Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: April 1986

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.

Deb Langhans

Irvine, California

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

Vanauken’s Romanticism

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

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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

Alexandria, Virginia

Nearly Gagged

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.

Dale Rosenberger

Senior Minister, First Congregational Church

Columbus, Ohio

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

Baltimore, Maryland

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