A Military Chaplain Repents

In August of 1945 Rev. George B. Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army Air Force, was stationed on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. He was assigned to serve the Catholics of the 509th Composite Group. The 509th Composite Group was the Atomic Bomb Group. He served as a priest for those who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After 22 years as a military chaplain he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. What follows is an interview with him by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. Rev. George B. Zabelka went to meet his God on April 11, 1992.

Fr. McCarthy: Father Zabelka, what is your relationship to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945?

Fr. Zabelka: During the summer of 1945, July, August and September, I was assigned as Catholic chaplain to the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island. The 509th was the Atomic Bomb Group.

Q: What were your duties in relationship to these men?

Zabelka: The usual. I said Mass on Sunday and during the week. Heard confessions. Talked with the boys, etc. Nothing significantly different from what any other chaplain did during the war.

Q: Did you know that the 509th was preparing to drop an atomic bomb?

No. We knew that they were preparing to drop a bomb substantially different from and more powerful than even the “blockbusters” used over Europe, but we never called it an atomic bomb and never really knew what it was before August 6, 1945. Before that time we just referred to it as the “gimmick” bomb.

Q:So since you did not know that an atomic bomb was going to be dropped you had no reason to counsel the men in private or preach in public about the morality of such a bombing?

Zabelka:Well, that is true enough; I never did speak against it, nor could I have spoken against it since I, like practically everyone else on Tinian, was ignorant of what was being prepared. And I guess I will go to my God with that as my defense. But on Judgment Day I think I am going to need to seek more mercy than justice in this matter.

Q: Why? God certainly could not have expected you to act on ideas that had never entered your mind.

Zabelka: As a Catholic priest my task was to keep my people, wherever they were, close to the mind and heart of Christ. As a military chaplain I was to try to see that the boys conducted themselves according to the teachings of the Catholic Church and Christ on war. When I look back I am not sure I did either of these things very well.

Q: Why do you think that?

Zabelka: What I do not mean to say is that I feel myself to have been remiss in any duties that were expected of me as a chaplain. I saw that the Mass and the sacraments were available as best I could. I even went out and earned paratrooper wings in order to do my job better. Nor did I fail to teach and preach what the Church expected me to teach and preach – and I don’t mean by this that I just talked to the boys about their sexual lives. I and most chaplains were quite clear and outspoken on such matters as not killing and torturing prisoners. But there were other areas where things were not said quite so clearly.

Q: For example?

Zabelka: The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute would take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.

Q: Why not? You certainly knew civilians were being destroyed by the thousands in these raids, didn’t you?

Zabelka: Oh, indeed I did know, and I knew with a clarity that few others could have had.

Q: What do you mean?

Zabelka: As a chaplain I often had to enter the world of the boys who were losing their minds because of something they did in war. I remember one young man who was engaged in the bombings of the cities of Japan. He was in the hospital on Tinian Island on the verge of a complete mental collapse.

He told me that he had been on a low-level bombing mission, flying right down one of the main streets of the city, when straight ahead of him appeared a little boy, in the middle of the street, looking up at the plane in a childlike wonder. The man knew that in a few seconds the child would be burned to death by napalm which had already been released.

Yes, I knew civilians were being destroyed, and knew it perhaps in a way others didn’t. Yet I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to men who were doing it.

Q: Again, why not?

Zabelka: Because I was “brainwashed”! It never entered my mind to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary; told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters, especially by a public body like the American bishops, is a stamp of approval.

The whole structure of the secular, religious, and military society told me clearly that it was all right to “let the Japs have it.” God was on the side of my country. The Japanese were the enemy, and I was absolutely certain of my country’s and Church’s teaching about enemies; no erudite theological text was necessary to tell me. The day-in-day-out operation of the state and the Church between 1940 and 1945 spoke more clearly about Christian attitudes towards enemies and war than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas ever could.

I was certain that this mass destruction was right, certain to the point that the question of its morality never seriously entered my mind. I was “brainwashed” not by force or torture but by my Church’s silence and wholehearted cooperation in thousands of little ways with the country’s war machine. Why, after I finished chaplaincy school at Harvard I had my military chalice officially blessed by the then Bishop Cushing of Boston. How much more clearly could the message be given? Indeed, I was “brainwashed”!

Q: So you feel that because you did not protest the morality of the bombing of other cities with their civilian populations, that somehow you are morally responsible for the dropping of the atomic bomb?

Zabelka: The facts are that seventy-five thousand people were burned to death in one evening of fire bombing over Tokyo. Hundreds of thousands were destroyed in Dresden, Hamburg, and Coventry by aerial bombing. The fact that forty-five thousand human beings were killed by one bomb over Nagasaki was new only to the extent that it was one bomb that did it.

To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in and to a world and a Christian Church that had asked for it – that had prepared the moral consciousness of humanity to do and to justify the unthinkable. I am sure there are Church documents around someplace bemoaning civilian deaths in modern war, and I am sure those in power in the church will drag them out to show that it was giving moral leadership during World War II to its membership.

Well, I was there, and I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the Church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best – at worst it was religiously supportive of these activities by blessing those who did them.

I say all this not to pass judgment on others, for I do not know their souls then or now. I say all this as one who was part of the so-called Christian leadership of the time. So you see, that is why I am not going to the day of judgment looking for justice in this matter. Mercy is my salvation.

Q: You said the atomic bombing of Nagasaki happened to a Church that “had asked for it.” What do you mean by that?

Zabelka: For the first three centuries, the three centuries closest to Christ, the Church was a pacifist Church. With Constantine the church accepted the pagan Roman ethic of a just war and slowly began to involve its membership in mass slaughter, first for the state and later for the faith.

