Brian Johnstone

Dorothy Day (Milwaukee 1968). Jim Forest. flickr cc.

These reflections were written on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Long Tan (Vietnam) which took place on 18 August 1966. In Australia, this is also Vietnam Veterans’ day. Sixty thousand Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. Some 521 died as a result of the war, and over 3,000 were wounded. It was estimated that deaths due to the Vietnam conflict totalled 2,450,000 between 1954 and 1975. Estimates of civilian casualties range from 195,000 to 430,000.
Lachlan Wilson, an Australian Vietnam veteran, composed a musical reflection on the war, entitled Echoes of Conflict, which veterans have chosen as their theme music. They have said it expresses their emotional experience of the war. Very different from the usual martial music of parades, it has an elegiac quality which evokes spirituality. This link between the Australian experience of war and spirituality suggested that our culture would now be open to the discussion that follows.
‘Spirituality’ has many meanings for our contemporaries. Many would now say that it is not ‘religion’ which gives value and meaning to their way of life, but their spirituality. In this article, ‘spirituality’ will mean an account of that which gives transcendent value and meaning to one’s life.
By transcendent, I mean that which enables us to see beyond our immediate day-to-day concerns and conflicts. It lifts our gaze above the merely useful, and enables us to appreciate what is ultimately worthwhile in life. It is a way of imagining, feeling, thinking, and choosing, by which we give cohesive and stable consistency to our lives. Spirituality is expressed in the beliefs we hold and by which we live, the stories we tell, the music we play, the songs we sing, the rituals we perform, and the ways we relate to others.
The term ‘pacifism’ can also have multiple meanings. Critics have sometimes misinterpreted it as readiness to accept peace at any price. The term ‘just-peace-making’ serves to counter this charge. True peace must be based on justice. Furthermore, this kind of peace cannot be assured by the passive acceptance of evil. To affirm this requirement, we speak of active peace-making.
Peace, of course, was required by classic just-war doctrine as the ultimate purpose which justified war. But in this doctrine, peace was invoked to justify violence. In the pacifist view, peace which is truly just cannot be attained by violent means; to claim that violence can be a means to true peace would be a contradiction. Thus, genuine pacifists insist peace-making must be non-violent. How might we describe a spirituality for this kind of pacifism?

Dorothy Day’s pacifism

ANZAC. William Ng. flickr cc.

In 1965, Dorothy Day was asked by a Catholic pacifist to write a clear, theoretical, logical manifesto of pacifism. She responded:
I can write no other than this: unless we use the weapons of the spirit, denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus, dying with Him and rising with Him, men will go on fighting, and often from the highest motives, believing that they are fighting defensive wars for justice and in self-defence against present or future aggression.
Dorothy’s reply does not provide arguments for pacifism. She gives an account of what shapes and sustains her way of life. In other words, she witnesses to her spirituality. She believed this witness could challenge and transform the minds of those who believed they were fighting for justice.
In place of the weapons of war – guns and missiles – Dorothy takes up the weapons of the spirit, meaning she takes up the cross. It is noteworthy that she is not self-righteous in judging those who believe they are fighting against aggression. Rather, she acknowledges their good motives; they believe they are fighting for justice. It is because she recognises the sincerity of those engaged in war that she can hope they will ultimately be open to her witness.
To die with Christ and to rise with him means, for her, to undergo a radical death to one’s past and a conversion to a new life. Jesus accepted death at the hands of soldiers who were simply obeying orders. But in so doing he transformed the meaning of death, and made it a way to new life.
What has to be done, Dorothy believed, is to manifest the possibility of such transformation as dramatically as one can in what one does and what one says. This was the driving conviction that inspired her participation in many demonstrations against war. It also impelled her opposition to the political and religious authorities who continued to support the war.
A spirituality of pacifism
We can clarify the meaning of a spirituality of genuine pacifism by comparison to other varieties. For example, we can consider the spirituality of the warrior. This is ancient, but also very contemporary.
It is clearly manifest in the religious aura that we in Australia are encouraged to associate with ANZAC. This spirituality requires self-sacrifice, even to the point of offering up one’s life for one’s people and nation. We dedicate shrines to the memory of the fallen. The warrior exercises to a high degree the virtues of courage and loyalty.
Dorothy Day acknowledged the sincerity of the beliefs of warriors and their genuine virtues, but she condemned the wars they were compelled to fight and their violent actions. Her strongest condemnation was directed against the ideologies that justified violence and the misguided policies of the politicians who were entrapped by such ideologies.
Dorothy Day offers a spirituality which is deeply Christian, but which enables Christians to collaborate with those of different faiths. Furthermore, it draws on and sustains constant action for peace. For these reasons, it is an appropriate spirituality for Australians who are committed to active just-peace-making.

Brian Johnstone is a Redemptorist priest who has taught moral theology at Yarra Theological Union, the Alfonsian Academy in Rome and Catholic University in Washington. He is currently working and researching in Melbourne and is an active member of Pax Christi.
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