athenians as anything less than perfectly innocent and heroic, and the Persians as anything less than beastly and unfair. Therefore he suppresses the beginning of the story.
The Athenians had gone to the assistance of the Ionians of Asia Minor when they were in revolt against the Persians. The origins of this revolt were not especially glorious, according to Herodotus: it all came about as a result of the self-serving schemes of two Greeks, Histiaeus, whom the Persians had installed as tyrant of Miletus to rule the place in their interests, and his nephew, son-in-law, and “deputy” Aristagoras (who, to be sure, knew how to use the rhetoric of liberation). The Athenians’ part in this was to assist Aristagoras by sending 20 ships. The combined forces of the Ionian alliance marched inland against Sardis, the Persians’ provincial capital, and took it, except for its acropolis. A fire broke out and the city was destroyed, and with it the temple of Cybele. Although the expedition had no more success than this, this was quite enough to incur the hostility of Darius. It was at this point perhaps that Darius appointed a slave to say to him three times whenever he dined, “Master, remember the Athenians.” Vanauken’s headless version of the story of Marathon would leave us believing that Darius’s invasion was an example of aggression of the most imperialist and beastly kind. In fact, the Athenians were not innocent. And Darius, while he was no saint either, seems in principle justified in answering an invasion that he had suffered with an invasion of his own.
Secondly, Vanauken seems confident that Darius intended to destroy Athens, put its male inhabitants to the sword, and enslave the rest. There is no justification for this confidence. It is true that the Milesians were punished harshly. But in that connection it should be noted that the city itself was not destroyed (only the temple of Apollo at Didyma was plundered and burnt); that not all the men were killed; that male children were enslaved, not killed; that the women were enslaved, but we know nothing about their being “f ate-worse-than-death-ed.” Miletus, the city of the leaders of the Ionian rebellion, was the only city to take part in the rebellion that was so treated. (Herodotus says that the Eretrians, Ionians from the western shore of the Aegean who, like the Athenians, went to the assistance of Aristagoras and participated in the capture of Sardis, were enslaved and their temples were burnt by the Persians; but total enslavement is probably either an exaggeration on Herodotus’s part, or a misunderstanding on ours of “tous anthropous endrapodisanto,” since from other records the recovery of Eretria seems not to have taken so long as that of Miletus.)
But the most important element of the story that Vanauken overlooks is the part that Hippias, the tyrant over the Athenians, played in the Persian invasion. An examination of this matter makes it seem quite improbable that Darius had ordered the destruction of Athens and the death or enslavement of its inhabitants, as Vanauken so unhesitatingly asserts. When the Athenians expelled Hippias, he fled to the Persians and persuaded them to support him in his wish to be restored, evidently with the understanding that he would rule Athens as Darius’s governor. It was not clearly as Hellenes devoted to the cause of panhellenic liberty that the Athenians were willing to help Aristagoras, but more certainly out of fear for the return of Hippias. His presence with the Persian invaders indicates implicitly, as his ominous dream does explicitly, that he hoped to be installed as tyrant in Athens by Darius’s army. And Darius would have been willing to keep him in power there as his puppet. The use of Persian-supported Greek tyrants, after all, was his normal method of maintaining Persian control over the subject Greek cities of Asia Minor. It would not have been in the interests of either Hippias or Darius to destroy and depopulate Athens; and though Herodotean rhetoric may evoke terrific images of destruction of the sort Vanauken may like to entertain, the more solid pieces of information that are there for us to discover in Herodotus do not permit any so extreme reconstruction of Darius’s intentions as Vanauken has presented.
Thirdly, two minor points; after Marathon, neither did the Persians sail at once for home (they sailed around Attica and lay off the port of Athens before returning to Asia) nor did the Athenians “march proudly back to the City” (they ran back, fearing that the Persians in their ships might arrive there first).
