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I Have Seen the Future—And It Is East Africa

Posted by Erin Bechtol

Reflections on Leadership and the Christian Nonviolent Response to Conflict
Ken Butigan’s Presentation at the Great Lakes Initiative Leadership Institute
Kampala, Uganda, January 7-12, 2018


The Great Lakes Initiative Leadership Institute is an annual, week-long conference held in Kampala, Uganda focused on fostering reconciliation across East Africa. The 2018 GLI included 170 Christian ministers and agents of peacebuilding and reconciliation from Burundi, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.  The following presentation was delivered during the morning plenary session on Thursday, January 11. The theme of this day was leadership. It was delivered in English and translated simultaneously into French.

Good morning!  I am grateful to be with all of you this week.  This is my third GLI, and each year my faith has been deepened by experiencing first-hand the ways that each of you is living out the power and possibility of Christian reconciliation.

I’ve been asked to reflect with you this morning on leadership – and, specifically, leadership in the Christian nonviolent response to conflict.  

We have been on a journey this week. Our journey has been to glimpse the New Creation – the “new we” – and the choices we are asked to make in our own lives for this new world. This morning we are exploring ways to reach this reconciled world by reflecting on the nonviolent life.

What does it mean to provide leadership in grappling with violence nonviolently, especially in a way that follows the leadership of the nonviolent Jesus?


To begin this reflection, I would like to share a prayer.  This prayer was written by Hildegard Goss-Mayr.

Hildegard has spent the last 60 years spreading the good news of Jesus’ nonviolence.  She’s led hundreds of seminars for nonviolent change in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Hildegard wrote this prayer for a conference that took place in 2016 in Rome, Italy that I helped organize called “Nonviolence and Just Peace.”  It was co-sponsored by the Vatican—the highest level of the Catholic Church—and its goal was to call on Pope Francis and the whole Church to actively recommit to the core gospel value of nonviolence.  

She wrote this prayer for the Rome conference, but it’s also a prayer for our GLI gathering.  Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, our source of light and strength,
we thank you for having inspired the call to peace-makers from all over the world
to meet in the dramatic situation of humanity to reconsider our responsibility
to deepen and promote the liberating and healing nonviolence of Jesus.

Merciful God, our Father and Mother, you sent your Son Jesus, our Brother,
to reveal through his life and teaching your divine, self-giving Love and thus
incarnate in our world the power of nonviolence capable to overcome ALL forms of violence and to reconcile humanity in justice and peace.

You have asked us, who are baptized in Jesus’ name, to let ourselves be transformed by this force of truth and self-giving love and to apply it courageously in our violence-stricken world.

We confess that for centuries our Church, people of God,
many times, has betrayed this central message of the Gospel
and participated in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation and discrimination.
This fills us with deep sadness and we humbly ask to be pardoned.

Holy Spirit, as we are going to meet as peacemakers we count on your light and your strength to help revive in the Theology of Peace the nonviolent message of Jesus in which there is no place for violence and to offer to all Christians the arms of peacemaking, pardon and reconciliation.

Holy Spirit, we trust in your light and strength that this Conference may mark a new step of our Church, people of God, on its way to becoming a Peace Church in the spirit of our Brother Jesus and thus reply forcefully to the cry of humanity for life in dignity and peace.

There’s much in this prayer that can speak to our call as restless Christians helping to lead our churches and our world out of the desert of violence and injustice.

It’s a declaration of faith.  Faith in Jesus and his liberating and healing nonviolence for justice and peace.

And faith in the power of Gospel nonviolence to overcome all forms of violence.

But it’s also a declaration of confession. A confession that we as Church have betrayed Jesus’ nonviolent way. And a confession that there is much work to do. Work to revive the Church’s once-thriving commitment to Gospel nonviolence. And work to help reframe our theology and our practice so there is no place for violence for it.

In addition to being a declaration of faith and a declaration of confession, Hildegard’s prayer is also a declaration of renewed commitment. A commitment to taking the next step to becoming a Peace Church. And a commitment to reply to the cry of humanity through the power of nonviolent love.

Personal Experience

Some of you, though, may be wondering: Isn’t it strange to have someone from the United States coming to reflect on nonviolence?  

It’s true — my country is a very violent country, and it exports violence around the world.  But some of us in the US have dedicated our lives to fostering a nonviolent country and a nonviolent world.  

As part of this, it is to acknowledge our role as perpetrators of violence.  When we visited the Ugandan Martyrs Museum during our pilgrimage on Wednesday this week, we saw a graphic depiction of the Anglican and Catholic martyrs who were killed in 1886.  But I was reflecting on the executioner and the depiction of the executioner sharpening his tools.  This is the depiction of my nation.  But just as the executioner who was converted by the martyrs he killed – and he never executed anyone again – so I have been slowly converted by the martyrs killed at the hands of my own society and privilege, and am committed to working to in my own life and my own society to end the killing.

