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Monday, 13 February 2017 12:08

Flipping the script

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Fr Claude Mostowik msc 150Father Claude Mostowik msc, CRA Justice Network Coordinator and President of Pax Christie Australia, reflects on transforming a difficult situation with active nonviolence in response to anger and hostility as a path to peace.

An article (Natasha Moore's 'Flip the script, a message for Christmas' in The Age, 23 December 2016) just before Christmas said we need to ‘flip the script’ in our response to violence. It related how a group of people eating and drinking around a backyard table were suddenly confronted by a man with a gun demanding money or he would start shooting. There is tension as guests have little or no cash on them and they try to reason with the man. Then someone says: "We're here celebrating. Why don't you have a glass of wine and sit down?" In this situation, the man’s demeanour changes when he tastes the wine, eats some cheese and then leaves for a group hug.

This is a true story told in an episode of National Public Radio's Invisibilia program which focuses on what is called ‘non-complementary behaviour’. People usually respond to kindness with kindness and to hostility with more hostility. However, it is very difficult to meet anger or hatred or threat with its opposite, yet the opposite can transform difficult situations. Jesus was the master of ‘non-complementary behaviour’ by baffling people by ‘flipping the script’. When they expected condemnation they received compassion; those who ‘brown-nosed him’ were snubbed; religious authorities that tried to entrap him were caught in their own traps. The gospel shows Jesus as calling those who follow him to ‘turn the other cheek’, to ‘love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them’, ‘welcome the stranger’, to go the extra mile. Here, in the Sermon on the Mount we see the paradigm for the practice of ‘active’ nonviolence. It ‘actively’ counters injustice strategically. It is not passive nor simply protest. Though many assume that this practice is a lofty ideal, the experience of participants at the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held conference in Rome in April 2016 was otherwise.

They came from South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Croatia, Philippines, Colombia, Mexico and Australia. Many had paid the price for continuing to engage with the so-called ‘enemy’. Colleagues, friends and family members had been murdered, disappeared, imprisoned or tortured, or they themselves suffered these traumas, yet were deeply convinced that nonviolence works and is effective. These ‘experts’ spoke more loudly of a ‘just peace’ paradigm as outlined by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. He acknowledged that "Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start." In his message of welcome, he referred to such people who did not ignore the ‘formidable undertaking to work for peace by living the practice of non-violence’ despite the milieu of violence they live in by recognising the humanity of the ‘other’ and maintaining links, building bridges and overcoming fear by pursuing open and sincere, yet difficult practice of dialogue.

As many people live and make peace, care for each other and engage in social justice and try to live in harmony with creation, violence is present in every person’s life either personally or virtually. In the face of war, terrorism, fear and enemy-making or othering, structural and systemic violence such as poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and gender violence people have asked if another way beyond violence and war is possible. Though our world is studded by acts of violence and conflict from the Middle East to West Papua, from the Philippines to parts of Latin America and Sri Lanka to Africa, people remain convinced that the default position of responding to violence with more violence is unviable and ineffective. It is not consistent with being a follower of Jesus, who incarnates the God of Peace. In his powerful message of support to the conference, Pope Francis alluded to a world war that occurs in instalments: “In order to seek solutions to the unique and terrible ‘world war in instalments’ which, directly or indirectly, a large part of humankind is presently undergoing…” We need ‘true peace’ where it is necessary to bring people together concretely so as to reconcile peoples and groups with opposing ideological positions.

Pope Francis, in response to peace movements such as Pace e Bene and Pax Christi has heard that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, are discovering the liberating force of nonviolence as they work to build new societies aimed at justice, participation and peace. The seeds for Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace Message, Nonviolence: A style of politics for peace, calling on people to ‘flip the script’ and live lives of ‘active nonviolence’ grew out of the April 2016 Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference in Rome co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International. Its rationale was, ‘To seek peace, deep peace rooted in justice, shalom – not a mere absence of war, but the fullness of life for all – that is the Christian vocation and way of life. As followers of the One who is Peace, who on the cross overcame the violence of our world and who then called for peace and modelled forgiveness, we are called to help move our broken and violated world toward the full flowering of the New Creation, repeating Jesus’ way of active, nonviolent, persistent, risky, creative peacemaking.’ This conference sought to contribute to the Catholic understanding of and commitment to nonviolence. It concluded with an Appeal to the Catholic Church to re-commit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence – an appeal extending beyond the Catholic Church. The World Day of Peace Message seems to be an initial response to the appeal for clearer and stronger teaching on gospel nonviolence.

