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Why Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace Message is Such a Breakthrough

Posted by Ryan Hall
06.23.17

By Terry Rynne, a Pace e Bene speaker, founder of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking,  teacher of Peace Studies at Marquette and author of Gandhi and Jesus and Jesus Christ Peacemaker.

The fact that Pope Francis consciously chose “nonviolence” as the theme of his message to the world on New Year ’s Day, 2017, is in itself a powerful fact. The Pope unabashedly pointed out that “nonviolence” is what Jesus taught and modeled and said, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”[i] The Pope is signaling a true return to the sources for the Catholic Church: Sacred Scripture and the traditions of the early Church. Just as the return to the sources, (ressourcement) by theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Karl Rahner fueled the renaissance of Catholic Theology and the magnificent documents of the Second Vatican Council so also today the Pope is returning in a fresh way to the sources.

First, he is reading the Gospels attentively and finds his inspiration there. He says for example: “Jesus himself lived in violent times…But Christ’s message in this regard offers a radically positive approach. He unfailingly preached God’s unconditional love, which welcomes and forgives. He taught his disciples to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. When he stopped her accusers from stoning the woman caught in adultery and when, on the night before he died, he told Peter to put away his sword, Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence. He walked that path to the very end, to the cross.”[ii] Pope Francis is not using natural law theory as the basis of the Church’s teaching on war and violence, he is going straight to the Gospels. Second, he reflects on the lived tradition of the early Church and how they confronted persecution with courageous nonviolence and how they stunned the world, prompting massive conversions to Christianity. The third source of inspiration for Pope Francis is the living witness of believing, nonviolent Christians across the world. He says: “Nor can we forget the eventful decade that ended with the fall of Communist regimes in Europe. The Christian communities made their own contribution by their insistent prayer and courageous action. Particularly influential were the ministry and teaching of Saint Paul II. Reflecting on the events of 1989 in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus, my predecessor highlighted the fact that momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about ‘by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.’”[iii]

At the conference in Rome in April, 2016 that led up to the Pope’s World Day of Peace message, eighty people from around the world gathered to share their experiences with violence and nonviolence—for Pope Francis’ sake and for one another. One person after another shared how violence, in their experience failed, and how nonviolence overcame violence. For example, Archbisop Udama from Uganda explained how through patient nonviolent action he came to be able to negotiate between the Lord’s army and the President of Uganda.  Francisco de Roux, S.J. told how he and other committed Christians, some of whom lost their lives in the struggle, persevered in grass roots nonviolent reconciliation efforts between the rebels and the government of Columbia, finally bringing them to the peace table and a declaration of peace after forty years of carnage. John Ashworth and Bishop Taban of South Sudan told of their grassroots negotiation between key tribes, how they brought two hundred representatives of two tribes to a new mud hut village constructed just for the occasion to spend protracted time together to discuss differences and brainstorm solutions. They signed a reconciliation agreement in their own blood and brought peace to one region of their country. The Pope heard about these and many other examples. It is impossible to hear stories of the successes of nonviolent action on the ground by such heroic people and not be moved to see nonviolence as a practical alternative to war and violence. As a result Francis says: “The Church has been involved in nonviolent peacebuilding strategies in many countries, engaging even the most violent parties in efforts to build a just and lasting peace.”[iv]

As the Pope reclaims Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence, he is saying that in the face of violence and war–No more quiescence, no more anguished acceptance, no more standing on the side wringing hands. Instead get in the middle of the fray and fight violence with the “weapons of truth and love.”[v] He underlines the teaching with the penetrating words of Benedict XVI: “Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the Christian revolution.”[vi]

The second striking fact about the Pope’s message is that it is not a simply “religious” appeal. The title of the message is “Nonviolence as a Style of Politics for Peace.” The Pope is making nonviolence not just the keynote of a Christian’s faith in Jesus, he is saying that nonviolence is effective in the real world of politics—in fact superior to and more effective than violence. The world never gets to peace through violence and war but only begets more violence and war.

William James wrote an important article in 1910 entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War.”[vii] In it he elaborated on the positive features of war that had made it so popular through the ages. He wondered if the virtues of “hardihood” that war brought forward such as courage, discipline, oneness in a cause larger than oneself, high adventure, deep soldierly affection and serious purpose, could be maintained if war was to somehow disappear. He wondered if humans would become flabby, weak and pusillanimous. In addition he explained the role of war in politics—pointing out that war in human history has always served as the only and final arbiter of intractable conflicts between people.

Walter Lippman echoed James when he wrote: “Then the abolition of war depends primarily upon inventing and organizing other ways of deciding those issues which hitherto have been decided by war.”[viii]

The third reason why the Pope’s message is such a breakthrough is that he is proclaiming that the world has discovered what the world has been looking for, a substitute for war. Nonviolent direct action is that substitute for war.

