Tom Cordaroby Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The following is part two of an article written by Tom Cordaro, a member of the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. This article has been broken into five distinct sections and will be serialized weekly during July and August. Reflection questions have been designed for small group discussion by the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team. Local group leaders might want to consider using the article for reflection and study as part of their regular meeting. Regional leaders may want to incorporate the article into their newsletters, for discussion at a regional event, or for commenting over regional email lists and blogs/websites.

It is important that you read Part One before moving onto this section. Part One can be found by clicking here.

We’re interested in hearing your responses to Tom’s article. Please consider posting comments on the website in the comments area after each section of the article or joining in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, Tom welcomes direct feedback and can be reached at 

PART TWO: Nonviolence as Individual Inner Disposition

Most of the “suffering” of white, liberal, middle-class activists is in the form of emotional frustration, alienation, spiritual despair, hopelessness, and a sense of political marginalization. This limited experience of suffering sometimes impacts the way we frame our thinking about nonviolence–emphasizing the “spirituality” of nonviolence over the political, social, and economic praxis of nonviolence. Is there a danger that this internalized spirituality of nonviolence, in the hands of those privileged by race, class, gender and sexual orientation, might easily become disconnected from the revolutionary struggle for justice and social transformation? Does this lack of clarity regarding our own social location, along with the temptation to conflate our own internal sense of marginalization with the lethal forms of oppression experienced by the poor and people of color, lead to a theology of nonviolence that centers primarily on our individual inner disposition? While Pax Christi publications clearly point out the importance of active and politically-engaged nonviolence, the starting point is always the individual’s inner disposition: “To understand how nonviolence can play out in our lives, it may help to envision ourselves at the center of several concentric circles. First, we encounter violence within ourselves: our desires, self-image, attitudes (some created by our surroundings and culture).”[i]

As the Pax Christi USA Statement of Purpose describes its peacemaking efforts: “This work begins in personal life and extends to communities of reflection and action to transform structures of society.”[ii] A look at the Table of Contents of one of Pax Christi’s most popular publications, A New Moment: An Invitation to Nonviolence, reveals the following nine chapter titles (out of a total of twelve):

  • Three: To Strive for Peace Within Myself
  • Four: To Seek to Be a Peacemaker in My Daily Life
  • Five: To Accept Suffering Rather Than Inflict It
  • Six: To Refuse to Retaliate
  • Seven: To Persevere in Nonviolence of Tongue and Heart
  • Eight: To Live Conscientiously and Simply
  • Nine: To Actively Resist Evil
  • Ten: To Work Nonviolently to Abolish War and the Causes of War from my Heart and from the Face of the Earth
  • Eleven: Disarming the Heart – Personal Testimonies.”[iii]

If the starting point is an individual’s internal attitudes, disposition and vision, then one’s moral reflection on nonviolent peacemaking will often begin with abstract concepts, ideas and/or theology. As author Miguel De La Torre points out, “Generally speaking, Euroamerican ethicists usually begin with some type of ‘truth’ claim based on some doctrine, biblical passage, church teaching, spiritual revelation or rational analysis. From this ‘truth’ they determine that an action is required, usually an individual act of piety. The emphasis is on possessing the ‘truth’, having the right doctrine.”[iv]

The presupposition embodied in this kind of approach is that good actions will flow from the individual’s internalized commitment to the virtue of nonviolence. But as De La Torre points out, “For Hispanics ethics can never be reduced to individual traits, for no matter how personal we wish to make ethics; it always has a collective dimension. … the practice of virtue by an individual creates a false sense of righteousness.”[v] Can starting from an abstract moral principle of nonviolence also create a feedback loop, making it easier to internalize the principle primarily as an expression of individual virtue or personal character?

Another problem with starting from an abstract principle or “truth,” like nonviolence, is that it can produce nonviolent practitioners who are more concerned with defending the right way of thinking than with trying to do the right thing. It can also lead to embracing abstract absolutes regarding our beliefs about nonviolence which often get expressed in dualistic “either/or” language with little room for the “both/and” ambiguity that is common to the messiness of life.

One example from my own experience when I worked at the Pax Christi USA National Office was our struggle to respond to the 1992 U.S. military intervention in Somalia. During the Cold War, Pax Christi always rejected the use of military force under any circumstance. But in 1992, with the Cold War over, a new concept began to take shape in foreign affairs—humanitarian military intervention.