Over thirty years ago, I had an experience that led me to the power of nonviolent action.  At the time, I was in graduate school studying theology.  I received a letter in the mail from someone in the country of Nicaragua.

At the time, my country, the United States, was waging a merciless war on the people of Nicaragua. It was a letter from a man in Nicaragua who had somehow gotten my mailing address.  He was describing the horrors being perpetrated by my nation against his people. He told me about the attacks on people in the night. He told me about the death and destruction.  But it was the end of his letter that changed my life.  

He said, “I am telling you this so that ten years from now you cannot say you did not know. Do everything you can to stop this catastrophe.”

As soon as I finished reading the letter, I had a vision.  The man who wrote to me was standing in front of me, holding a dying, bloody child.  It was not a mirage.  He seemed to be standing right in front of me.

It was at that moment that I committed myself wholeheartedly to doing everything I could to stop this destruction.

As I thought, “What can I do?”  I suddenly was inspired. I was inspired to write a pledge of nonviolent action—a commitment that people could take to publicly resist this policy of destruction.  Out of that inspiration, I helped build a movement with many other people, including my friends at the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, called the Pledge of Resistance. One hundred thousand people took this pledge— without the help of the Internet, which didn’t exist yet—and we began an eight-year struggle to end the US wars in Nicaragua, but also El Salvador and other places in Central America.

For eight years, we marched and protested and confronted this policy with stubborn love and many strategies of nonviolent resistance.  Twenty thousand people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and went to jail.  And together, with our sisters and brothers in Central America and people of faith and conscience across the world, we helped end these wars.  

I have been doing this kind of work ever since.  I have not faced the dangers many of you have faced, but through all this I have experienced the power of Jesus’ nonviolence for a new world.

One of the key things I have learned is the importance of training.  Like anything else, we need to learn and prepare how to be agent of nonviolent change.  We are not always taught this – in our families, in our schools, in our seminaries, and in our churches.  One of the best nonviolence trainers we have ever had is Hildegard Goss-Mayr, who wrote our prayer.  Her leadership has involved train other leaders, including in South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.  

She also led an intensive workshop in the 1980s in the Philippines.  We have much to learn from what happened there.  Perhaps it can help where we are.

Nonviolent People Power in Action: The Philippines

The dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in the 1980s was marked by corruption, poverty, widespread human rights violations, and a lack of democracy. Widespread violence by the government was aimed at destroying the opposition, including community-based organizations and movements working for change.  There was little hope for social transformation.  Consequently, there was a growing armed struggle led by a group called The New People’s Army.  At the same time, however, the Catholic Church in this predominantly Catholic country was casting about for an alternative.  Was there an option to passivity on the one hand and violence on the other?  Many people were not too sure.  A priest was quoted at the time as saying, “I used to believe in nonviolence, but Marcos is too cruel; only a bloody revolution will work against him.”  When he was asked how long such a revolution would take, he said, ‘Ten years.”  The 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino seemed only to confirm the priest’s gloomy assessment.

It was then that the church’s leader in the Philippines, Cardinal Sin, decided to see if an alternative was possible.  He put the full weight of the church behind an exploration of Gospel Nonviolence and how it could be applied to change the situation in his country.  As part of this, he participated in a three-day nonviolence training in Manila led by Hildegard Goss-Mayr and her spouse Jean Goss of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and sponsored by the Little Sisters of Jesus in the Philippines.  It was a life changing event that led to organizing “active nonviolence” trainings focused on resisting dictatorship for scores of Catholic and Protestant bishops and hundreds of other clergy, women religious and laity.  A Philippine chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was established, which organized hundreds of nonviolence trainings in 30 provinces.

These workshops eventually played a key role in the nationwide mobilization to stop the dictator from stealing the 1986 national election. Cardinal Sin joined with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in formally calling on the highly Catholic country to engage in “active resistance” and “a nonviolent struggle for justice.”  They appealed to Filipinos of all religions to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and use peaceful means to change the political situation in the Philippines.

Nonviolence trainings — and nonviolent inventiveness on the spot — contributed to the emergence of a widespread nonviolent challenge to the situation, both within the civilian population and key sectors of the military that refused orders rather than attack unarmed civilians organized in disciplined human barricades. Nonviolent activists found themselves in the surprising position of protecting soldiers who defected. Within four days, Ferdinand Marcos boarded a plane bound for Hawaii.  

In Manila, over one million unarmed and human beings flooded into the streets and demonstrated how nonviolent people power can overcome the power of tanks and circling bombers.  There were many factors to its success, but two of those included a call from the Church for nonviolence, including nonviolence education and nonviolent action.  

