My Christian CLE Perspective: Absolute Nonviolence Across the Issues
by Julia Smucker
Editor’s Note: There are of course a wide variety of Christian perspectives, and we had a different one last week. We also welcome perspectives from a variety of religions, as listed at the bottom, and invite people to share theirs with us.
I am a baptized Mennonite and confirmed Catholic, and my thinking cannot be fully understood without reference to both traditions. I was raised with the strongest possible grounding in gospel nonviolence within the Anabaptist tradition (albeit its more culturally assimilated strain), and it’s still primarily from that perspective that I come to the CLE. I believed in the CLE long before I ever heard the term and would express bewilderment at different political camps being pro-life on some issues but pro-death on others. The full CLE in its broadest, most absolute sense has always been my understanding of what nonviolence means, as the full logical and moral extent of Christian pacifism. I love defying political stereotypes by telling people that I’m pro-life because I’m a pacifist.
The way I was taught nonviolence growing up tended to center opposition to war, largely for historical reasons, with opposition to all other violence as a natural extension. But I’ve always understood pacifism (especially in the Christian nonviolence tradition) as encompassing much more than opposition to war, just as being pro-life encompasses much more than opposition to abortion, neither of which by any means lessens opposition to both. I recognize a certain degree of subjectivity in what is emphasized and how, which may make me inclined to point out (despite my strong resistance to the ranking of issues) certain unique features of war: in particular, that it’s mass killing, the type of violence that kills by far the most people in a single occurrence – including unborn, elderly, and all stages in between – while other forms of killing such as abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty also kill large numbers of people in totality, but one at a time.
But every form of violence has certain features that are unique to it. So while my own personal commitment to the CLE arises most fundamentally from a broadly understood commitment to peace, I ultimately cannot believe any one form of violence is objectively worse or worthier of attention than all others. If every human life is truly inherently sacred, then the lives of those killed individually cannot be less worthy, nor their killings less a desecration of the divine image, than those killed en masse; the lives of those killed at any point after birth cannot be less worthy, nor their killings less a desecration of the divine image, than those killed by being torn from their mothers’ wombs; and so on.
I’ve had my share of frustration with some modernized Mennonites and politicized Catholic peace activists getting wishy-washy about abortion. The problem, though, isn’t people considering other life issues equally as important as abortion; the problem is people not considering abortion an important issue in the first place. There is no reason for its importance to be in any way diminished by the importance (yes, even the equal importance) of other life-and-death issues. On the contrary, reverence for life should be the rising tide that lifts the boats of all life issues together, all of them enhancing, not threatening, each other’s importance.
I also support the efforts of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative to nudge official Catholic teaching further along its trajectory toward embracing nonviolence more fully. But my greatest frustration has been just trying to get many lay Catholics on board with where the official teaching actually is.
Catholic social teaching (CST) includes a basic presumption against taking life, based on the principle of human dignity inherent in the imago Dei, with some fairly stringent (in theory, if not in practice) exceptions to that presumption, which have gradually narrowed throughout the development of CST. My hope is for those exceptions to continue to narrow to the point of disappearing altogether – ideally, even to the point that the Catholic Church becomes as well known for being a peace church as for being a pro-life church (without becoming any less well known for its pro-life stance, nor weakening it in any way; in fact, I believe a more robust and well publicized peace teaching would only strengthen the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching).
A problem with exceptions for violence is that they easily become a de facto norm. Hence there are practicing Catholics taking active-duty military positions and training to kill on command with little or no room for moral discretion (despite that even just war theory makes clear that not all war killing is justified), or even being in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal for that matter, without any apparent sense of moral conflict. We sometimes hear prayers at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice – the only sacrifice from which Christians of all nationalities truly derive their freedom – referring to the military as “protecting our freedoms,” without any sense of contradiction. I’ve expressed concerns in my parish about how prayers for the military are worded, which seemed to move the needle a bit, but those quasi-messianic tropes are tenacious creatures and will keep popping up like weeds without some badly needed catechetical pesticide soaking deeply and broadly into the soil of the Church Universal.
There will always be a need for particular people to focus on particular projects at particular times and places. Much good and necessary work is done by individuals and groups dedicated to promoting alternatives to abortion, war, euthanasia, the death penalty, gun violence, domestic violence, police violence, xenophobic violence and whatever other violence rears its head. It’s true that none of us can do everything, but that doesn’t mean each of us is limited to only one thing. We can all contribute time and talent to a particular project for which we see a particular local need, or for which we are recruited and/or have relevant skills to contribute, and then do the same for a different project as needs and possibilities arise. As long as various human needs and anti-human violence abound, various people will be needed personally prioritizing various kinds of work at any given time – and, hopefully, consistently opposing all violence, whatever they happen to be working on.
Just showing up to advocate on multiple issues can give us credibility across the board. A couple of years ago I attended a protest against the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, where I politely approached a woman who held a sign saying, “Where is the pro-life outrage?” I told her that I was part of the pro-life outrage (which her sign assumed would be absent), and she thanked me for being there.
My experiences and deep foundational beliefs lead me to consider all human lives as inherently worthy of protection, and all attacks against human life and dignity as equally worthy of opposing wherever they arise. For those who insist on separating one issue from all others – which seems to happen most often with abortion, whatever the reasons – I don’t know if my reasoning will be convincing. My conversations with people who take this view often leave me with the impression that they won’t be satisfied that I take the moral weight of abortion seriously enough unless I give all other life issues less moral weight in relation to it, and that saddens me. It saddens me because, while my mind has changed on large and small matters during my life so far, I can’t imagine changing it in the direction of becoming more favorable to violence. And since I am already absolutely, categorically opposed to abortion as a form of violence, the only way for me to give it preeminence among my own values over all other life issues would be to become less strongly opposed to other forms of violence. And that, for me, would be unthinkable.
For more of our posts from Julia Smucker, see:
The Price of Violence: When Dehumanizing the Vulnerable Hurts One’s Own Causes
What Does it Mean to be Inconsistent?
Is Abortion Different from Other Violence?
To Know a Person is to Recognize a Human
Defining Reproductive Justice: An Encounter
For more of our posts from various religious perspectives, see
The Vital Need for Diversity / Sarah Terzo
The Consistent Life Consensus in Ancient Christianity / Rob Arner
The Early Christian Tradition / Rob Arner
Fratelli Tutti – Consistent-Life Excerpts
The Consistent Life Ethic: My Christian Perspective / Jim Hewes
Abortion and War are the Karma for Killing Animals / Vasu Murti
Why the Interfaith Approach is Important / Rachel MacNair
Breaking Stereotypes in Fearful Times / John Whitehead
Ancient Roots of the Consistent Life Ethic: Greece / Mary Krane Derr
Brava, Julia! Your essay is so beautiful and compelling that it seems small minded to quibble about its edges (like whether, even though all lethal violence is equally wrong, more violence remains worse than less violence). I am very happy to have you as a comrade in our great struggle.