And finally, classical Athens did not produce its glittering array of dramatists, historians, philosophers, sculptors, architects, and painters by remaining through the fifth and fourth centuries the virtuous little democracy that had won at Marathon. (The concept that Vanauken may be suggesting, that the 6,400 Persian deaths at Marathon — not to mention their casualties a decade later — can be weighed against the accomplishments of Athenian-sponsored artists and thinkers and estimated to be of less value, is certainly problematic, racism being not the least of its problems; but it is rather too complex an issue to address at present.) The Delian League, which was created after the rout of Xerxes in 480 B.C., and whose member-states included many of the Aegean islands as well as Athens, was before long so dominated by Athens and managed in accord with Athenian interests, that by the time of the rise of Pericles it would seem more accurate to refer to it as the Athenian Empire. In 430 B.C. Pericles himself went even further than this, according to Thucydides: “Your empire is now like a tyranny,” he said to the Athenians. The Athenians may have had remarkably good taste with respect to things artistic and intellectual. Vanauken and many other admirers of classical Athenian civilization would certainly say they did. But they also had the cash with which to indulge their taste, and seemed not to care that it came to them as the fruit of a too often harshly administered empire. When we enjoy the treasures of Athenian civilization, we should not forget, as Vanauken seems to have done, that the brilliance of the city in which they were created was kept burning at a high cost to justice. If victory at Marathon was a required condition for later Athenian cultural accomplishments, so was the imperial context. Vanauken’s picture of the Athenians as perfectly innocent geniuses is hardly credible.
It is offensive enough that Vanauken has irresponsibly distorted the (already excessively pro-Athenian, anti-Oriental) account of Herodotus to lend rhetorical support to his argument. (That he should have prefaced his version by calling himself a historian compounds his irresponsibility, and makes his rhetorical slickness more apparent.) It is yet more perverse that this deception has been foisted on us as part of a serious discussion of a problem in ethics. But it is most terrible of all that Vanauken’s version of Marathon is used to lend support to a highly problematic defense of the Just War doctrine, one that recommends owning and using guns as a solution to the problem of crime; that envisions an America filled with torpedo boats and caches of weapons and guerilla warriors, successfully standing up against an invading nuclear empire (a very sexy idea, which should make a great futuristic film that every adolescent male in the land will want to see); and that dismisses Gandhian nonviolent resistance in a flash, with no sense of what it is all about. Have we learned nothing from Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen?
For the present, I think I will not be able to read anything else by Vanauken, save with profound mistrust.
Mark Stephen Caponigro
New York, New York
As a former Marine volunteer who later aspired to a career in law enforcement, I have some understanding of the principles of self-defense and the justifiable use of deadly force alluded to in Sheldon Vanauken’s “Seams in the Seamless Garment?” (NOR, Jan.-Feb.). Like Vanauken, I support a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms for recreation and self-defense, within responsible confines of personal safety and public security. It follows that I would endorse such a thing as a “just war” on the microcosmic level of defending oneself, one’s loved ones, and the defenseless within one’s immediate purview.
But like Thomas Merton, who claimed to believe in the just war in theory but not in practice, I have grown to distrust the notion when brought to bear in favor of armed conflict between nations. The just war theory may look good on paper, but in fact very few wars in history have been waged with respect to its moral criteria, notably its stipulation against the deliberate killing of noncombatants. Indeed, some current theorists go so far as to suggest that, given the nature of modern warfare which demands the participation of the entire citizenry in its preparation and conduct, there are no “non-combatants.”
Outside the realm of nuclear war, nowhere is the distinction between combatant and noncombatant more strained than in a guerilla conflict. Thus Vanauken’s advocacy of preparations for guerilla warfare and his enthusiasm for “well-hidden caches of weapons and great quantities of ammunition” make one wonder what sort of idyllic moral Came-lot he has been living in. One hesitates to invoke Third Reich analogies, but if this isn’t Blut und Eisen romanticism, I’ve never seen it!
Has Vanauken never heard of The Order? What of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazis, the Hell’s Angels, the Weather Underground, or Wisconsin’s own Posse Commitatus? Contrary to his assertion that nobody would like his proposal, I’m certain the above would find it just peachy. “Well-hidden” guns, you see, have an uncanny way of getting into the hands of those whose motives are anything but Christ-centered. And incidentally, having spent 21 months on an undercover narcotics assignment, I can assure the reader that the Miami Vice depiction of well-armed “guerillas” riding shotgun on boatloads of “nose candy” is not that grossly fictionalized. Noble savages they aren’t, but neither would I expect Vanauken’s proto-Christian hero to conform to that ideal.
