Nicene CreedA talk given at St. John Neumann Church, Reston, Virginia, February 24, 2012, following Stations of the Cross

By Robert More, Chairperson, Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore

I. Introduction

The Church recognizes two main approaches to issues of war and peace, the just war theory and Christian pacifism or nonviolent resistance. Although Christian pacifism has been part of the Church’s tradition from its founding, it has been eclipsed since the time of St. Augustine by the just war theory. Starting with Vatican II, Christian pacifism/nonviolent resistance has been officially recognized as a legitimate stance for Catholics. But it receives much less attention than the just war theory, so I want to talk about it with you this evening.

II. Nicene Creed

The Diocese has helpfully provided an outline of my talk in your pews—the cards showing the prayers of the Mass in the new Roman Missal. I’d like to use the Nicene Creed, which is on the second side of the Mass cards, to organize my points. So please pray it along with me. We’ll read a portion together, and I’ll offer some reflections, then read the next portion together, and so on. I’ll then tell you a little bit about Pax Christi.

A. Let’s begin by reciting the first three sentences of the Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”

1. So first we profess our faith in one God, who created everything that is or has ever been. God created everything that exists in space, from the tiniest subatomic particles to forces of energy, from our earth and all that lives on it to the solar system to our galaxy, to the incomprehensible expanse of the universe. God also created every living thing and every human being, of infinite complexity and diversity.

God is also the creator of everything that has ever existed or will ever exist in time, from the Big Bang 13-14 billion years ago to the formation of the earth 4-5 billion years ago, from geologic time to evolutionary time to the history of the human race to salvation history to the coming of Christ and the Christian millennia to our own day, and on into an unknown future.

We study all these phenomena in space and time and have learned an impressive amount about them; yet there are vast mysteries we still do not comprehend.

And that’s only the category of “things visible.” God is also creator of all things invisible—things outside space and time, to which we give names like heaven, hell, and purgatory, angels and devils—but about which we know very little.

2. We also profess our belief in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, consubstantial— “one in being,” we used to say—with the Father, the eternal Word of God, through whom everything in creation was made—all those things visible and invisible we just mentioned. So we profess Jesus Christ as Lord, not only of our hearts, but of the entire universe.

B. Let’s read the next sentence of the Creed together: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

We believe that this same eternal Word of God through whom all things were made became flesh and lived among us, as John’s Gospel says (Jn 1:3, 14). He came to announce the reign of God and to conquer sin and death.

We believe that he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6), and that he taught us the way to eternal life: loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk 12:30); loving our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:31); loving others as Jesus loves us (Jn 15:12); caring for the least of his brothers and sisters (Mt 25:40).

He called his followers to be peacemakers (Mt 5:9); he taught them, not only not to kill, but not even to harbor anger against another (Mt 5:21-22); he taught them not to retaliate if assaulted, but to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:38-39); and he taught them, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:43-45).

When challenged to identify the greatest commandment, he linked love of neighbor to love of God (Mt 22:34-39). And he told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what love of neighbor looks like in practice (Lk 10:27-37). Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and Jesus’ use of this parable shows that love of enemies goes beyond an individual’s personal enemies to include national enemies. For Christians, national enemies are neighbors we are to love as ourselves.

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, he and his disciples enter a Samaritan village, but the people there refuse to welcome him. James and John are indignant and want to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans, but Jesus rebukes their violent spirit (Lk 9:51-54).

So we profess our belief in God the Son, who came down from heaven and gave us his commandments of love, teaching us the way to eternal life.

C. Let’s say the next three sentences of the Creed together: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

We have just prayed the Stations of the Cross, recalling Jesus’ trial, passion, death, and burial. Jesus and his disciples lived under a brutal Roman occupation, and he was executed by the Romans as a threat to law and order.

One of the options available to Jesus during his ministry was to ally himself with the Zealot party, which violently opposed the Roman occupation. His rejection of that option may have contributed to his death, as it appears Judas may have betrayed Jesus either out of disillusionment that he wasn’t a political messiah leading the Jews in revolt against the Romans, or in an effort to force Jesus’ hand to take up that fight.

