Sermon: Nonviolence;“Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of a neighbor” vs “Do not resist the evildoer” and “turn the other cheek”

roseBy Rose Berger
January 10, 2017, Sojourners Chapel

Leviticus 19:15-18; Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

Thank you to Karen and the Chapel Committee for inviting me.

Usually when I preach I like to do a deep dive into scripture that unlocks scripture’s liberating power on us here at Sojourners.

But today we’ll take a different direction. I was asked to speak specifically about the conference I attended in Rome last year on Nonviolence and Just Peace.

I’ll address what happened in Rome, why is it important, what’s happened since, what the pushback is on it, and what happens next. Then I want us to jump to “why does this matter in Trump’s America” and talk a little about the active bystander nonviolence trainings that we are organizing on Jan. 20.

All of this will hopefully launch us into fruitful discussion together as a community. So today I won’t be channeling in Holy Spirit fire but more shepherding us through this one aspect of Sojourners mission and work. Sound good?

What happened at the conference?

For the first time in modern history, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace (which represents the Vatican on these matters) partnered with a lay organization, Pax Christi International to host the first ever official conversation on Catholics and nonviolence. This unprecedented gathering brought together members of the church hierarchy with social scientists, theologians, diplomats, unarmed civilian peacekeepers, and practitioners of active nonviolence from around the world. Participants arrived in Rome directly from situations of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Colombia, Mexico, Congo, Burundi, the Philippines, Uganda, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. Out of this 3-day gathering came a statement of invitation to the Catholic Church from Catholics from around the world appealing to the Church to recommit to the centrality of gospel nonviolence.

The statement asked for 6 specific things:

  1. Continue developing Catholic Social Teaching on nonviolence and ask Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical on Gospel Nonviolence.
  2. Integrate Gospel Nonviolence explicitly and overtly into the sacramental and apostolic life of the church, meaning in worship and in mission–as well as in all Catholic  communities, organizations, and educational institutions.
  3. Promote nonviolent practices and strategies such as nonviolent resistance, transformative justice, trauma healing, unarmed civilian protection, and peacebuilding strategies in all spheres of Catholic life
  4. Initiate a global conversation on nonviolence within the church, with people of other faiths and within the secular community
  5. Stop teaching “just war theory” as a Christian response to war and conflict. Begin developing just peace practices.
  6. Lift up the prophetic voice of the church to challenge violence and defend nonviolent leaders.

Why does it matter?

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination on earth. It has 1.2 billion members–of which I am just one. It’s members are mostly in the global South and majority world. What if 1.2 billion Catholics converted to nonviolence? It would matter. You would notice the impact. Every Catholic Church would have a trained intervention response team for responding to gangs, militias, civil unrest, war, natural disasters. Every Catholic hospital and health clinic would have “trauma healing” and “active bystander intervention” as part of it education component. Every Catholic university would have a graduate degree in Just Peace, Peacebuilding, Ethics of Nonviolence, etc. Catholic political leaders and diplomats would have ethical guidelines for promoting conflict prevention, violence de-escalation, and post-conflict transformation.

This conversation on Nonviolence was started at Vatican II in the 1960s and is now returning to the conversation. But the terms have changed somewhat. As Terry Rynne, one conference participant put it, “The topic at issue here is proactive, positive, nonviolent, strategic peacemaking–an emerging body of data, theology, and praxis that goes well beyond the false choices of justifying war or refusing to confront it.”

What’s happened since the conference?

First, the conference planner created the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. The Initiative’s mission statement is to affirm the vision and practice of active nonviolence at the heart of the Catholic Church. There are regional groups in Africa, Asia, Europe, United States, and Latin America.

Second, Japan’s Conference of Bishops endorsed the statement from the conference and are encouraging other national bishops conferences to do the same. More than 2,000 individuals and organizations have signed the statement. The faith-based peacebuilders network in Africa met in Johannesburg in December and endorsed the statement. The Federation of Asian bishops is reviewing the statement and considering how to endorse and implement it.