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, whatever other differences they may have had on theological esoterica, all agreed that Jesus’ clear and unambiguous teaching on the rejection of violence and on love of enemies was not to be taken seriously. And so each of the major branches of Christianity by different theological methods modified our Lord’s teaching in these matters until all three were able to do what Jesus rejected, that is, take an eye for an eye, slaughter, maim, torture.

It seems a “sign” to me that seventeen hundred years of Christian terror and slaughter should arrive at August 9, 1945 when Catholics dropped the A-Bomb on top of the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. (Three orders of Catholic sisters were destroyed in Nagasaki that day.) One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t.

I, like that Catholic pilot of the Nagasaki plane, was heir to a Christianity that had for seventeen hundred years engaged in revenge, murder, torture, the pursuit of power and prerogative and violence, all in the name of our Lord.

I walked through the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited the place where once stood the Urakami Cathedral. I picked up a piece of a censer from the rubble. When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed His world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process, which began with Constantine, reached its lowest point – so far.

Q: What do you mean by “so far”?

Zabelka: Briefly, what I mean is that I do not see that the moral climate in relation to war inside or outside the Church has dramatically changed much since 1945. The mainline Christian Churches still teach something that Christ never taught or even hinted at, namely the Just War Theory, a theory that to me has been completely discredited theologically, historically, and psychologically.

So as I see it, until the various churches within Christianity repent and begin to proclaim by word and deed what Jesus proclaimed in relation to violence and enemies, there is no hope for anything other than ever-escalating violence and destruction.

Until membership in the Church means that a Christian chooses not to engage in violence for any reason and instead chooses to love, pray for, help, and forgive all enemies; until membership in the Church means that Christians may not be members of any military, American, Polish, Russian, English, Irish, et al.; until membership in the Church means that the Christian cannot pay taxes for others to kill others; and until the Church says these things in a fashion which the simplest soul could understand – until that time humanity can only look forward to more dark nights of slaughter on a scale unknown in history. Unless the Church unswervingly and unambiguously teaches what Jesus teaches on this matter it will not be the divine leaven in the human dough that it was meant to be.

“The choice is between nonviolence or nonexistence,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and he was not, and I am not, speaking figuratively. It is about time for the Church and its leadership in all denominations to get down on its knees and repent of this misrepresentation of Christ’s words.

Communion with Christ cannot be established on disobedience to His clearest teachings. Jesus authorized none of His followers to substitute violence for love; not me, not you, not Jimmy Carter, not the pope, not a Vatican council, nor even an ecumenical council.

Q: Father Zabelka, what kinds of immediate steps do you think the church should take in order to become the “divine leaven in the human dough”?

Zabelka: Step one should be that Christians the world over should be taught that Christ’s teaching to love their enemies is not optional. I’ve been in many parishes in my life, and I have found none where the congregation explicitly is called upon regularly to pray for its enemies. I think this is essential.

I offer you step two at the risk of being considered hopelessly out of touch with reality. I would like to suggest that there is an immediate need to call an ecumenical council for the specific purpose of clearly declaring that war is totally incompatible with Jesus’ teaching and that Christians cannot and will not engage in or pay for it from this point in history on. This would have the effect of putting all nations on this planet on notice that from now on they are going to have to conduct their mutual slaughter without Christian support – physical, financial, or spiritual.

I am sure there are other issues which Catholics or Orthodox or Protestants would like to confront in an ecumenical council instead of facing up to the hard teachings of Christ in relationship to violence and enemies. But it seems to me that issues like the meaning of the primacy of Peter are nowhere near as pressing or as destructive of Church credibility and God’s world as is the problem of continued Christian participation in and justification of violence and slaughter. I think the Church’s continued failure to speak clearly Jesus’ teachings is daily undermining its credibility and authority in all other areas.

Q: Do you think there is the slightest chance that the various branches of Christianity would come together in an ecumenical council for the purpose of declaring war and violence totally unacceptable activities for Christians under all circumstances?

Zabelka: Remember, I prefaced my suggestion of an ecumenical council by saying that I risked being considered hopelessly out of touch with reality. On the other hand, what is impossible for men and women is quite possible for God if people will only use their freedom to cooperate a little.

Who knows what could happen if the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the President of the World Council of Churches called with one voice for such a council? One thing I am sure of is that our Lord would be very happy if His Church were again unequivocally teaching what He unequivocally taught on the subject of violence.

Q: Fr. Zabelka, why after 39 years did you now decide to return to Japan and join in a peace pilgrimage that will culminate for you in Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1984?

Zabelka: I am old now. Soon I will go to meet my God. When the invitation came to join this peace pilgrimage, I felt that God had offered me “a great grace,” as we used to say. So, I accepted.

Q: What do you mean, God has offered you “a great grace” by an invitation to join a peace walk?

Zabelka: I do not mean to quibble about words but I did not experience the invitation as a request to join a peace walk. The invitation entered into my soul as “pilgrimage” not “walk.” A pilgrimage is a journey one undertakes to holy places for holy reasons.

Q: But what holy places are you going to visit in Japan? My understanding was that you were going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Zabelka: Calvary, the place where Christ suffered and died at the hands of the civil and religious politicians of His day, is the holiest shrine in Christianity. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are Calvaries. For here, Christ in the bodies of the “least” was again tortured and put to death hundreds of thousands of times over by exactly the same dark and deceitful spirit of organized lovelessness that roamed Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Q: But Calvary is where Christ suffered. He did not suffer in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Zabelka: God, Christ, lives in every human being. Our Lord tells us that what is done to the “least” is in fact now done to Him (Mt 25). I believe that! That is the only kind of God that I could adore and love, a God who lives in human history and suffers with people. I could only fear a god that sat as a depersonalized king above the anguish of humanity. This is part of what the Incarnation is all about. Christ suffers and dies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore to condone or support war is to condone or support the call to “Crucify Him.” To kill in war is, in fact, to be a “Christ-killer.” I’m sorry I can say nothing else – if Calvary is a holy place, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are holy places.

