This short work by Henri Nouwen was written in the early 1980s in the context of the Cold War and the escalating nuclear arms race. While parts of it were published in a small church journal in the 1980s and other parts were published after Nouwen's death in The Road to Peace (Orbis Books, 1998), it is appearing in its entirety for the first time in the present volume. Despite having been written over twenty years ago, the book's very powerful emphasis on the call of Christians to be peacemakers remains especially timely in our current context of war and fear.
Nouwen's central thesis is that peacemaking has become the "central task" for Christians in the modern era. (15) "Peacemaking," Nouwen states, "can no longer be regarded as peripheral to being a Christian. It is not something like joining the parish choir. Nobody can be a Christian without being a peacemaker." (16) In this book Nouwen reflects on three elements that he believes must be central to the lives of Christian peacemakers—prayer, resistance, and community.
Nouwen understands prayer to be the heart of peacemaking. It is in prayer that we can be healed of the wounds that give rise to violence, such as our feelings of inadequacy and fear. These feelings of inadequacy and fear we often try to overcome in harmful ways, hoping for example that wealth, prestige, and power will bring us the security that we lack. Yet Nouwen argues that only faith and prayer can bring such healing and security. "Prayer," says Nouwen, "is the most radical peace action we can imagine," because "in prayer we die to the self-destroying world of wounds and needs and enter into the healing light of Christ." (38-39) Throughout this book Nouwen stresses the primacy of inner change. While he recognizes the importance of social analysis in order to discern the structural causes of injustice and violence (78), he does not himself extensively develop such analysis. His focus rather remains on exploring a spirituality of peacemaking.
Nouwen argues that authentic prayer, far from being an escape from reality, leads to creative action in the world. One form this action will take is resistance to the powers of death, especially as embodied in nuclear arms. "One of the most tragic facts of our century," says Nouwen, "is that the 'No' against the nuclear arms race has been spoken so seldom, so softly, and by so few." (51) Resistance can take many forms, including civil disobedience. Nouwen reflects positively on the witness of friends who have served time in jail for their faith-based resistance actions. Yet Nouwen also expresses several cautions for peacemakers, emphasizing that peacemaking efforts must not be motivated by fear, or anger, or be cast too negatively (simply as rejection of current policies), but rather must always be grounded in service of life and hope. The primary task of the peacemaker, Nouwen says, "is not to fight death." Rather, it is "to call forth, affirm, and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest." (72) Nouwen especially highlights the importance of humility, compassion, and joy in the lives of Christian peacemakers, sure signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Living a life devoted to nonviolence and peacemaking, Nouwen argues, will generally bring accusations and persecution in response, as peacemakers will be branded as naïve, cowards, and traitors to the national cause. Amidst such opposition and amidst the seductions of the world, community is essential. "Community," Nouwen states, "is indispensable for a faithful and enduring resistance. Without community we will be quickly sucked back into the dark world of needs and wounds, of violence and destruction, of evil and death." (97)
The task of the Christian community, according to Nouwen, is to be a witness to hope. Hope, he argues, is very different from optimism. Hope is rooted not in an assessment that current trends are positive, but rather is rooted in awareness that the ultimate victory over the forces of evil and death has been won nonviolently by Jesus through his death and resurrection. It is by becoming grounded through prayer in this paschal reality that hope is maintained. "[W]e can be joyful," says Nouwen, "even when our times are depressing, peaceful even when we are constantly tempted to despair." (43)
These reflections by Nouwen on nonviolence and peacemaking are a very valuable addition to his published works. They highlight very powerfully the connections between prayer, community, and action on behalf of peace and justice, and present a compelling vision of the types of prophetic witness to which Christians are called.