Sunday, 4 January 2009

Militant Nonviolence

Love for Enemies: Militant Nonviolence
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.

Published in shorter form as “The Fruit of God’s Own Life,” Catholic Worker (New York, NY), March-April 2008)

The following is a modified version of a chapter of the journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information about School of the Americas Watch:

Non-violence as a Way of Life and as a Method

As a way of life, Christian non-violence constantly challenges us to be freed from the vestiges of those violent attitudes and behaviors which are programmed into us by the self-centered, avaricious, dog-eat-dog culture in which we live (with my apologies to the canines, since even dogs don’t devour each other the way we do!)

As a tactic or method, Jesus’ approach is a way of engaging the opponent not in battle for his life but in a respectful but firm struggle for his mind and heart, aimed at bringing about his recognition of the truth of a situation and of his own complicity in it with the further goal of bringing about a change of heart and behavior. The “opponent” may be the direct perpetrator of the violence and injustice and/or the society which supports her and in whose name she acts.

This kind of Christian pacifism (literally “peace-making”) has no relation either etymologically or historically to the kind of “passivism”which has unjustly undermined the Christian response to societal evil over the centuries. The non-violence of Jesus (speaking truth to power in word and deed) involves loving and doing good to one’s enemies by actively challenging their involvement in injustice and inviting them to live in a new solidarity with their former victims.

The classic texts presenting Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation and love for enemies are Mt 5:38-48 and Lk 6:27-36. Let us focus on Lk 6:27-29a: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also....”

Jesus as Nonviolent Resister

The best example of how to do this is Jesus’ own illustration in action as found in John 18:19-23. (How could anyone try to interpret this passage without seeing it in the context of Jesus’ own behavior?) When the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching, the prisoner responded with a certain boldness: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.... Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

At this point a policeman hit Jesus in the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
Jesus did not strike back in violence, but neither did he hang his head, lower his eyes, or apologize for his statement. Rather than becoming mute, he challenged his aggressor, putting him on the spot by asking him to explain his action.

Later Jesus would keep silent in an eloquent response to Pilate’s question: “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9). Pilate was driven to exasperation by this simple denial of his power: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” To this Jesus did respond, but in a way that relativized Pilate’s power, situating it as being under God’s authority: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:11; see also Mt 27:12-14).

When Jesus was interrogated by the high priest (Mt 26:63) and by Herod (Lk 23:9), he also gave them the silent treatment, refusing to recognize their authority over him.

This firm, even defiant, attitude characterized the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.... Who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up” (Is 50:6-9).

At the moment of his arrest, while Jesus did not join with one of his disciples in using the sword, he did challenge his captors: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me” (Mt 26:51-55).

In the case of a conflict between the community and an offensive member, Jesus counseled the community to confront the person: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender” (Lk 17:3). Hopefully this will lead to repentance and change: “If there is repentance, you must forgive.”
Matthew describes the process in greater detail (18:15-17): “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” But if necessary witnesses are brought in, the community becomes involved, and ultimately disciplinary action may be required: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Thus “turning the other cheek” is very different from lowering one’s head, eyes, and shoulder before the aggressor, not daring to look him in the eyes or speak. That subservient posture is frequently typical of the slave, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast who has internalized the system’s characterization of him or her as an inferior being. But Christians know that they are loved by God and by the community and thus have a strong sense of their own dignity and a healthy self-respect and self-image; with this inner power they can stand up to the aggressor, who is only another child of God. And they can find human alternatives to violence rather than degrading themselves and betraying their nonviolent principles by “returning evil for evil,” which after all means doing evil.

Nonviolence in Practice

Jesus exemplified the attitude of “turning the other cheek” in a challenging way not only during his passion but consistently throughout his public ministry. On those occasions when he was threatened with death, he courageously returned to the turf of his persecutors and continued his ministry of loving care and prophetic denunciation (e.g., openly healing people on the sabbath, and in one case even throwing the merchants and money-changers out of the temple). The one who turns the cheek is saying: “I have done nothing wrong; you are wrong to hit me. Knowing that, if you insist on hitting me again, go ahead. I’m not afraid.” By returning to dangerous places and situations, Jesus was conveying a similar message to those who were trying to assassinate him.

In the same way the apostles proved to be recidivists in proclaiming the message of Jesus and of his resurrection in defiance of the authorities, knowing they would be arrested every time. They did not silence themselves (Acts 4:18-20, 29-31; 5:27-31).