In Jesus’ passion, we see his teaching of nonviolent love in action. Luke tells us that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the disciples drew a sword, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear. “Jesus said in reply, ‘Stop, no more of this!’ Then he touched the servant’s ear and healed him” (Lk 22:50-51). Thus Jesus rejected the use of violence even in legitimate self-defense. And he dies on the cross forgiving his executioners (Lk 23:34).

To human appearances at that point, Jesus and his mission were a failure. His way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies was shown to be ineffective and unrealistic. His friends abandoned and betrayed him; and his enemies tortured, mocked, and killed him. But we know that’s not the end of the story. For we profess, he “rose again on the third day.” His complete obedience to the will of God was vindicated in a breathtaking way—love triumphed over evil and hate. God was able to use Jesus’ seemingly ineffective, loving sacrifice to bring about the salvation of the world.

Following his resurrection, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee, where he commissioned them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-20). So the risen Christ, just before ascending to the Father’s right hand, reaffirms the commandments of love he taught the disciples during his ministry.

D. Let’s read the next sentence of the Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus had told his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth . . . . [H]e will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:15-17, 26).

And immediately after this he says to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn 14:27). We know how the world gives what it calls “peace,” the domination of the weak by the strong, or the balance of power between enemies armed to the teeth. But the peace that Jesus gives is the indomitable force of love and forgiveness.

On Easter Sunday night, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and makes good on his Last Supper promise. “Peace be with you,” he says to those who had abandoned him in his hour of need. And he breathed on them and said, “Receive the holy spirit” (Jn 20:19-22).

We too have received the Holy Spirit, through our baptism and confirmation, to remind us of all that Jesus taught about love of friends and enemies and to empower us to love as Jesus loved.

E. Finally, let’s say the last two sentences together: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

The Spirit forms us into the Body of Christ, to carry on Jesus’ mission of love, mercy, and reconciliation.

We see this clearly in the apostolic Church. Though faced with violent persecution during the first three centuries, it continued to preach and practice nonviolent love. Starting with the first martyr, St. Stephen, Christians did not defend themselves, but followed Jesus’ example of suffering and forgiveness of enemies. Like Jesus before them, they rejected the notion that tyranny or even legitimate self-defense justifies violent resistance.

During this time, the Church forbade Christians to serve in the Roman army; and soldiers who converted to Christianity, like St. Martin of Tours, refused to fight.

All that changed with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 391, and by 416, only Christians could serve in the Roman army. In the 5th Century, St. Augustine took the notion of a just war from classical pagan sources (especially Cicero) and developed it further.

In the Middle Ages, violence by Christians against Christians was pervasive, and the Church promoted ideas like the Peace of God and the Truce of God to limit it. Starting in 1095, the Popes declared a series of Crusades, first against Muslims and later even against other Christians, moving from defensive just war to offensive holy war.

But throughout the Church’s history, there were others who kept the tradition of Christian pacifism alive. One notable example is St. Francis of Assisi, who not only made personal efforts on behalf of reconciliation and peace, but stipulated that laypersons who became members of his Third Order were not “to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.” (Challenge of Peace, 115.)

In the 20th Century, Mahatma Gandhi, inspired in part by the Sermon on the Mount, led successful campaigns of nonviolent resistance in South Africa and India. This remarkable Hindu showed Christians that Jesus’ teachings were not unattainable ideals but were both practical and deeply spiritual.

Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day reclaimed Christian pacifism for Catholics, inspiring generations of peace activists. Martin Luther King, Jr., took Gandhi’s lessons and successfully applied them to the struggle for civil rights in this country.

Against this backdrop and the appalling history of bloodshed in the first half of the 20th Century, the Church at Vatican II explicitly recognized the witness of Christian pacifism/nonviolent resistance. To quote from Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Council said,

Peace is . . . an enterprise of justice. . . . But this is not enough. . . . A firm determination to respect other men and peoples and their dignity, as well as the studied practice of brotherhood are absolutely necessary for the establishment of peace. Hence peace is likewise the fruit of love, which goes beyond what justice can provide.

That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace, reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men.

. . . .

Motivated by this same spirit, we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself. [GS 78.]

The Council also called for the enactment of laws to accommodate “those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms.” [GS 79.]

