“Early morning, April 4. Shot rings out in the Memphis sky. Free at last…”
About whom does Bono sing these words?
The theory of nonviolence enjoyed international popularity during the middle part of the 20th century. Mohandas K. Gandhi used nonviolent resistance to gain independence for the modern nation of India. Dr. King used nonviolence to lead the Civil Rights Movement here in the US. Pope John Paul II studied and applied the nonviolent method when he was a Bishop and Cardinal in Poland. Next thing you know, the communist juggernaut fell without a shot being fired.
The backbone of the theory of nonviolence: What is right and just is right and just, and everyone will see it—if only given the opportunity to see it. What gives people the opportunity to see—what forces us to confront our consciences—is: when people turn the other cheek, and suffer injustice, rather than fight.
What is right is right, so I don’t need to fight back. The justice of my cause itself strikes the greatest blow. So cane me, beat me with a club, turn a fire hose on me, or assassinate me. Please. I won’t fight back. Because your very violence, exercised to serve injustice, and my peaceful nonviolence in the face of your evil, will state my case better than any words I could ever say.
Now, did all this get invented in the 20th century? Evidently not. The heroic leaders of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation learned this technique from the martyrs of the Christian Church, who in turn learned it from Jesus Himself, the original teacher of nonviolence. As we hear at Sunday Mass, the Lord teaches redemptive suffering, which is the only real path to lasting peace among men.
Okay. What do we disciples of Christ say now, in our day and age, about particular violent acts? Well, we should remember how Pope John Paul II, from his sickbed, sent a personal envoy to then-President George W. Bush to beg him not to launch the war in Iraq. Pope Francis asked the whole Catholic world to kneel down and pray to avert American intervention in Syria. We should recall that our American bishops, including our bishops here in Virginia, have begged that death-penalty executions not be carried out. And how, for a generation now, we have demonstrated nonviolently on behalf of innocent and defenseless unborn children; we have supported mothers; and we have disavowed and condemned any violent acts supposedly done in the name of the pro-life cause.
So the Christian witness of nonviolence does continue. But the method’s hold on the heart of our culture has certainly lessened. The school of passive resistance to injustice, which made Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King so famous—this school of thought has faded from the prominence it had a generation ago.
Now, everyone has the right to legitimate self-defense. And people of good will had disagreements with some of the things that Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King said in pursuit of their goals. Making Gandhi and King out to be saints is not my point.
My point is: The banner of nonviolent witness to truth and justice needs champions to pick it up and carry it now. And the task falls to us, the Church of Christ, if it falls to anyone.
We should do so under any circumstances. But the fact is that no one else seems even remotely interested in teaching the truth by turning the other cheek, like Gandhi and King did in the 20th century. Every year, the schoolchildren get a day off in honor of Dr. King. But does anyone speak these days like he spoke? Does our nation have leaders who appeal to our deepest conscience, and then back it up with willingness to suffer for the sake of the truth?
To bear witness to the truth by being willing to suffer for it: that is what the God-man Himself teaches. This—the crucified Christ, rejected and derelict for the sake of justice, for the sake of every human being’s dignity—this crushing suffering is the power of God and the wisdom of God. The greatest army, arrayed in battle formation, wielding the most terrifying weapons: nothing, powerless, impotent, compared to the crucified Christ.
We need not seek to win Nobel Peace Prizes or get on the cover of Time Magazine, like Gandhi and Dr. King did. Our goal is much simpler: That we bear witness to the genuine power of the Lamb of God, the nonviolent Savior, in every little interaction we have. In every conflict, in every instance where someone gets unjustly treated, or falls victim to someone more powerful… Every time someone needs an advocate willing to suffer for the cause of justice—no matter how small-scale or practically invisible the situation may be to the public eye—our job is to offer non-violent resistance to injustice and to embrace suffering for the sake of bearing witness to the truth.
After all, life on earth only lasts so long. The practice of nonviolence connects us with eternal and heavenly life. If one of us, or all of us, die standing up for someone who needs an advocate, then let us go to God with this beautiful witness to offer. The truth is, we want nothing in this world anyway. All we want is to live our pilgrim lives in a way that makes Jesus proud of us.