Beatings, arrests, and incarceration did not stop Gandhi and King and their associates from always coming back to the confrontation, collectively offering “the other cheek” time after time. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who struggled for peace and reconciliation among his brethren, offered his breast, his body to his opponents who were his brothers:

“Dearest brother, I know it is you who will shoot me tonight,
piercing our mother’s heart with a wound
that can never heal....
Here is my breast! Aim your gun at it, brother, shoot!
I offer my body, the body our mother bore and nurtured.
Destroy it if you wish.
Destroy it in the name of your dream --
that dream in whose name you kill....
Come back, dear brother, and kneel at your mother’s knee” (Love in Action – Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, Berkeley, Cal., Parallax Press, 1993).

When Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J., and two peasants with him were brutally gunned down in 1977, their martyrdom had a profound impact on the new archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith” – and hope.

Archbishop Romero considered the conversion of the oppressor the “vengeance of the Christian”: “Let us be firm in defending our rights, but with great love in our hearts, because to defend our rights in this way we are also seeking the conversion of sinners. This is the vengeance of the Christian” (June 19, 1977 homily, Mons. Oscar A. Romero: Su pensamiento, San Salvador, Imprenta Criterio, 1980-89). The martyrdom of Romero, even though it did not end the repressive policies of the Salvadoran and U.S. governments, touched the hearts and changed the lives of millions throughout the world, strengthening them in their commitment to struggle for justice.

In the nonviolent actions at Ft. Benning to close the School of the Americas, one member of the community (body) follows the other in crossing the line – presenting one’s body, cheek and all, to the armed opponent. And some members have turned the other cheek in this militant non-violence two or more times, with the penalty being increased each time.
This is not passive acceptance of humiliation. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, giving your shirt as well, and giving to beggars and thieves are ways that “the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1992, p. 182). The oppressed “have suddenly ... taken back the power of choice.”

A striking example of the oppressed asserting their human dignity is found in the latter period of the Old Testament. When the pagan emperor arrested seven brothers and their mother and compelled them, “under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh” (2 Maccabees 7), they resisted valiantly. One of the sons, when it was demanded, “quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, ‘I got these from heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.’ As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.”

The “victory” of the nonviolent resister

Jesus and others who publicly violate the letter of the law do not seek but do accept the penalty as a necessary consequence of their words and deeds. And they consider their experience of being punished an extension of the prophetic action which can also touch hearts and influence minds.
Jesus had said: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he” (Jn 8:28). See also Jn 3:14 and 12:32-33: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

The soldier who pierced the side of Jesus’ corpse was named Longinus by Christian tradition, which believed that he was converted by Jesus’ loving death. His statue is in a prominent place of honor in St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. In connection with the piercing, St. John quotes Zechariah: “They will look on the one whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). In Zechariah this look is accompanied by mourning and conversion.
In the synoptics a soldier at the cross says: “Certainly this man was innocent” (Lk 23:47) or “Truly this man was God’s son” (Mk 15:39 and Mt 27:54). (Perhaps in these accounts the strange natural phenomena at the moment gave an assist to their confession.)

Jesus’ death in love and courage also strengthened Joseph of Arimathea (a secret disciple of Jesus because of fear) and Nicodemus (the Pharisee who had come to Jesus at night – Jn 3:2) to “come out” and ask Pilate for the body and give it proper and respectful burial (Jn 19:38-42).

By raising Jesus from the dead, God revealed, to the eyes of faith, that the victory goes to the condemned and executed Victim and that this good man had suffered unjustly.

Hope in struggle

Like Jesus, we recognize that we cannot entertain an optimism which would assure us that all our most precious expectations will be realized in our lifetime, or solely by our effort. But hope is much more profound, and more mysterious: a fruit of God’s own life in us and in all of creation, a spark of energy propelling God’s historical project ahead, even with crooked lines, setbacks, deaths, and resurrections.

Hope is as basic as faith and love. If we believe in God as loving Creator, we cannot doubt the ultimate fruition of her good work; and if we love the universe and all humanity (starting with the present generation and our children and grandchildren), we cannot doubt the ultimate result of God’s love and our love – the fulfillment and happiness of all creation in Christ, whose resurrection is the first fruits of the cosmic harvest.
Meanwhile, hope is nourished along the way by our celebrations of small victories and by our joyful savoring of the values of the Kingdom experienced here and now.

And action itself strengthens and sustains hope. People who maintain their commitment to active struggle, especially with others in community, find that hope is not lacking (when they take time to think about it!).
By the same token, those who drop out, to devote themselves to purely materialistic or purely spiritualistic private pursuits, find that hope dries up – and then their hopelessness tends to justify their shutting down to the grand issues and struggles of world history.


For the original, longer version of this article, please see: