Carolyn Merry 01 Jun 2022
We live in extraordinary times and for those of us who see the world through the arc of history, we live in exceedingly dangerous times. The COVID pandemic did not wreak havoc in a vacuum – it continues to play out as all pandemics do, along the fault lines that already existed in society, affecting the most vulnerable and exacerbating the fears and divisions that have long bubbled below the surface. After decades of improvement against many of the measures of violence around the world, we are again seeing a rise of violence as the foundations on which we have built national and international systems and ways of life crumble. Foundations too often predicated on the misuse of power, greed, division and fear.
Along with many of you who receive the Peacemakers Network Newsletter, my attention has been drawn recently to a number of acts of mass violence. Whether that be the massacres of children in a primary school or older people in a supermarket in recent weeks in the US or the more widespread devastation of violence since Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine in February this year. And yet we know that what we see shared on mainstream media is only a fraction of the violence that is occurring around the world, in places that are not deemed to warrant our attention – whether that be in Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Israel, Myanmar and numerous others, let alone on more domestic levels behind closed doors here and elsewhere. Here in the UK, we are appalled at the rise of homelessness, hunger, mental ill-health, poverty and divisions, as priorities of policies and funding continue to divide and impoverish, as well as undermine the strengths and interconnectedness of local communities that remain the mainstay of most people’s lives. Policies and funding that enable increasing numbers of children to grow up in poverty and hunger, which drive older and vulnerable people to sit cold and alone, which criminalise non-violent protest and those seeking asylum, that do not protect our planet from further degradation – this is violence too. Structural violence - and the impact -can be just as profound and long-lasting as more direct violence.
“Our society is so inured to violence that it finds it hard to believe in anything else. And that phrase believe in provides the clue. People trust violence. Violence ‘saves’. It is ‘redemptive’. But when we make survival the highest goal and death the greatest evil, we hand ourselves over to the gods of the domination system. We trust violence because we are afraid. And we will not relinquish our fears until we are able to imagine a better alternative.”
~ Walter Wink
I believe these times demand, particularly as a person of faith, for more of us to not only imagine a better alternative but to bring non-violence in from the margins and live and model non-violence ourselves.
Being a person of non-violence has long been of interest to me personally. Of course, my understanding of non-violence has grown in depth and breadth over time, particularly over the decades that I lived and worked in contexts of mass violence in places of armed conflict. Nothing brought the commitment to non-violence into sharper focus for me than times when a gun was pointed at my head or a knife held to my throat at a rebel check-point by a teenager high on drugs. And although admittedly, I have never had those violent actions directed towards those I most love, I am profoundly grateful that God has given me the strength at times to step up non-violently to protect strangers when needed.
I am often asked to comment on acts of terrorism/places at war – partly because of my experience in different contexts of armed conflict, but also because of my work for peace. In those instances, I will often speak of non-violence…and although it is generally received well (or at least politely), the questions asked afterwards, point to two things – (i) it is viewed as a lovely idea but utopian…and (ii) non-violence doesn’t answer the challenges inherent in situations like World War 2 or Ukraine today. At worst, non-violence can be seen as passivity and encouraging those vulnerable to be submissive in violent situations or that those promoting non-violence are being critical of those who defend themselves using violent means or who serve in the military.
These questions for me reveal a misunderstanding of non-violence and point to the urgent need for much more education and discussion about what non-violence is (and isn’t) and its value - not just because of pragmatic reasons for social change, but spiritually. Jesus called his followers to a radical way of being - a way of love, grace, and non-violence; indeed early Christians were known for being non-violent. However, since Christianity became a religion of empire, the radical teachings of Jesus, such as love for our enemies, have moved from being a core tenet of living as a follower to, at best, nice concepts we add in when we are not afraid or under threat. Of course, there are notable individual and denominational exceptions to that generalisation over the ages, but in the main – sadly, Christianity is associated more often with violence than non-violence.
I would love for more in our churches and society in general to understand that non-violence is not just a response to violence. It is a turning of our attention to the roots of violence itself and a disruption of the status quo in creative ways that change how we see things (attitudes) and how we do things (actions/structures); things that demean people and the planet which lead to cycles of violence that are hard from which to extricate ourselves.