Q: You said that a pilgrimage must not only be to a holy place but for holy reasons. What are your reasons?

Zabelka: Peace! Peace is the fruit of communion with God. It is obvious to me that I, as well as humanity in general, are not in full communion with God, that we need to be reconciled with God. Jesus tells us that the condition now for reconciliation with God is reconciliation of human beings with each other. The Christian is explicitly called to be an agent of reconciliation. The first step in the reconciliation process is repentance for one’s sins, for what one has done to separate people from each other and thereby separate humanity from God. The reason I am going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to repent and to ask the forgiveness of those living and dead whom I have damaged by my failure to love Christically.

Q: But you were not actually on the planes that dropped the atomic bombs on those cities, were you?

Zabelka: No, but that is irrelevant moral thinking in the 20th century. Modern war and oppression are carried out by a long chain of individuals, each doing his or her job meticulously while simultaneously refusing to look at the end results of his or her work. There is no state or corporate evil that is not the result of personal sinfulness. In August of 1945, I, as a Christian and as a priest, served not as an agent of reconciliation but as an instrument of retaliation, revenge and homicide. My explicit and tacit approval of what was being done on Tinian Island that summer was clearly visible for anyone to see. Beyond this, I was the last possible official spokesman for the Church before the fire of hell was let loose on Hiroshima on the Feast of the Transfiguration 1945 – and I said;nothing.

I was the officially designated Catholic priest who by silence did his priestly patriotic duty and chose nationalism over Catholicism, Caesar over Christ, as the “Bockscar,” manned by Christians in my care, took off to evaporate the oldest and largest Christian community in Japan – Nagasaki. No, the fact that I was not physically on the planes is morally irrelevant. I played an important and necessary role in this sacrilege – and I played it meticulously. I am as responsible as the soldier who stuck the spear in the side of Christ on Calvary. I come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to repent and to ask forgiveness from the Japanese people, from my faith community at Nagasaki and from God.

Q: Isn’t it a bit of rhetorical exaggeration to say you were a priest that played a role in a sacrilege?

Zabelka: Not at all. I mean it literally. If someone walks into a church and destroys the altar and statues, etc., it is called a sacrilege. A sacrilege is the desecration of what is considered holy. But for the Christian, the ultimate place of the holy is the human person. We are the “temples of the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, every act of violence toward a human being is an act of desecration of the temple of God in this world. War for the Christian is always sacrilege. There is no such absurdity as a Christian ethic of justified sacrilege. I am a priest who played a role in a sacrilege and that must be said by me and others like me without equivocation or else the future is a nightmare.

Q: What do you mean that the future is a nightmare unless you and others like you acknowledge your role in the sacrilege of war?

Zabelka: Look, I am a Catholic priest. In August of 1945, I did not say to the boys on Tinian, “You cannot follow Christ and drop those bombs.” But this same failure on the part of priests, pastors and bishops over the past 1700 years is, I believe, what is significantly responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the seemingly unceasing “Christian” blood-letting around the globe. It seems to me that Christians have been slaughtering each other, as well as non-Christians, for the past 1700 years, in large part because their priests, pastors and bishops have simply not told them that violence and homicide are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. On the contrary, I would say that the average priest, pastor and bishop communicates that violence and homicide can be compatible with Jesus. After all, a machine gun is no more lethal than a broomstick without the will to kill and the fact is that we so-called Christian “leaders” by commission and omission, for 1700 years, have been guilty of supplying a significant piece of the motivational apparatus necessary to execute the mass slaughter of war. Let’s be honest, to justify an evil is to promote an evil. And let’s face it, we priests, pastors and bishops have been justifying the butchery of war in the name of Christ for a long time. I might also add here that where more is required priestly silence is sinful, because silence gives consent and consent motivates toward the evil.

Q: What do you think must be done to begin to address this situation, Father Zabelka?

Zabelka: Unless the legitimate successors to the apostles proclaim fearlessly what the apostles proclaimed fearlessly, that is, that Christ’s teachings are teachings of nonviolent love and mercy – and unless they unequivocally repent of their failure and the failure of their predecessors to explicitly teach this, then a long night of high-tech terror, torture and desolation is assured all humanity – first world, third world, East and West. What has to be done is that we Christian “leaders” have to admit openly that we have been engaged in propagating a bloody moral blunder for the last 1700 years: the Just War Theory.

Q: Specifically, how does your pilgrimage to Japan for this August 6th and 9th in1984 respond to this need?

Zabelka: If my priestly silence spoke for the Church in 1945 to the fellows on Tinian, perhaps my priestly request for forgiveness at Hiroshima and Nagasaki can speak for the Church in 1984. You see, I want to expose the lie of “Christian” war. The lie I fell for and blessed. I want to expose the lie of killing as a Christian social method, the lie of disposable people, the lie of Christian liturgy in the service of the homicidal gods of nationalism and militarism, the lie of nuclear security. I want to expose it by looking into the faces of the hibaksha and saying, “Brother, forgive me for bringing you death instead of the fullness of life. Sister, pardon me for bringing you misery instead of mercy. I and my Church have sinned against you and God.” It is hope in the Power of that small moment of truth, repentance and reconciliation that moves me to pilgrimage East by the grace of God.

A one hour British documentary on Rev. George Zabelka, THE RELUCTANT PROPHET, is available in a DVD or VHS format from the Center for Christian Nonviolence.

Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy is a priest of the Eastern Rite (Byzantine-Melkite) of the Catholic Church. Formerly a lawyer and a university educator, he is the founder and the original director of The Program for the Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution at the University of Notre Dame. He is also co-founder, along with Dorothy Day and others of Pax Christi-USA. He has conducted retreats and spoken at conferences throughout the world on the issue of the relationship of faith and violence and the nonviolence of the Jesus. He was the keynote speaker at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee for the 25th anniversary memorial of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. there. He is author of several books, including these: All Things Flee Thee because Thou Fleest Me: A Cry to the Churches and their Leaders to Return to the Nonviolent Jesus and His Nonviolent Way; Christian Just War Theory: The logic of Deceit; August 9: The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love. He has also authored innumerable articles on the subject of violence, religion and the nonviolent love of friends and enemies taught by Jesus by word and deed. His audio/video series, BEHOLD THE LAMB, is almost universally considered to be the most spiritually profound presentation on the matter of Gospel Nonviolent Love available in this format.

BEHOLD THE LAMB is now available on mp3CD through his website, either at the cost of $5.00 for a disc or it can be acquired directly by an mp3 downloaded from the website for no cost. Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work on behalf of peace within people and among people. He may be reached and his work may be accessed at the Center for Christian Non-Violence.

For more articles by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy.


  1. A day after the turbulent post about violence, where I was all too ready to chime in with my thoughts, I was reading the latest Catholic Worker, specifically, a piece titled "Divine Mercy and Love of Enemy." the author was reflecting on the jubilation expressed over the killing of bin Laden.
    There was a quote from a pacifist from WWI, Ben Salmon, who I had never heard of before. It was "Either Christ is a liar or war is never necessary."
    (As quoted in Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon (1989) by Torin Finney, p.106)
    His story is impressive. He seems to be as close as America got to a Franz Jagerstatter.
    Your posts normally "scratch me where I itch," but these latest posts on violence tear at me where I have tried, for years, to build callouses.
    How dare you, and Jesus before you, upset my neat, convenient, and reasonable little mindset???
    Keep on trucking, Heather.

  2. Heather, Thank you so much for sharing this interview. I am part of a Mennonite Christian community, which was founded in part on living as a disciple of the teachings of Jesus Christ, including to love and pray for our enemies, commitment to non-violence as a way of life, and care for creation. In this rationally violent and vengeful world, it is an often mis-understood path, especially by other Christians. This interview moved me deeply, and I will share it in as many ways as I can. I humbly agree with Rev.Zabelka "Mercy is my salvation" which is the only hope for us all.

  3. Chris, I was driving across country four years ago, and was carrying around a paper I'd picked up at the local Catholic Worker before I'd left, and in a cheap hotel room in Charleston, WV (an event that struck me so forcefully that I still remember the exact place and time) I, too, learned of Ben Salmon (for those who haven't, an American CO who’d been imprisoned, and for all intents and purposes tortured, during WWI).

    In a 1917 letter to his local draft board, Salmon had written:

    "Let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' make a profession of their faith by joining the army of war…I am in the army of Peace, and in this army I intend to live and die"…

    I think the "problem" with such folks, just as you say, is that they force me, or invite me would be a better word, to see my own bottomless tepidity.

    As I just wrote to a friend: "I hope I am not in any way purporting or PRETENDING to be nonviolent myself–that is just the problem, for all of us, our terrible hardness of heart, judgmentalism, and in my case profound impatience, irritation, annoyance, and desire to annihilate all that gets in my way. I had these Korean neighbors for years whose kids were so loud that I swear if someone had put a gun in my hands and I weren't afraid of going to jail I would have simply shot them"…But that's us, that is the human condition: as our dear Savior said, 'Well people don't need a doctor, sick people do'…"

    And we all have tried to build calluses for years, each of us in a slightly different way and over slightly different spots…it is hard, hard stuff, to allow ourselves to look at them or to get anywhere near much less begin to file them off…

    Anyway, I'm so glad you haven't disowned me. I literally lose sleep over 1) the possibility of saying something that isn't true 2) the possibility that people won't "like" me…so you see why St. T. was just the person to be put in my path!…

    Thank you as well, dear Carie. It IS a path that is often misunderstood, esp. by fellow Christians, which is the more hurtful–"O Jerusalem!"–as that is just where we would expect to find support. Hurtful not so much because the view is "ours," but because we believe it was Christ's…

  4. Thanks for posting this Heather. It was incredibly powerful. I have struggled with this issue of state- sanctioned violence for some time. This interview really put a lot of things in perspective for me. Keep up the good work. As a former journalist, I am in awe of your writing and your use of the written word to spread the Good News in frank and human terms. God bless!

  5. Anonymous says: Reply

    Let me begin by admitting that I've always looked askance at "peace and justice" Catholics, mostly because they tend to be doctrinally heterodox and politically liberal — particularly on issues like abortion and homosexuality. (I know that Dorothy Day was an exception; I speak more of contemporary movements.) HOWEVER, this interview has truly cut me to the heart. It is perhaps the most RADICAL statement of Catholic orthodoxy that I have come across in recent years. How can we not be shaken to the core by Rev. Zabelka's challenge to our faith?

  6. Very powerful testimony !

    The standard argument for the use of atomic weapons in Japan is that it saved the lives of many thousands of American soldiers who otherwise would have been killed in an invasion of the island. This is evidenced by the fanatical nature of the Japanese soldiers during the Pacific campaign. The Japanese soldier and in some cases as in Saipan civilians fought to the death and then if they deemed necessary committed suicide rather than surrender.

    The Catholic chaplain on Tinian could not have stopped the use of the bomb. He would have been relieved of his duties and possibly court-martialed if he had preached against it. He is a good and faithful Christian but once the military machine is in full gear it is unstoppable and inexorable. He would have been chewed up by it and discarded.

    The allusion to Constantine and acceptance by the church of just war is right on. After all, he accepted Christianity only after seeing the sign of the cross in a vision before a great battle in which he was victorious.

