The Price of Peace

Following are excerpts from the Archbishop of Milan’s address on the eve of the feast of St Ambrose. “The dramatic moment we are living is a strong call to conversion and to the recognition of our connivance with the evils of the world. Peace is the fruit of lasting and sincere alliances, starting with the Alliance that God makes in Christ by forgiving man”


Terrorism, reprisals, legitimate defense, war and peace. In these months, starting September 11th, these themes have reacquired a burning topicality. The facts are well-known: very grave terrorist attacks that reveal an unheard-of capacity for hatred and fanaticism which uses refined technology and is fed by unprecedented forms of civilian and religious fundamentalism (I am thinking here of all the aspiring suicides). The attacks were followed by a terrorist manhunt that erupted into a war in Afghanistan. Then, in recent days, shameful suicide attacks on unarmed citizens in Israel have multiplied, followed by reprisals and military actions in Palestine, in places where for years now there has been a crescendo of violence with no end in sight.

Questions, hypotheses, unease
These events sadden us, they call us into question, they upset us. Many questions, hypotheses, and many motives for unease arise… .

Therefore, I have asked myself insistently and I have asked the Lord: In this whirlwind of our history, does it still make any sense to speak of peace? And in what way, at what price?…

Why such cruelty?
…The questions about the events of history and especially the dramatic events of our own day are many, and they are understandably charged with deeply felt emotions, instinctive attachment and preferences, and even prejudice. Frequent appeals are made to some moral authority to give immediate answers that will make everything clear (mainly hoping to find confirmed what each one has already judged in his heart of hearts!).

The first question concerns the authors of these acts of terrorism, starting with the most sensational and deadly, especially those involving the suicide of the attacker, and it is the question about the reasons why. Why can a human being reach such cruelty and blindness? We wonder what obscure meanders of a man’s conscience can harbor such feelings of hatred, of political and religious fanaticism; what personal resentments and sense of collective humiliation can be at the root of mad decisions like this. Nothing and no one can ever justify such acts or give them even the sketchiest appearance of legitimacy. But we must ask ourselves: Did we all really realize in the past, with regard to other persons and peoples, how great and explosive the resentments could become, bit by bit, and how much our own behavior could contribute and did contribute to fanning in silence the flames of rebellion and hatred?…

“Zero tolerance” is, for every word or gesture of hatred, supported by a Gospel rule.

A second question arises insistently in people’s hearts, this one of a rather political and military nature: Will the type of operations being carried out against terrorism be effective?…

The third question is an ethical one: Does what has been done and is being done against terrorism, especially on the level of war, remain within the bounds of legitimate defense, or does it take on the shape, at least in some cases, of retaliation, excessive violence, revenge? It is clear that the right to legitimate defense cannot be denied to anybody, not even in the name of a Gospel principle. Constant vigilance and constant dominion of oneself and individual and collective passions are essential so that the necessary actions of prevention and justice may not be invaded by the willful desire to get even and by the disproportion of revenge… .

Beyond moral judgments
…There is another question besides the ones we have recalled up to now concerning the current events of terrorism and war. It is a very simple question, of an evangelical nature. This is it: What would Jesus say to us today about what we have just been discussing? What would He suggest to us in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, within the framework of the Beatitudes of the merciful and the peacemakers?

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus does not go into any of the problems that his questioners have in mind, which have to do with the assignment of guilt for serious blood crimes, the search for scapegoats. Going beyond every categorical moral judgment on the actions of individuals or groups, Jesus goes to the deep root of all these evils, i.e., the sinfulness of everyone, the interior connivance of each person with violence and evil, twice repeating, “Unless you repent you will perish as they did.” He invites each one of us to look inside ourselves for the signs of our complicity with injustice. He admonishes us not to limit ourselves to ripping it out here and there, but to change our scale of values, to change our lives.

This surprises us at first. It seems like a flight from the present, like flying too high in the face of events that urgently require decisions and judgments. It seems like a generalization of a problem, that risks mixing up rights and wrongs, victims and murderers, everyone brought together under one common denominator.

But Jesus does not intend at all to take concrete responsibility away from anyone. Each person is responsible for his own actions, and he bears the consequences. It matters more to Him to point out that all human efforts to destroy evil by the force of arms will never have an enduring effect if we do not seriously realize that the deep causes of evil are inside us, in the heart and the life of each person, race, group, nation, institution that connives with injustice… .

Trust in grace
The evils to be deplored and defeated are many: besides terrorism and violence, every form of injustice must be condemned and every affront to human dignity must be eliminated. We ask: Is such a reversal of direction possible? We dare to affirm that it is, first of all because it is necessary to straighten up our scale of values in this way if we want to overcome the increasing strife that aims at the mutual destruction of the contenders. Secondly, it is possible because we continue to count on God’s grace and man’s basic reasonableness. Thirdly, it is possible because as Christians… we have the certainty that if evil abounds it is so that the grace of conversion and forgiveness may abound even more. Even if we leave it to the Lord of history to establish the time frame, we know that it is very possible that the perception that a change of life, the adoption of a new scale of values, is necessary may come to maturity once again in the West, perhaps precisely under the weight of such dramatic events… .

A call to conversion
The dramatic moment we are living is a strong call to conversion and acknowledgment of our connivance with the world’s evil—and I emphasize: with everyone’s evil… . We must not think that only our Western world is the one called by Jesus to change the way it lives. The Lord states twice, in the text in Luke which was our starting point (13:3-5): “Unless you change your mind you will perish as they did.”

But I could not conclude my talk without returning to what was its principal inspiration from the very beginning, i.e., the great good that is peace–one thing we take supremely to heart, peace!… One can never desire war for its own sake… . There can conceivably be cases of legitimate defense of things and values that are indispensable. It might even be necessary to take courageous actions of “humanitarian intervention” and measures to restore and maintain peace in high-risk situations. But this is not yet peace.

Peace is not only the absence of conflict, cessation of hostilities, armistice… Peace is the fruit of lasting, sincere alliances…, starting with the Alliance that God makes in Christ by forgiving man, rehabilitating him, and giving Himself to him as a partner in friendship and dialogue, in view of the unity of everyone whom He loves. By virtue of this unity and this alliance, each one sees in the other above all someone like himself, like him loved and forgiven, and if he is a Christian he reads in the other’s face the reflection of the glory of Christ and the splendor of the Trinity. He can say to his brother, “You are supremely important to me; whatever is mine is yours. I love you more than myself; your things are more important than mine. And since your well-being matters supremely to me, the well-being of everyone, of all of the new mankind matters to me–not only the well-being of my family, clan, tribe, race, ethnic group, movement, party, nation, but the well-being of all of mankind.” This is peace… .