Blessed are the Peacemakers: An Introduction to Christian Nonviolence

This article first appeared in Aurora: the magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, November 2012 issue.

On December 10, 2005 a small group of four people (including former Maitland Councillor Donna Mulhearn) broke into the Pine Gap joint intelligence facility near Alice Springs. Two were arrested at the fence, the other two were found in prayer on top of one of the small buildings.

In a public statement to the Defence Minister released before their action, the group described themselves as “Christians Against All Terrorism”. They said their action was intended to draw light on the terrorism inherent in bombs dropped in Iraq and Afghansitan as much as in suicide bombers: “in order to be morally consistent, we cannot distinguish between the terrorist acts of a suicide bomber in Baghdad, or of a U.S jet bomber in Fallujah. In both cases innocents are murdered and maimed for a political objective.”

They also claimed their own motivation to act was born from their faithful commitment to the nonviolent Jesus.

Just two weeks ago, a larger group of forty people nonviolently blockaded the gates to the Swan Island military base at Queenscliff, just south of Melbourne, for two days. This group was calling for an end to the involvement of the SAS in Afghansitan, a presence that will continue indefinitely despite public rhetoric of a withdrawal of our troops in 2014. Most og them likewise linked their action to Jesus.

These two groups are part of a small but growing number of ordinary Australians acting as prophetic witnesses against violence and injustice in light of their Christian belief.

Jesus, they claim, was not so much ‘meek and mild’ as the revelation of the radical nonviolent love of God – a love which includes outcasts but also confronts injustice and violence.

The idea of Jesus as ‘nonviolent’ has made a resurgence over the last twenty years, especially in the scholarly world. But it is not news.

In fact belief in the nonviolence of Jesus has been present since the earliest days of the church, who refused to take up arms to defend themselves and instructed converted Roman soldiers they were not allowed to kill.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of the nonviolence of Jesus in word and deed was St Francis of Assisi, who refused to join the Crusades and instead travelled alone to Cairo to seek peace with the Muslim Sultan. St Francis also taught and lived reverence for the whole of Creation as intimately loved by God and thus not for us to destroy.

While Mohandas Gandhi is the most famous practitioner of nonviolence in the modern world, less well known is that he meditated on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount every day.

In more recent times we see Martin Luther King Jr, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (in his later years), and contemporary priests such as Fr Daniel Berrigan and Fr John Dear all pointing the way to the nonviolence – peaceful of heart while actively resisting evil – that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Donna Mulhearn has followed her Catholic faith all the way to Iraq, where she served as a human shield in 2003 and now campaigns to end the use of depleted uranium weapons, which are causing catastrophic birth defects at incredible rates in cities like Fallujah.

These leaders of peacemaking have helped us understand that while Empires achieve ‘peace’ through the sword, Jesus shows us that true peace can only be achieved through sacrificial love directed at justice and the wellbeing of all.

They have also helped us realise that nonviolence is not passive but an active stance that uses creative power for the common good.

Jesus did not just ask us to ‘love each other’, he spelled out in words and actions what this divine love looks like: healing the sick, forgiving each other countless times, sharing our wealth in solidarity with the poor.

And confronting those who would exploit and do violence to others, whether they be political, military or religious leaders. Even those who claim to represent God.

This teaching of Jesus is encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus declares ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. The sermon climaxes with the astonishing command to ‘love your enemies’.

The commands of the Sermon on the Mount are so radically upside down to our normal ways of organising ourselves that many in the church have tried to declare them ‘too idealistic’, and not intended for us to really pursue. Some relegated them to ‘ethics of the kingdom of God’, in contrast to more appropriate (and less demanding) ‘ethics of the world’. Others declared these obligations are only for the saints, and not the ordinary Christian.

When you stop to think about it, the idea that Jesus did not intend for us to do what he said is rather odd.

This kind of thinking sometimes gets the church into trouble. In trying to be ‘realistic’, it has found itself blessings wars, making compromises with Nazism, and cozying up to dictators in exchange for a seat at the table of power.

But when the church has tried living out the Sermon, it has moved mountains. The Catholic Church’s role in nonviolently overthrowing the Communist regime in Poland is well known, but remember too its leadership of the 1986 revolution in the Philippines. The Sant’Egidio community helped broker peace in Mozambique in 1992.

Often, ordinary people of faith have led the way. In 1943, a young Austrian Catholic man refused to join the German army. He did so despite the advice of his priest, who told him he must ‘do his duty’. But he said he could not disobey Jesus’ command to love his enemies, and God’s earlier command not to kill another person. He was beheaded for his treason. In 2007, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI as a martyr of the faith and a witness to the church.

