Category Archives: nonviolence

The Cross and The Challenge of Peace

In Central America and some other countries in Latin America, we celebrate today as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna

The cross of Jesus is a challenge to us who live comfortable lives, seeking always security. Why would God save us by dying on an instrument of torture?

The only answer is God’s love for us.

That love should move us to love, to give ourselves to God and others, seeking only the Reign of God – on earth as in heaven.

Thirty years ago today the US bishops issued their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. It is an extraordinary document, even though I believe it is not as prophetic as it could have been.

They wrote in the midst of the Cold War, where many felt that the presence of nuclear weapons was threatening the continuation of life on this planet. A strong “Nuclear Freeze” movement was stirring in the US, especially in the faith communities. Similar efforts to “ban the bomb” were active in western and eastern Europe.

What is also extraordinary is the process the bishops took in writing the document. A committee was appointed and worked on a document. There was a lot of debate in the years leading to its final publication and there was a lot of input, not only from church and government leaders, but also from the lay faithful. The bishops welcomed input in the preparation of the document, though the final word was often influenced by what the Vatican said, especially in terms of nuclear deterrence.

The document relies on scripture, theological reasoning, and political analysis. But I find two passages that point to the scriptural basis of a faith that seeks the abolition of nuclear weapons and the creation of a culture of peace.

First of all, the following of Jesus includes a witness to peace – even to the point of shedding one’s blood. The challenge of peace is to live the cross, as tehy note in paragraph 276:

 … In our own country we are coming to a fuller awareness that a response to the call of Jesus is both personal and demanding. As believers we can identify rather easily with the early Church as a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission. To be disciples of Jesus requires that we continually go beyond where we now are. To obey the call of Jesus means separating ourselves from all attachments and affiliation that could prevent us from hearing and following our authentic vocation. To set out on the road to discipleship is to dispose oneself for a share in the cross (cf. Jn. 16:20). To be a Christian, according to the New Testament, is not simply to believe with one’s mind, but also to become a doer of the word, a wayfarer with and a witness to Jesus. This means, of course, that we never expect complete success within history and that we must regard as normal even the path of persecution and the possibility of martyrdom.

The bishops insisted that this was not something merely political, though the document included a critique of many nuclear policies  of the US government. The call to peacemaking is, first of all, an act of conversion, rooted in faith. As they wrote in paragraph 333:

In the words of our Holy Father, we need a ‘moral about-face.’ The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say ‘no’ to nuclear conflict; ‘no’ to weapons of mass destruction; ‘no’ to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and ‘no’ to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus. The content and context of our peacemaking is set, not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by the teaching of his Church.

Today as the US continues to use military violence or threats of violence, maybe we need to return to a spirituality of peacemaking based in the love of Christ on the Cross.

How then can we approve the use of drones which often kill civilians, the threat and use of violence in the Middle East, the continuing inflated military budget, the military assistance to governments that do not respect human rights (e.g., Honduras), and the continuing reliance on nuclear weapons.

The call of the Cross is different. It is the call to “give one’s life,” not to take the lives of others.


Witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence

On March 18, 1989, two witnesses for the poor and nonviolence died in an auto accident in Perú: Father Neptalí Liceta, indigenous priest and coordinator of SERPAJ-Peru (the Latin American nonviolent action network), and Sister Amparo Escobedo, Sister of Social Service.

Father Neftalí once wrote:

“In the struggle for liberation in Latin America today, and the painful search for peace with justice, by following the option of Jesus Christ for the poor, we are making a definitive choice for the nonviolence of the cross that leads to resurrection. We must not be ignorant of, nor hide, nor attempt to legitimate the situation in which we are living if we are to be faithful disciples. To the contrary, we must denounce injustice constantly and clearly, and continually revise our goals and objectives. Nonviolence in Latin America implies noncooperation, whether internal or external, with every aspect of the existing unjust system.”

People like Padre Neftalí and Sister Amparo are lights that show what the Reign of God might be like. May their example inspire us to live lives of nonviolence and solidarity with the poor.

Speaking out clearly and forcefully against injustice is not easy and has not been easy, especially in Latin America where thousands have been killed. In the face of the violence and repression the Church has often failed to speak clearly and forcibly. But there have always been thousands of witnesses, usually among the priests and religious who work directly with the poor.

There have been some bishops who have spoken out and been killed for their efforts, not only Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, but also Bishop Enrique Angelleli of La Rioja, Argentina, who was killed on August 4, 1976, in a suspicious car accident during Argentina’s Dirty War.

These martyrs of Latin America lived as a Poor Church and a Church for the poor, as Pope Francis hopes. They also sought a Church of the Poor – where the poor are central, even as participants.

May these martyrs of Latin America continue to inspire us to be light for the nations, witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence – seeking to be a Church of the Poor.


Love (and feed) your enemies

“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,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father…”
Mathew 5: 43-45

 These words from today’s Gospel are among the most challenging of Jesus’ sayings, because it is so easy to confine our love to those we know and like. It is difficult to love those who hate us, who persecute us, or who even just rub us the wrong way.

But that was what Jesus did, even forgiving those who nailed Him to the cross.

Today the churches celebrate the early apostolic father Polycarp who was killed for his faith. There is much that Polycarp can teach us, not only in his rejection of Gnosticism which would propose an otherworldly God and Marcionism which rejected the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament). He also went to Rome and had an amicable disagreement with the Bishop of Rome over the date of Easter; though he did not convince the Bishop of Rome, the Eastern Church was enabled to continue its practices and Polycarp celebrated a Mass in Rome.

But the account of his martyrdom, written shortly after his death, presents his death as a “martyrdom conformable to the Gospel,” suggesting parallels between the death of Jesus and that of Polycarp.

But what struck me, in light of today’s Gospel, is that, when the government forces found Polycarp on a farm, he not only refused to escape but invited those who would kill him to a meal while he prayed:

 His pursuers … went forth at supper-time…, with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And arriving about evening, they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place.  So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them…. Immediately… he ordered that something to eat and drink should be set before them, as much indeed as they cared for, while he asked them to allow him an hour to pray without disturbance. And when they let him, he stood and prayed, being full of the grace of God, so that he could not cease for two full hours…
                                    Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 7

He invited them to eat and amazed them so much that they almost decided to let him go.

Would that we would find ways to prepare a meal for our enemies and that nations would also do the same.

I am reminded of a campaign of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1950s when a famine was ravaging communist China. They had members send in bags of grain to the White House with the simple, biblical message, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

The US did not send grain to China but when the cabinet was considering bombing China in reaction to attacks on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, President Eisenhower asked one cabinet member how many bags of grain had arrived. That probably prevented an attack on China which could have had devastating results.

And so, today, let us pray that, like Jesus and Polycarp, we can love our enemies.


Martin of Tours — lover of peace and the poor

Today the Church celebrates St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest persons recognized as a saint who was not a martyr.

Born to a pagan father, he became a catechumen, preparing to join the Church. But, since his father was in the military, Martin had to join the Roman army.  There are stories that he had to be dragged away to the army in chains.

Still a catechumen he distinguished himself by his care for the poor. One cold day, near Amiens he encountered a beggar. According to his biographer Sulpicius Severus, he had only his armor and his cloak, since he had given away everything else to the poor.

Martin cut his cloak in half and gave it to the poor man.

That night, in a dream, Martin saw Christ clothed in the cloak who said, “Look. Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed Me with his garment.”

At that point in his life, Martin took seriously the works of mercy in Matthew 25, something that he lived out later when he was bishop of Tours.

Soon after this event, when the army was about to engage in battle, Martin asked to be released from the military. “I am a soldier of Christ, and I cannot fight,” he told his commander. Martin offered to go into battle the next day at the front of the troops, unarmed.

There are two stories of what happened next.

In one, the opposing army sued for peace that very night.

In the other, Martin was imprisoned for his “cowardice.”

He was released, was baptized, founded the first monastery in France, and was ricked into becoming the bishop of Tours.

