by Bishop Kevin Dowling
Co-President of Pax Christi International
I begin with the well-known text from Micah (6:8): “… this is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God…”
Who will ever forget the witness of over 1 million Filipinos, accompanied by priests and nuns kneeling on the ground in prayer (and soldiers who refused to intervene or act against them) – a peaceful protest leading to the downfall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986? How did this happen? Firstly, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical Christian organization dedicated to nonviolent social change, led dozens of nonviolent action workshops across the Philippines. After attending a workshop, Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila joined with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in calling for a “nonviolent struggle for justice.” These training workshops, along with a sophisticated election-monitoring mission led by nuns and priests, paved the way for the mass “people power” movement that prevented Marcos from stealing the 1986 presidential elections. The people challenged violence with nonviolent resistance – and won, and Marcos and his wife left the country.
Fast forward to 2014. In mid-2014, women living in the Bentiu Protection of Civilians area in South Sudan alerted the Nonviolent Peaceforce team living there that women were being raped and sometimes gang-raped by soldiers when they went out to gather firewood and water. The women reported that sometimes the soldiers would describe the assaults as part of their job.
Often older women took on these jobs to protect the younger ones, and hopefully to decrease the likelihood of attack. So these women had to choose between their personal safety and providing for their families’ basic needs. Nonviolent Peaceforce began accompanying the women when they left the camp, sending 2 or more trained civilian protectors along with them. In the year after this accompaniment was offered to the people, no woman was attacked when accompanied. Instead, the soldiers looked the other way.
In the past year Nonviolent Peaceforce has provided over 1,000 accompaniments for vulnerable people, primarily women and children, throughout South Sudan. Currently, twelve international and many more local organizations are using unarmed civilian protection (UCP) to effectively protect civilians and deter violence in at least 17 areas of violent conflict. (UCP was cited and recommended in two major UN Reviews last year, “Peace Operations and Women,” “Peace and Security”). Notably over 40% of unarmed civilian protectors in the field are women, compared to 4% of armed UN peacekeepers.
But the wars and violence goes on in Sudan and South Sudan – after years of terrible suffering. In early 2002 I flew into the remote community of Kauda in the Nuba Mountains during the vicious war and oppression of the Bashir regime in Khartoum. I stood at a little shrine in the Holy Cross Church compound where an Antonov plane had flown over the village, and dropped 3 barrel bombs on the compound. The children and their teachers were sitting under the trees to shelter from the sun. One bomb hit right next to a tree and 14 children and their teacher were killed. Over the years, the Sudan Ecumenical Form, which I chaired for 11 years, together with our partners on the ground, engaged in a massive campaign to accurately document and verify such atrocities, and we then took up relentless international advocacy to stop the bombing; and we succeeded … but, sadly, only for a time. This year, at the very same place, the Antonov bombers came over again and dropped their deadly bombs. No wonder Pope Francis stated: “We are now undergoing a Third World War in installments.”
It was accounts and stories like these from all over the world which we shared before, during and after the Rome Conference from 11-13 April 2016 and which, we hope, will place our ideals and goal of promoting active non-violence and just peace at the centre of ongoing reflection and commitment in the Church through what I hope will be an ongoing relationship with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and especially through all the partnerships of our Pax Christi sections and organisations and local co-workers in contexts of violence, war and atrocities.
But a challenge for all of us remains … where can we find the inner strength to keep going, because the forces opting for war, oppression and violence are indeed great? The UN High Commission for Refugees released its report in June 2016. By the end of 2015, 65.3 million people had been displaced; the first time the number has exceeded 60 million. This means that one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker (3.2 million), internally displaced (40.8 million) or a refugee (21.3 million). The report stated that more and more people are being displaced by war and persecution; people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders; and politics is gravitating against asylum in some countries. Yes, we are truly up against powerful forces.
What I wish to reflect on, while taking inspiration from the stories and indeed heroism we all know so well (who among us will ever forget the witness of the two Jesuits from Syria in Sarajevo?), is the spirituality which we need for our calling and ideals, and which we should also share with those who are present in situations of great stress so that we and they can find the inner strength to continue giving witness to the possibility that there is another viable option to wars and violence.
