For Catholics January 1st is dedicated to praying for peace and for the past fifty years the Popes have published a letter calling for peace in the world. This year Pope Francis’ was the fiftieth such letter and commentators tell us there was a distinct difference in this letter from previous ones. This, according to John Dear, is the first statement on non-violence, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in history.
The letter is called “Non-violence – A Style of Politics for Peace”. In it the Pope calls on individuals and governments to make nonviolence a way of life and prays that all of us might cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. That is a great challenge, I think, to all of us and makes me wonder how nonviolent I am in my thoughts, words and deeds. There are so many ways to be violent. Is speaking with passion and conviction violent? Is taking sides and speaking out forcibly in a situation of injustice violent? Is speaking our truth when it disagrees with another violent? Is anger always violent? ? Is standing up for one’s rights in the face of discrimination, prejudice and oppression violent? What kind of world would it be if none of these things happened? Surely it’s because of these stances that we are more aware of equality, justice, human rights than in the past.
There’s a false kind of peace just as there’s a false kind of religion and the peace the Pope is talking about is not passivity. There is after all the peace of the cemetery, there is the peace of avoidance, of failing to face squarely injustices and disturbances within ourselves and in relationships, there’s the peace of ignoring the violence and conflict that is all around us, there’s the peace of comfort and complacency, there’s the peace of uniformity, the peace of power and control. There’s a real temptation to be an ostrich and hide our heads in the sand and I know a number of people who do this because the state of the world is all too much for them but this is a mask, a mere semblance of peace. Of course there’s also the temptation to be the opposite - a roaring lion, exclaiming about the injustices and the state of the world, getting angry at it all and spreading negativity even in our work for justice.
This is not true peace and not the kind of peace Pope Francis is talking about. The pope does not shirk from what he calls “a horrifying world war fought piecemeal” and the evils that result from it. He states quite categorically that violence is not the cure for our broken world and that countering violence with violence is no answer but only leads to an increase in suffering. But it must be faced I think and its existence not just acknowledged but also grieved over. Perhaps peace in our world begins with tears and compassion for its brokenness, a recognition of our contribution to the violence that is around us at a national level, if not an individual one. We decry the wars in the Middle East but my country is the second largest exporter or arms in the world. I’m implicated in it all simply by being a citizen. People are fighting for an identity and recognition that they believe has been denied them through western imperialism and colonialism. Religions too have contributed to violence through exclusivist teachings and forced conversions. It seems to me that it’s only in facing this that we can have the freedom to be peacemakers and protest positively with non-violence, compassion and real concern about the injustices, philosophies and attitudes that create a ‘them and us’ situation. Religions in their different ways tell us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, are brothers and sisters to be treated with dignity and respect and loved as we would want to be loved. This is another foundation for peace and one which the scientific community with its recognition of the interrelatedness of all things shares.
We do have examples of people who have worked for peace with vision, commitment and an absence of violence. Pope Francis mentions these in his letter – Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the liberation of India, Dr Martin Luther King Jr in combating racial discrimination, Leymah Gbowee and the thousands of Liberian women, who organized pray-ins and nonviolent protest that resulted in high-level peace talks that ended the second civil war in Liberia. These are the heroes in the work of non-violence but what about the rest of us who cannot do such great things and long to be peacemakers in our own small way? The Pope gives us an answer. He quotes Mother Teresa who on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 said that if in our families we just get together and love one another “we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world……. for the force of arms is deceptive. While weapons traffickers do their work, there are poor peacemakers who give their lives to help one person, then another and another and another.”
In these small ways we can all help build the Kingdom of God and know that in doing so we are not alone but part of a great gathering of people who long for peace in our world and try to further it one step at a time, one day at a time quietly and hiddenly but no less effective for that