Nonviolence: A style of politics for peace (part #1)

by Marie Dennis
Co-President, Pax Christi International

The following piece is the panel presentation given by Pax Christi International Co-President Marie Dennis at the Nonviolence as a Style of Politics for Peace panel discussion in Brussels, April 21.

For Pax Christi International members around the world nonviolence is a spirituality, a way of life, a deep commitment to live the values we believe shaped the community that formed around Jesus in the first century context of occupied Palestine where violence was a way of life. For us, the so-called “hard sayings” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are central. But the challenge is how to interpret that message in the context of a 21st century world immersed in extremely complex situations of violence. What does “love your enemy” or “blessed are the peacemakers” mean now – yes, at a personal level, but maybe even more importantly, what does this worldview offer in the public arena?

In his recent message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis explicitly challenged “political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives: to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities. It is a challenge,” he said, “to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. … Active nonviolence,” he continued, “is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict.”

Seventy-two years ago the global community was yearning for a way to move beyond the war and violence that had engulfed Europe and consumed so much of the rest of the world. In many ways, the European Union itself is a fruit of that yearning – and of the creative, courageous imagination of leaders willing to risk a step into the unknown … committing to using peaceful means to resolve conflicts …

As Pax Christi International with other partners in the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, we believe that much more creative energy as well as intellectual and financial investment in the development of effective nonviolent approaches to peacekeeping and peacebuilding are essential to addressing the huge challenges of the 21st century.

Tuesday this week I was at a meeting with World Bank President Jim Kim and a number of religious leaders. The picture he painted of the coming decades was painfully bleak, due particularly to the growing tragedy of human stunting from chronic under-nutrition. On everyone’s mind was famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria.

On Wednesday at Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore I listened to the staff of Caritas International and CRS who work with refugees and migrants describe in detail the violence from which people are fleeing in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras.

We’ve all watched the unending horror in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on and on …

The human community simply cannot sustain the levels of war and vicious violence that repeatedly have such unconscionable consequences. We simply have to find a better way to live together on this small planet.
Repeatedly since 1945 Europe – the world – has been confronted with an enormous challenge, facing complex and dangerous situations with relatively underfunded or underdeveloped nonviolent strategies. At the moment of crisis – in Aleppo or Mosel, Rwanda or the Balkans, the Philippines, Haiti or South Sudan, we have time and again opened a toolbox that is flush with military might, but woefully under-invested in the tools of active nonviolence.

In the public arena, nonviolence is often misrepresented, misunderstood, too narrowly defined or wrongly dismissed as either passive or utopian. Very strong evidence, however, suggests a different conclusion, which Pope Francis seems to accept. In his 2017 World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis presents active nonviolence as both powerful and effective, a realistic political method that gives rise to hope and he recognizes the importance of both nonviolent resistance to evil and constructive nonviolent work for peace.

Countless movements around the world have shown that action which is both nonviolent and determined is often essential to overcoming the roadblocks to a just and peaceful solution in situations of oppression and violent conflict. Nonviolent action can dramatize the issue at hand and foster the creative tension that encourages all parties and the larger community to find a path to justice and peace.

But we should also think about active nonviolence as much broader than that. In the past few decades we have learned a great deal about how to build and sustain just peace – much of that body of knowledge was referenced in the recent High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations’ report.

In fact, one of the great gifts of our age is the growing recognition of active nonviolence as a positive and powerful force for social change, and as a means of building a global community committed to the well-being of all. It is a process for ending violence without lethal force; for transforming conflict; and for protecting the vulnerable. Active nonviolence is a stand for justice and a method for helping to create it. It pursues this goal, not with passivity or violence, but with creative engagement and determined resistance.

There is actually strong empirical evidence for the superior effectiveness of active nonviolence. One of participants in last year’s Vatican Conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace, Dr. Maria Stephan, is co-author with Erica Chenoweth of a landmark study of nonviolent civil resistance campaigns over the last one hundred years, Why Civil Resistance Works: the strategic logic of nonviolent conflict.

Stephan and Chenoweth collected data on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government since 1900. The data covered the entire world and consisted of every known case where there were at least 1,000 observed participants, hundreds of cases.

They found that from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. Not only that, this trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last 50 years, nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common, whereas violent insurgencies are becoming increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in those extremely brutal, authoritarian conditions where you would expect nonviolent resistance to fail.

The answer seems to lie in people power itself. Chenoweth and Stephan’s data showed that no single campaign has failed during the time period they studied after the campaign had achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population.

Every single campaign that surpassed that 3.5% was a nonviolent one. In fact, the nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns, and they were often much more inclusive and representative in terms of gender, age, race, class, and the urban-rural distinction. Moreover, 75% of the violent campaigns failed, while a majority of the nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were successful.

Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate including the elderly, people with disabilities, and children.

Of course, just because a campaign is nonviolent does not ensure its success. Just as for violent campaigns, flexible and creative leadership is crucial to success. A poorly managed, disunified campaign will fail.

While Chenoweth and Stephan’s work was groundbreaking, there is much more empirical research being done (including by them) that speaks to the effectiveness of active nonviolence and to the importance of increased investment in developing, teaching and scaling up nonviolent strategies – from conflict transformation in neighborhoods and restorative justice practices in schools to early warning and atrocity prevention mechanisms, to unarmed civilian protection and a massive shift of resources into diplomacy and just, sustainable development.

A rich diversity of nonviolent strategies is being employed in different contexts. They have been the “bread and butter” for Pax Christi member organizations for decades: building empathy and respectful relationships across differences between youth and migrants or refugees through interviews using the principles of peace journalism; trainings in strategic nonviolence for communities negatively affected by extractive projects throughout Latin America; accompaniment of communities at risk in the Middle East; sports for peace programs in Haiti and South Sudan; reintegrating former combatants into their communities in the DR Congo; creative advocacy to reduce military spending and support diplomatic solutions to seemingly intractable violent conflicts – the list is endless.

The High Level Independent Panel report specifically highlighted a number of nonviolent approaches to prevention and protection in a violent world: The panel emphasized the importance of preventing armed conflict and of mobilizing partnerships to support political solutions; of employing unarmed and civilian tools for protecting civilians, of emphasizing inclusion, healing and reconciliation, of addressing the underlying causes of conflict, of revitalizing livelihoods in conflict-affected economies, of rebuilding confidence in political processes and responsible state structures, of reforming police, promoting the rule of law and ensuring respect for human rights.

But as we struggle ourselves to understand the power and potential of nonviolence, we believe there is a great need to make nonviolent strategies much more central to public policy at a local, national and international level. One interesting illustration is the research of Elizabeth Wilson on “Nonviolent Civil Resistance and International Human Rights Law” through the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Her critique of the “responsibility to protect” for failing to incorporate the power of nonviolent civil resistance into its analytical framework suggests a possibly important rethinking of the RtoP to include a “privilege of nonviolence” that Wilson thinks could create the legal, moral and political basis for an affirmative duty to assist nonviolent civil resistance movements in dangerous situations.

Nonviolence as a style of the politics for peace (Pope Francis’ phrase) sides with those who are most impacted by the monumental violence and injustice of our time, joining with them to mobilize our communities, our nations, and our world to accomplish the agenda set forth by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, promoting the things that we know make for peace: economic justice, human dignity, a flourishing planet, and a world free from every form of violence, whether physical, structural or cultural.

Societies committed to nonviolence will be well trained in approaches to active nonviolence that both construct the society they envision and, when needed, disrupt unjust systems through carefully organized resistance efforts, such as boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience. They will increasingly shift their justice system toward a restorative justice model, deploy unarmed civilian protection units in their communities, and seek nonviolent tools for reducing violence and addressing criminality.

Given what we now know about the consequences of war – physical economic, psychological, ecological, environmental, ecological – and what we have witnessed over and over as wars fail to accomplish whatever was their stated purpose and war begets violence begets war, it seems evident that if we are ever going to achieve the kind of real security for which we all long, we collectively need to fill the public policy toolbox with effective conflict prevention, peace building and other nonviolent tools.

As Pax Christi we will continue to look for ways to support that effort.

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