Henri Nouwen, Peacemaker
BY JOHN DEAR
[This essay is part of the forthcoming collection, "Creative Minister,"
celebrating the life and work of the popular spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen.
It will be published in 2006 by Orbis Books. For further information about
Henri Nouwen, see: www.henrinouwen.org]
My friend Father Bill O’Donnell tells a surprising story about
Henri Nouwen. It was the early-1980s. The Reagan administration was waging
a brutal war on the impoverished people of Nicaragua that left tens of
thousands dead. In the center of it all stood the right-wing Catholic
Cardinal, Obando y Bravo, who bragged about keeping a gun in his desk
drawer, ready to be used on any intruder. The Cardinal condemned liberation
theology, the base Christian community movement, as well as all those
who promoted justice and peace. He embodied the just war theory, the oppressive
male hierarchy, and the warmaking church.
Those days, the Managua airport was filled with international activists
and church workers trying to offer their solidarity. Father Bill was waiting
for his flight back to the U.S. when he noticed the notorious Cardinal
standing in the middle of the airport. Beside him stood a tall, thin man,
pointing at the Cardinal, yelling at him, and waving his arms in frantic
argument, trying to convince the Cardinal to stop siding with the U.S.
government and start supporting the Nicaraguan poor. Finally, the stunned
Cardinal walked off in a huff. My friend, Fr. Bill, went over to compliment
the tall, thin man.
“I’m amazed that you spoke like that to the Cardinal,”
Bill said, “Who are you?”
“My name is Henri Nouwen,” the man said, putting out his
Bill was shocked. He had read many of Henri’s pastoral books and
never expected such a prophetic performance by one of the leading writers
on the spiritual life, much less to meet the great man there in Nicaragua
at the height of the contra war. Bill concluded that he had vastly misunderstood
Henri Nouwen, just as others have done, and that Henri Nouwen was a true
prophet of peace and justice.
“Nobody can be a Christian today without being a peacemaker,”
Henri wrote in his book Peacework.(1) “The bombing of Hiroshima
and the nuclear arms race that followed have made peacemaking the central
task for Christians. There are many other urgent tasks to accomplish:
the work of worship, evangelization, healing of church divisions, alleviating
worldwide poverty and hunger, and defending human rights. But all of these
tasks are closely connected with the task that stands above them all:
making peace. Making peace today means giving a future to humanity, making
it possible to continue our life together on this planet.”(2)
Few people have understood the full spectrum of Henri Nouwen’s
spirituality. “Peacemaking belongs to the heart of our Christian
vocation,” Henri wrote. “Peacemaking is a full-time task for
all Christians. Peacemaking has become the most urgent of all Christian
tasks.”(3). For Henri, the pursuit of disarmament and justice is
no longer just a fad from the 1960s or a gimmick for a few disenfranchised
church people. It is integral to the life of any authentic Christian.
“What we are called to is a life of peacemaking in which all that
we do, say, think, or dream is part of our concern to bring peace to this
world,” he explained. “Just as Jesus’ command to love
one another cannot be seen as a part-time obligation, but requires our
total investment and dedication, so too Jesus’ call to peacemaking
is unconditional, unlimited, and uncompromising. None of us is excused!
Peacemaking is a full-time vocation that includes each member of God’s
Henri Nouwen was one of the most popular writers in recent decades on
the spiritual life, and he was adamantly opposed to war, injustice and
nuclear weapons. He was politically aware and socially conscious. He did
not limit his spirituality to a private personal relationship with God,
but understood it as a social spirituality that sends us out to serve
the whole human race with love and compassion. Henri wanted us to explore
prayer, silence, solitude, pastoral ministry and spirituality, and to
know that we are personally and unconditionally loved by a compassionate
God. He also hoped that this sense of our “belovedness” would
push us to reach out in love for every human being on the planet as our
very own beloved sister and brother, so that one day, war, poverty, injustice
and nuclear weapons would be abolished, and all would live in God’s
realm of peace.