    The church openly promoted war against the Muslims during the crusades which resulted in not only violence to that faith but corruption in the Christian church. The idea of indulgences was used to give courage to a Crusader by telling him if he died in battle he had an automatic ticket to heaven (sans virgins). This idea was later expanded to buying indulgences.

    It was St. Francis of Assisi who was the peacemaker and most Christlike of all the players–the popes after all promoted it. During one crusade, he went to Egypt to broker a peace with the Muslim leader. He courageously went into their camp to seek a peace. The Muslims were inclined to kill him but instead thought him insane and released him.

    I obviously cannot speak for God but believe the chaplain will receive the mercy he seeks. One thing is for certain. Violence does suck!

  7. Thanks, Heather for this powerful interview! So much to ponder here.

    Have you seen the book by Takashi Nagai called A Song for Nagasaki? It is written by a Catholic convert who survived the bomb and became a sort of spiritual leader for those in Nagasaki recovering from the attack. He asks the question how God could have allowed the bomb to have been dropped practically right on top of the Catholic community in Nagasaki. His answer is that they were treated as the Lamb of Sacrifice. This chaplain's perspective certainly deepens that idea. Christians killing Christians. The chosen people killing the Chosen One…

  8. Nathan, I now have A Song for Nagasaki on hold at the LAPL, thanks! Kenzaburo Oe's Hiroshima Notes is also powerful.

  9. It does seem that ultimately our only two choices are cutting off the high priest's ear or turning the other cheek. Dropping bombs or washing feet. Revenge or penance.

    The hardest of the Gospel's "hard sayings" just might be "Blessed are the peacemakers." It requires such a renunciation of those old comfortable hates!

  10. "In every period of transition the two opposing currents are very violent. To escape from them, one must be prepared to be judged unfavorably by both. So one must learn to be alone. The Christian life, for its part, does not escape this rule. Our Lord Jesus Christ is so often all alone on His Cross." —Dom Lou Tseng-Tsiang

  11. Michael D. says: Reply

    "As tragic as it is, collateral damage to innocents is an inescapable consequence of war."

    see this link from Catholic Answers:

    If our enemies possess nuclear weapons it seems to me we should at least keep ours if only for self defense.

  12. You have great courage in airing this subject, Heather. I've often wondered sadly why the bishops of the US don't condemn the drone attacks we perpetrate on innocent muslims; why we close our eyes to the plight of the Palestinians who suffer from the weapons we supply their enemies; why we are bullies and torturers in Iraq and Afghanistan–and other places. Where are the voices of our Catholic leaders? Are they blind or afraid? Surely they must know that our ongoing slaughter of people who are far, far weaker than we cannot be in keeping with the teachings of Christ. Where is the outrage today?

  13. I don't have time to get into this argument in detail, but let's just say I am unpersuaded. Nowhere does the good priest address the ruthlessness and savagery of the Japanese during WWII, which was absolutely hair-raising. This interview makes it sound as if we were the sole aggressors, thus he addresses less than half the story here. And it's not a good idea to pin theological arguments on a term as lazy and meaningless as "nonviolence". Pass.

  14. "If our enemies possess nuclear weapons it seems to me we should at least keep ours if only for self defense."

    See, this is just what to me we should NOT do. Because if everyone waits to disarm until the other person disarms first, clearly no-one is ever going to disarm. If we want to live in a world based on the non-violent love of God and of Christ, then we have to live it.

    And Katherine, if non-violence is "meaningless and lazy," that means Christ was meaningless and lazy. Because I'm not sure what other word would apply to Thou shalt not kill, love thine enemies, love one another as I have loved you, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and God's inexhaustible love for us BUT non-violence.

    Of course our enemies have often done terrible wrong. Of course they have been violent–that's why we see them as enemies. Of course they are violent–because WE are violent. The point is that the cycle of violence is never going to stop unless someone stops being violent.

    This was the very essence of the cataclysmic, universe-shaking event of God taking on human flesh and entering into human time, space and history. Christ came precisely to say: the violence stops here. I am not going to return violence for violence. Human sacrifice has now come to an end. No human being has to be killed again, ever, for the kingdom of God to come into being.

    Our security does not lie in weapons. Our security does not lie in evening scores. Our security lies in knowing that we are working every moment of our lives to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, knowing we are bound to fall short, knowing we are weak, broken, conflicted, and frightened, knowing we may die in the effort, but in the sure faith that our work is bearing and will continue into eternity to bear the fruit of Christ.

  15. Heather

    I can very easily accept your ideas of non-violence in our personal lives. Christ clearly preached that with his teachings. I have very great difficulty in applying that to international politics and war scenarios. At his trial before crucifixion,He told Pilate (after Pilate reminded Him that he had the power of life and death over Him) "You would have no power over me unless it had not been given to you from above". This indicates to me that Christ acknowledged the state has the right to exercise violence in it's governing role. Then of course there is "render unto Caesar" quote.

    Maybe Christ's plan is/was that if we all lived the way He taught us to live we would as his disciples eventually carry that "way" into the civil estate. However He clearly did not condemn force in governance as far as I can see. I wish I was wrong– but if we ALL lived by his teachings there would be no need for violence but we don't ALL do that so until that day (maybe never)we must use necessary force to defend ourselves.

  16. Oh that’s interesting, Philip. See, I interpret “Render unto Caesar" to mean I owe everything to God and my fellow brothers and sisters throughout the world and I will give to “Caesar” insofar as the giving is not incompatible with what I owe to God.

    I think to be a follower of Christ raises many very troubling questions re Caesar. For instance, the “just war” theory as defined by the Church is hardly followed by the U.S. government, which means every Catholic is called to a deep examination of conscience over—even leaving aside the specifics of the many wars in which we continually participate—oh say the fact that 51% of our budget goes to defense but we can’t afford to give our citizens basic health care.