In recent decades, the Church was at the forefront of campaigns of nonviolent resistance that overthrew dictators in the Philippines and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Thus, nonviolence has proved effective, as the only way to break the cycle of retaliation. And it could be much more effective if governments devoted to peacemaking anywhere near the resources and energy they devote to warmaking.

We profess belief in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, “catholic” meaning “universal.” So also our love must be universal, as was the love of Christians in the early Church.

F. The Creed ends with “Amen.” We’ve said we believe all these things about God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, baptism, the resurrection of the dead, and the life to come; and now we affirm it with a final “Amen.”

That little “Amen” challenges us. Do we really believe all that we have just professed? Are we willing to stake our lives on it, or is it a collection of pious sayings?

There are several ways Christians typically discount the teachings of Jesus on the radical love we are to have for others, even enemies.

1. We may treat Jesus’ teachings as aspirational, not to be taken literally. Or we may reject them as impractical and unrealistic for dealing with the real world, which is marred by evil and violence. But as we have seen, nonviolence can be both practical and effective in the real world.

And even if it isn’t effective in worldly terms—and it won’t be in all situations—it is what Jesus called us to, even if it means we must suffer. He said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). And “[D]o not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul . . .” (Mt 10:28).

If we really believe all these things—

  • that Jesus is the eternal Word of God through whom all things were made, and who therefore knows all mysteries and how all things work together in God’s loving plan;
  • that his way of nonviolent love ended in apparent failure, but he was vindicated by God who raised him from the dead, and that act of perfect love resulted in the salvation of the world;
  • that he sends his Spirit to be with us, to strengthen us and guide us; and
  • that he will come in glory at the end of time, to raise us up with him and to bring about the fullness of God’s reign, a kingdom of justice and peace,

—if we really believe all that, then how do we presume to reject his teachings as impractical or unrealistic?

2. Another way Christians discount Jesus’ teachings is to find snippets in the Gospels that they think justify the use of violence. They may cite Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s servant and point out that Jesus didn’t tell the Centurion to give up his occupation as a soldier (Mt 8:5-13). But that was an example of Jesus loving a representative of his people’s enemy, the occupying Roman army, a pagan. When Jesus teaches his disciples, his message is clear.

Or they may cite Jesus’ mentioning the sword as a metaphor (Mt 10:34, Lk 22:36) and conclude that Jesus approved of the use of weapons in self-defense. But Jesus did no such thing. When the disciples in Luke misinterpret Jesus’ saying and think he is referring to real swords, he rebukes them. And in the garden, he rejects the use of a sword in his own defense.

Or they may cite Jesus’ making a whip of cords when he cleansed the temple (Jn 2:13-16), as if that justified our building nuclear arsenals. But the possibility that Jesus used a whip to drive animals out of the temple is hardly a justification for the use of lethal force against other human beings loved by God.

The early Church resorted to no such dodges to justify the use of violence even in legitimate self-defense. They accepted suffering and death, in imitation of Jesus, with the result that—as Tertullian said in the 3rd Century—the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church. Their response to persecution also seemed impractical and ineffective in worldly terms, but God was able to use their faithfulness to build his Church.

3. Or Christians may come up with various “what if” scenarios—“what if someone had a gun pointed at your wife or child, and you had a gun, would you shoot the person?” Or they may ask, “What about Hitler?”

The first thing to note about “what if” scenarios is that often the situations described are pretty rare, if not downright farfetched; yet they are used as hypotheticals to justify a reliance on violence that goes all the way to the wholesale slaughter and destruction of wars that are all too real and common in our world.

Beyond that, what you should do if someone had a gun pointed at you or a loved one is pray to be shown how to love that person in that moment, in a way that defuses the situation. Using a weapon would often be a good way to get everyone killed. Jesus told his disciples, when you face persecution and are brought before rulers, do not worry about what you are to say, “[f]or the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Lk 12:11-12). So too here. We need to trust that, if we are determined to love as Jesus loved, God will show us the way out. And there are wonderful real-world examples of this.