Most people at this point in our history recognize the horrors of war, the death, destruction, irrational brutality of any and all wars. Nonetheless many people are still dedicated to war and few believe that war will ever disappear. The surprising thing is that there have been many other institutions of violence in human history that people have accepted as givens, the way things are, and that have nonetheless disappeared.

Recently David Carroll Cochran wrote an enlightening book entitled Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War.[ix] In it he described how in recent centuries other institutions of violence which were thought to be givens by society have been eliminated. He describes how trial by combat had been the accepted way of determining guilt or innocence–until a new consciousness and a new institutional solution was brought forward—evidence-based police work and trial by jury. Suddenly trial by combat vanished. He explained how pervasive dueling was in our country. So accepted that Alexander Hamilton thought it a matter of honor to accept Aaron Burr’s challenge to him—even though Hamilton’s own son had been killed on a similar field of “honor.” Once libel laws came into existence and adequate libel courts—dueling vanished. Slavery which had been accepted as a natural institution for centuries was fought tooth and nail by people of conscience until society changed its mind. He sees the same thing happening with war—if consciousness continues to change and an institution can be found which serves as a substitute. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has realized that the attitude of many people towards the death penalty has changed and there is an alternative to the death penalty, namely, life in prison without parole. Consequently, in 2005 the USCCB issued the statement A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death and stated “it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life.”[x] The death penalty, another violent technique, formerly assumed to be necessary for society’s protection, is on the way out.

Unlike the examples above, the consciousness about war has not adequately shifted for war to disappear. But like the above examples a substitute institution has come to the fore—nonviolent direct action. When conflicts between peoples, or countries, or groups become intractable, unable to be solved through the rational give and take of negotiation or arbitration, and if they are serious issues, humankind now has an alternative—either choose violent direct action or war or choose nonviolent direct action.

The Pope does not fully develop why and how nonviolent direct action works. We hope he will do so in a future extended teaching on nonviolence in the form of an encyclical. He does however hint at the further depths of his thinking by those he holds up as exemplars of nonviolence: Mahatma Gandhi, Ghaffar Abdul Khan, Martin Luther King and Leymah Gbowee.

What does the example of Mahatma Gandhi show us? Gandhi was convinced that nonviolent direct action or the name he gave to it “satyagraha” or soul force could work wonders in any and every situation of conflict whether it was economic, political or social and he demonstrated it again and again. That is why so many, eventually millions, embraced satyagraha and joined the most challenging cause of all–liberating their huge country from the most powerful imperial force in the world—the British Empire. He proved it first in localized struggles such as the 1917 struggle of the indigo farmers resisting the high taxes demanded by the plantation owners. In 1924 Gandhi worked with the untouchables in the Travancore area to gain access to a road. The Brahmins feared contamination from just being in the vicinity of the untouchables and consequently barred them access. Access to the road would save hours each day in travel to their work. They endured terrible suffering including standing in flood waters up to their shoulders as they nonviolently tried to reach the hearts of the Brahmins. Eventually not only were the untouchables able to access the road they were invited into the temples as well. The common people across the length and breadth of India, especially those in the 700,000 small villages, came to know and revere Gandhi. When he said “How is it that 100,000 English can keep 250,000,000 Indians (now over a billion) in bondage? The answer—because we let them.” He called the masses to support first a nationwide noncooperation movement—teachers in the government schools left and started their own. Headmen and magistrates in the British dominated political establishment left their posts and hamstrung the government. People refused to buy imported cloth from England. They boycotted liquor and tobacco shops and sent revenues to the Raj plummeting. Later he called them out to civilly disobey the unjust salt and forest laws. The whole country rose up and willingly endured the consequences. Hundreds of thousands willingly went to jail. When the jails were filled the British started hammering crowds with lathi charges and then began firing their rifles into the resisting people. The British were revealed clearly to the world and to the Indian people for who and what they were—not the civilized masters they pretended to be but rapacious, violent dominators who were in India for the natural resources and the sweat labor of the population. The veil fell away. Gandhi’s theory of power—that power rises, that those at the top have power only if the people give it to them and cooperate with them, was verified. One huge country defeated another country—in fact the mightiest imperial power in the world. Surely that is the definition of what war is supposed to accomplish. But in this case it was accomplished not through violent direct action, war, but through nonviolent direct action. The world has seen graphically that there is a real alternative to war—nonviolent direct action.

Since then of course we have seen many, many examples of the power of nonviolent direct action. In fact Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan completed a recent research study of 343 serious conflict situations, meaning resistance to domination by a dictator or an occupation by an army, and found that nonviolent resistance was twice as effective as violent resistance. Moreover, nonviolent revolutions were nine times as likely to produce a peaceful follow-on society.[xi] Gandhi’s victory, for example, was a double victory. Not only was India freed but Britain departed in peace and people harbored no vengeance.