In his message to the Rome gathering, Pope Francis said ‘Humanity needs to refurbish all the best available tools to help the men and women of today to fulfil their aspirations for justice and peace, revitalising the tools of nonviolence, and active nonviolence in particular’. The challenge is work together to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to power by competition rather than cooperation and choose solidarity to build, through active nonviolence, a peaceful society. Pope Francis’ message is particularly welcome because it resonates with the work of Pax Christi and other peace movements around the world which continue to seek creative and peaceful solutions to conflict rather than the default position of resorting to violence with more violence.

Conference attendees came with a view that the ‘just war’ doctrine needed to be rejected for a ‘just peace’ paradigm, and that Pope Francis be asked to write an Encyclical on peace and nonviolence. His statement of welcome and support to the conference began a conversation about Catholic teaching on war and peace which would reject ‘just war’ and engage in a spirituality and practice of nonviolent peacemaking as lived and taught by Jesus. The ‘just war’ doctrine is deceptive because people come to think that because a war was declared as ‘just’ it right and good. However, the technology and destructiveness of modern war would suggest that a ‘just war’ is never possible. Even, when a just war may have been permissible, it was always an evil. Conference participants envisioned concrete ways to find alternative frameworks that engage with and transform conflict by nonviolent ways such as building trust and just peace; encourage and promote a global conversation on nonviolence and respond to violence and injustice with strategies of nonviolent peacemaking and peacebuilding. Pope Francis has indicated, that ‘many powerful people don't want peace because they live off war…… Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms…..It's the industry of death’. In meetings with the people, especially children, he has focused on peace, how to build it and how to keep it. In this he challenged the military-industrial complex – those who make and export armaments as well as exporting poverty and encouraged discussion on ‘revitalising the tools of non-violence, and of active non-violence in particular……….’ and that conflict must be faced and not ignored or concealed so as not to remain trapped within a framework of conflict. He reminded the conference participants that the greatest obstacle to be removed is the ‘wall of indifference’ that affects not only our fellow human beings but also the natural environment, with consequences for security and peace.

The final report of the conference reminded us all for the need for forgiveness as ‘We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.’ It went on to say, that ‘…the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war.’ It unequivocally states that there is no ‘just war’. It has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. To suggest that a ‘just war’ is possible undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict. The call is to find a new framework and shift to a ‘just peace’ approach based on Gospel nonviolence. This offers a vision and an ethic that strives to build peace that comes by committing to human dignity and thriving relationships in order to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict. The belief was that whilst anyone resorts to military force, there will be no attempt to find alternatives that can and do make a difference.

Pax Christi International co-president, Marie Dennis, said, ‘As long as we say that dropping bombs will solve the problem we won't find other solutions and I think that's more and more clear to us.’ The challenge is to invest creative energy, deep thinking, financial and human resources that could make a difference. The truth is that modern wars have rendered the just war theory obsolete and minimalist. It had a negative focus, emphasising war and not peace. The distinction between just and unjust wars do not account for the massive, indiscriminate violence of modern war.

The challenge is to ensure that more people know about nonviolence, its techniques and understand that peace is not the absence of conflict or war but a new vision of ‘shalom’, just peace, where we take care of the earth, stop killing people and rebuild a world where all people have enough food, housing, healthcare, education, employment and respect as persons. This takes imagination and creativity. It takes courage and strength from other for the long haul…. but there is no other way to peace. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home is a wonderful vision of moving towards flipping the script and a just peace.

This article was first published in the February-March 2017 issue of Act Justly, the newsletter of the Justice and Peace Office of the Catholic Arhcdiocese of Sydney.