Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1994
Volume 6, Number 1

Gumbleton Urges Nonviolence, Evangelical Poverty

Roger Bergman
Director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton urged his Creighton University audience on April 22 to reject war and greed and embrace nonviolence and evangelical poverty as the only way to bring peace and justice to a world fraught with massive danger, violence, and unnecessary suffering.

Gumbleton, Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit and the pastor of an inner city parish there, was one of the five U.S. Catholic bishops responsible for drafting the 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." He was President of Bread for the World from 1976 to 1984, and served as founding President of Pax Christi USA from 1972 to 1991. He has traveled to almost every corner of the globe in the cause of human rights. Such efforts have earned the Bishop many awards and honorary degrees. He has a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Speaking on the topic of "Peace-making in the 90s" in a forum co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Justice and Peace Studies Program, Bishop Gumbleton argued, contrary to popular perception, that the post-cold-war era has the potential to be more dangerous than the early 1980s when tensions between the superpowers were extremely high. Referring to a personal interview with then-Secretary of Defense Gasper Weinberger, he pointed out that the policy of nuclear deterrence is by no means merely a bluff, that the intent to use weapons of massive destructiveness is real on the part of the United States, and that this policy is still in place even after the demise of the Soviet threat. Gumbleton challenged any post-cold-war apathy his audience might have been harboring by pointing out that even with the full implementation of the START II treaty in 2003, the world will still bristle with the equivalent of 200,000 Hiroshimas--8,500 of those nuclear weapons belonging to the U.S., of which 3,500 will have intercontinental reach. Renewal of the non-proliferation treaty seems unlikely in 1995, he suggested, since nations such as Iran and Iraq, who have the potential to join the nuclear club (which already includes India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel), see no reason not to acquire what the U.S. and other nuclear powers are unwilling to give up.

What is changing, Gumbleton observed, is the specific content of our military policy. Since at least 1988, U.S. strategists have been designing a policy of "discriminate deterrence," according to which it is not the Soviet Union but the Third World that is targeted. Quoting Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and General Norman Schwarzkopf, he pointed out that the U.S. is now prepared to fight even nuclear wars in the underdeveloped regions of the world whenever our "vital interests" are at stake. The Persian Gulf War but also our supposedly humanitarian intervention in Somalia were offered as non-nuclear examples of this policy. At stake in both cases, according to the Bishop's analysis of official documents, was unrestricted access to cheap oil. Gumbleton pronounced such willingness to wage war in the Third World "to protect our way of life," in President Bush's words, "clearly immoral" and of the "utmost cruelty."

But the violence of war was not the only concern the Bishop raised up to his audience (which also included, via delayed taped broadcast, the KIOS-FlM regional listening area). He remarked that while an increasingly high percentage of the 86 million war fatalities in the twentieth century have been noncombatants--reaching 74% in 1989--during those same nine decades 1.6 billion people have died as a result of structures of economic injustice. From 1982 to 1990, $400 billion net wealth flowed from the poor to the rich nations. During the embargo on Haiti, U.S.-owned assembly plants were exempted and continued to export goods such as baseballs, produced by women earning 14 cents an hour but securing large profits for the manufacturers in this country. World Bank and IMF-imposed "structures of adjustment" drove five million Peruvians into poverty under President Fujimori, dwarfing the suffering caused by the direct violence of "Shining Path," Peru's revolutionary movement.

Seeking an adequate response to such massive suffering and killing, Bishop Gumbleton turned to the words of Pope John Paul II, especially the encyclical Centesimus Annus and his World Day of Peace Message, "If You Want Peace, Reach Out to the Poor." The Pope calls for a global solidarity that extends to every person on the planet and for the rejection of violence as a means to resolve conflicts between nations. The Bishop echoed, passionately, John Paul II's own response to the Persian Gulf War, "War never again. Never again war!"

The pontiff's denunciation of the excessive consumption of the rich nations at the expense of the poor was also underlined by Bishop Gumbleton. Moderation and simplicity of lifestyle, even "evangelical poverty," are "the call of every Christian."

Bishop Gumbleton closed his presentation with a prayer used as a preface to the Eucharistic celebration based on the famous hymn included by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-11). The prayer holds up the example of Jesus Christ who humbled himself even to the point of shedding his blood on a cross. A similar emptying of our violence and greed, concluded the Bishop, is the only way to bring peace to our suffering world.

Tom Gumbleton is without doubt one of the true prophets of our day. And like the prophets of Israel, he is often "a voice crying in the wilderness," a wilderness of death and suffering that few describe with such bracing but gentle passion. He remarked at the beginning of his Creighton address that all his amendments to the tenth anniversary statement on their pastoral letter on war and peace had been rejected by but a few of his fellow bishops. And yet he remains convinced that his analysis of the world's situation is accurate and Jesus' (and the Pope's) message of nonviolence and evangelical poverty the only way to the fullness of peace.

It is no doubt true that the "profound spiritual transformation" Bishop Gumbleton calls for would usher in a new age of harmony and plenty. But despite even the Pope's eloquence and constancy, such a new age seems far off indeed. What some might find lacking in the Bishop's address were any realistic proposals for a gradualist approach aimed at reducing if not eliminating the unnecessary and unjust suffering in our world. What should we be doing, one might ask, while praying for the coming of the Reign of God, when justice and peace shall embrace?

Bishop Gumbleton has labored tirelessly for changes in public policy. But on April 22 at Creighton, while denouncing policy, his recommendations for change were in the realm of the personal and the spiritual. That may have given those without "ears to hear" the impression that justice and peace are all-or-nothing propositions both for individuals and for nations. That misunderstanding of what is possible, in this writer's judgement, would be unfortunate for the very people on whose behalf Bishop Gumbleton speaks so powerfully.