The Central Role of Gospel Nonviolence

by Columban Fr. Patrick Cunningham, SSC. Pat is the Columban JPIC (Justice and Peace) coordinator in Korea. He has been involved in the ‘Save Jeju’ campaign against the militarization of Korea’s Jeju Island. Fr. Pat is currently visiting the Columban Center in Washington D.C. and will be presenting at the upcoming conference, Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

I welcomed the opportunity to represent Columban JPIC (Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation) at a recent conference on, ‘Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence’. It was hosted by Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, and held in Rome from April 11-13, 2016.

Participants gathered from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania and included lay people, theologians, and members of religious congregations, priests, and bishops. It was a landmark event, the first of its kind within the Catholic tradition in seeking to explore fresh new perspectives on nonviolence from within the lived experience of the 85 participants and the communities from which they hailed. A message from Pope Francis, delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson during the opening ceremony, set out the task for the gathering, namely: “your thoughts on revitalizing the tools of nonviolence, and of active nonviolence in particular, will be a needed and positive contribution”.

The need to abandon the tired old chestnut of ‘Just War’ theory to envision a fresh, new and creative ‘Just Peace’ paradigm was undeniable as it was profound. Time and again the overwhelming message from participants living in situations of conflict was that their communities are weary of violence. They reiterated constantly that in their experience violence never works and is never the answer - it only leads to further violence, bloodshed and chaos.

The strongly worded statement: ‘An appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of gospel nonviolence’ (see text http:// states unambiguously: “We believe that there is no ‘just war’. Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict”. A new framework consistent with gospel nonviolence has been unfolding for some time and is evident in the statements of Pope Francis referring back to Pope John XXIII, but that the Catholic Church needs to develop further a paradigm shift to a ‘just peace’ is abundantly clear.

While there was almost complete unanimity in calling for the Catholic Church to officially renounce ‘just war’ theory, perhaps the most passionate call came from Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire who stated that the “misguided age of blessing wars, militarism and killing must be abolished”. She called on Catholics never to take up arms, thus enabling the church to return to the nonviolence of Jesus’ life and teachings. She said, “a Just Peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict”.

The most immediate task however is to initiate a global conversation on nonviolence within the Church, with people of other faiths, and with the larger world. The statement then would not be the exclusive ownership of those who endorsed it at the conference, but would be endorsed by Catholics and faith communities the world over. A process of dialogue and exchange, of theological reflections and views, which the conference facilitated and initiated, will be indispensable in helping to foster and develop Catholic social teaching on nonviolence going forward. The call on Pope Francis to issue an encyclical on Nonviolence and Just Peace, which Cardinal Turkson has suggested is “plausible” in a recent interview, is indeed heartening and, like Laudato Si’, would hopefully spark a worldwide conversation.

At the conference it came to light that Pope Francis would be visiting Lesbos to highlight the urgency of the refugee crisis, once again making the connection between war and the resulting humanitarian crisis which forces people in distress to flee, seeking refuge. In 2015, the International Peace Bureau made a similar connection in its highly symbolic awarding of the Sean McBride peace prize to both Gangjeong village on Jeju and to Lampedusa. For Gangjeong, this recognized the exemplary nonviolent struggle of the people and their international supporters to halt the militarization of their island. For Lampedusa, situated off the southern coast of Italy, it recognized the example of meeting human need and showing mercy. Lampedusa has given the world an extraordinary example of human solidarity, offering food to those who have arrived in distress, and literally rescuing hundreds of children stranded off their shore by forming human chains. All this in stark contrast to the behavior and official policies of the European Union which continues to cement its reputation as ‘fortress Europe’ which is becoming more militarized to keep migrants out.

It strikes me that if the same resources made available for war were redirected for peace and the common good, the world would be in a better place. With our Church uniquely positioned through its global network, let’s hope and pray that, with Pope Francis to inspire us, we will redouble our efforts to work for peace and lift up the prophetic voice of our Church to challenge unjust world powers and to support and defend those nonviolent activists whose work for peace and justice puts their lives at risk.’

[Picture Caption: Pat Cunningham with Merwyn DeMello of Christian Peacemaker Teams, at the 2016 Rome Conference on “Nonviolence and Just Peace.]