By Sister Rose Marie Tresp
Why use the term “nonviolence” instead of “peace”? In Pope Francis’s message for the 2017 World Day of Peace, he says. “I would like to reflect on nonviolence as a style of politics for peace. I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life.”
How do we practice nonviolence? I offer these five ways.
#1 – Embracing Human Dignity
This first way of nonviolence is always to think of other people as a human who is just as worthy or deserving of respect as I am and as needing the same things that I need. This may seem obvious, but historical and contemporary examples show it is not always the case.
For example, racism in the United States shows that many people view African Americans, Muslims, Latinos and others of various cultural backgrounds as somehow not as much human as we who are white.
Some have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that all lives matter—and of course all lives do matter. But this response shows a lack of understanding and empathy about the lived experience of African Americans.
#2 – Welcoming the Stranger
The second way of nonviolence is hospitality, welcoming the stranger. But who is the stranger? Once, while working in a hospital, I was asked to consult with the daughter of a woman in ICU. At first I judged the woman because of her black clothing and many piercings. As I engaged with her, I found her a generous, sympathetic and wise person. I became ever more aware of the importance of not judging a person by their dress, tattoos or piercings, nor their lack of formal education, poor grammar, etc.
#3 – Offering Silent Presence
The third way of nonviolence is silent presence. Racism isn’t always expressed in physical violence. The violence of racism is also in the lack of hospitality and welcome or the polite indifference with which people of color are often treated. An African-American friend of mine says that if there are two empty seats in a waiting room, one next to her, the next white person who comes in won’t sit next to her.
#4 – Speaking Up
The fourth way of nonviolence is speaking up. Being silent in the face of injustice is allowing violence to continue to exist. When we ignore a racist or sexist comment, is this silence also violence?
After the shooting of a black man by a policeman in Charlotte, I called an African-American friend of mine. She said to me, “No other white friend has called.” I said, “They have not called because they don’t know what to say.” Then a white friend of ours said to me, “I should have called, but I did not know what to say.”
We are afraid sometimes to ask that simple question: “How are you doing?” We should ask not in the rote polite format, but in the “I’m ready and want to listen to you” format. Maybe we think that we’ll be called on to have solutions or answers, but nonviolence is solidarity, compassion and empathy—not necessarily having answers.
#5 –Caring for Earth
The fifth way is practicing nonviolence toward the Earth. Habits are hard to change. Very few people are using reusable bags for shopping which leads to huge accumulations of plastic bags. Even when plastic bags are recycled, the plastic will eventually end up in the landfill, poisoning the Earth. Recycling helps, but reducing our use of plastic is much less violent toward our earth.
Nonviolence: A Response to God’s Love
Pope Benedict said in a talk in February 2007: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behavior but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution’” (Angelus).
Pope Francis talks often about the culture of encounter. The Spanish term encuentro carries the connotation of a spiritual relationship with God. We could say that to act nonviolently is to have an experience which is the essence of encountering God. Pope Francis would say that any inter-human communication, law, policy, exchange, conversation or interaction whatsoever must respect the inherent dignity of both parties. The culture of encounter is one of profound nonviolence, and thus a profound and deep spiritual response to God’s love.