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Christian Nonviolence – A Way of Life and Resistance in a Culture of Violence

Posted by Ryan Hall

Mary Ellen Quinn, Co-Coordinator of Pax Christi Maine and a Campaign Nonviolence Action Organizer, recently wrote the reflection below for a Sunday Church service. Mary Ellen wrote to us that writing this reflection “gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own path toward living ‘The Nonviolent Life’. Pace e Bene & Campaign Nonviolence continues to inspire and support the work of living the nonviolent life as well as my participation in grassroots nonviolent action especially in these most challenging times.”

By Mary Ellen Quinn

First, let me say that I appreciate your invitation to come here today and share time with this spiritual community, a community that promotes unity, oneness and embraces a God who is Love.

I join with you today as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a social worker, a member of Pax Christi Maine, the Catholic peace & justice movement and as a student of the nonviolent Jesus. As I imagine you may be also, I am feeling both bewildered and emboldened by events occurring in our country in recent weeks. It is very challenging to know how to respond. I find myself alternating between wanting to retreat and wanting to resist.

I have come to realize that it is a time for both – retreat and resist… retreat into contemplation in order to deepen my connection to the God of Peace, to the nonviolent Jesus and to bring that strength of Divine relationship to active nonviolent resistance.

To be a peacemaker in the image of a God of Peace, living in concert with Jesus’ teachings, means being at odds with and acting in ways that are significantly counter to the dominant culture. It means rejecting violence in all of its forms.

My intention today is to share with you some of my personal story, my growing understanding of what it means to live a nonviolent life as a Christian, and what supports are important to make progress on that path. Having a strong foundation in Catholic Social Teaching, which emphasizes social justice as the central message of Jesus’ ministry provides me with an anchor, a stronghold during these turbulent times.

Being a grandmother has only heightened my concerns for our children, our planet and our world. My granddaughter was born just a month after 9/11 and my grandson three years later. They have never known a world free from war, poverty, environmental destruction, racism and the epidemic of violence. I want a different world for my grandchildren, and for all children and all people across the globe.

Our children dwell in a culture of violence…where nations, communities, and individuals resort to violence to solve problems. We dwell in a culture where profit is valued over people, where economic disparity is rampant, causing great harm, especially to the most vulnerable. We dwell in a culture that promotes the glory of militarism, pouring vast resources, needed at home, into endless and permanent war around the globe. We dwell in a culture that clings to unbridled capitalism as its idol in spite of evidence that it has not served the majority well. We dwell in a culture where hate and fear is fueled along the divides of race, ethnicity and religion.

How do we transform hearts and minds to create a world of inclusion rather than exclusion? ….A world where we see one another as sisters and brothers through eyes of Christ with love & compassion. How can we work together to build a different culture, a culture of peace and nonviolence?

The practice of nonviolence is not new to our world however I believe that its enormous power to facilitate change has not yet been fully realized. The term ‘nonviolence’ itself can elicit confusion and misunderstanding.

When I first began to educate myself about the broad concept of nonviolence, I became aware of an organization, Pace e Bene and a national movement called Campaign Nonviolence which has as one of its goals “to mainstream nonviolence.” I recall asking myself, what do they mean by that, to mainstream nonviolence. The concept did not resonate with me initially however after prayer, study & action, the practice of Christian nonviolence not only resonates in my heart & soul, nonviolence has become central to my life.

Nonviolence is not merely the absence of violence nor is it a passive approach to conflict. It is an extremely effective, active strategy for social change as well as an ethic for daily living.

The practice of nonviolence, supported by faith in a God of Peace, is an effective antidote to a violent world. Think about it, unless one lives in a mountaintop hermitage without any outside communication, violence permeates every facet of our lives.

Every day in the news, we hear of bombings, terrorist attacks, mass shootings. In our homes, domestic assaults and the abuse of children is ever present.  In the world of ‘so-called’ entertainment, films and television shows are replete with graphic, violent images. In the electronic games, played by our children and grandchildren, the winning objective is to kill off your opponents.

Across the globe, we witness a mass migration of refugees, men, women and children fleeing their homeland due to the horror of war. Violence toward every aspect of our environment, land, water & air is causing death, illness and displacement. In our communities, there are hate crimes, police assaults and institutionalized poverty with diminishing resources. In our own hearts, we feel rage, resentment, disdain for others.

The preponderance of violence can be overwhelming emotionally and can lead us to feeling completely powerless. Promoting a change in this culture of violence requires action, it requires change at every level, in ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.

When considering nonviolence as a strategy for social change, some question its efficacy. Can we honestly look at our world over the past few decades and say that violence has been an effective way to resolve conflict?

