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The Radical Importance Of Nonviolence Today

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Nonviolence literally means no to violence, or negation of violence as a path to social change, justice and peace. It does not mean passive resistance to social evil or withdrawal from the world, but active nonviolence as a way to say no to violence by peaceful and courageous words and deeds. Active nonviolence does not mean surrender, or lack of social involvement, or passivity. It does not return evil for evil. It is a quality of authentic human and Christian love, which presupposes justice and respects truth and freedom. Pope Benedict XVI said: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is convinced of God’s love and power.”

For many human beings and groups and different religions nonviolence is the appropriate ethical path open to them to attain justice and peace. For believers, Jesus is the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is chapters 42-53) who witnessed and proclaimed: no to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”; “do not resist an evildoer” (Mt 5:38-39); “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Jesus also said: “put the sword back into its place; all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). “With these words,” Origen comments, “the Lord disarmed all Christians” (Contra Celsum).

Vatican II helped develop the growing movement of nonviolence in the Church. The Fathers of Vatican II: “Motivated by this same spirit, we cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defence which are otherwise available to weaker parties too, provided that this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself” (GS, 78).

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, St. Oscar Arnulfo Romero – apostles of nonviolence - followed the way of nonviolent love. Gandhi’s words: “Conquer hatred by love, untruth by truth, violence by suffering”; “Nothing but organized nonviolence can check the organized violence of the government.” Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully, because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”  St. Oscar Arnulfo Romero: “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and the cruel inequalities among us.”

The way of nonviolence towards positive personal and social change may be walked through different strategies and tactics, such as protest marches, demonstrations, picketing, boycotts, strikes - including the hunger strike -, prayer rallies, etc. One outstanding and attractive strategy that continues to be used often is the so-called civil disobedience strategy. Civil means a public peaceful demonstration, non-damaging to persons and/or property. Disobedience refers to disobeying a binding law considered unjust, or to disobeying penal laws to protest a grave injustice. 

Civil disobedience tactics, however, ought to be carried out only after the ordinary peaceful means have failed, such as the implementation of the appropriate laws, negotiations, dialogue, mediation, arbitration, etc.

Certainly, the way of nonviolence is not easy at all: suffering is part of the journey. Sooner than later, many demonstrators will get tired and give up little by little the hard path of nonviolent struggle and replace it with violent strategies, or simply give up.

As can be seen in different countries, massive public demonstrations usually begin peacefully, but do not go on peacefully for a long time. In fact, collective endurance is the most difficult element of successful nonviolent strategies towards justice and peace. For continuing endurance, the non-violent demonstrators need – as it is clear in the life of the iconic witnesses of nonviolence - a deep spirituality, which implies a forgiving and loving attitude, purification of the soul and pure motivation. For a similar context, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: Not only does he who suffers for his faith in Christ suffers for Christ, but also he who suffers for any action of justice for the love of Christ (In Ep. Ad Rom.).

A few days before the exemplary Philippine EDSA Revolution (1986) that brought down the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a prophetic Post-Election Statement where the Philippine bishops rejected, on one hand, social apathy, and on the other, violent means, and proposed the nonviolent way to fight the injustices, corruption and lies of the current regime: “The way indicated to us now is the way of nonviolent struggle for justice. This means active resistance of evil by peaceful means – in the manner of Christ … We insist: our acting must always be according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, in a peaceful, nonviolent way.”

Wise words from Pope Francis: “We are witnessing numerous popular protests all over the world – in many parts – expressing the growing unease of civil society in the face of particularly critical political and social situations.” The Argentine Pope advises all: “While I urge the demonstrators to present their demands peacefully, without giving in to the temptation of aggression and violence, I appeal to all those with public and governmental responsibilities to listen to the voice of their fellow citizens and to meet their just aspirations, ensuring full respect for human rights and civil liberties.” Pope Francis concludes: “Finally, I invite the ecclesial communities living in such contexts, under the guidance of their Pastors, to work for dialogue, always in favour of dialogue, and in favour of forgiveness, reconciliation” (Angelus, September 13, 2020)

As always, prayer is helpful through the process of nonviolent struggles. In the perspective of the Christian faith, nonviolence is prayerful nonviolence. We remember Jesus’ words: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (Lk 6:27-28).

By Fr. Fausto Gómez, OP.