    Another example: I recently watched a documentary on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. EIGHTY THOUSAND human beings are being kept in 8 by 10 isolation cells for 23 hours a day (the other hour they’re allowed out to exercise, also in isolation). Some of them have been in there 5, 10, 12 years. The slightest infraction—trying to pass a note to a fellow inmate, swearing at a guard—they get six months, a year, more. The slightest human contact, conversation, intercourse disallowed. These were not even people who were in for murder or some other violent crime but for identity theft, or possession and sale of drugs. So as much as I love my country, I just can’t think I owe it to Caesar to support or condone such an outrageous, egregiously inhumane and anti-Christ-like practice. I think I owe it to God to shout from the rooftops: How can we sleep? I think I owe it to God to do penance. I think I owe it to God to weep.

    I read an article in the New Yorker last week that likewise sickened me. It was about the anonymous (why anonymous if what he did was so noble and praiseworthy?) assassin, part of the team who hunted down and murdered bin Laden at God only knows what taxpayers’ expense by shooting him in the face. “For God, for country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,” the killer reported to the White House. What God? Surely not the God who is the Father of Christ. What country? The country of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, the right to a fair trial? And Geronimo?

    “Whether it was intended only to name the military operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden or to give Osama Bin Laden himself the code name Geronimo, either was an outrageous insult and mistake…

    Obviously to equate Geronimo with Osama Bin Laden is an unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history.
    And to call the operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden by the name Geronimo is such a subversion of history that it also defames a great human spirit and Native American leader. For Geronimo himself was the focus of precisely such an operation by the U.S. military, an operation that assured Geronimo a lasting place in American and human history.”

    —Harlyn Geronimo, Geronimo's great-grandson, Senate Commission on Indian Affairs for a hearing on racist stereotypes of Native Americans, May 5, 2011

    Biden was purportedly fingering a rosary the whole time. “We should go to Mass,” he remarked after the kill had been made (apparently to celebrate). And after I buried my head in my hands and cried, All I could think was The entire nation should go to Confession

    Also to insist upon reducing nonviolence to a political issue, or even more narrowly, a matter of war, is to miss the entire point. As I’ve tried to make clear, I'm talking about nonviolence is a mystical phenomenon: the chief characteristic of the love of God for us. In receiving this love, we’re able to mediate it to others. Instead of debating whether a war is just, we devote our lives to fostering peace. Instead of elbowing people out of the way, we want more than anything to share. Instead of excluding anyone, we want to include everyone.

    Non-violence doesn’t have nearly as much to do with war as it has to do with the fruits of joy and gratitude as we go about our daily lives. Which I, for one, am ALL for.

  17. As I was saying to someone the other day, "turn the other cheek" and "blessed are the peacemakers" and "blessed are the persecuted" and "resist not evil" are not expressions which originate in the writings of Dorothy Day or of Thomas Merton or of Carol Carretto or of Gustavo Gutiérrez. They are the ipsissima verba of Our Blessed Lord.

    Throughout the writings of the saints, we find the counsel to accept humiliations! I want to shout "Yikes! Humiliations! I'm in the wrong religion!" But really, once we've been humbled, isn't it ultimately the better choice to accept it with good cheer? You "arm yourself" by disarming. You are fortified when you don't seek revenge on the person who did you dirt.

    But Christ accepted a cruel scourging, and carried the Holy Cross on a scourged back. And was whipped whenever he stumbled, we can imagine. Again, the choice before us seems to be: Are we going to crack the whip, or be St Simon of Cyrene and help Christ carry his cross?

    I'd be lying, though, if I didn't admit to some initial sympathy for Philip's argument. Isn't it impractical to apply Christian principles to statecraft? Was the United States to have done nothing after the attacks in September 2001? And what of Hitler? Or Stalin? Shouldn't these vile tyrants have been combatted "by any means necessary"?

    If in the ritual
    Of vengeance we live,
    We make perpetual
    Our failure to forgive.

    So wrote the poet Vernon Watkins. I am inclined to agree — although … !! …

  18. I have to admit that I've always felt a bit uneasy about your writing–not the style, which is beautiful, nor the care you put into it, which is obvious, nor your insights into the spiritual life, which are often illuminative. What bothered me was what I perceived (perhaps unfairly; I'm certainly not perfect myself) as a tendency to self-absorption. But your last few posts on nonviolence suggest that, like Augustine and Merton and Theresa of Avila, you're moving beyond that. Well done! I'm looking forward to the future.

  19. Heather, if I hear the cry in your heart it isn't so much that our government should be an active non-violent presence in the world (which of course you acknowledge would be wonderful and good, but Christ didn't die to redeem governments, he died for individual souls) — but you (rightly) long for the beloved Church to be an active non-violent voice in the world according to the teachings of our Lord and King. I share your loving ache.

  20. Anonymous says: Reply


    Are you familiar with Rene Girard's theory on violence? If not, this is a very good introduction. It changed my understanding of the Gospels and helped my faith.

  21. Anonymous says: Reply

    I was thinking last night about this thread, and had a hard time putting my finger on what was "off" about it.

    I am seeing you back away into rhetoric, word-spinning, over-spiritualizing, in lieu of grappling with the subject. Which is easy for a good writer to do, but … a palpable evasion.

    Christ's words on "turn the other cheek" cease to become literal advice the minute we realize that, like "if your right eye offends thee, pluck it out," it can't be carried out literally and result in in any kind of normalcy; thus it must have been every bit as much hyperbole.

    For example, Christ's words cannot be lived out on a playground. The bullied children who are suiciding tell us that. When I was exploring Quakerism, not one single Quaker could tell me how nonviolence could be lived out in a playground, and one could be sure of end up with a safe, sane child. (My son let his fists do the talking, which ended his period of being bullied.)

