An interesting story has been doing the rounds about the behaviour of a prominent Melbourne priest who retaliated against a group of boys who trespessed onto church property to skateboard on the premises. This retaliation involved a flurry of swearing, a few racist slurs and even some physical abuse by the priest. I had wanted offer my thoughts on the subject since I became aware of the issue a few days ago, but was concerned that I would unleash a torrent of unjustified anti-Catholic sentiment by raising the issue. That said, now that the video has circulated itself widely throughout both the media and the Christian community, I see no point in holding back from providing my commentary. Before I do so however, here is the video of the incident, which I would suggest you watch before proceeding to read the rest of my article. Just to offer the standard cliched disclaimer, some viewers may find the following footage distressing. Having said that, I have all but guaranteed that the vast majority of people who come across this post will now watch the video:
The first thing I think I need to say is that I have no right to take the moral highground. Of course, this is a cue to make a confession. Late last year, at a time when my pacifistic stance was only just taking shape but nonetheless existed, I took umbrage against a man who quite deliberately shoved me out of the way to get on a train. I shoved him back forcefully enough to let him know that I was annoyed. This wasn't a particularly wise thing to do, since he shoved me back, this time with much more aggression. This would have been fine, but for the fact that I was holding a yoghurt that I had recently bought at the time. I ended up second-best with the yoghurt spilt all over my suit. Very angry at the time, I was actually quite tempted to throw the remains of my yoghurt through the open train door at his face. Quite possibly because I will soon be seeking admission as a solicitor and that fact the Law Society of New South Wales does not look kindly on such behaviour, I held back. That and the fact that given the temperament of the man, further annoying him may have encouraged him to lash out in even more serious violence. It seems like a self-evident response, but refraining from retaliating for the second time was the wisest thing I did all day.
Having acknowledged my profound wrongdoing so that there are no real skeletons in the closet concerning my own behaviour, I have to say that I completely understand the response of the priest. He was mercilessly taunted by the boys and to respond as he did was perfectly natural. This said, I was also disgusted by his behaviour, especially his physical abuse and his racism. Especially as a man of the cloth, the priest should know that his behaviour serves as a witness both to the Church and to Jesus. By acting as he did, he has brought both the Church and Jesus into disrepute. When Jesus tells us to "turn the other cheek" when we are struck, be it literally or metaphorically, he truly means it - he is not speaking in hyperbole. I should point out that to his credit the priest has since shown deep contrition for his behaviour, for which I must commend him, although it is strange that his apology has only occurred since the issue has become public.
As a pacifist, this incident raises many interesting questions for which I have no easy answers. Here are my questions, for which I would also be interested in seeing how others respond:
(1) How would I have responded to the belligerence of the skateboarders?
Unfortunately, as much I might like to, I can't guarantee that I would not have retaliated - though I am almost certain that I would not have made racist slurs and fairly certain that I would not have physically struck out.
(2) How should one act in such situations?
It is important to recognise that pacifism should not be equated with "passivism". We are to turn the other cheek and refuse to respond to violence with violence, but this does not mean that our non-violence response cannot serve to deeply shame our attackers. I am sure that Jesus would have been able to come up with a response that would have stopped the cocky skateboarders in their tracks, but unfortunately, I can't. I certainly wouldn't have been able to come up with a calm and collected response that shamed these skateboarders in the heat of the moment.
(3) What is the logical conclusion of my pacifism?
It has recently dawned on me that if I say I am a pacifist, not only must I refuse to respond with violence myself, but I must refuse to take advantage of any resort I may have to address the situation through violence means, even if by proxy. As a pacifist, does this mean that I should not take advantage of the police force, since to do so would not be to act non-violently, but simply to delegate my violent response to another party, who indeed can retaliate far more effectively than I could in the first place? And yet this may be precisely what Jesus calls us to do.
So many questions ... so few answers