Pierre Ceresole on Peace and Truth

I’ve lately been reading For Peace and Truth, a collection of short excerpts translated from the notebooks and letters of .

Ceresole seems to be best-known today as the founder of Service Civil International, which organizes volunteers to do beneficial work around the globe to promote a more peaceful world.

He was a Swiss pacifist conscientious objector and war tax resister through both World Wars, and was frequently jailed for this (Switzerland, though a notoriously “neutral” country, had a program of mandatory military service and military taxes). He also, much like Ammon Hennacy in the United States, refused to go along with air raid drills and other war preparation measures — Ceresole would be regularly arrested for placing lighted candles in the window of his home when the power was cut for blackout drills.

For Peace and Truth is mostly short excerpts — many are one- or two-sentence aphorisms — from notebooks that he wrote for himself, documenting how he prodded himself along as he struggled to be a better Christian. The following are some that caught my eye, though as I am a nonbeliever my eyes tended to skip quickly through the ones that deal mostly with God stuff, so this isn’t a representative sample:

You say: How sad to think that the noblest altruism is, after all, merely a refined kind of selfishness.

I say: How good to think that selfishness, when it is purified and stops being stupid, is exactly the same thing as the noblest kind of altruism.

I have been carried this tremendous distance by the efforts of all the working men who, gritting their teeth, have laid rails in the desert, forged the machines, assembled the hulls of steamers; of all the engineers who directed their labour, of all the research workers who unlocked the secrets of physical science. We owe to this immense army of men this conquest of vast distances, continuing without intermission for weeks, yard by yard, at a speed which would absolutely annihilate any human lungs; this merciless, relentless speed is the quintessence, the concentrated result of the efforts of all these men. Though they are now dead, they are potently alive. Their effort has triumphed.

I must not have a closed mind even about the doctrine of not killing; it is possible that an occasion might arise when I had to kill. It doesn’t seem likely; but if, after careful consideration, my conscience told me to kill, I ought to be able to do so. The only absolute is the eternal: we must listen inwardly to this. There is no other way.

Our world is characterized by the temporary acceptance of the most stupid and criminal things. And people say: “It will always be like this!” — which means: I am a coward and a criminal and I fully expect to remain one indefinitely.

All this deliberately willed morality is horrible. You have no right to be moral if it is not your joy, your highest form of artistic expression. Wrestle for the good life exactly as the poet wrestles to create a beautiful verse, in the same spirit, for the love of the thing itself.

I have the right to dissociate myself from the state at war if I also do so when it wishes to defend my property.

The basic falsity of these long-range methods of war.

If everyone was obliged to thrust his bomb or his piece of shrapnel personally into the body of his enemy, he would realize the horror of what he was doing.

At present the horror gets lost in transit. All that remains is a beautiful scientific problem.

A dedicated life is only healthy and holy if it is sufficiently simple for the “inspired” person to be able himself to provide all the labour involved in supplying his material needs, or its equivalent.

Reduce and simplify your needs to the point where you can easily satisfy them yourself, so that those who live or claim to live for the Spirit do not thereby add to the burdens of other men, taking away from them the possibility and perhaps the very desire to develop their spiritual life also.

What will it benefit the world if, in developing your spiritual life, you add to the material burdens of others by a corresponding amount? and if, in rising yourself towards the Eternal you as it were oblige someone else to descend correspondingly in the opposite direction. You will simply have created or increased a state of inequality and injustice without increasing the sum total of spiritual living.

The wrong and anti-natural character of the totalitarian State is shown by its drawing its real support from the mass, from mass-thoughts and mass-feelings as perceived by an individual; but this is not life manifesting itself in spontaneity, the action of God through the heart of a man, natural action in the depths of the individual, of the personality.

Mr. G.H. (member of the Salvation Army) writes: “I often ask myself what would happen to my two sons, pilots in the (British) R.A.F., if ever war broke out; but I tell myself that God can preserve them from all mishap, and I place my trust in him.”

Touching confidence in the partiality of God who will exert himself to protect Mr. G.H.’s sons against “mishap” — the self-same kind of mishap it is their (freely chosen) job to do their best to inflict on others.

So then you consider yourself cleverer than the millions who think they are bound in honour to defend their country?

But after all there are even more millions who believe themselves bound to attack it. That restores the balance.

We make no progress for peace because we lack the courage to do as much as the soldier, however misguidedly, does for his cause.

During World War Ⅰ, Ceresole at first was paying the special tax that the Swiss government demanded from men who were exempt (for whatever reason) from military service. After a Swiss conscientious objector was imprisoned for his stand (Switzerland at the time had no legal accommodation for conscientious objectors), Ceresole decided to express his solidarity by refusing to go along with this substitute tax for military service.

That reminds me of a story that Zachery Kurtz related a few years ago:

In a Sunday School class at my church, someone told the story of how wealthy Russian Mennonites long ago avoided serving in the military by hiring replacements. “What’s the difference?” someone muttered. Others in the class agreed. It seemed that in the eyes of God, there would be little difference between serving in the military and paying someone else to serve in the military. “Then why don’t we talk about our war taxes?” muttered another person in the class. “Because that would be too relevant,” was the sarcastic reply.

Ceresole worked with others in Switzerland to try to get some legal protection for conscientious objection, without much success. In addition to trying to get the government to allow objectors to do some sort of alternative civilian service in lieu of military training, they also tried to remedy the problem of the special military tax that exempt men were required to pay.

Their approach was an interesting one, and one that modern “Peace Tax Fund” promoters might consider: “The petition [suggested] the creation of a special civilian tax for those refusing to pay on conscientious grounds; this was to be one-third greater than the corresponding military tax, and the proceeds were to be exclusively used for the support of the proposed civilian service.”

Myself, I’m of the opinion that paying your taxes into a “Peace Tax Fund” is no better than just sending them to the IRS without such a ribbon on top. So to me the proposal from the Swiss conscientious objector movement that I’ve just described would be one-third worse. But if I believed in the logic behind the “Peace Tax Fund,” I think I’d also be inclined to be willing to pay a premium for my conscience’s sake, and I would think that this would make it easier to sell the proposal to the public and to skeptical taxspenders.