Does non-violence work when a larger power invades your country? Or when you are beaten in your own home? Or when policies prevent the group you identify with (or are identified with by others) from flourishing? Or when no matter what you do, you cannot afford to feed your family? Similar to mediation , the answer is ‘not as much as I would like’, although there many examples of the impact of those who have done so. Nevertheless, is non-violence the answer in the long run? I believe it is. To use violence in response in such situations, usually only keeps the escalation of conflict and violence spiralling. At some point in every war – there is a time when a non-violent solution is negotiated – an often-imperfect negative peace usually, especially when the cost of the war/violence has been obscenely high. How much better, if that diplomatic, non-violent solution is sought before that cost is reached. Even better would be, that we all live in such a non-violent way, (including what we demand of our governments) that we paid attention and proactively addressed the seeds of conflict long before they reach the level of direct violence.
If peace truly is ‘more than just the absence of violence, but rather the ultimate affirmation of what can be’ (Rabbi K Cohen), then non-violence is not only responding to violence without violence, but a way of life that: is considerate of the needs of all (including myself); disrupts the status quo of attitudes and structures that are inherently violent by preventing some from flourishing; withdraws consent for violence (whether direct/cultural/structural) through creative non-cooperation and resistance; and finally, and most critically, fosters positive alternatives.
Pie in the sky? Naivety? Jesus died pointing to a completely different way of being – a third way, that wasn’t about fight or flight but instead, a proactive, non-cooperation with evil (in all its disguises, then and now) and the construction of better ways forward. If Jesus indeed calls me to a radical life of love and being a peacemaker that encompasses my relationships with self, God, others, nature and society – then for me non-violence is the path I can tread to get there.
Non-violence as a concept is often seen as either principled or pragmatic, meaning it is either rooted in a moral stand (whether that be faith or other moral principles) or that it is chosen strategically as the best way to achieve social change, especially when violent approaches are deemed likely to fail (often in the face of overwhelming strength by those imposing unjust/violent/hostile environments for others). As a peacemaker, I find both sides of the non-violence coin important to consider, especially if I want to help build a more just, peaceful, inclusive, loving world…and yet I know that ultimately, my main responsibility will always be changing myself first. Reflecting daily and with humility on how I am following the path of non-violence in my thoughts, words, and deeds. And although I so often fall short, I know that the deeper I am rooted in love, the easier it is live non-violently – to look for and work towards the best for others, as well as myself, to have the strength and courage to refuse to cooperate with anything inherently violent (including those systems/ways of being that are beneficial for me, but not for others), and to step by step build a life that models non-violence.
Just as with any form of conflict transformation, non-violence is not easy. It will continue to ask things of us that we can’t yet imagine, but as a follower of Jesus’s radical teachings and life, I can’t banish instructions like: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
I wonder what would happen if more people of faith and principle saw non-violence as the path to living a life of love and justice? Would we indeed reach a tipping point that could interrupt this spiral of violence underpinning hunger, wars, mass shootings, discrimination, exclusion, environmental destruction …and build something quite different? Lives and communities built on love and not fear. Imagine what could be possible if we bring non-violence in from the margins of the Church (which would no doubt require an internal confessional look) and for it to become a model and promoter of non-violence around the world. Individuals and communities may never (or rarely) have to make that awful choice of defending themselves with violence in the future.
At the end of the day, like with the practice of forgiveness – we cannot demand anyone try non-violence, particularly those in situations where they live under threat. But for me, the call of Jesus to live non-violently is a deeply personal one that challenges me to profound interior transformation, as well as to keep the rumour of the non-violent life alive.
Many of us in the UK shake our heads in disbelief wondering why there aren’t tighter gun-control measures in the US. I also question myself as to whether I am just as blind to the insidious violent structures and attitudes and ways of being here with each other, that I too can’t see better alternatives for the future.
This calling of Jesus to non-violence was not a passive one. Loving your enemies does not mean submitting to violence - it requires courage and non-cooperation, sometimes at cost – but it may well be the only way to turn things around from the cycles of violence that we are all caught up in.
I believe there is an urgency for non-violence…for it to be spoken of more, for it to be better understood, for the dilemmas of it to be grappled with…and for it to be practiced.
Let’s keep this conversation on non-violence going. To bring non-violence in from the margins. Please contact me if you would like to be part of the ongoing conversation.
Peace and Blessings
 Although I will speak from the perspective as a Christian in this reflection, it is important to note that non-violence is a beloved principle of people of many different faiths and none.
 Every mediator knows that the higher the level of conflict when mediators are invited in, the harder it is to have a good outcome for all parties. This is why we continue to encourage intervention when conflicts are just starting – before trust is lost and pain/hurt has occurred.
“I believe these times demand, particularly as a person of faith, for more of us to not only imagine a better alternative but to bring non-violence in from the margins and live and model non-violence ourselves.” — Carolyn Merry