Henri’s journey is marked by a series of unusual and courageous
steps on behalf of peace, justice and disarmament, which I think moved
him intellectually and spiritually toward a more universal, compassionate
love. In the 1960s, he drove through the night to join Dr. King and the
marchers from Selma to Montgomery to denounce racism and segregation.
Later, he walked with the thousands at Dr. King’s funeral. In the
1970s, he spoke at anti-war rallies and kept vigil for peace at a Trident
submarine base in Connecticut. He once led the annual Good Friday “Stations
of the Cross” in front of that base. He hosted a weekly mass for
the protesters and taught them about the spiritual roots of protest. In
the 1980s, he joined hundreds of U.S. citizens as they stood on the border
of Nicaragua to protest Reagan’s contra war. He traveled to Guatemala
to support the priest who succeeded martyred Father Stanley Rother. He
toured the country calling for “solidarity with our crucified sisters
and brothers in Central America.” He visited Daniel and Philip Berrigan
in jail and supported the Plowshares anti-nuclear movement. He flew to
Nevada where he joined Christians protesting at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons
Test Site. On January 14, 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, he addressed
ten thousand people in Washington, D.C., denouncing the impending war.
I think his opposition to war and nuclear weapons and his commitment
to peace and justice for the poor pushed Henri from Notre Dame and Yale
to the Genesee monastery and Peru to Harvard and finally L’Arche
Daybreak community. This journey must have been harder than he ever let
on. I think he had a conscience, and it bothered him. He knew that the
Gospel was a summons to downward mobility, solidarity with the poor and
active resistance against injustice. That is why, I believe, when he moved
into L’Arche, he spoke of finally finding a home among the disabled.
He was loved, he was living in Christian community, he was siding with
the weak and the powerless, and from now on, his books and talks emerged
from a firmer Gospel foundation. He had moved from power and success in
the academic world to the powerlessness of an intentional community life
among the poor. Only people who are aware of the world around them, attuned
to the sufferings of humanity, and intent on the voice of the Gospel could
make such a radical journey.
Henri supported the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker,
Pax Christi, and Sojourners. He was involved in their peace and justice
projects, as many of them have told me over the years. He and I corresponded
for eight years, and he supported my stand against war, injustice and
nuclear weapons. When I went to prison for a Plowshares disarmament action,
he wrote lengthy letters of support and sent unpublished manuscripts and
gifts. His response stood in sharp contrast to other church workers, priests
and theologians. I was especially moved when he wrote that he wanted to
connect his life, which he saw as a life of peacemaking, with my work
His funeral was a revelation for me and his many friends because we saw
how his life had touched so many different people. He literally made peace
among us. I decided to collect his unpublished writings on peace and justice
and put them together in a book, which became, The Road to Peace. Later,
I helped with his book, Peacework.
Working on these projects was like being on retreat. Henri encourages
my commitment to peace and justice because he keeps pointing me to the
spiritual depths underneath the public projects. Here are some of the
basic steps of Gospel peacemaking that I learn and relearn from Henri
1. Peacemaking Starts with Prayer
“Prayer is the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit,
the core and the content, the basis and the goal of all peacemaking,”
Henri wrote.(5) When we sit down to pray, we enter the presence of the
God of peace who disarms our hearts, he said. We make our peace with God,
and God gives us the gift of peace. That’s where it all starts.
If we care about the wars in the world, the rampant poverty, and the madness
of nuclear weapons, we should take that care to our prayer, to God, and
let God disarm us and transform us that we might be used by God to disarm
Henri wanted everyone to spend a small amount of quality time every day
in intimate prayer with the God of peace, just being with God, being loved
by God, experiencing the peace of God, so that God would send us forth
as instruments of God’s love and peace. He taught that if we root
our daily lives in the contemplative experience of being loved by God,
we would help spread love around us, and even be able to love our enemies.