The call to nonviolent peacemaking is not easy, and certainly not simple. The actions of the two groups of people mentioned at the start of this article are controversial, and many of you will disagree with what they did in breaking the law. It is good for us to have different opinions about what Christian discipleship looks like on the ground.

But nonviolence is the Way of Jesus, the calling of the people of God. Jesus enjoins us to take up our cross and follow him, healing the sick, forgiving each other, praising God for his mercy and love for all of us, not just the powerful.

Like everything else about the journey with Jesus, nonviolence is not something that can be relegated to Sunday mornings.

As Jim Wallis from the Sojourners community in Washington DC says,

“Anyone can love peace, but Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the peace-lovers.” He says “peacemakers.” He is referring to a life vocation, not a hobby on the sidelines of life.”

Justin Whelan

Nonviolent Orthopraxis and Just War Theory

Via Waging Nonviolence (an awesome blog) comes this interview with Sant’Egidio leader Andrea Bartoli on peacemaking, nonviolence and just war theory. It’s a great read:

NS: Since Augustine, Catholic tradition has upheld just war theory. Does Sant’Egidio see itself, like the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, as a challenge to that tradition? Or does its approach to peacebuilding fit within the just war framework?

AB: Augustine discusses peace about 2,500 times and war a couple of dozen. Everybody discusses what Augustine said about just war, but they usually fail to recognize that he speaks about just peace much more. Sant’Egidio focuses on the parts of Augustine that focus on peace. War is a possibility. War is a human choice. But from our perspective, the Christian position cannot be but a peaceful one, both in terms of being peaceful ourselves and in terms of being peacemakers. We don’t begin with theories. We work for peace because, to the poor, war is the worst of all conditions—Andrea Riccardi called it “the mother of all poverty.” Rather than holding a theoretical argument in favor of, or against, war, we need to be bound to practice. We’re more concerned with orthopraxis than orthodoxy. We want to be orthodox, but we have an even greater desire to actually practice the gospel.

I love that last line!

Christian Nonviolent Direct Action as Public Theology

Nonviolent vigil at Baxter Detention Centre
Peace Tree Community nonviolent vigil at Baxter Detention Centre

In  August 2005 a group known as Christians Against Greed joined a rowdy protest against a conference of global corporations at the Sydney Opera House, and found themselves sharing the Eucharist with riot police and anarchists. On Human Rights Day that year, four activists calling themselves Christians Against All Terrorism broke into and attempted a “citizens’ inspection” of the Pine Gap spy base. One week after their trial ended in 2007, five people walked into a war games zone at Shoalwater Bay to play frisbee with defence personnel.

These events were all very public and deeply theological. Yet we tend not to consider them, and other actions like them, as examples of public theology – a term for the process of the church thinking and speaking to the general public about contemporary issues.

In this paper I want to argue that we need a broader understanding of ‘public theology’ that includes public action on the part of the church (or members of the church) that speaks directly into the public sphere. I suggest that Christian nonviolent direct action should be seen in this light, and that both the acts themselves and the public statements made by the actors are clearly designed to articulate a Christian message in response to critical problems of their time.

In this paper I look at three recent examples of Christian nonviolent direct action in Australia. Using the ‘best practice principles’ for public theology identified by John W. de Gruchy, I will explore the way in which these actions make statements to the public about God’s judgment of current policies and God’s vision for a transformed world.

Read the full paper here (4000 words, 434kb PDF)

Climate Change: A Call to Action

With Ross Garnaut finding a conclusion that doesn’t match his own evidence, the challenge for the climate movement is to move quickly and strategically to ensure the Rudd Government does not settle on a weak target (eg. 10% by 2020) for CO2 emissions.

I propose that the time has come for a large-scale campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This proposal is based on the following analysis:

  1. The window of opportunity for this issue lasts from now until, at best, June 2009, when legislation for the emissions trading scheme will have passed. Within this timeframe, the key time is right now, because from about early November at the latest the government will have settled on its target.
  2. The government has demonstrated it is not capable of hearing rational policy advice and is paralysed by the size of the problem and the power of the big polluting industries.
  3. Large-scale, targeted, strategic nonviolent civil disobedience has helped shift the parameters of debates time and again. Indeed, studies of progressive social change suggest that such change is in fact dependent on significant disruption to the political system.

Each of these arguments is spelled out in more detail below.

Before turning to the analysis, I’ve also given some preliminary thought to some of the issues behind making such a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience strategic, rather than merely symbolic. You can read those thoughts here.

But mostly I want you to think deeply about what you can do in the coming weeks and months. If this is, as Kevin Rudd says, “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, what are you prepared to do to ensure we get it right?

Continue reading “Climate Change: A Call to Action”

Strategic nonviolent action on climate change

Climate change activists blocking Newcaslte Coal Port
Climate change activists blocking Newcaslte Coal Port

On the train today I was mulling over what a strategic campaign of NVDA might look like on climate change, rather than just a bunch of random symbolic actions (good as they are).

It seems to me that NVDA plays a strategic role when it exerts pressure on the political system.

For this to happen, it would need a few things:

Continue reading “Strategic nonviolent action on climate change”

9/11 Seven Years On

This comes from Sojourners in Washiongton DC. If only, huh?

Seven years ago this morning, airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. The next day I joined with a few others to draft the following statement. In a few weeks, more than 4,000 of America’s religious leaders of all faiths had signed it and it was printed as an ad in The New York Times.Seven years later, as we remember that day, it is appropriate to reflect on this statement and to wonder how the world would be different if its counsel had been heeded.

Continue reading “9/11 Seven Years On”

Peacemaking after Christendom

I just read an excellent post by Simon Barrow from Ekklesia on the challenge of peacemaking in our time:

So after Christendom we are called to reassess in a core sense what it means to be church, to be that body; what is means to be a peacemaker rather than just a refuser of war (a passivist); what political realism looks like in the face of Christ, rather than in the image of the Imperial Order and its realpolitik.

You can read the full post here.

despair, resistance and Lions for Lambs

Here’s a letter I penned soon after our recent court appearance for disrupting the Talisman Sabre military exercises last year (reflections here), but never sent.

Dear friends,

I’m sitting here having just finished watching Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, and Robert Redford in Lions For Lambs, and thinking about the despair that pervades the US and so many of us about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And as I think about this in light of events in my own life in the past year, I thought it might be worth sharing these reflections with you about hope, resistance and Christian discipleship in the midst of despair.

Despair is far too easy; more than that, it’s a luxury for those of us in the First World, sitting comfortably in our homes lit by energy saving bulbs watching the horrors unfold in front of us. We can pontificate as to whether we believe this war is about oil, or about democracy; about ridding the world of an evil dictator, or weapons of mass destruction, or about establishing US bases in the Middle East…or maybe all of the above.  Conversations about the arrogance of America, or about its greed, or even Australia’s complicity become nauseating.  Putting our faith in democracy, or in policy, or in the law to be able to work it all out is futile; worse, it’s idolatry.  In the end it all adds up to empire.  And really it doesn’t matter which empire – it could be Rome, it could be the United States of America, or (who knows?) in a few years maybe China.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters, for those of us who put our faith in Christ, is where we sit in such moments of time.  How do we follow Jesus?  Where was he found?

Hanging from a cross, it would seem, in the midst of empire, damned by all for the sake of maintaining the status quo.  As happens so often in history, having sat with the victims of empire, he became one.  And he calls us to do the same; to deny ourselves – our privilege, our position, our power – take up our cross, and follow him.

And so it comes down to this: discipleship is about where we sit.  Or as Phil Berrigan once put it, somewhat more crudely (but I think more accurately), “Hope is where your ass is.”  Do we sit with the victims of empire, or with its powerbrokers?  Do we sit in the prisons, the courtrooms, the homeless shelters, amongst others whom our society have marginalised or rejected?  Or do we sit in the imperial courtyards of power, and, like Peter, deny the suffering and tortured Christ because of our presence there?

I am left from our time in court last week with one question; not was this the right thing to do, but (like my good friend and co-defendant Sarah) why not more?  How can I go about my daily business with the occasional nod to war resistance when people are being murdered in my name while I sleep?  As Dan Berrigan says, “We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.”  If despair is cheap, resistance in the West is an absolute bargain.  Six months’ good behaviour bond is an encouragement to go back for more.

I particularly want to thank those of you who supported us – whether you wrote letters or references, prayed, planted trees or played frisbee with a friend, stranger or enemy; your solidarity made this easier for us, particularly because as Wink says, “history belongs to the intercessors”.  May those of us tempted by despair feel ourselves drawn to the invitation to audacious hope that is the good news of Jesus Christ.

Blessings of peace,
Simon