Those of us who were around in 1968 remember what a tumultuous year it was: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the beginning of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland and an enormous humanitarian crisis in Biafra caused by the Nigerian civil war.
Ironically, to start the year, Pope Paul VI issued the first ever message declaring Jan. 1 as a "World Day of Peace" to be celebrated and recognized not just by Catholics, but by people of "good will" around the world. In that message, he warned of "the danger of believing that international controversies cannot be resolved by the ways of reason, that is, by negotiations founded on law, justice and equity, but only by means of deterrent and murderous forces."
Every year since then, the pope has issued a message for the World Day of Peace. And so we come to the 50th World Day of Peace message. And for his message, Pope Francis has issued an astounding and groundbreaking message, called "Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace." Pope Francis has, for the first time in Church history, issued a statement that nonviolence is the Christian norm for living.
Of course, the Church has always decried war and violence, but much of the emphasis of Church teaching has been on the "just war" theory and violence against "innocents." For the first time, however, Pope Francis has identified nonviolence as the Christian approach to terrorism, conflicts and war, and as the "style of politics for peace," meaning that nonviolence is the standard for Christians in all circumstances.
In his opening paragraph, the pope writes that we are to "make active nonviolence our way of life." And then, in the most radical statement of his message, he states, "To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence." In other words, proclaiming to be a disciple of Jesus must include a commitment to active nonviolence.
Nonviolence has frequently been dismissed as "impractical" or "idealistic," but the pope hastens to point out that Jesus Himself "lived in violent times."
Even so, Pope Francis points out, "Christ's message in this regard offers a radically positive approach. 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."
If we want to be followers of Jesus, we must be willing to see active nonviolence as a part of what defines who we are. We are to search our hearts for the roots of violence within ourselves. We must learn the practice of nonviolence in our homes, in our conversations, in our relationships. We must be willing to see violence not as a necessary "last resort," but as an unequivocally unacceptable response to frictions and conflict. Period.
Resources and groups that can help us learn about nonviolence are both local, like the SSJ Sister Karen Klimczak Center for Nonviolence, and national, like the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, the U.S. Bishops' site, www.usccb.org, and www.paceebene.org.
In this New Year, let our strongest resolution be to become a people of active nonviolence.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.