    But that wasn't quite it. The puzzling thing that I perceived as "off." Today it occurred to me.

    You're talking about refraining from defending "ourselves," protecting "ourselves," not avenging "ourselves."

    What about others? What about those we love? What about the innocent?

    Japan had unleashed a war of aggression. For power, and for pleasure (ref. the Rape of Nanking). The leadership of both Japan and Nazi Germany were madmen. Should we simply have advised their victims to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the madmen reached our shore?

    At what point does this become colluding and cowardice?

    The death penalty is woefully misused, I grant you, but in the case of Ted Bundy his execution doubtlessly saved the lives of countless young women. He would never have stopped, and he was determined to escape (and had, several times). He was far more sick and evil than his primary biographer and friend Ann Rule lets on. Do we tell his last victim, 12 year old Kimberly Leach, to forgive and turn the other cheek?

    No one has the right to forgive the rape, torture, or murder of others, on their behalf. Nor, if they refrain from doing their best to protect those others in their care, out of a form of nonviolence, can they be considered totally human.

    "Mere Catholicism" as well as "Mere Christianity" does not demand this. You may disagree, but your form of Catholicism would then be another sect, another schism.


  22. Anonymous says: Reply

    On further thought, I must retract the following line from my earlier comment, written in the fiery blush of fresh enthusiasm:

    [Rev. Zabelka's position on just war theory] is perhaps the most RADICAL statement of Catholic orthodoxy that I have come across in recent years.

    Truth be told, Rev. Zabelka's position on just war theory is neither orthodox nor heterodox. It is a personal, ethical opinion regarding a theological teaching that is itself outside the scope of the Church's ordinary and infallible magisterium. In short, it is an opinion upon which reasonable people can disagree.


  23. Hi there Rosemary. I’ll say it one more time. I’m not talking about refraining from defending ourselves or protecting ourselves. I'm talking about non-violence is an entire way of experiencing life, taken straight from the Gospels.

    What if, what if? What if my child is attacked, what if we’re not well enough armed, what if we’re not well enough defended?—all fears about the future that prevent us from fully living our lives today.

    Look, by contrast, at the way of Christ: Regard the lilies of the field, store up your treasure in heaven, do not be afraid of those who can destroy your body, be afraid of those who can destroy your soul. Of course if our child is attacked we try to defend him or her. Of course if we’re attacked as we go about our day we try to protect ourselves.

    But what of THE DAY? What of the 99.99995% of the time in which in this country at least we are not being attacked? The point is not whether we defend ourselves, the point is that if we spend all our time and energy defending ourselves we miss out on the gift. We spend our money trying to guard against some possible future occurrence when we’re all dying to sit around the table and eat now. We spend our lives defending against the future, against uncertainty, against enemies real or imagined when God is saying Come to the water! Eat grain and milk!

    No-one loved children more than Christ—who went about his whole life completely unarmed. He was unarmed in the literal sense, without weapons, and he was unarmed with the weapons we’re all more likely to use of pride, greed, self-righteousness, our desire to be better than our neighbor. He was unarmed, and he also did not remotely attempt to stay under the radar. He didn’t taunt or bait, he simply went about his life speaking the truth and living in complete integrity. And yeah, they might get you. Yeah, you might be killed. He knew he was going to be killed. He knew his disciples were probably going to be killed. He knew that we do what we can but we can never fully protect ourselves and the people we love in a worldly sense.

    That, to me, is courage. And here’s the difference between a life lived in love and a life lived in fear. Christ got to live his entire life FULLY—all the joy, all the sorrow, all the glory, all the pain. He didn’t live his life in psychic bondage to his adversaries. He didn’t barricade himself in, build up arms, worry about what tomorrow would bring. His ambition was to do the will of his Father. His policy was love. That is why at the moment of his death, he was able to turn to the repentant thief beside him and say This day you will be with me in Paradise. That is why, in the worst agony any human being has ever known, he was able to say: Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. To live our lives in fear, to devote ourselves to building up arms of any sort, is not only to block ourselves from the sunlight of the spirit, but at the hour of our death, if “they” do get us, to say “I devoted my whole life to guarding against this and THEY GOT ME ANYWAY!” It’s to go out in bitterness, anger, despair. It’s to waste our lives AND our deaths.

    And again, it’s to miss out on the gift. It doesn’t have anything to do with rules. It has to do with creativity. It has to do with daring to believe in God’s inexhaustible love.

    To purport to know the cause-and-effect results of violence seems to me a very dangerous thing. What of the negative results, what of the unseen, invisible results? Maybe “countless” women were saved from being murdered by the execution of Ted Bundy—and maybe countless more than he would have murdered were subsequently murdered by other people who were influenced or affected by the violent zeitgeist of a country that kills its criminals. What of the climate of ever-escalating violence when violence and fear become the policy by which we live?

    Of course our hearts bleed, the whole human heart bleeds, for all victims of violence. I believe the way to address that is to be as non-violent as possible in my own life.

  24. Anonymous says: Reply


    I think that one can wholeheartedly agree with everything that you just said, while vigorously disagreeing with some of Rev. Zabelka's more radically pacifist proposals, e.g., that no Christian can be both a member of the Church and a member of the military.

    The latter might be what's hitting a raw nerve with some readers.


  25. What could have been a truer act of military justice than protecting the most innocent one of all? But Jesus said, “Put up your sword. My Kingdom is not of this world.” As disciples and followers of Jesus, I wonder if we ought to pay deeper attention to His teachings than to the discomfort we feel over injustice. We all end up with faith in something in order to overcome injustice and accomplish good: faith in Jesus the Overcomer, even when we cannot see the immediate results we long for, or faith in the sword. I don’t understand how a Christian who desires to live by Jesus’ words can ever take up the sword.

