Christian Nonviolence in Three Crucial Points
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Apr 2017
Speech at the Prayer Vigil for the 50th World Day of Peace, Diocese of Pisa, 27 Jan 2017
Lanza del Vasto graduated from the University of Pisa in 1928. He then left for India to become a disciple of Gandhi. On returning to Europe, he founded communities that tried to practice the nonviolent way in all aspects of social life. He also conceptualized a theory of nonviolence. These early foundations indicate a crucial point of nonviolent practice, which attempts to build not just new or more pleasing human relationships, but also a new society. Even Pope Francis says in the title of the 50th World Day of Peace, Nonviolence [is] a Style of Politics for Peace. An example of this new style is his clarion call to all States to opt “for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons” (which could threaten to lead humanity to suicide). For the first time the Pope did not place conditions (and therefore has not added the gradualism or the consensus of all the superpowers). He categorically states that from now on, there should not be nuclear weapons! With this act, the Pope asks for a change in policy of Christian countries, which, unfortunately, have been the first to invent nuclear weapons as the ultimate goal in the race for more catastrophic weapons. With this unconditional appeal, he prepares the way for the two UN world conferences that will develop a program of nuclear disarmament this year.
But, how is this change possible? Today there is a vast array of weapons ranging from the knife to the nuclear bomb, and there seems to be no way to stop the arms race. We will always invent new weapons of every kind. With nuclear disarmament, there will always be someone who has more weapons than the other. How then can we common people react to this situation? Here the example of that simple Indian stands out – that little man named Gandhi, who, in front of the weapons of the British colonial empire, acted with his people so effectively that he was called Mahatma, a great soul. As Lanza del Vasto narrates: “Around 1934, someone reminded Gandhi that history testifies to the fact that people had never been freed from their oppressors without taking up arms. Gandhi nonchalantly replied, “Well then, we will write a new history.” Thirteen years later, it was written and done.” For the first time a people achieved national independence without weapons. And what a people! The Indians were 10% of the whole of humanity at that time. And what an oppressor! It was the greatest colonial empire of all time, which, with its powerful weapons, dominated 25% of the earth’s surface. The key word that inspired the actions of Gandhi was, indeed, “nonviolence.” It is the same word that in 1989 inspired peoples of Eastern Europe (starting with Poland with the Catholic Solidarity Movement) to obtain liberation from dictatorships that seemed immovable and indifferent even before a solemn excommunication. Pope John Paul II was quick to note in 1991 that those freedoms were obtained thanks to “the commitment to nonviolence of people, who were able to find from time to time effective ways of bearing witness to the truth.” Pope Francis added, “An epochal change was born in the lives of peoples, nations and states.” Today, in response to history that presents before humanity life or nuclear death, the spiritually realistic and concrete answer is a historic conversion in order to develop a nonviolent life instead of preparing a nuclear death. That is why we reflect on a new word today, a word that does not belong to the Jewish nor the Greco-Roman culture but to the Indian culture that promoted ahimsa or nonviolence.
But what is so new about Gandhian nonviolence? Here is the second crucial point. It is not a thing, or an absolute idea, or just a feeling; nor is it a technique (as claimed by Western secularists). It is a pointer to a new method. It indicates that it is good to avoid violence because violence is negative and leads to catastrophic consequences. Therefore, “Act as you see fit, but do not do violence to another.” It is worth noting that if one acts like that, then one also applies the counsel of the Eternal Father: “Thou shalt not kill”, and not only in times of peace and in personal relationships, but always! You cannot kill and expect to love the other. Lanza del Vasto wrote that this council “was carved in stone precisely so that we do not add marginal notes, convenient limitations, and exceptions to exploit.” Furthermore, one must note that in a conflict when violence is avoided, it is necessary to place one’s own confidence no longer in weapons, but in the other person, whoever he or she is; that is, one must have an attitude of sharing, empathy, solidarity, and love for other human beings. This is precisely the teaching of Christ: “Love [even] your enemies.” Nonviolence finally provides the method to apply it.
But then, if we are in a conflict what would happen to us? And when a war breaks out? The nonviolent actions of Gandhi, Martin L. King, and the people liberated in 1989 from powerful dictatorships have made it clear that, indeed, to be able to love the enemy with intelligence one must bear a load of suffering that can at times be huge. Yet, it is the minimum suffering that is necessary to resolve any conflict, because, when one accepts the suffering from the start, it helps to break the chain of violence and facilities a better understanding of both opponents. We recall that Jesus, as a Jew, faced a gigantic army, the Roman Empire. He taught us that the one who wants to follow him in his conflict with the world, should follow the way of the cross that leads to the resurrection. Suffering is necessary for liberation as he indicates in the Beatitudes. Here non-violence in the Christian understanding makes us discover a third crucial point. Many Christians of the past misunderstood the beatitudes as an invitation to passively accept an evil unleashed on the poor, the weak and the meek. Rather, the beatitudes indicate that the acceptance of suffering is progressively a solution to conflict. Suffering turns one’s attention to the growth of one’s inner life (although this could cause much pain) so as to unravel appeals of compassion that are addressed to the inner life of the other in order to reach an agreement. This is similar to the way a mother relates to a stubborn and ungrateful son. In fact, if we look closely at the Beatitudes we will see that the first four are mostly attitudes to sustain and explore the way forward, because it often happens that it is not immediately clear how we should react to evil on the strength of our inner life. The other four, however, are mostly typical actions, starting from having mercy to the person crushed by society, to committing oneself to making peace in conflicts caused by others and, eventually, in fighting for justice for all even at the cost of arousing negative reactions. Furthermore, Jesus’ promises indicate, in the long run, a climax. He first promises those who live the beatitudes freedom from the suffering endured; then he promises them eyes to see God (even in a stranger); and, finally, he promises the privilege of being called (by the other) children of God in the cooperative agreement to realize the Kingdom of Heaven. Being aware of this way forward, the Catholic Christian’s suffering needed to resolve a conflict is accepted with joy and fullness of spirit, especially after being in communion with the very body and blood of Jesus, that is, the One who, in a nonviolent way, resolved the conflictual sins of the world.
So it is with joy that we Catholic Christians welcome the non-violent method, and we in Italy have a shining example in Bishop Tonino Bello, former president of Pax Christi. This method takes us to the characteristic trait of our Christianity: love for one’s enemies. Moreover, as Pope Francis said on December 13, 2016, this method invites participation by believers of all religions and even by non-believers. Finally, it leads to a new political style, one that addresses the problems of the world, not with arms, but with nonviolent actions done by grass root movements (which, thank God, there are many in the world today, as can be seen in the assemblies of movements for justice promoted by Pope Francis).
Translated by P. Gosalves
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Apr 2017.
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