Given that we, our partners and co-workers almost always work in an interfaith context or in one where there might not be any concept of a God, what we share in terms of the spirituality which motivates us needs to be sensitive to the objective of finding a “meeting of minds and hearts” with others, whomever they may be. That should not be perceived as a problem, but rather an invitation to “find” each other and what can sustain us in working together for goals we believe in or share.
Our inspiration comes, above all, from the person of Jesus and the message of the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, as we reflect on Jesus’ nonviolent approach to issues in his context – which was Palestine in the first century. This enables us to affirm that the spiritual foundation for our vision and policies, and the way we try to respond to the complex contexts in which we are present and active, is the life and witness of the nonviolent Jesus in his context. We are able to discern from the Scriptures that nonviolence was not only central to the life and message of Jesus, but that nonviolence was taken up as a committed strategy in the lives of the early Christian community in the way those Christians understood their faith and what it called for.
What the scholars have revealed to us – very well described for us by Professor Terrence Rynne who was in my reflection group in Rome which has inspired me in this reflection – was that, much like our present world, Jesus spent his life in a context of real violence. The people among whom Jesus lived and ministered were truly oppressed, were very angry, and they were kept under control by threats of violence being used against them by the Roman occupying power. But Jesus clearly discerned that the experience of meeting violence with violence by Judas the Galilean soon after he was born, and the various uprisings which continued during his life, would only lead to destruction – as happened after his death and resurrection. We remember how he wept over Jerusalem, and could foresee what would eventually happen … “not a stone will be left on a stone” (Matthew 24).
Jesus gives us and all our co-workers a clear and inspiring vision with which to interrogate the current paradigm of war and violence in our age – and the countless local examples like the killings in Orlando, and the murder of the young UK mother and parliamentarian, Jo Cox. Jesus showed that there was and is a powerful alternative to the option for war and violence; but that was not the only option he took up. Like us today, Jesus identified and worked also to transform the causes of the suffering and injustice his people experienced – which made people so angry that some groups chose the way of violence … as happens around the world today also. As we know only too well, there are several structures or systems of injustice which are the root causes of war and violence today … and it was the structures, institutions, policies and systems which oppressed the people of Jesus’ time, opening the way to the real possibility of violence.
Therefore, living out an alternative way to war and violence must go together with the commitment to deal with and gradually transform the underlying causes which lead to war and violence today so that hopefully these can be limited and even prevented; and then, in the aftermath of war and atrocities, to commit to the long process of healing and transformation required by what is termed “transitional justice” and its different facets.
The people of Jesus’s time took up three options in response to the oppression they were experiencing. The Essenes, about whom we learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls, chose flight. They fled into the desert to protect their understanding of the Jewish religion and by refusing to have any dealings with anyone who did not belong to them. The priests and the Herodians of Jesus’ time chose accommodation: they collaborated with the Romans and in this way they were able to continue practicing their religion, and they were able also to build up some wealth for themselves. The Pharisees, and later the group which chose the way of violent resistance, chose to resist. They opted to preserve their identity against the Roman pagans, regarding them as enemies, and eventually they moved to the decision to fight.
Jesus, in what he proclaimed and lived, offered a fourth way to the people of Israel … the goal of building an inclusive community, which would include those perceived to be the enemy, by using the power of nonviolent love of others … and also, to engage in action which involved being open to risk, to take risks and even being willing to suffer for others for the common good, as so many of our co-workers and communities do in very difficult contexts. So, Jesus challenged the way of exclusion, excluding other people: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:44). As Albert Nolan wrote in Jesus before Christianity (13): “Jesus’s message was to persuade the Jews that their present attitude of resentment and bitterness is suicidal … the only way to be liberated from your enemies is to love your enemies…”
Jesus reflects further on this insight in the Sermon on the Mount when he says: “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you: ‘Do not violently resist one who does evil to you. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the left; if someone goes to court to take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone presses you into service for a mile, go a second mile” (Matthew 5:39-41).
This has sometimes wrongly been interpreted as a call to passivity in response to violence … to be passive, and neither show nor give any form of resistance. The scripture scholars through their exegesis show that what Jesus was actually promoting was creative, nonviolent resistance — not passivity. What I have found very helpful is the way the scripture scholars explain the background to that text from Matthew. Jesus is using 3 examples which his disciples at the time would have been aware of. Firstly, the abusive superior insulting an inferior with a backhand slap on the face, on the right cheek; then, secondly, a person taking another to court to sue for the last bit of security that unfortunate person has, viz. the cloak that a poor person, who is homeless, wrapped himself in at night to keep out the cold; and thirdly, the Roman soldier demanding that a Jew must carry his service pack, which weighed 60 pounds or more, for a mile.
Pope Benedict XVI reflected: “Love your enemies … it does not consist in surrendering to evil – as claims a false interpretation of ‘turn the other cheek’ (Luke 6:29) – but in responding to evil with good (Romans 12:17-21), and thus breaking the chain of injustice” (Address in Vatican City, 18 February, 2007).
“(Jesus) was always a man of peace … he came in weakness. He came only with the strength of love, totally without violence, even to the point of going to the Cross. … This is what shows us the true face of God, that violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties. … He strongly invites all sides to renounce violence, even if they feel they are right. The only path is to renounce violence, to begin again with dialogue, with the attempt to find peace together, with a new concern for one another, a new willingness to be open to one another. This is Jesus’s true message: seek peace with the means of peace and leave violence aside” (Good Friday sermon, 2011).
So, following reflections like this from Pope Benedict, it is clear that Jesus is not asking that if we experience violence we must just submit to violence passively. Jesus is calling us to respond reflectively and to act as he did, which Jesus affirmed was the same as that of the Father who “sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike”.
What he is asking for is that we respond in the awareness of our dignity which no one or nothing can take away; he is asking that we stand against any hurt or indignity or violence or injustice, but do not respond to that violence with violence. It is a response which does not allow oneself to be infected with the violence one must stand against; and then to be creative by imagining the myriad ways to act against and overcome oppression and violence in a way which can hopefully transform the situation by not perpetuating an endless cycle of violence. The scholar Gene Sharp has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action by people and communities – so creativity in choosing the way of nonviolence is what is called for.
Therefore, the final document produced by the Rome conference called on the church to “promote nonviolent practices and strategies,” including “nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, trauma healing, unarmed civilian protection, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding strategies.”
So, this is a call to inclusive love because that is the way of God who loves all unconditionally, who sends the rain on the just and unjust alike. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is calling on people to live and act in a different way — reaching out to others in an inclusive love for everyone. Jesus constantly revealed this in the way he reached out to all the outcasts of his time, even to the so-called enemy — because for him there were/are no enemies. This approach of Jesus calls on everyone to come together in a search for collaborative action in the pursuit of active nonviolence and just peacemaking which will transform the lot of the poor and the victims through implementing all the facets of what is termed “transitional justice”… which, if implemented fully, may truly bring about a sustainable peace which promotes the common good of all, and indeed hope for a better world.
(Among these facets of “transitional justice” are the search for truth, e.g. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, documentation of the stories of the victims, public testimonies of the victims, the issue of offering amnesty to perpetrators in the hope that they will provide evidence to trace mass graves etc.; the question of retribution – retributive justice versus the call to restorative justice, trauma healing, the pursuit of reconciliation in affected communities with the use of cultural methods of bringing reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, e.g. in Uganda, and then the transformation of the effects of war and violence through the pursuit of economic justice based on Catholic Social Teachings such as the preferential option for the poor, solidarity, the common good, and distributive justice … that the goods of the earth belong to all and need to be shared equitably … these and other dimensions of “transitional justice” are integral to our pursuit of active nonviolence and just peace.)
What is so important in our option for creative and active nonviolence and in our commitment to work for just peace, in contrast to the option to justify war, is the witness this can give to others, the witness of a community of disciples which can inspire and encourage and support others to make the option for the alternative way of Jesus, i.e. nonviolent peacemaking.
As I shared on the first morning in Rome, this option for nonviolent peacemaking comes with a cost; it costs sometimes a great deal on a personal level. That is why it is essential that we and all our co-workers live out of a spirit, a spirituality which gives and renews constantly the inner energy we will all need for the long journey – because nonviolent peacemaking is not something that will be achieved quickly, as we all know. I trust that our source of strength, viz. our personal, prayerful relationship with the nonviolent Jesus whose Sermon on the Mount was and is indeed a challenge to adopt his alternative way of active nonviolent and inclusive love, will also inspire and encourage all our co-workers to search for and live out of their own faith tradition, or their own higher power.
Bishop Kevin Dowing is the Co-President of Pax Christi International and the bishop of the Diocese of Rustenberg, South Africa.