In regards to the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance campaigns, there is significant academic research to demonstrate the efficacy of nonviolent action for social and political change. Researchers Erica Chenoweth, PhD and Maria Stephan in their study titled, “Why Civil Resistance Works?” conducted a study of conflicts worldwide since 1900. They found that campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.

Any discussion of nonviolence brings to mind a number of great peacemakers, among them the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Dan Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Fr. John Dear and of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. King’s famous speech outlined his dream of a new world of equality and justice. He upheld the vision of nonviolence. On the eve of his assassination, King observed, “For years, we have been talking about war and peace,” he said. “But now, no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is nonviolence or nonexistence.”

A great many peacemakers, including those mentioned here, fully embrace nonviolence not solely as a pragmatic tool but as a moral imperative. Gandhi, a Hindu, who was known to have a deep and abiding reverence for Jesus and his teachings, read the Sermon on the Mount daily, grounding his efforts in the spirituality of nonviolence.

Fr. John Dear, a priest, author and activist who has been an inspiration and mentor for me states, ”Nonviolence employs a vision of a disarmed, reconciled humanity, the reign of God in our midst, what King called “the beloved community,” the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, already united. Once we accept this vision of the heart, we can never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, maintains nuclear weapons, executes people or allows millions to starve to death.”

Nonviolent struggle draws on courage, strategic planning and, for many people involved in nonviolent resistance – a spiritual discipline and motivation. Christian faith communities and institutions have played pivotal roles in exposing injustices, encouraging global solidarity, providing organizational strength, and offering spiritual nourishment for activists and nonviolent change agents.

Jesus himself was a lived example of unconditional love, compassion, and nonviolent resistance to the injustices of his day. From day one of his public ministry, Jesus denounces violence and injustice and announces the good news of nonviolence. In his time, he addressed challenges relevant to our world today – oppressive rulers, military occupiers, cultural divisions, state sanctioned violence, class and religious discrimination, the rejection of refugees.

Countless stories from Jesus’ ministry instruct us in his way of nonviolence, he offers compassionate healing, extends boundless mercy, protects the vulnerable, overthrows the money changers, befriends the outcast, refuses to condemn the accused, feeds the hungry ….. all from a heart of unconditional Love. Jesus teaches us that Love is the foundation for living a nonviolent life.

The ultimate power of nonviolence lies in its purpose, its intention, its transforming element … loving all, loving the other without exception. Nonviolence resists the harm of the oppression but loves the oppressor.

Rev. King asserts, “The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

He states, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Jesus challenges all of us to great heights. From the book of Matthew 5:43-46, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

I am constantly in awe of the abundant LOVE we have been given, the unconditional love that encompasses us, surrounds us, embraces us and lifts us up! Surely it is a lifelong journey to be able to Love to the extent described by Jesus in this scripture passage.

How can we as students of the nonviolent Jesus grow in our ability to extend unconditional love, to choose love over fear? Reconciliation over revenge? Acceptance over suspicion? Connection over division?

Choosing nonviolence as an ethic for living is counter cultural in a world where violence has become the norm. And yet as people of faith and conscience, we are actively called by the God of Peace, challenged by the nonviolent Jesus to embrace love, compassion and peace as our way of life. Spirituality is at the heart of nonviolence. We must deepen our connection to the God of Peace, the source of unconditional love.

I can see that this community of faith provides a nurturing atmosphere where people can practice peace and nonviolent living. Faith communities offer fertile ground for the seeds of the spirituality of nonviolence to grow and deepen. Surrounding ourselves with others taking steps on the same path is essential to our growth and to our wellbeing.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist tells us “peace is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of practice.”

As Nancy Small, a former coordinator of Pax Christi USA writes, it is up to us to “seize the nonviolent moments” throughout each day and practice nonviolent responses.

Fr. John Dear, author of “The Nonviolent Life” believes wholeheartedly that in addition to practicing nonviolence toward ourselves, toward all people and our planet, we must also participate in the grassroots movements for nonviolent social change. For me, that has included participation in prayer, study and nonviolent action with organizations such as Pax Christi Maine, Campaign Nonviolence, the Catholic Just Peace Initiative and the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine.

In our communities across Maine, opportunities to participate in grassroots efforts for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability are endless.  As we approach the season of Lent, a period of self-reflection, let us choose to increase our practice of nonviolence from wherever we are today. Each time we ‘seize a nonviolent moment’ and choose a nonviolent response or participate in nonviolent resistance, we are adding to the power of nonviolence and spreading its reach.

In closing, I will share a message from Pope Francis offered to the global community in his World Day of Peace proclamation delivered on January 1st. He said, “may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, to becoming nonviolent people and to building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace!”

Thank you.

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