As I mentioned a while back, I got drawn into a group providing adult catechesis lectures at our parish. This evening I went down to hear another member of the group, a middle-aged immigrant from Lebanon, give a talk on commandments 5-10.
After several other topics under the heading of "Thou shalt not kill", he moved into the Church's teachings on just war, and put up the standard four bullets from the catechism which those familiar with online Catholic debates of the last eight years are so familiar with. Those sorts of topics always draw questions, and sure enough one woman raised her hand pretty quickly and asked, "So what should a Catholic soldier do, if he's in Iraq right now but he thinks that we hadn't tried everything, that war wasn't a last resort for us."
He launched into an explanation of how a soldier has certain duties to follow orders, but must do the right thing in each situation in which he finds himself, and how leaders of a country have a responsibility to make sure they do not send soldiers into a war without need. For many people this would have been a brief and perhaps somewhat awkward explanation. It is the natural human response of the unpracticed speaker to sound apologetic and qualified when addressing a topic on which he knows people hold strong feelings. But in this case, the explanation was long, fascinating, and intensely personal -- because he was talking about his experiences being drawn into the civil war in Lebanon: Becoming a soldier at the age of 13. Being wounded by a sniper's bullet at 14 and again by a mortar shell at 16. About people being stopped at roadblocks, walked around the corner, and shot. And about how -- as a battlescarred teenager he'd begun to study his faith for the first time.
All this personal history, relayed in the strongly accented and sometimes ungrammatical English of someone who grew up speaking French and Arabic, made the doctrinal points about casus belli and jus in bello come alive in a deeply compelling fashion. Much more so, I think, because of the language barrier. There's a pain, sometimes, in hearing truly harrowing experiences expressed too plainly. We need that slight layer of distance to allow us to listen and soak it all in without our minds wincing away and closing in on themselves.
The points about just war and just soldiering would not, I think, have sunk in if they'd come from somoene who'd been a civilian all his life. And at the same time, hearing of such harrowing experiences from a more fluent English speaker would, I think, have caused people to stop listening. It would have been too personal. Sometimes we need distance to see truth.