Pope Francis continues to amaze. As far as I know, he has just issued the first high-level official Catholic statement focused on Gospel nonviolence in this year’s World Day of Peace message. The door has been opened for the Catholic Church to enter a deeper understanding and broader commitment to Jesus’ way of active nonviolence and just peace.
Francis said “to be true followers of Jesus today includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” Thus, we are to “cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values,” i.e. develop the habit or virtue of nonviolent peacemaking. He pledges “the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.”
Like Jesus, we encounter stories of nonviolent peacemakers in this message, such as Gandhi, Khan, MLK, and Gbowee. These icons of nonviolent force realized that both constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance were necessary compliments to sustainable conflict transformation.
Khan was a Muslim nonviolent leader in India who both developed schools for women and the first nonviolent peace army (80,000 members) to resist the ruthless British occupation. In a similar vein, today the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) offers unarmed civilian protection in many violent conflict zones. For example, in South Sudan NP has reduced sexual assaults and rape by all armed actors from regularity to zero in the areas they patrol. They also directly saved 14 women and children from armed militia when they refused three times to obey orders from the militia to leave during an armed attack.
These models, which combine constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance, represent a just peace approach. This approach offers a vision of human flourishing which includes a commitment to the social conditions that illuminate human dignity and cultivate thriving relationships. Drawing on specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions, it focuses on transforming conflict, breaking cycles of violence, and cultivating sustainable peace.
Key nonviolent practices that reflect this approach include, for example, addressing the root causes of violence, transforming the different dimensions of conflict, nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, unarmed civilian protection, interfaith collaboration, trauma-healing, and nonviolent civilian-based defense. Core virtues would include nonviolent peacemaking, mercy, solidarity, and humility.
Several just peace criteria within the broader approach would guide our action choices and apply at all stages of conflict. There are examples of a just peace approach to nuclear weapons, lethal drones, Syria, and ISIS.
What if the Catholic Church were to make a shift to an explicit just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence? Would it not be more consistent with Jesus’ way and help us recognize that all killing or lethal force is a form of violence? Would it not also liberate us more for nonviolent practices that would better build just peace, prevent war, limit ongoing war, heal after war, and even draw society away from war sooner as we more effectively live up to our “duty to strain every muscle to outlaw war” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes par. 81).
As Catholic leaders in our communities, we have a very unique opportunity to build on this movement of the Spirit.
Here are some suggestions:
1) share the World Day of Peace with your communities;
2) provide substantial education about active nonviolence in all levels of faith formation;
3) provide a regular Gospel-based training program in various nonviolent skills, as they have in the Archdiocese of Chicago;
4) join or develop a local peace team to deploy unarmed peacekeepers, provide nonviolent skill training, and scale-up restorative justice.
May God’s love and courage be with each of us as we walk further through the door of Gospel nonviolence.
Eli McCarthy is the director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
For more resources, visit USCCB’s World Day of Peace webpage, where you’ll find a two-page handout in English and Spanish, past World Day of Peace messages, and other tools to promote peace.