“Only those who deeply know that they are loved and rejoice in
that love can be true peacemakers,” Henri wrote.(6) “Prayer
is the basis of 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 the One who offers us his peace.”(7)
“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.”(8)
2. Peacemaking Requires Resistance to Injustice
“As peacemakers, we must resist all the powers of war and destruction
and proclaim that peace is the divine gift offered to all who affirm life,”
Henri wrote. “Resistance means saying ‘No’ “to
all the forces of death, wherever they may be.”(9)
Henri next explained that the practice of daily contemplative prayer
eventually leads us to stand up publicly against all that goes against
God’s love, including war, poverty and nuclear weapons. Because
we have come to know God’s love for us and everyone, we are interiorly
motivated to join that disarming love by standing with the poor and oppressed
and loving our enemies. The spiritual life leads us to resist the structures
and institutions that make war, build nuclear weapons, execute prisoners
on death row, keep people poor, and make enormous profits for a handful
of corporate billionaires, Henri declared. That is why he marched in Selma,
kept vigil at the Trident submarine base, spoke out against the Vietnam
war, traveled to the Nevada Desert to witness against the development
of nuclear weapons, supported imprisoned Christian peace activists, and
addressed ten thousand people on the eve of the first Gulf War--because
he was a person of true prayer, who experienced the love of God, and who
understood that this grace sends us out to disarm the culture of war.
He understood that Jesus gave his life resisting systemic injustice in
the Temple, that the early church was a community of nonviolent resistance
toward imperial warmaking, and that we too have to engage in the same
costly discipleship of nonviolent resistance to institutionalized violence.
“Resistance is not action in contrast to prayer, but a true form
of prayer,” he observed. “After my own, very limited, experience
with war resistance, I even dare to say that for those who resist in the
name of the living God, resistance is not only prayer but also liturgy.”(10)
3. Peacemaking Builds Community
“Peacemaking can be a lasting work only when we live and work together,”
Henri wrote. “Community is indispensable for a faithful and enduring
resistance.”(11) Henri knew from experience with his peace movement
friends, and eventually from his life at L’Arche, that life in community
not only strengthens us to work for peace, it makes peace among us and
becomes a light of peace to the world. If we want to resist the culture
of war, like Jesus, Henri argued, we too need to be part of a peacemaking
community. If Jesus needed a community and spent so much time forming
community while walking the path of nonviolence, we too need community.
The more I consider Henri’s life, the more I realize how brave
he was to leave the comfort of his personal successful career in three
prestigious universities to join a community comprised primarily of disabled
people. From his new life in community, Henri began to invite people working
for peace and justice to form or join a community so that they would not
be alone. In a small community, such as a Pax Christi group or a local
parish peace and justice group, we pray together, share our struggles,
study the issues of war and injustice, reclaim our strength, and work
publicly for peace and justice. We make friends, hold hands, share our
pain, disarm one another and walk forward together as instruments of Christ’s
peace. Through such communities, we move from loneliness to friendship
and from apathy and indifference to active love for humanity. And in the
process, we become more human.
Overtime, Henri developed a vision of a global grassroots network of
local peacemaking communities connected by the shared vision of peace.
“When I think of this new community, I think about people from all
over the world reaching out to each other in total vulnerability. In my
mind’s eye, I see a worldwide network of men and women so totally
disarmed that they not only have given up the power of weapons but also
religious concepts, symbols, and institutions. I see them moving over
this world, visiting each other, binding each other’s wounds, confessing
their brokenness to each other, and forgiving each other with a simple
word, an embrace, a touch, or even a smile. I see them walking alone or
together in the most simple clothes, caring for the sick, feeding the
hungry, comforting the lonely, and waiting quietly with the dying. I see
them in apartment buildings, farm houses, schools and universities, hospitals
and office buildings as quiet witnesses of God’s presence. Wherever
they are they bring peace, not as much by what they say or do, but mostly
by their connectedness with those others with whom they form a new community
4. Peacemaking Requires Serving the Poor
In his booklet, “The Path to Peace,” Henri added a fourth
ingredient to his spirituality of peacemaking--receiving the gift of peace
from the weak, the broken, the poor, and the marginalized. As he wrote
shortly before his death, he received the gift of peace from his severely
disabled friend, Adam Arnett. Henri had been assigned to care for Adam,
who could not speak, read, write, feed himself or bathe himself. After
several months of caring for Adam, Henri began to feel a peace he had
never before known. He concluded that the poor share with us the gift
of peace, God’s reign of peace, which belongs first and foremost
to them, according to the Beatitudes.
“In his silent way Adam keeps telling me, ‘Peace is not primarily
about doing. It is first of all the art of being,’” Henri
wrote. “I know he is right because after months of being with Adam,
I am discovering in myself the beginning of an inner at-homeness that
I didn’t know before. I even feel the unusual desire to do a lot
less and be a lot more… Adam is gradually teaching me something
about the peace that is not of this world. It is a peace not constructed
by tough competition, hard thinking, and individual stardom, but rooted
in simply being present to each other and working together in harmony,
a peace that speaks about the first love of God by which we are all held
safe, and a peace that keeps calling us to community in a fellowship of
If we want to receive a peace “not of this world,” we must,
like Henri, reach out to individual poor, marginalized people and serve
them. As we serve and befriend the needy, suffering people around us,
as we are healed by God’s presence in them, we learn more and more
about the culture’s systematic injustice and the great need for
justice. We also experience what John Paul II called “God’s
preferential love for the poor” and see the face of Christ in the
poor. Through the poor, God makes peace with us.
5. Peacemaking Means Accepting Weakness and Vulnerability
By serving the poor and weak and receiving from them the gift of peace,
Henri taught that we learn to accept our own poverty and weakness and
discover God’s healing peace. “Where is peace to be found?”
Henri asked. “The answer is surprising but clear. In weakness. Few
people are telling us this truth, but there is peace to be found in our
own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken,
most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. In our weakness, our familiar
ways of controlling and manipulating our world are being stripped away
and we are forced to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying
on our self-sufficiency. Right there, where we are most vulnerable, the
peace that is not of this world is mysteriously hidden. When we trust
that the God of love has already given the peace we are searching for,
we will see this peace breaking through the broken soil of our human condition
and we will be able to let it grow fast and even heal the economic and
political maladies of our time.”(14)
Peace does not come from domination, power, or violence, but through
weakness, humility, vulnerability, weakness and loving service. From Henri’s
perspective, if we accept our brokenness and weakness as a gift, we transform
it, and discover the spiritual depths of peace and thus can offer palpable
peace to those around us.
“New life is born in the state of total vulnerability--this is
the mystery of love,” Henri wrote. “Power kills. Weakness
creates. It creates autonomy, self-awareness, and freedom. It creates
openness to give and receive in mutuality. And finally it creates the
good ground on which new life can come to full development and maturity.”(15)
“Love,” Henri concluded, “asks for total disarmament.”(16)
Love means letting go of violence at every level--personal, interpersonal,
communal, national, international and global. As we accept our vulnerability,
we learn to trust in the God of peace and love one another. Then the Holy
Spirit of peace moves more freely among us, disarming and transforming
us and the world around us. This is the way Gospel peacemaking works.
6. Peacemaking Requires Nonviolence
Given his emphasis on prayer, love, and vulnerability, as well as his
interest in Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Gandhi,
it is not surprising that Henri wrote about nonviolence, and that he spent
time with faith groups espousing creative nonviolence, such as the Fellowship
of Reconciliation, Sojourners, Pax Christi, The Catholic Worker, and the
Plowshares movement. He knew not only the immorality and sinfulness of
our culture’s violence, but the importance of practicing and teaching
Gospel nonviolence if we are to create a new culture of peace. He wanted
us to explore nonviolence in our own lives, to join the global grassroots
movements of nonviolence for social change, just as he did, and to understand
the life of Jesus as fundamentally a life of perfect, nonviolent love.
“Christian resistance is nonviolent because the peace we want to
bring is not of this world,” Henri wrote.(17) “It is brought
not by enslaving our enemies, but by converting them; not by showing strength,
but by sharing in the confession of a common weakness; not by becoming
unapproachable, but by making oneself vulnerable; not by retaliation,
but by turning the other cheek; not by violence but by love. Jesus’
way is the way without curses, weapons, violence or power. For him, there
are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people
to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved. And
love does not use weapons. Love is not made manifest in power but in powerlessness.
Jesus challenges all his followers to take this way, the way of disarmed,
nonviolent, powerless resistance.”(18)
7. Peacemaking Demands Racial Justice
When I visited Henri’s archives at Yale University, shortly after
his death, to put together the book, The Road to Peace, I discovered his
unpublished diary written in Dutch recording his participation in the
famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After
it was translated and published, many people told me how moved they were
by this little journal. I too was moved by Henri’s long drive to
Selma, his determination to stand with Dr. King and the African American
community in their struggle for racial justice, and the unity he felt
with all people.
Henri later wrote that our true identity is to be the beloved sons and
daughters of God, and that this spiritual identity determines our ethical
and social behavior toward others. Once we recognize that we are all equal
children of God, he said, we love everyone equally and nonviolently, regardless
of race, creed, gender, age, ability, class or orientation. Physical differences
no longer matter. God clearly enjoys human variety, and as God’s
children, we also need to learn and enjoy human variety and accept our
physical differences as gifts.
Because of his search for an authentic spirituality, Henri publicly opposed
racism and segregation, and promoted civil and human rights for all people.
He knew that if we are to make peace, we have to overcome the stupidity
of prejudice, dismantle the injustice of racism, and create an all-inclusive,
welcoming culture. In that spirit, he reached out to everyone. We must
do the same.
8. Peacemaking Makes Connections
Henri Nouwen was one of those rare people, like Thomas Merton, Dorothy
Day or Daniel Berrigan, who makes connections. His spirituality of peace
connected everything--our personal lives, our private prayer, the sacraments,
the church, our relatives and neighbors, our jobs, the poor, injustice,
national politics, war, international concerns, the whole world and the
God of love. For Henri, peace is like an umbrella that covers us all and
helps us feel safe. The fundamental purpose of pastoral ministry, he taught,
is to let people know they are loved, to invite people to live in that
love, and to summon people to share that love with everyone they meet
and the whole world. This spirituality of peace unites all those who are
divided--rich and poor, black and white, women and men, young and old,
left and right, the divisions in the church, the divisions in society,
and the divisions in the world. It means seeing that whatever we do affects
others, that everything has spiritual consequences, that “as we
are, so is the world.” Henri wanted us to become whole as individuals,
as communities, and as a people. He began to make the connections between
the spiritual life, war, racism, poverty and nuclear weapons and to discover
what Dr. King call “the interconnectedness of reality.” As
he sought to bring together different groups of people, as he saw the
underlying connections between the divisions and injustices of the world,
he also began to see more and more the common ground and spiritual peace
that we share.
Henri challenged us to make connections, to understand our basic inter-connectedness
with one another and creation itself, to see the various issues of injustice
as forms of violence against the human family and to spend our remaining
days on earth sharing the wisdom of peace so that one day we might all
live in a new realm of nonviolence.
9. Peacemaking Leads to Gratitude
“If there is any word that should characterize the life of peacemakers,
it is ‘gratitude,’” Henri wrote. “True peacemakers
are grateful people who constantly recognize and celebrate the peace of
God within and among them.(19)
If we are going to spend the rest of our lives resisting war, poverty
and nuclear weapons, Henri taught, and not give in to despair because
of our apparent ineffectiveness, we have to count our blessings. We have
to celebrate life. We have to be grateful for the simple gifts--being
alive, being healthy, being loved by God and others, being called to love
and serve others. Henri urged people to practice gratitude as a daily
discipline so that instead of being cynical, bitter, mean, resentful or
violent, we are grateful. If we are grateful to God and others, peace
will blossom within us. It will spread around us. It will work among us
to lead those around us from pain, anger, despair and violence to know
the peace of gratitude.