Third, Pope Francis chose “nonviolence” as his theme for the World Day of Peace. This means that for all of 2017 peace themes in the Catholic Church will focus on Nonviolence. For those working within Catholic hierarchy this is a very significant step.

Fourth, a follow up meeting was held in Rome in December with the Vatican secretary of state and other top officials. They are suggesting a series of roundtables in regions around the world to take up the themes of Nonviolence and Just Peace. And looking at how the Vatican representative to the United Nations can do more to support unarmed civilian protection.

What’s been the pushback?

Most of the pushback has been around the request to stop teaching “just war theory” as a Christian response to war and conflict. Traditionalist Catholics are concerned that this is calling for some “innovation” in Catholic teaching, which they don’t like. Military traditionalists are concerned about undermining troop morale if the Catholic church doesn’t support Catholic soldiers going to war. Catholic ethicists are concerned that without the just war framework they will have no common language to apply pressure and offer moral guidance to political and military leaders. However, in some of these high-level Vatican conversations, Vatican officials have said quite openly that everyone recognizes that just war theory no longer serves the needs of the church and is insufficient for today’s conflicts.

What happens next?

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative will shift its focus away from the conference and the statement that came out of it TO Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace and begin building out from that toward a major teaching document in the next couple of years. This spring there will be regional roundtables and conferences around the world to take up the themes of the conference. Unfortunately, the place where we will see the least activity on this is in the United States. Most of the inroads we are making with the US Catholic Bishops are slow, but we are making some progress. And as the USCCB begins to change under the influence of Pope Francis then our progress will increase. RIght now, Sojourners is supporting me to be the temporary U.S.-regional facilitator of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.

Why is Sojourners connected to this and how does it fit with our commitments?

Since our founding, Sojourners has been committed to Christian nonviolence. We draw on the Anabaptist Peace Church tradition as well as Catholic Social Teaching to shape our responses to issues of war and peace, conflict and nonviolence. Sojourners formed in the context of trying to stop the Vietnam War. We physically intervened in the wars in Central America through Witness for Peace. We nonviolently risked arrest to oppose unjust laws and to impede the national impulse to war. We developed the 6-Point Plan to stave off the war with Iraq. We organized massive civil resistance to promote nuclear disarmament. We have sat in on train tracks to stop weapons transportation. We participated in diplomatic meetings with Iran. We’ve organized against gun and weapons manufacturers. And on and on. As an organization we are committed to Christian nonviolence as a witness and a practice.

What does all this look like in Mr. Trump’s America less than two weeks before the inauguration?

It looks like massive trainings on “active bystander intervention” to give people the skills to disrupt conflict, intervene in hate crimes, stop harassment, deescalate heated interactions, and stand in effective solidarity with the communities that Mr. Trump has targeted.

That’s why Sojourners is partnering with Swamp Revolt to train 2500 people in how to de-escalate conflict, if and how to use your mobile device or camera, and generally, how to offer effective intervention to keep bad situations from getting worse.

Swamp Revolt’s motto is “everyone do one thing every day.” That’s how we keep our country from becoming a fascist state.

Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”  At Swamp Revolt we say, “Active Bystander Intervention is what ‘Love your Neighbor’ looks like in action.”

All of this is examples of Christians being leaven in our own times and places to promote the peace of Christ, the peace of the kingdom of God.

Can I get an Amen?!

Let’s open this up for conversation.

Let me conclude with a quote from Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace message:

Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mk 7:21). But Christ’s message in this regard offers a radically positive approach. He unfailingly preached God’s unconditional love, which welcomes and forgives. He taught his disciples to love their enemies (cf. Mt 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (cf. Mt 5:39). When he stopped her accusers from stoning the woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn 8:1-11), and when, on the night before he died, he told Peter to put away his sword (cf. Mt 26:52), Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence. He walked that path to the very end, to the cross, whereby he became our peace and put an end to hostility (cf. Eph 2:14-16). Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation. In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that you have greater peace in your hearts”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s