This story, I think, is instructive in many ways.  The action that Cardinal Sin took was a bold new direction for the Church.  In the past in the Philippines, and many other places, the church upheld the status quo, even if it was unjust.  And it often drew on the implications of Just War theology to support military governments.  Here the church dramatically broke with this tradition and sought, instead, a new, nonviolent – but also practical and powerful – way to a new reality.  

But it is instructive in another way as well.  The priest who wanted to see that new reality could only imagine a violent answer.  Not that he wanted a violent answer, but it was the only one that made sense.  While he knew that Jesus was nonviolent, he could not see how nonviolence was possible in this situation.  And, why would he?  He had not been taught the principles and methods of active nonviolence.  He had not been told the stories of active nonviolence.  It was not part of his priestly formation or the theology he read at seminary.  He did not learn about nonviolence in the sermons he heard or that he himself preached.  He had not been trained in nonviolent communication, nonviolent interaction, or nonviolent movements.  It’s understandable that he only saw two options: violence or passivity; fight or flight.

Nor have most of us.  Most of us do not know the theology, methods, or stories of nonviolence, even though we follow the one who said, “love your enemies” or pray to the God whose sun shines on the good and the bad alike. What this priest learned through the People Power movement in the Philippines was that there was an alternative that could be effective, and that it could be part of his religious life following in the footsteps of the nonviolent Jesus.  

Nonviolent People Power in Action: GLI

But Gospel nonviolence is not only something on a grand scale, like what happened in the Philippines.

It is also here and now. And it is here at the Great Lakes Initiative.  At GLI I have witnessed and heard about powerful nonviolence in action.

  • At GLI, I witnessed people from two enemy communities stand before us, hold hands, and proclaim that “whatever is mine is theirs.”
  • At GLI, I met a Catholic priest who saved the lives of 1500 Muslims by opening the hospital he oversaw in a war zone to friend and enemy alike—the only rule being that no guns would be allowed in that space.
  • At GLI, I met an Anglican bishop who, in the face of an impending attack on his community, gathered his priests and asked them to stay and be with the people.  Some of them were quite concerned about their families and thought it best to leave.  The bishop then said, “If you have to leave, I would just say this: Do not be the first.”  
  • In the end, 37 of his 40 priests stayed.  And they weathered the storm, with no deaths.
  • And at GLI, I met a United Methodist bishop who was converted to nonviolence half a century ago by the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and then told me of five different experiences where he risked his life putting active nonviolence into practice, including brokering peace agreements between warring factions that could have gotten him killed.

Each of these examples is rich with the gifts of leadership. And these were just a few of the examples I happened to hear. Each of them is a spiritually-grounded nonviolent action. If we had another week or a month or a year at this GLI, we would still not have enough time to hear of all the ways you are living the nonviolent way of Jesus.

All these stories point out something very important about nonviolence. It is not a mechanical answer to the challenges we face.  It involves grappling and engaging with what seems like impossible situations.  We come to it out of an anguish About the terror violence and injustice.  It is a discipline of lament. We look deeply into the abyss and long for a way forward, even if it is not clear at the beginning.  But nonviolence is also a discipline of hope.  There are no guarantees, but our longing for more justice and truth—and our commitment to challenge the machinery of evil and death—can sometimes open the space for change.

It’s for this reason that I have titled my talk “I Have Seen the Future—and It Is East Africa.”  What I mean by this is that, if there is any hope for the world, it is because of what you are doing—living and experimenting with the way of Jesus’ nonviolence.  

Your leadership is needed now more than ever.  As Dr. King said, “It is no longer a question of violence or nonviolence.  It is a question of nonviolence or non-existence.”  You are providing light for the world on how the world can discover the nonviolent option.

Gospel Nonviolence

In the trainings that Hildegard Goss-Mayr leads, she invites the participants to reflect deeply on the nonviolence of Jesus. Nonviolence lay at the heart of Jesus’ mission—and thus is central to the mission of the Church.  

In his age of colonial occupation and the structural violence of oppression, Jesus proclaimed a new, nonviolent order of unity and truth in vision and deed, he is the revelation and embodiment of the Nonviolent God, a truth especially illuminated in the Cross and Resurrection.

Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 44), to offer no violent resistance to one who does evil (Matthew 5: 39); to repent and forgive; and to be abundantly merciful (Matthew 5-7).  He embodied nonviolence by actively resisting systemic dehumanization and separation, as when he defied the Sabbath laws to heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3: 1-6); when he confronted the powerful at the Temple and purified it (John 2: 13-22); and when, on the night before he died, he asked Peter to put down his sword (Matthew 26: 52).

In these and many other cases, Jesus is forging a new path for us.  He is telling us that the traditional scripts for responding to conflict and violence are not good enough.  The traditional scripts of Avoidance, Accommodation or Counter-Violence are understandable survival strategies, but they will not transform the situation.  Retreating, Going Along with, or Using Violence will in most cases make it worse. And they will not lead to the breakthrough. They will not lead to justice.  They will not lead to reconciliation.  Instead, what is called for is active and dramatic nonviolent engagement.  