At that time, deteriorating security prevented the UN mission from delivering food and supplies to starving Somalis as warlords fought each other for control of the country and the central government was unable to function. Relief flights were looted upon landing, food convoys were hijacked, and aid workers assaulted. The UN appealed to its members to provide military forces to assist the humanitarian operation. With only weeks left in his term as president, President George H.W. Bush responded to the UN request, proposing that U.S. combat troops secure the environment for relief operations. On December 5, 1992 the UN accepted his offer, and Bush ordered 25,000 U.S. troops into Somalia.

At this time our National Coordinator was out of the country and I was given the task of serving as the point person to address any issues that might come up in her absence. In the days leading up to the the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, our office was contacted by a number of Catholic and secular media outlets asking for our position. In addition many of our members were also asking for guidance.  In response, I called the staff together to get input on a draft press statement addressing the crisis in Somalia. The discussion was animated and the staff was fully engaged in the complexities and nuances of all the issues involved. Points and counter-points were offered but there was no clear consensus about what we should say.

In an effort to refocus the discussion, I described our task in this way: “I want us to draft a statement that any of us would feel comfortable reading to a Somali mother holding her starving child at one of these UN feeding centers.” That reframing of the task changed the dynamics of our discussion. Within hours we were able to draft a statement that was later edited and approved by the National Council Chairperson and Bishop President.

The statement began with an admission that in spite of our efforts to create nonviolent international mechanisms to address humanitarian crises like the one ocurring in Somalia, no viable nonviolent peace force currently existed to intervene in Somalia. Given this failure we proposed a short-term response (that a UN-led military force—not led by the U.S.—be used to insure food gets to the Somali people); we proposed a mid-term response (that a UN-sponsored peace process in Somalia be established using traditional tribal structures as a way of bypassing the warlords who were responsible for most of the violence); and we propopsed a long-term response (that the UN, with U.S. leadership, take up then Secretary General Boutros-Ghali’s proposals calling for Preventative Diplomacy as a way of addressing conflicts between nations and inside nations before they became violent.)

I don’t think anyone on the staff was thrilled with this statement. It lacked all the clarity of vision and strong moral certitude that charaterized our past statements on U.S. military intervention. This statement was much more modest and morally messy. But what surprised me more than anything was the strong reaction we got from some of our pacifist members. They let us know how frustrated and disappointed they were that we did not condemn this military intervention on principle. They felt we had damaged the nonviolent witness of our movement by not rejecting all military intervention. The teachings of Jesus and the principles of nonviolence were clear: violence and the threat of violence are always wrong, and violent means (military force) can never be justified by humanitarian ends (feeding starving people.)

Althought I cannot know for certain, it seemed to me then, as it does now, that my pacifist friends who objected to our statement and the staff who developed this statement had different starting points and goals. The starting point for our staff was the Somali mother trying to comfort her starving child and our primary goal was to address her needs. I believe my pacifist brothers’ and sisters’ starting point was an abstract moral principle about nonviolence and their primary goal was defending this principle in the public arena.

De La Torre points out that for the Latina/o community the starting point is always the lived experience of the community.  The emphasis is on orthopraxy (right doing) over orthodoxy (right thinking). The challenge De La Torre poses to social ethicists is the same for Pax Christi in its articulation and praxis of nonviolence, “How can we best capture the ambiguity of a Latina/o moral agency that recognizes the need at times to dispense with personal piety for the sake of the greater good of survival—survival of not just the individual Hispanic, but more importantly, la comunidad?”[vi]

Should military interventions to stop humanitarian crises in places like Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, the Congo and other places around the world move us beyond either/or thinking in our advocacy and practice of nonviolent peacemaking? While it is important to stress that military intervention is no solution to the many conflicts raging around the world, isn’t it also important to make sure we speak and act in a way that responds to and is accountable to the most vulnerable and weakest victims of the violence we oppose? And that we put their needs above our own desire to defend abstract doctrines and dogmas about nonviolence?

[Part Three, “Nonviolence and the Language of Disempowerment,” will be posted on Monday, July 30.]


1. When considering the appropriate nonviolent response to the suffering of the oppressed, where do you start your discernment: with a clear commitment to principle, with the specific circumstances of those who are suffering, or with some combination of factors? What are the essential values that need to be embraced in our efforts to nonviolently respond to the suffering of the oppressed?

