The Common Good
March-April 1999

The Source and the Fruit

by Duane Shank | March-April 1999

Henri Nouwen on spirituality and justice

At his death in 1996, eulogies referred to Henri Nouwen as one of the most significant spiritual writers of the century. He also understood that spirituality has social implications. The struggle for justice and peace was an essential part of Nouwen's walk with Jesus, and from Selma to Atlanta, from Nicaragua to Peru, from the nuclear test site in Nevada to Peace Pentecost in Washington, DC., he walked that walk.

The Road to Peace

, edited by John Dear, brings together for the first time Nouwen's writings on peacemaking, racial equality, hearing the cry of the poor, and the solidarity of the human family. Several of the pieces are previously unpublished, and the collection rounds out the picture of his life and thought. For someone who has been deeply involved in the struggle for peace for nearly three decades, it is rich material for reflection.

For Nouwen, the essential element of peacemaking is prayer. It is, he writes, "the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit, the core and the content, the basis and the goal for all peacemaking...precisely because in prayer we come to the realization that we do not belong to the world in which conflicts and wars take place, but to him who offers us his peace."

Finding time for prayer is one of the constant challenges of an activist life. Nouwen gently reminds us that "we often have to take time to pray, and recognize prayer as the first and foremost act of resistance against militarism. By allowing ourselves quiet time with God we act on our faith that the peace we want to bring is not the work of our hands or the product of movements we join, but the gift of Christ."

In "We Shall Overcome," Nouwen records his reflections on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, in which he participated. He writes of the fear, the celebration, the marching, the singing, and finally the climatic speech by Martin Luther King Jr.: "He spoke slowly, with conviction, and with enormous, penetrating power. His phrases were like explanations that went beyond the realm of doubt."

Three years later, hearing the news of King's death, he feels that "the sorrow and sadness, the anger and madness, the pains and frustrations had crawled out of the many hidden corners of my body and spread all over like a growing disease of restlessness, tension, and bitterness. I had been fighting it all the way, but now it was clear that only his own people could cure me. Only in the anonymity of their crying, shouting, marching, and singing would I be able to meet the man of Selma again and find some rest."

THEN IN THE mid-1980s, he is touched by the wars in Central America. He writes of "an intuition that the spiritual destiny of North America is intimately linked to the spiritual destiny of South America. Somehow I sensed that in order to come to know the living Christ among the people in the Northern part of the Americas I had to be willing to expose myself to the way the living Christ reveals himself in the Southern part of the Americas."

He speaks of Central America with the words that summarize the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The death and suffering of Central America are a part of the suffering of Christ; yet Christ has risen. Hunger, poverty, war, and devastation no longer have the last word. Death and all its symptoms are not the final reality.

Christ will come again, and, in the judgment, will have a question. "It is the question of the just judge who in that question reveals to us that making peace and working for justice can never be separated....As long as there are strangers; hungry, naked, and sick people; prisoners, refugees, and slaves; people who are handicapped physically, mentally, or emotionally; people without work, a home, or a piece of land, there will be that haunting question from the throne of judgment: 'What have you done for the least of mine?'"

Nouwen knew the importance of a spiritual life of faith deeply rooted in an intimate communion with God. But he also knew the importance of that communion resulting in an active commitment to healing the brokenness of the world. This book unites those two passions of his spirituality.

DUANE SHANK is director of outreach/executive assistant at Sojourners and a longtime peace activist.

The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice. Henri Nouwen, ed. by John Dear. Orbis Books, 1998.

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