Hitler, like any other tyrant, was just one person. He was able to inflict great evil and suffering on Europe only because millions of German Christians rejected Jesus’ teachings of love and followed Hitler’s rants of hate. He was able to win them over in large part because of the harsh terms the allies had imposed on Germany after WWI, which was another prime example of the world’s Christians rejecting Jesus’ teachings and slaughtering each other by the millions. Even so, there are examples of effective nonviolent resistance to the Nazis.

If Jesus is who the Church proclaims him to be, then he knows what works to bring about God’s kingdom; and the question for us is whether we believe and trust him. So I hope that the next time you pray the Creed at Mass, you will consider the true meaning of all these words we profess together and will give it your own “Amen!”

III. Pax Christi

Just to give you a brief introduction to Pax Christi, the organization—whose name is Latin for “the Peace of Christ”—was formed in 1945 in France by a bishop and a laywoman as a Crusade of Prayer for Germany, praying for peace and reconciliation between the wartime enemies.

After the war, Pax Christi centers were established in France and Germany; and by the 1950s, the movement had spread to Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium. In the 1970s, sections were started in the U.S. and Australia. Since then, the movement has spread throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa; and Pax Christi International has official observer status at the U.N.

In this country, Pax Christi USA is headquartered in D.C. and has regional chapters throughout the country. Our region is Metro DC-Baltimore, and we have about 500-600 members, many of whom meet in local groups around the region.

We follow a model of prayer, study, and action:

  • We pray to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world—e.g., we have Peace Masses, prayer vigils, days of reflection, and small group and personal prayer;
  • We study issues of local, national, and international concern to discern the signs of the times and how to respond in faith—e.g., we use books, films, speakers, and discussion, as in the JustFaith program; and
  • We act to proclaim God’s word and promote a vision of peace and justice—e.g., we engage in witnesses, demonstrations, lobbying, and writing letters to the editor.

The Pax Christi USA Statement of Purpose reads as follows:

Pax Christi USA strives to create a world that reflects the Peace of Christ by exploring, articulating, and witnessing to the call of Christian nonviolence. This work begins in personal life and extends to communities of reflection and action to transform structures of society. Pax Christi USA rejects war, preparations for war, and every form of violence and domination. It advocates primacy of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for creation.

Pax Christi USA commits itself to peace education and, with the help of its bishop members, promotes the gospel imperative of peacemaking as a priority in the Catholic Church in the United States. Through the efforts of all its members and in cooperation with other groups, Pax Christi USA works toward a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

Pax Christi USA has four mission areas. The first is “Spirituality of Nonviolence and Peacemaking: We promote Christian nonviolence on the personal, communal, national, and international levels. Believing in the Gospel call to conversion as found in the Beatitudes, we denounce and resist the evils of violence while striving to reflect the Peace of Christ.”

I would note that this includes all forms of violence, not only war. For example, it includes abortion, capital punishment, torture, and inhumane treatment of detainees, immigrants, and prisoners.

The second is “Disarmament, Demilitarization, and Reconciliation with Justice: We promote nuclear, conventional, and domestic disarmament, an end to the inter-national arms trade, economic conversion to a non-military economy, and nonviolent alternatives to war. We promote the just reconciliation of enemies through the United Nations and other channels.”

The third is “Economic and Interracial Justice in the United States: We join the struggle against economic injustice, militarism, and environmental destruction which are particularly harmful to those who are poor, minorities, children, and women. We work toward eliminating racism in the Catholic Church and the country, working toward equality of all people.”

And the fourth is “Human Rights and Global Restoration: We promote universal human rights, both at home and abroad, through solidarity with oppressed and marginalized people struggling for dignity. We reject every form of political and economic domination over others and foster a reverence for all creation.”

I’ve brought brochures with me that tell you a little more about Pax Christi USA and that you can use to join if you’re interested. You can also visit the national organization’s website at www.paxchristiusa.org or our regional organization’s website at www.paxchristimetrodc.org, and we’re both on Facebook.

And if you’re interested in exploring all these issues in more depth, I’d recommend that the parish sponsor the new JustFaith module, entitled Just Peacemaking Initiative: The Challenge and Promise of Nonviolence for Our Time.

IV. Conclusion

Thank you for your time and attention this evening. To conclude with the words of St. Paul to the Philippians, may “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding . . . guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).