Henri’s last act modeled this teaching of peace. After his massive
heart attack in the Netherlands, he said to a friend, just a few days
before he died, “Tell everyone I am grateful.” His reaction
was not anger, resentment, or bitterness. His first reaction and last
message was gratitude. It showed how seriously he practiced the peacemaking
he taught. These words were also a gift to all those who knew him because
it brought us to the same peace Henri knew.
“When the sounds of gratitude are heard, the sounds of war fall
silent,” Henri wrote. “People will look at each other and
tears will come to their eyes when they realize that once they spent all
their time and energy to build a hell in which they could burn each other.
Then the missiles will rust away in their silos, the submarines will decay,
and the bombers will be put in museums to remind children that once there
were savage times. This is the vision of peacemakers.”(20)
10. Peacemakers Follow Jesus
The road to peace begins and ends with Jesus, Henri insisted. Jesus embodies
peace, makes peace, shares peace and blesses those who make peace. As
his followers, Henri wrote, we try to become more and more like Jesus,
which means we too try to embody peace, create peace, and share peace.
We do that by staying focused on Jesus, getting to know Jesus in our prayer,
studying his life in the Gospel, and carrying on the good works of love
and healing that he started.
“Keep your eyes on the Prince of Peace,” Henri wrote, “the
one who doesn’t cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to
turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, and rule with great power;
the one who says, ‘blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn,
those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart,
the peacemakers, and those persecuted for justice.’ See the one
who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; the one who speaks
words of forgiveness and encouragement; the one who dies alone, rejected,
and despised. Keep your eyes on him who becomes poor with the poor, weak
with the weak, and who is rejected with the rejected. That one, Jesus,
is the source of all peace.”(21)
If we keep our eyes on Jesus, Henri taught, we will follow him on the
path of nonviolence, even if he goes “where we would rather not
go,” to the cross and beyond into the new life of resurrection.
Along the way, we will do the deeds of peace that Jesus did, say the words
of peace that Jesus said, and learn to love as Jesus loved, with his same
all-embracing, universal, compassionate love.
The teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Henri wrote
“have become the key words for our lives as Christians today.”(22)
If we want a more mature spirituality and authenticity, we have to fulfill
this blessing, take a stand against the culture of war, love our enemies,
and become peacemakers. That is the path before us.
Henri Nouwen walked that path of peace as he journeyed from academia
to L’Arche, from his own inner anguish and pain to peace and freedom.
We too can make that journey toward inner peace and public peacemaking
by following Jesus on the path of nonviolence and compassion, by practicing
contemplative peace and gratitude, by resisting war and nuclear weapons,
and by sharing our lives with those in need, including the enemies of
If we dare walk the road to peace, from the inner journey of the spiritual
life to the public work for justice and disarmament, one day we too will
feel immense gratitude, like Henri, as our journey comes to an end and
Jesus welcomes us home into the house of peace.
1. Peacework, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 16.
2. Peacework, 15-16.
3. Peacework, 22-23.
4. Peacework, 16-17.
5. Peacework, 25.
6. Peacework, 36.
7. Peacework, 37.
8. Peacework, 44.
9. Peacework, 50.
10. Peacework, 88.
11. Peacework, 97.
12. Peacework, 110-111.
13. Finding My Way Home, (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001), 66, 77.
14. Finding My Way Home, 81, 82, 84.
15. Seeds of Hope, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997), 74.
16. Seeds of Hope, 73.
17. Peacework, 93.
18. Peacework, 93-94.
19. Peacework, 115.
20. Peacework, 120.
21. Finding My Way Home, 80-81.
22. Peacework, 123.