Martin was a saint who loved the poor and gave his all for them – as the widow gave all she had in today’s Gospel, Mark 12: 41-44. But even more, he refused to kill, believing that following Christ meant walking the way of nonviolence and love of enemies.

He would not make many people happy these days with his concern for the poor and his refusal to kill.

He also did not believe that heretics should be executed, though he was forced to give in to one case, which he regretted all his life.

Martin of Tours is a saint whom we should remember – not just with our prayers but with our lives.


Will we become a people who live the poor, seek the way of nonviolence, and refuse to kill our enemies?


That’s quite a challenge.

Gandhi and the courage we need

On October 2, 1869, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was born in India. He is now known as Mohandas – the Great Souled One.

In the late 1960s I read Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Non-violence which has a marvelous essay by Merton, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,”  followed by quotations from Gandhi.

What I most remember is Gandhi’s insistence on courage.

Gandhi had more respect for a soldier who risked his life in battle than for a supposedly nonviolent person who fled in the face of violence and conflict. He would rather a person fight with a weapon than flee, especially in the face of injustice.

A coward cannot be trained as a satyagrahi, a nonviolent activist, but a soldier could.

 It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

But how to train to become a non-violent person? Gandhi’s response is simple, though not all that easy:

Nonviolent persons will get all their training through nursing the sick, saving those in danger at the risk of their own life, patrolling places which may be in fear of thieves and rioters, and in laying down their lives, in necessary, in dissuading them from their purpose. The first and last shield and buckler of nonviolent persons will be their unwavering faith in God.

This Hindu man may have been one of the few persons in the twentieth century who really knew what the sermon on the mount was about and then lived it – without becoming a Christian.

He, like Dorothy Day, put his life on the line and lived for and with the poor and in the process preached a sermon on nonviolence that we need to hear today.

Young prayerful peacemaker – John Leary

Thirty years ago a young man named John Leary died on the Boston Common while jogging home from work. But he was not an ordinary young man.

I met him a few times at Haley House, a Catholic Worker house, in Boston where he lived and worked among the poor. A bright young man – graduate of Harvard – he was a light in many ways to the darkness around the world in the early 1980s. He had a great spirit that you could experience meeting him.

His life was grounded in an active commitment to the poor, serving them, but he also a strong advocate for life. He co-founded and worked at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

He was a member of the Ailanthus Resistance Community and was arrested for protests against nuclear weapons at a local laboratory. He also was arrested several times protesting abortion.

He was a truly consistent advocate of life.

But there is another aspect of his life which intrigues me.

John Leary began to participate in the Melkite Catholic Church and was, I presume, influenced by Eastern Christian spirituality.

He used to run on his way to and from work at a center for Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge). Gordon Zahn, a co-founder of the center, asked John about his running, which seemed so mundane and boring. John replied that he prayer the Jesus prayer while running.  In all probability, on August  31, 1982, while running home to the Catholic Worker John died, praying the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus prayer comes from the Eastern Christian tradition, praying many times a  formula based on the prayer of the publican in the Gospels: “Have mercy on me a sinner.” The most common form is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I wrote a post on the prayer earlier this year here.

It is a prayer that nourishes me.

Today, remembering John Leary, I pray that like him my life may be a witness to the God of life who became poor for us, by living and working with the poor, rooted in God’s love. And may I die with the Jesus prayer on my lips.


Witness for peace and unity

Fr. Max Josef Metzger, peacemaker, ecumenist, was executed by the Nazis in Germany, on April 17, 1944. After being a chaplain in the First World War, he began to work for peace. This, of course, brought him in conflict with the Nazi authorities when he sought ways to rpomote a negotaited end to the Second World War.

At a 1929 peace conference he said:

“The Peace Movement must make this radical activism its own with a holy conviction of conscience as Francis of Assisi, with a holy reverence for God’s created life which was withdrawn from the grasp of [humans] by the unqualified ‘thou shalt not kill,’ with the conviction of the divine power of a holy nonviolence in the service of the Kingdom of God, with the holy determination to realize this Kingdom of God all along the line. this is what will bring peace, this spirit of the ultimate,  personal self-offering even at the cost of one’s own life, as Christ paid it on the cross, the self-offering for truth, justice, love, peace, for the Kingdom of God on earth.”