  26. I forgot I also wanted to add this…
    I believe there may be two conversations here. One is an attempt to reconcile the realities of the world by figuring out the "rules" that "everyone" should live by. The other is an attempt to recognize and identify one's own personal conscience that inform how one lives out their individual commitment as a Christian. In the latter conversation, I believe no one would be telling any one else what they ought or ought not to do.

  27. Anonymous says: Reply

    And this is why we have separation of church and state.

    The good father will not have to answer Christ and repent. Christ knows.

    War is terrible but often necessary so that peace can prevail.

    Peace is justice, it is charity.

  28. Heather, i thank you for making this interview available for us. Always learn so much from your blog.
    Previously, had never considered the 1700 year+ consequences of the Church's alliance with the Roman Empire. We were actually discussing this in Adult Confirmation class last night.
    One must carefully choose with whom to have the discussion… especially when in the presence of warriors who are family members/friends/students who–like this priest–live with the burden of war. Yet it is precisely because of this that I have become more pacifist than retaliator.
    By the way, were you aware that–in the '90's — the Church's position on "just" war had changed within the ten years it took for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church to be translated from its original French to English? The U.S. church had to issue a 2nd edition (it has a dark green cover) shortly after the 1st edition was published…expressly due to the Church's evolving position on the matter.
    Perhaps a slight adjustment in the ship's till, but a shift towards our Lord's true teachings,all the same.

  29. Thanks, Stefanie–I had not known the Church's position had evolved just in that short window of time–and what is truly great is that I rec'd a note from my chaplain friend yesterday that was so sublimely Christ-like that it illuminated way better than I was able to the very issue of non-violence! I'm waiting to hear if he's okay with me quoting him directly but suffice it to say that one more time, it's been corroborated that our hearts are opened and converted by gentleness, by kindness, by truth…never by force. And one more time to have been invited to look at my own tendency to use force…

  30. Also, to the anonymous poster who mentioned Rene Girard, thank you. Yes, I do know of him and did a post on The Scapegoat a few months back.

    I couldn't agree more that the central purpose and meaning of the Crucifixion was to say The violence stops here. Human sacrifice ends here. Otherwise why did he come? How did he change anything? If he did not throw EVERYTHING off balance–and I believe he did, and every day, every minute practically, discover he threw everything off balance way more completely and thoroughly than I would like to acknowledge–than how is he the Savior of the World? If he did not come to convert our hearts from the terrible violence we do to ourselves, others, and HIM, to convert our hearts from fear to faith, from violence to love, what did he come for?

    And in this culture that is ever more saturated with violence, when violence is the baseline from which so many people operate, when the impulse of our own hearts is to respond with yet more violence, we also need Christ more than ever…

  31. Rosemary, have been thinking too about the schoolyard bullies. My 12-year-old nephew goes to school in NH and has also been beset by classmates who I was APPALLED to learn stand around and say things like "You sleep with your father. You and your father have sex." Which would be horrible under any circumstances but is especially horrible because his mother died when he was four and he is being RAISED by his father…

    There's a wonderful essay by Karen Eifler in the newest issue of Portland, the magazine of the University of Portland (edited by the great Brian Doyle). I can't find the darn article at the moment but the way I remember it Karen was a teacher in inner city schools and one day two girls started hurling around the worst kind of bullying slurs and insults and were therefore suspended for a week. And in the interim, one other little girl raised her hand and said something to the effect of–They must be in terrible pain to be acting like that. I think she might have known one of them had an alcoholic parent, something like that. And so the whole class got together and arranged to have a welcome back party for the girls and to makes signs saying Welcome and We love you and so forth. The girls walked back in thinking they were going to be shunned and instead they were welcomed…

    I know that doesn't help your son in the moment he's being bullied on the playground, and how my heart goes out to him, and you (I am simply humbled to the ground at those who have taken up the task of parenting, one I was never up to myself). But maybe it gives us a little bit of hope that sometimes creative solutions exist…and I'm reminded that my own violence always stems from some form of fear that I am NOT welcome…

  32. First of all, thank you for your gracious response. I realize this is your blog and it's for you to highlight your beliefs and opinions. Thank you for hearing others out on this, and for acknowledging that it's different when one is actually a parent.

    Second, please don't feel sorry for my son. His father and I went to school with him and spoke on his behalf. We would not allow him to be made into the problem, nor to receive any less leeway than the acknowledged aggressor did. His father, especially, had his back. Any penalty the school gave was more than compensated by extra time, attention, and understanding (even celebration!) from his dad. I believe this man-to-man support and solidarity was pivotal, and decades later, this is what he remembers.

    Third — yes, I've heard it said many times before that bullies do what they do out of some well of suffering. This is a beautiful sentiment, and I've observed that people like to think it's true, and act on that basis, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is. Sometimes it may be. I think, however, that often this is a way people can spiritualize an uncomfortable situation and feel better about it. What they can easily end up doing is comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.

    Dave Hinsburger, a Canadian advocate who writes and lectures on handicap and bullying issues, spoke on this. I can't remember where in his blog it was, but he speaks of overhearing a group of teenage girls discussing and laughing over their bullying adventures. One said, "Mrs. X asked us if we hated (Victim Y). It's not that at all. This is just fun."

    That was more or less the answer I got when I asked my new brother-in-law why everyone in that family harassed the mentally retarded youngest. "It's fun."

    Like a bullfight in Spain, cruelty is a developed taste that appeals to our fallen nature. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  33. Ms King, thank you ever so much for posting this! I've been a hawk most of my life until I converted and was forced to look at a lot of my beliefs in light of the Church. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.


Leave a Reply

Discover more from HEATHER KING

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading