Nonviolence: a political approach that leads to peace? That is what Pope Francis seems to believe. His message for the 50th World Day of Peace is titled, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace.”
Early in the message he draws from Pope Paul VI in asserting that international controversies are best resolved not by “deterrent and murderous forces” but by “negotiations founded on law, justice and equity.” The Holy Father, repeating the words of his predecessors, reminds us that war — or violent conflict of any type — is always a defeat for humanity.
So how are we to achieve a just and lasting peace in a world so torn by terrible conflict? What sort of activity can lead us to such a peace?
Whatever else can be said about it, that kind of activity must be nonviolent. Nonviolent political actions are the only ones that can bring about this peace.
But before it can become an effective style of politics for peace, nonviolence must first become the way we live as individuals, families and communities. It must govern all our decisions and our relationships. Only then dare we hope that nonviolence may be adopted at all levels and in all forms of political life.
Violence and war, Pope Francis tells us, are not the cure for our broken world — a message offered by earlier popes as well.
In his encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II praised the nonviolent peaceful protests that helped bring down the Communist regimes of Eastern European countries in the late 1980s. The protesters tried “every avenue of negotiation, dialogue, and witness to the truth, appealing to the conscience of the adversary and seeking to reawaken in him a sense of shared human dignity” (23).
Pope John Paul added that “violence always needs to justify itself through deceit.” One form of that deceit is to claim that war and violence are the only means for resolving tensions or restoring justice, that we have run out of all peaceful options.
These more recent Catholic social documents reflect a growing appreciation of the Gospel’s teaching on nonviolence. In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis states that Jesus set the path of nonviolence by his own acceptance of the cross. He taught his disciples to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and for Peter to put away the sword.
The Holy Father concludes: “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” It means living as one who is “so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone.”
In their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the U.S. Catholic bishops stated that the Gospel commands us to seek peace through nonviolent approaches.
They wrote: “We believe work to develop nonviolent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice” (78).
As Catholics we are called to practice nonviolence and to support nonviolent options for resolving conflicts everywhere. But we also are members of a church that recognizes the possibility of a just war and that further recognizes the duty of governments to defend their citizens.
How do we resolve this tension between our personal, Gospel-based call to nonviolence and our nation’s right and responsibility to defend its borders and its citizens?
Surely a starting point here is to commit ourselves to pursuing a life of nonviolence in our thoughts and actions, in our family relationships and among friends and co-workers.
If we learn to embrace the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, if we learn to let this become our way of being, we just might help our local, state, national and world leaders move closer to letting nonviolence become their style of politics for peace.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.