Perhaps the deepest imperative within the entire moral life is that of being non-violent. It undergirds everything else: Thou shalt not violate others! So reads the most basic of all commandments. But, for all its importance, it is a certain moral minimum. Beyond being non-violent, we are asked to be, positively, peacemakers. However, all efforts at making peace must be predicated on non-violence. Violent efforts that try for peace are themselves part of the problem.
With this in mind, let me paraphrase Jim Wallis — who draws these principles from such great peacemakers as Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and William Stringfellow. Wallis suggests that if our efforts at peacemaking are to be fruitful, both within the intimate circles of our primary communities as well as in the wider circles of social justice, we must truly remain non-violent. That implies the following:
All our actions for peace must be rooted in the power of love and the power of truth and must be done for the purpose of making that power known and not for making ourselves known. Our motivation must always be to open people to the truth and not to show ourselves as right and them as wrong.
Our best actions are those that admit our complicity and are marked by a spirit of genuine repentance and humility. Our worst actions are those that seek to demonstrate our own righteousness, our purity, and our moral distance from the violence we are protesting. Whenever our pride overtakes our protest, we are simply repeating in a political form the self-righteous judgment of the fundamentalist: “I’m saved and you are not!”
Action done in public always carries with it the great danger of presumption. Hence it should always be done in the spirit of humility and invitation. Judgment, arrogance and exclusiveness, which so often mark our protest, are signs of spiritual immaturity and protest characterized by such things will have the effect of hardening hearts and cementing people in their present opinions. Protest just as easily perpetuates as dispels public blindness.
Moreover, never has the need for genuine non-violence been greater than now. However, its chief weapon is the application of spiritual force and not the use of coercion. A very serious problem in the peace movement is the sometimes hidden aggression, the manipulation, the assertive ego, the desire for provocation that can work beneath the surface of moral platitudes about the commitment to non-violence.
The rhetorical cloak of non-violence can be used to hide the will to power that is the very foundation of violence. The desire to win over others, to defeat one’s enemies, to humiliate the opposition, are all characteristics of violence and are still too painfully evident in almost all of our peace efforts.
Our anger, our infighting and our lack of respect for others, is hardly evidence that the will to power has been overcome. We should know by now that violence is of a piece. If that is true, then the violence of dissent is directly linked to the violence of the established order. In fact, it is a reflection of it.
Nor may we justify excesses in the peace movement and in ourselves by appealing to a greater violence in the system. The urgency of the present situation calls for more, not less, care in the actions we undertake.
At its heart, non-violence does not try to overcome the adversaries by defeating them, but by convincing them. It tries to turn an adversary into a friend, not by winning over them, but by winning them over.
As well, patience is central to non-violence. Non-violence is based upon the kind of patience that the bible speaks of as “enduring all things.” Thomas Merton taught that the root of war is fear. If that is true, then we must become much more understanding of the fears that people have. The most effective peacemakers are those who can understand the fears of others.
Finally, genuine peacemaking springs from genuine hope. Bill Stringfellow once scolded a peace group by telling them something to this effect:
“I notice in your conversations a drastic omission, the resurrection. The victory of God over death is already assured and our modest task in peacemaking is simply to live in a way that reveals that fact. We do not have to triumph over death by our own inspiration, efforts and strategy. We do not have to defeat death all over again. Psalm 58 tells us: ‘Surely there is God who rules over the earth!’ We must never forget that. That hope, and not anger, must direct protest. Moreover, that hope, belief in the resurrection, is not a feeling or a mood, it is a necessary choice for survival.”