A Catholic witness of conscience – against war

As the Catholic Church in the US ponders questions of conscience, it might be helpful to recall the example of  Ben Salmon, US Catholic pacifist, World War I conscientious objector, husband and father, who died eighty years ago on February 15, 1932.

Ben Salmon grew up in a working class Catholic family in Denver, only studying until the eighth grade. He was active in the church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as in union organizing. He had a strong commitment to social justice and lived it.

He was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” to recall today’s lectionary reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James.

When World War I started,  he refused to serve, claiming that cooperation with war was a violation of his conscience. But the US would not recognize a Catholic pacifist and so he was arrested in 1918, court-martialed, and imprisoned, sentenced for twenty-five years in prison.

The end of the war did not bring his release. After a hunger strike he was released in 1920.

He may have felt alone in his witness, as prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was opposing the pope; some priests actually refused him the sacraments, seeing his pacifism as heresy.

But he persisted, and even wrote a two hundred page manuscript critiquing the just war theory in justification of his nonviolence.

He took a stand for life and suffered for it. This was not easy, but with a deep faith he persevered. His quiet witness has only recently come to light, especially in a 1989 biography by Torin R. T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War.

The root of his simple, straightforward pacifism are clear from this quotation:

“I believe it is clear that, if we are going to show our love for our neighbor, we must adopt some other means besides tattooing his body with a Lewis machine gun. If you love me, I really prefer that you show your love in some other way besides massaging me with a bayonet. . . .

“Love, of course, is like everything else, relative. Christ does not expect me to love a stranger as much as I love my mother. But even though love is relative, it never reaches a level so low as to warrant an injury. The opposite of love is hate, and the amount of hate that finds an expression in every war, of which we found an appalling example in the recent conflict, warrants the conclusion that war is hate [and] peace is love.”

Resisting and reconciling

A. J. Muste, a U.S. pacifist leader died 45 years ago on February 11, 1967. Raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, he had to leave several churches he pastured because of his opposition to war. he dabbled for awhile with Marxism but returned to his radical Christian pacifist roots. He served for thirteen years as executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a US religious pacifist organization. Active against war, including the Viet Nam War, he died shortly after a visit to North Viet Nam to witness the effects of the US bombing.

He once wrote these words that reveal a wisdom that we need to nurture:

“One has to be both a resister and a reconciler to be an effective pacifist. You have to be sure that when you’re reconciling you’re also resisting any tendency to gloss things over; and when you’re primarily resisting, you have to be careful not to hate, not to win victories over human beings. You want to change people, but you don’t want to defeat them.”

Two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence

Today I’d like to recall two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence.

Dom Helder Câmara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil, defender of the poor, apostle of nonviolence, born on February 7, 1909, in Fortaleza, Brazil. He died in 1999.

This small frail man was such a threat to the Brazilian dictatorship that for several years it was not permitted to mention his name in the press or other medias of communication.

I saw him once at a “coffee shop” and center run by the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the 1982 United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament. I can’t remember what he said and he spoke in English with a very strong accent. But I remember most of all his enthusiasm with wide gestures. Looking back they make me recall his large heart and his love for all people and, indeed, for all creation. But he also could speak very forthrightly, denouncing injustice wherever he encountered it:

“I used to think when I was a child, that Christ might have been exaggerating when He warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts. That is the source of my conviction that it is both democratic and Christian to bolster human frailty with a balanced, firm, and just moral pressure based on nonviolent action.”

On February 7, 1988, Dominique Barbé, O.P., a French Dominician missionary to Brazil, peacemaker, died. He too was an advocate of nonviolence in the face of injustice and oppression. He saw his role as a missionary for the nonviolent reign of God. As he wrote:

“A missionary, an evangelist, is a person sent to destroy the structures of selfishness and to build the structures of sharing. This happens on three levels: the level of the individual, the community, and the society. It is like three intersecting wheels: the circle of personal life, the circle of community of the followers of Christ, and the circle of society.”