April 2009

No to Violence ©

Shootings on the streets of Vancouver or bombings in Gaza or the death of Canadians troops in Afghanistan: we are constantly reminded of how pervasive violence is.

Last year, the people of Northern Ireland marked the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Accord, the agreement that brought to a close 30 years of bloody violence between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, just a few weeks ago, the murder of two soldiers and a policeman reminded us how fragile peace really is.

Still, the expression “Good Friday accord” has a sacred quality. It honours a tradition that goes back two thousand years to the most dramatic gesture that resonates across Christianity to this day. It is the day on which the Son of God shouted through the agony of his passion: ‘No to violence. I say no to violence. Violence ends here.’ That is the meaning of Jesus’ brutal death on the cross. It was God’s final refusal to answer violence with violence.

Love died on the cross. Truth died on the cross. Truth and love would not strike back against ignominious savagery. Truth and love would forgive.

A mob of frightened, puny people killed love and truth. There no point in saying that they were Jews or Romans or any other scapegoat. We all killed Jesus. But God would have the last word. Soon enough, God would raise truth and love again. Again, truth and love would dazzle the world.

This is a story that is repeated time and again. Time and again, frightened people feel threatened by truth and love. The darkness can’t stand the light. Violently, it strikes down the innocent whose truth and love embarrasses it, holds a mirror to its falseness and fear. In our own day, in our own place, even in our own heart, fear cannot handle truth; lust, anger, greed cannot handle love. So violence strikes again and again.

To be a follower of Christ, the Christ who is pure truth and love, means to echo the cry of the Crucified one, “No more violence. I will not answer fear with fear.” Jesus was clear about this. When he was arrested—betrayed, unceremoniously seized and unfairly tried, he refused to fight back. When Peter pulled a sword from the guard’s sheath and struck him, cutting off his ear, Jesus chastised him saying, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” In fact, Jesus healed his aggressor.

The challenge of the Christian could not be more stark, or the mission more clear. Answer darkness with light. In place of violence, offer forgiveness. Then truth and love will reign, if only for a moment.

Almost thirty years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was shot and killed while celebrating Mass in a chapel near his cathedral after becoming an outspoken champion of peace, justice and human rights in El Salvador. He has touched more lives in death than he would have in life precisely because he would not adopt the ways of oppression and fear. Because of it, like the star of Bethlehem, his light could not be diminished by the darkness.

Today, we commemorate a rather unbelievable event, an implausible act of resistance to evil. We celebrate Christ’s victory over fear, leading the way for us to eternal life. Jesus slammed the door on dehumanizing fear. He challenged all the ways in which we heap violence and vengeance on each other, how we deny the dignity of ourselves and one another.

Good Friday is also the 10th anniversary of an appeal by Pope John Paul II to end the death penalty. It is fitting that the call would have come on this day, which commemorates the shameful execution of an innocent man some two thousand years ago. Whether the accused are innocent or guilty, the Holy Father insisted that “the new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life to proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” He added, “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done a great evil.” In the name of God, he proclaimed, no to violence.

In his 2009 Lenten reflection, written at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the former head of the Dominican order, Timothy Radcliffe, suggests that “Jesus died not because God demanded a victim but because we did. Jesus unmasked our insatiable desire to find someone to blame and beat up. God does not want victims; we think that we need them if the world is to hold together.”

Indeed, I believe that Jesus saved us by his cross, not by dying on it but simply by not refusing it. It is his life—renewed by the Father’s love—that saved us because of his obedience to his identity and mission, which was to love unconditionally, regardless of the cost. This kind of love cannot be defeated.

Inevitably, we would kill perfect love because it throws us off our fear-ridden game. It unmasks us. It exposes our vulnerability and shame. Sooner or later, we would find a pretext to silence truth because it embarrasses us, outwits us, and frankly depresses us. It is fear that induces violence, and fear is something that we tend to hide from others, but also from ourselves.

Christian tradition is filled with wisdom regarding violence. We have arguments prohibiting murder, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. We are admonished to respect the dignity of persons, respect their right to health and bodily integrity. We are urged to avoid war.

Ultimately, we are called to rise above violence and not be satisfied merely with non-violence. We are called to justice, forgiveness and friendship. These are principles that ought to apply to all Christians. But there is something more radical about the refusal of violence that Jesus exemplified. Ironically, they are linked to a spiritual intuition that is rarely realized but when it is, it is not limited to Christians.

Introducing a selection of Mahatma Ghandi’s writings on non-violence (ahinsa), Thomas Merton relates the Hindu perspective to that of Greek concepts of personal freedom and the thinking of Thomas Aquinas on conscience, good-and-evil and peace. Ghandi asserted precisely that “non-violence implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible.” Merton wrote, “Ahinsa is for Ghandi the basic law of our being…All men should be willing to engage in the risk and wager of ahinsa because violent policies have not only proved bankrupt but threaten man with extinction.”

The guiding principle of non-violence is more than the cessation of hostility. That is why Jesus said “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:44) And that is why Paul wrote to the Romans, “The kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the holy Spirit.” (14:17) Righteousness takes justice. Peace takes forgiveness and joy takes love.

Jesus warns us to back away from the brink of violence. He warns us not only that peace and joy can only be found in non-violence, but that even the feeling that fuels violence is a phenomenally destructive force. Note the message in John’s First letter: “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not wonder, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love our brothers. He who does not love abides in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer. (3:11-15)

Refusing violence respects the dignity of everyone—ourselves and others. It celebrates life. Friendship, not violence, honors the Creator and changes the tide of human history.