(Non)Violence

Written first for my blog at Mercer School of Theology.

“There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.”
Mahatma Gandhi

December 5, 2015

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

The last few days hardly admit of being categorized in any sense. To do so would be to assert that we understand what has happened and is happening among us.

For me, there are two realities of these last days that could hardly stand in starker contrast. One is written on a tiny canvas. The other is seen around the world. My mother, in her mid-80’s, was hospitalized after a recent fall. The care, commitment, cheerfulness and love – for no other word can do – of individuals and teams in two institutions dedicated to health and wellbeing speak eloquently of the goodness of human persons, of the reality of community waiting to be discovered, of hope for present and future.

On the other hand there are the horrible sounds and images of the massacre that took place in San Bernardino. I first heard about it via a text from a news service as I was driving northward to be with my mother. And the news, of course, has only deepened in tragedy, sadness, and yes, terror, since those first moments.

Earlier discussions began to focus around whether this was a workplace act of violence, an act of terror, or some dark hybrid of the two. And, if an act of terror, domestic? Islamist? Jihadist? Related to ISIS? San Bernardino’s horror takes focus for me in a face that we have not (to my knowledge) seen. The two shooters, as all now know, were husband and wife. And this husband and wife are (were) parents of a daughter, born half a year ago, born as summer filled San Bernardino and environs with light and warmth. Neither mind nor heart can find any way to comprehend a movement that can successfully assert its power to separate a mother and father from the care and growth, education, nurturing and life of their infant child. I cannot understand. But it is that powerful. The proof is in the cry of that little girl tonight.

I want to take a definite step back from the course of conversation about who and how and why for a moment. I want to allow the faith that has formed me since scant days after my birth to address itself to this moment. When I do I find that the most fundamental question I hear is not motivation – a question that has its own vital importance. But prior and deeper I hear a different question: why are we humans, even now, such a violent breed? Why does violence have such a hold on us?

True, thankfully, it is still so – and may it always be – that most of us around the planet can live our days and set our heads on the pillows at night without being confronted by bloody violence. But it is just as true now that violence may intrude at any point in any place and change everything. A day after the events at Paris I stopped at a rest area along one of our major highways. The place was crowded with families and children, many in line for food and drink. Laughter and conversation filled the air. I made a point of looking directly into the faces, into the eyes, of men and women and children there from almost every human background that can be named. And I thought, “In an instant, this place could become a scene of mayhem and anguish and death.” I did not want to think it, but I did. Violence stalks us, under different names and energized by various delusions. But it does stalk us, always.

Why? That question remains of great import, but I think in these days there is no time to address it. Instead, the work of all who can be gathered to it in the name of the Christ is to counter violence with non-violence. The work is to learn the hard lessons learned by Gandhi and the men and women of the civil rights movement of the American 60’s, to name just two examples. Non-violence, they came to know in their flesh and emblazon in their memory, is not for the faint of heart. It asks everything.

In the face of the violence of San Bernardino, and Paris, and Sandy Hook, and a thousand other places that can be named today and tomorrow, the work of the disciple of Christ is this: without excuse to follow in grace the example of the Man who did not seek to defend himself from pain and suffering and death. In the face of unjust torture and facing execution he did not seek to save himself nor to arrange later revenge. He received what the violence dealt into his Body and Heart without drawing back. It was as if he were saying, with all that was in him: “It stops here.”

This tale is unknown to many now, a fairytale to others, an inspiration for something ill-defined trotted out now and then for still others. Everywhere and always most level-headed people will call that Man the most foolish of people, if they take seriously his way. And yet, it is the way to the deepest wisdom and to the only lasting life. This is true.

In every generation, most of all in times where the foundations are shaken and falling, there must be some who take that Man with full seriousness and ready themselves here and now to be and do the same as he was and did. To face violence down with non-violence. Not to be moved to answer in lockstep in the same language in which the challenge and the insult are hurled.

Violence is going to continue to take lives and break hearts. It is going to continue to threaten and to act. This will, I think, be sadly true even after all 7,385,549,661 human beings who live and breathe in the moment I write this sentence are dead and gone. In the face of this inevitability, our work is to prepare to act as what we are called to be – sisters and brothers and heirs of he who irrationally prayed, “Father, forgive them.” To commit to non-violence and to the everything it will ask of us; not may ask of us, but will. To leave aside the instinct to protect what we have and who we are in favor of the more that we may be called to become.

Here and now, while guns roar and bombs are built in both factories and basements, God acts in love. It could be that in some future day the grown daughter of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik emerge from the crucible of her life as a worker for peace. In the meantime, there must be us.

John P. McGinty+

Dean and Canon for Formation

Diocese of Long Island

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One thought on “(Non)Violence

  1. John, that is strikingly beautiful and so much needed. I wish we could gather in our places of worship just to talk about our violent world and how to respond – as you so wisely advise – in loving and non-violent ways. May God guide us always in the path of peace.

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