Pope Francis and His Exemplary Americans: Reflections from an Undergraduate Peacebuilder


Editor’s Note: One of the goals of Peace & Change Blog is to bring student voices into the conversation about the teaching and scholarship of peace history and peace studies. To that end, we are pleased to feature this post by Ed Nuñez, a sophomore majoring in Justice and Peace Studies at Creighton University, the new institutional home for Peace & Change. An aspiring liberation educator, Ed works for the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice and works with the Ignatian Solidarity Network as an activist and blogger. We at Peace & Change Blog are grateful to Ed for offering this piece on Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in September, and for his reflections on what the Pope’s recognition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as “exemplary Americans” means to him as a young Catholic committed to peacebuilding and social justice.

On September 24, 2015, Pope Francis made a historic speech to a joint session of the United States Congress. I remember the day very vividly. I was sitting in a big ballroom here at Creighton University while Omaha Catholic high school students were watching the speech in the auditorium one floor below. We all knew it was a historic day for us, for the United States, and for our Church. We were waiting for Pope Francis to come through that door to the Congress floor. When we all heard, “Mr. Speaker, the Pope of the Holy See!”, we all started clapping and applauding. I got the chills. To see the leader of my faith and my Church walk into the halls of a place that makes the laws and policies that make our society function was an amazing moment. Pope Francis walked up to that podium and to see all the lawmakers and politicians applaud him and stand for him made me so proud to be Catholic.

As the speech went on, Pope Francis made some incredible remarks. From speaking about abolishing capital punishment in the world to speaking about the refugee crisis to urging Congress to pass humane immigration reform, Pope Francis was amazingly vocal in what he wanted Congress to be paying attention to. He spoke with urgency, compassion, and in a spirit of dialogue.

But what stood out the most in Pope Francis’ speech was his mention of four inspiring American individuals, who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people”. These people were Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Each person represented values and principles that I think are essential to the American way of life and also to those who desire to bring peace about in this world. These values are unity, equality, community, and dialogue.

Abraham Lincoln led the way toward abolishing slavery in the United States and also bringing the country together in a time of crisis. Lincoln exemplified the value of unity by stressing to the people that a Civil War would harm the country awfully. Pope Francis called him “the guardian of liberty,” and Lincoln used this liberty to help bring about unity among the American people. Unity is essential to bringing peace and change in this world because as one human family, we we need each other.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most notable and vocal civil rights activists in contemporary American history. He spoke of making American society equal and wished to have his children “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. King wanted to bring about equality and his legacy is still living on in many movements today, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the movement to lower the incarceration rate among African-American people. Equality is a principle that is essential to working for peace because when people realize that they are equal because they are human, we can live in peace.

Dorothy Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which is based in the belief in the inherent dignity of each human person and works to be hospitable to even the most vulnerable in society. Pope Francis said, “…her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” Dorothy wanted to create and build the value of community each and every day. Community is not just a group of people living together, but is one that shares stories, learns from one another, shares in the joys and sorrows, and believes in each other. This concept is vital to making peace known in this world.

Thomas Merton was a Cistercian monk who lived and worked in Southeast Asia in the late 20th century. Thomas Merton is most known for his capacity to dialogue with people of other faiths. Dialogue is a principle that is just as difficult to attain as the others because people are so individualistic and set in their ways but we can look to Thomas Merton as an example of dialogue and how people of different faiths, cultures, genders, and backgrounds can come together and work to make everyone feel fully human – peace.

Pope Francis’ speech will be a great mark in our history for the years to come. But what do we make of it? We need to look to this speech and see the values of unity, equality, community, and dialogue in the four inspiring Americans and in ourselves to make peace known in this crazy, mixed up world we live in.

January Issue Preview StoryMap

The January issue of Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace History is focused on World War I, shell shock, and more. Featured in the issue is an interesting interview with Harriet Hyman Alonso and Adam Hochschild that was facilitated by Scott Bennett. Follow the link here to view a StoryMap JS preview of their interview. The StoryMap follows many of the anecdotes and movements referenced in the interview.

If the link above does not work click on the following link to access the StoryMap JS:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/36cbed0b6bf5050b5b2bc0c27ce5cc2f/january-issue-preview/index.html

Religion, War, and Peace (and Love) in West Hartford

Guy Aiken

Talk about a congenial professional atmosphere. The Peace History Society Conference at the University of Saint Joseph (Friday and Saturday, Oct 23-4) in Connecticut was full of papers talking unabashedly about the power of love in history, and full of scholars who delivered incisive critiques so gently that one could only feel grateful for their help. At least that’s how I felt. But what I want to do here is more than just praise the atmosphere and quality of the conference. I want very briefly to summarize some of the US-centered papers I heard at the conference as a service to any readers of this blog who might find their own work intersecting with these papers, and who might wish to follow up with the presenters. (I’ll specify institutional affiliation only for the grad student presenters to make it easier to find them on the web.)