Pope Francis does not elaborate on all that Gandhi’s example illustrates. He does not, for example, explain that nonviolence is not just an inner attitude but a collection of interrelated strategies that cumulatively put pressure on an adversary until he or she returns to the negotiating table. In sequence, the nonviolent campaign moves from negotiation to noncooperation to creatively bringing attention to and sympathy for the cause, through demonstrations and protests, through boycotts,  through civil disobedience and the willingness to suffer which generates its own kind of power. Instead of inflicting suffering through violence, the nonviolent protagonist endures suffering– all the time showing respect for the adversary and trying to reach not just their minds but their hearts.

Pope Francis does not comment on how alike nonviolent direct action is to violent direct action i.e. war. He doesn’t say how much alike they are in terms of the great courage required. We have seen for ourselves how Gandhi’s followers, attempting to take over the Dharsana Salt Works, endured beatings with steel-tipped lathi clubs from the native police, going down like ten pins with broken skulls and fractured shoulders and still continued to come forward wave after wave. We have witnessed Archbishop Romero continue to speak out and protect his beloved campesinos until he was shot down. We have seen the religious sisters in the Philippines kneel in prayer before the tanks that Marcos had sent and offer rosaries to the army soldiers. Nonviolent direct action features all the “hardihood” virtues previously associated with war. Involvement in a cause greater than oneself, deep fellow feeling, heroism, discipline and courage.

He doesn’t comment on how effective nonviolent direct action campaigns utilize the same strategies as the Napoleons and Clausewitzes of the world: Concentrate force at the weakest link. The moral factor is superior to material resources. Maintain surprise. Keep the initiative. Don’t do what the opponent expects you to do. Endure.

He does not say all that could be said about nonviolence in this brief message. Instead he points to other exemplars of this very rich, potent method of conflict resolution. He points to Martin Luther King who dramatically orchestrated the full panoply of strategies of nonviolent direct action, who demonstrated the power of self-suffering, who demonstrated that power does indeed rise up from the people, that one does not have to break one’s opponent– it is enough to change the opponent, and that the nonviolent soldier is every bit as brave as a soldier of violence.

He holds up for study Ghaffar Abdul Khan. The Pope is not pretending to be politically correct in mentioning the Hindu Gandhi and the Muslim Khan in the same breath. He knows Khan was Gandhi’s most effective and loyal collaborator. He knows that Gandhi came from an Indian culture which had studied and embraced ahimsa (nonviolence) for centuries. As a result Gandhi could tap that culture and produce a massive outpouring of support. But Khan’s example shows that nonviolent direct action can be embraced by cultures with very different traditions. Ghaffar Khan was a Pathan. Pathans were the tribe of violence and revenge in the Northwest territories of India, even now the trouble spot on the border between Afghanistan and today’s Pakistan. Nonetheless Khan embraced nonviolence as an even more effective force than violence and he inspired a hundred thousand young Pathans to join his nonviolent army, the Khudai Khidmatgars, to work for their people and resist the British.

The final active peacemaker the Pope points to is Leymah Gbowee, the Nobel Prize winner from Liberia. Her story also deserves full study. She organized pray-ins and nonviolent protests that resulted in high level peace talks to end the second civil war in Liberia. Nonviolent direct action  is becoming even more potent with the full involvement of powerful women. Africa is the locale of much of what Pope Francis refers to as a “World War in Piecemeal.” The contributions of such women as Gbowee in Liberia and Marguerite Barankitse in Burundi are showing the way to the eventual cessation of violence and the dawning of peace in Africa, the continent of the future.

We are grateful to Pope Francis. Each document of the Catholic Church relating to peace and war since Pope John the XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, through the Council document on the Church in the Modern World to the American Bishops’ letters The Challenge of Peace and the Harvest of Justice has given progressively more space to the issue of nonviolence. In the Pope’s New Year’s Day Message, nonviolence is given pride of place and the spotlight. We look forward to the Pope giving us a fuller teaching, a fuller development of the meaning, the practice, the requirements and the potential of nonviolent direct action—the long yearned-for substitute for war.

[i] Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message, Jan. 1, 2017.3.

[ii] Ibid. 3.

[iii] Ibid. 4.

[iv] Ibid. 4.

[v]  Ibid. 3.

[vi] Benedict XVI, Angelus, 18 February 2007

[vii] William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, 27th Publication of the American Association of International Conciliation, February, 1910, pp. 17-18.

[viii] Walter Lippman, “The Political Equivalent of War,” in the Atlantic Monthly, August, 1928, p.181.

[ix] David Carroll Cochran, Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y.) 2014

[x] “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” United States Catholic Bishops, 2005.

[xi] Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press, 2011.

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