For example, in the case of the men accusing a woman of adultery (John 8:02-8:11) and threatening her with execution, Jesus intervened at great risk to himself with a creative and thought-provoking nonviolent action that saved the woman’s life and saved the men from carrying the guilt of homicide. He could have run away.  He could have stood by. He even could have tried justified violence. Instead he took what today we call public nonviolent action designed to respond to the emergency, to expose the real problem, to provoke new thinking, and to create a new solution beyond the impasse of violence.

Jesus is not only intervening in that situation, he is training us. Recall from the story that he is teaching in the Temple. He is training the people – but also us – in The Two Hands of Nonviolence: On the one hand, I will not cooperate with or give power to your violence. On the other hand, I will not use violence myself. I will be open to you as a human being. I will see below your violence to your sacredness, and will seek to create such a dramatic situation that you will, too.”

Nonviolence Described

Nonviolence is often regarded as passive, weak, utopian, naïve, unpatriotic, marginal, simplistic, impractical, and ineffective.  It’s none of these.  Nonviolence is a constructive force and methodology for challenging and overcoming violence without using violence, for constructively transforming and resolving conflict, and for fostering a more just, peaceful and reconciled world.

Nonviolence is powerful, but not power over.”  It is a different kind of power— “power with” for the “new we.”

This power flows from an approach, a way, a spirituality that dynamically integrates courage and vulnerability, strength and humility, power and powerlessness, action and contemplation, confrontation and receptivity, compassion and the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, nonviolence dramatically synthesizes our infinite longing for justice with our infinite capacity for love.

But being nonviolence does not mean we are perfect. “Violence” is the largest part of the word, “nonviolence.”  The nonviolent life is a deliberate struggle with our own violence.  

Nonviolence in Africa

So how can Jesus’ nonviolence speak to the crushing realities of this age throughout East Africa and around the world?

The good news is that Africa has played a key role in advancing the power of active nonviolence for change.

While it is true, as Gandhi said, that “nonviolence is as old as the hills,” it’s also true that there has been a dramatic upsurge in nonviolent action for justice and peace over the past century.  

This powerful force for change has been active across Africa.  When we speak of leadership, we can look to the leadership that campaigners across Africa has offered the world.  Vivid cases include the historic work of Nobel Peace Prize Winners Wangari Maathai who organized Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and Leymah Gbowee from the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that helped end the civil war there. And, of course, Gandhi’s method of nonviolence was developed and launched in South Africa.

But in addition to these famous examples, there has been a growing number of nonviolent campaigns across the continent.  One hundred of these are listed and carefully analyzed on the Global Nonviolent Action Database.  

On that site, campaigns from many nations are profiled, including those in Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Central Africa Republic, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Senegal, Lesotho, and many others.

And for those of us who may think nonviolence is only a form of faithful witness but not an effective strategy, systematic research has established that nonviolent strategies outperform violent ones two to one.

In 2011 Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan published Why Civil Resistance Works, which analyzed 323 “maximal cases”—bringing down dictators and ending foreign occupations—between 1900 and 2006 and discovered quantitatively that nonviolent campaigns are twice as successful as violent ones.  


At GLI, we gather to reflect on the New Creation and on our calling in this time of crisis and opportunity to declare with our lives that another world is possible.

In the powerful reflection that was shared yesterday afternoon after our pilgrimage to the Ugandan martyrs, I was deeply moved.  I have waited my whole adult life f or such a moment – a time when the Church calls us to a clear commitment to resistance to the domination system that desperately seeks to do away with the God of nonviolence, restorative justice and peace on our journey to the New Creation.  My own commitment became stronger and more wholehearted.

In my own work, I continue to build movements challenging the systems of oppression, and I pledge to walk side by side with you in this spiritual and political process.

I will also deepen my own work in the US, where I am part of a movement called Campaign Nonviolence.

The NGO I am part – called Pace e Bene, named for a phrase used by St. Francis of Assisi – organizes a week of nonviolent action the third week of September around the world. This past September 1600 events took place around. We also are organizing The Nonviolent Cities Project.  Fifty cities in the US are challenging themselves over the next years to become “nonviolent cities.”  What if there were a ten-year plan to help foster Nonviolent Kampala or Nonviolent Juba or Nonviolent Kigali?

Finally, like the Church in the Philippines which helped end a military dictatorship, we all can spread the catechesis and formation in Gospel nonviolence through preaching and training, Through strategies and movement-building, and through prayer and reflection. These approaches will be increasingly needed in the coming days, rooted in the nonviolent love of God and fostered in His call for justice and reconciliation.

Thank you.


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