As for capital punishment: my wife, a somewhat qualified pacifist and a far better Christian than I, can attest to my own struggle with the issue. Upon hearing of the latest gruesome murder, my response is typically two words — Hang ‘em!” — which at the moment I say them I mean as passionately as any outraged man can mean anything. And yet while admittedly strained, it is mercy and not hotheaded judgment that must characterize an authentic pro-life solution to such dilemmas, as well as to the issues of abortion and national defense. Indeed, when the matter at hand involves a question of whether to kill or not to kill, the best advice perhaps is “when in doubt, don’t.”
Stephen C. Settle
Capital Punishment Not Defensive
Regarding Sheldon Vanauken’s “Seams in the Seamless Garment?” (Jan.-Feb.): a just war is “just” because it is purely defensive. But if we “learn to discriminate” as he urges, we should see that there is nothing defensive about capital punishment — certainly nothing that life imprisonment couldn’t also accomplish. Also, the cost-maintenance argument smacks of the warped mentality used to justify those abortions that will “save on welfare in the long run.” And, while Vanauken may think (with good reason) that execution after two weeks of reflection may expedite repentance, doesn’t our merciful God know best when to cut the strings of life and bring his lost sheep home?
Moreover, the issue of capital punishment is not resolved by considering the “just deserts” of a callous, brutal murderer. Couldn’t we say that the brutal murderer “deserves” to have his arms and legs cut off? Perhaps even one by one, inch by inch, on the steps of city hall at twelve noon? (In fact, some countries currently maintain very nearly this practice for crimes less than murder and, not surprisingly, experience astonishingly low crime rates and even lower recidivism.) Although I, for one, don’t advocate bodily dismemberment as a form of punishment, can’t we give a brutal murderer his “just deserts” by truncating, as it were, things other than his life?
I have come to oppose capital punishment out of my involvement in the pro-life movement and by reflecting on the “consistent ethic of life.” My litmus test is whether I can imagine Christ taking the life in question other than “in due course.” Try as I may, I can no more imagine Him flipping the electric chair switch or injecting poison into the veins of a villain than I can imagine Him scraping a child out of a mother’s womb.
David A. Shaneyfelt
Sheldon Vanauken helpfully conveyed the necessary patchwork which is the “seamless garment” of Christian ethics. His story of the ancient Greeks in just war against the Persians nicely captured a viable and orthodox alternative to pacifism.
I nearly gagged, however, as I finished reading his argument in favor of capital punishment as “upholding the sacredness of human life.” It starts out well enough, lifting up the murderer’s potential for repentance as the governing criterion by which punishment is to be meted out. But then we learn that this does not substantially differ from the Crusader putting his foot upon the neck of the Turk, demanding that he convert or die, and then running him through so that he cannot recant Jesus as the Christ. People of faith would do better to spare the world such affirmations of life.
Among the difficult alternatives in this no-win matter, I will choose no-parole mandatory life imprisonment of murderers every time.
Senior Minister, First Congregational Church
A Good Aristotelian
Sheldon Vanauken is a good Aristotelian in at least one sense. Aristotle says somewhere that the ability to think is the ability to make distinctions. In “Seams in the Seamless Garment?” Vanauken makes the right distinctions, makes them clearly, and makes them well. He thinks rather than emotes, and in our time that is refreshing.
Prof. Francis Canavan, S.J.
Department of Political Science, Fordham University
Bronx, New York
“Conservatives” Are Not Conservatives
I wish to comment on Dale Vree’s review of The Ratzinger Report (Jan.-Feb.). Mine is a niggling carp. Vree insists Cardinal Ratzinger is not a “conservative” because he is a “critic of bourgeois norms and the free market.”
My problem is that historically, criticism of “bourgeois norms and the free market” has been characteristic of conservatives. Not as the label is used in contemporary discourse, but as it was understood before the right-wing Republicans misappropriated it. As laissez-faire capitalism or liberalism rose to dominance in the 19th century, it was trenchantly critiqued by conservatives who drew their inspiration from an older and religious tradition. Lord John Manners and the coterie of “Young Englanders” who briefly associated themselves with Disraeli were, I believe, genuine conservatives and they held no brief for the materialism and idolatry of the free market they saw among their liberal opponents.
Of course, Vree’s main point — that neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor Pope John Paul II can be understood merely by fastening the label “conservative” on them and then analyzing their thoughts and actions according to a stereotype — is well taken and needs reiteration.
Prof. Nicholas Varga
Department of History, Loyola College in Maryland
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