Nonviolence and peacemaking: lessons from Oscar Romero, Denis Hurley and Pope Francis

by Bishop Kevin Dowling
Co-President of Pax Christi International

Sisters and brothers, good evening to you all. I wish to thank Raymond Perrier, all those involved in planning this evening, and all of you who have come for this annual event….thank you for the privilege of being with you this evening. I am hoping to share something of my journey with others in the search for a better world based on a commitment to active non-violence and just peacemaking – in the light of three important historical figures: Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Hurley and Pope Francis. But I take you firstly to a true personal story and experience. “We open our doors to everyone – even though they might come in to kill us”. I heard those powerful words from a soft-spoken Syrian Jesuit with pain-filled eyes during a ceremony in a church in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, on Sunday evening, 8 June, 2014. That evening I was privileged to give the Jesuit Refugee Service Syria the 2014 Pax Christi International Peace Award together with my Pax Christi International Co-President, Mrs. Marie Dennis from the USA. The two Jesuit recipients, accompanied by a member of their Leadership Team from Rome, were Fr. Mourad Abou Seif on the right of Marie Dennis and Fr. Ziad Halil, on her left.

Earlier that day in Sarajevo we had listened to Fr. Mourad and Fr. Ziad describe the terrible suffering in that protracted war, and their work with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Homs and Aleppo where both of them have remained, in spite of the assassination of Fr. Frans van der Lught, a brother Jesuit priest in Syria in April, 2013. Yes! They did come in and they killed him, but yes! those Jesuit priests have stayed with their people and are witnessing to non-violence and peace together with groups of Muslim and Christian peace activists with whom they work in providing humanitarian relief, education, health-care, and above all hope, which few know about. But, as Fr. Mourad said: “We open our doors to everyone – even though they might come in to kill us. And we will never stop opening our doors. We can only find our safety in God”.

And last month Sister Annie Demerjian gave a heartrending account of her ministry in war torn Aleppo when she addressed the Annual Meeting of the organisation Aid to the Church in Need at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London. “Aleppo is a broken city where life hardly exists…. Aleppo has become a city of death.” She concluded by appealing for prayers: “Our world is a gift from God. Part of it is bleeding. Be peacemakers for us and our children.”

Examples of Church personnel fulfilling the witness of “presence”, of “staying with in solidarity”, of responding to human need in a situation of horrendous suffering, fraught with danger. It is appalling experiences like this in Syria with over 400,000 people killed already – but just one example of wars, atrocities and violence – that has driven Pope Francis to state that we are in the midst of a “third world war in installments”. Our whole world – from the international arena, right down to experiences at the local level in many countries in the world, including our own in South Africa – seems to be trapped in a cycle of never-ending violence. We recall the crime statistics for the year till April 2016 released by the Minister of Police on 29 September: among other very worrying statistics on violence, the murder rate had risen to 17805, or 49 homicides per day.

Atrocities and wars, the use of violence to force through whatever one wants to get, the destruction of property, the violation of the human rights of others, the culture of impunity and so on and so on….has this to be accepted as the norm today in our world, and here in South Africa?

Surely there has to be another way to deal with divisions and conflict between nations without going to war and killing thousands of innocent children and people?; surely there is another way here to seek objectives like a wage increase or to solve issues like municipal demarcations, without resorting to violent protests and destruction of property? There is a great, great need for healing in our land. But even with the analysis of all the reasons why people opt for violence, and the causes behind their anger and despair about change, does that justify violence – and if not, what is to be done about this? Surely at all levels of society and the world we need to promote and consolidate another mindset, another way of thinking based on real values and on a commitment to respectful encounter and dialogue as the first step in conflict resolution?…..Or does the sheer level of violence throughout the world, and here in South Africa, make one stop and think, and perhaps begin to doubt that there is an innate goodness in humankind which can motivate people to solve problems peacefully instead of through violence?

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Tablet about Amos Oz, widely regarded as Israel’s greatest novelist. In an interview he said this: “Jesus Christ is very close to my heart. I love his poetry. I love his wonderful sense of humour. I love his tenderness. I love his compassion. I have always regarded him as one of the greatest Jews who ever lived……“But Jesus Christ believes in universal love,” he continued. “He believes that the whole of humankind can live as one happy family. He believes we can quench our internal violence and prejudices and become better human beings. I don’t.” He pauses, carefully choosing the right words to continue with his train of thought: “I defer from his faith in the basic goodness of human nature. It is very hard to believe in this as a child of the twentieth century….”….Amos Oz is a person who has doubts about humankind’s essential goodness when he looks at the evil and violence which people are capable of doing.

For me, it is people like Oscar Romero, Denis Hurley, Pope Francis, Mahatma Gandhi – and in my own faith, the person of Jesus – who give me hope that there is another way….all of them were or are the very antithesis of the violence that this world and so many seem committed to consign to the children of the future, and indeed to the planet…

Click here to read the rest of this speech.

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