The conference theme was “Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion.” According to PHS’s affable president, Kevin J. Callahan, this was the first time the Peace History Society made “religion” a thematic focus of its biennial conference. This is remarkable, given that the histories of pacifism and peace activism are often tightly intertwined with religion and faith. Leilah Danielson (American Gandhi) pondered the apparent reluctance on the part of peace historians to talk about “supernaturalism” with her keynote address after lunch on Friday.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first round of panels started Friday morning at 9. I’m usually doing nothing with my brain at 9 in the morning, but the papers I heard from Doug Rossinow, Robert Shaffer, and Lawrence J. McAndrews woke my brain up. (RiAH’s own Trevor Burrows was on a concurrent panel, so I didn’t get to hear his paper.) Doug Rossinow argued that postzionism (Jewish postnationalism) could liberate the historiography of American Zionism from its narrow nationalism, and even lead non-Jewish historians to join the conversation. Robert Shaffer looked at the editorial pages of The Christian Century between 1946 and 1952 and found the editors of this leading mainline periodical decidedly cool toward Truman’s Cold War policies. Lawrence McAndrews traced the Catholic bishops’ support of George W Bush’s war in Afghanistan in large part to a generational shift: younger, more conservative bishops appointed by John Paul II had replaced older, more liberal bishops in the American hierarchy during the 1980s and 90s.

The second round of panels Friday morning included Nancy Gentile Ford’s gripping account of chaplains in the American Expeditionary Force during the Great War. The round of panels Friday afternoon included Elizabeth Agnew’s analysis of Jane Addams’s “deliberative devotion” to Gandhi–Addams thought goodwill took priority over nonviolence when the latter involved coercion–and Deborah Kisatsky’s elegant drawing of a straight line from American antebellum pacifist Adin Ballou to Gandhi via Leo Tolstoy. Jeffrey Meyers (Lutheran Theological Seminary in Chicago) cogently sketched the theological differences in the 1930s between advocates of nonresistance (mostly the historic peace churches) and champions of the new Gandhian nonviolence (mostly the mainline Christian pacifists).

Between the morning and afternoon sessions, Leilah Danielson delivered her keynote address. In essence she argued, as Jeffrey Kripal has about histories of liberal religion, that histories of pacifism in the United States need to get “way, way weirder” (Kripal).* They haven’t included the seances alongside the strikes that many liberal Protestant pacifists were organizing after World War I. A lot of what these men and women believed has been ignored. Why? Is it because religion has become equated with conservatism and church attendance, or is it because historians just want a neater narrative? Whatever the reason, Danielson thinks an essential part of twentieth-century pacifism–supernaturalism–is missing from the historiography. And it’s essential because it inspired and sustained much of the last century’s peace activism. The weirdness and the work were inextricable. I wonder if part of the problem might be that peace historians tend to identify with their subjects even more than historians usually do, and not being very weird themselves (in religious matters at least), they find their subjects’ supernaturalism embarrassing. And so they tend to hide or gloss over it. I’m curious to hear what others think.

The panels Saturday morning included a paper by Luther Adams (U of Washington-Tacoma) about African-American victims of police brutality who wrote to the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s with the faith that, if they could not get justice themselves, they could at least help build momentum toward a future day of reckoning. Then a plenary session discussed the American Catholic pacifists Ben Salmon (imprisoned during WWI as a CO), Dorothy Day (who stood firm in her pacifism even during WWII), and Carl Kabat (notorious for dressing as a clown for his “actions” against nuclear weapons). Michael Baxter, Robert Russo, and Andrew Barbero delivered the respective papers. After lunch, I gave a paper on the American Friends Service Committee’s daring mission to the Gestapo in December 1938 to try to negotiate the evacuation of all 150,000 of Germany’s Jews who were employable abroad.

Then everybody went home. I was fortunate to share a ride to the airport with Doug Rossinow and Robert Shaffer (as well as Andrew Bolton), who just a few minutes before had so perceptively yet gently probed my paper’s weaknesses. I wish the PHSC were annual rather than biennial. I could use a dose of its passionate, ethical intellectualism every year. Alas, the next PHSC is not until 2017, in Kansas City. But I encourage any of you who might be interested to keep it on your radar–or to speak more peaceably, to simply keep it in mind.

*Quoted in Leigh Schmidt’s introduction to American Religious Liberalism, edited by Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 9.

Originally posted to Religion in American History on November 29, 2015 (http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2015/11/religion-war-and-peace-and-love-in-west.html)