2. How did you come to embrace your commitment to nonviolence? Did it come about through reflection on personal experiences of violence in your life? Or was it the result of theological reflection and social analysis of violence you observed or read about? How might these different starting points produce different understandings of nonviolence?

[i] ibid, page 48

[ii] Pax Christi USA Membership Brochure

[iii] A New Moment: An Invitation to Nonviolence, compiled by Erie Benedictines for Peace, Pax Christi USA, Erie, PA 1986

[iv] Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, by Miguel A. De La Torre, Baylor University Press, WacoTexas, 2010, page 83

[v]  ibid, pages 28-29

[vi] ibid, page 23

4 thoughts on “REFLECTION: For now we see in a mirror, dimly – an anti-racist critique of Pax Christi USA’s theology and practice of nonviolence (part two)

  1. Peace does not happen at the end of a gun but on the tongue from the heart that acts for peace with presence. . The means is just as important as the end. M. Cotty

  2. In my view, the problem raised by this segment of Tom’s article is not orthodoxy versus orthopraxis, but how much diversity of both theory and practice an organization like ours can embrace without jeopardizing its mission and message. The 1992 PCUSA statement on Somalia that Tom describes, endorsing short-term military intervention on humanitarian grounds, seems to me to have gone too far.

    Any military intervention is premised on the belief that, if necessary, it is acceptable to kill some people to benefit some other people. Do we really need a PCUSA Ambassador of Peace to make the case that nonviolence may be fine in principle but unrealistic in application, and should give way to military means when someone is in sufficient need? Humanitarian justifications were also urged for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Tom’s defense of the “morally messy” PCUSA statement on Somalia seems to reflect a misapprehension of PCUSA’s role. We are not policy makers or implementers responsible for short-term solutions to every international crisis. We are a small voice crying in the wilderness on behalf of peace and justice, and the consistency of our witness is important. We’d like to think that we and our partners in this work may occasionally have some influence on public opinion. Our hope is that we may have a greater influence within our Church by consistently proclaiming the gospel of peace, and that the Church will then use its more substantial influence to affect public policies.

    The truth is that, no matter what PCUSA said in 1992, its statement was not going to make any practical difference for the Somali mother whom the staff laudably held in its consciousness. Neither support nor opposition from PCUSA was going to affect the Administration’s decision to send 25,000 troops to Somalia. Instead of taking the lack of a viable nonviolent peace force as a reason to support military intervention, the statement could have cited Somalia as a prime example showing the need for such a peace force for future humanitarian crises and conflict situations.

    What civil society and the Church need from Pax Christi is a clear voice advocating nonviolent alternatives to the reflexive use of military force to solve problems. Long-term, that will be of more benefit to mothers everywhere than yet one more voice justifying the use of violence in “limited” circumstances. If this view is the product of my social location and abstract reasoning, so be it.

  3. Bob,

    As I sit delayed on a runway here in DC for a meeting with the STL Pax Christi region, let me yell, “kudos ” for your well thought out response to Tom’s article…we are called to be peacemakers all the time and to use every method that we can consistently think of in our pursuit of Jesus’ s command to “love our enemy”….not easy at all and many can make THEIR case for the use of limited violence” for the greater good….I choose to follow Jesus….not easy, but it what we are called to…..thanks as always for your thoughts. Peace (always), jack

  4. Thanks to Tom and to Bob for your thoughtful comments. I was National Council chair when the statement on Somalia was written and remember well the deep, difficult process of discernment that led to that position. It is good that we constantly remind ourselves of our commitment to nonviolence, which is common to our Pax Christi movement worldwide. At the same time, the actualization of that commitment to nonviolence varies in significant ways in different contexts.

    Pax Christi sections and member organizations in countries like the United States and Germany with a history of militarization and war-making tend to be more pacifist. In other parts of the world, Pax Christi member organizations with as deep a commitment to nonviolence emphasize the prevention of genocide or the protection of communities facing horrific violence.

    I agree that part of our responsibility as a Pax Christi movement committed to nonviolence is to work in every way possible toward the development and funding of nonviolent tools for the prevention of war, genocide and other atrocities and for the protection of threatened communities. That is what we do at the UN and what we should be doing in the US. History has confirmed the fact that violence begets violence and we have to keep promoting other routes to a safe and just world. I believe that is an urgent and concrete political task.

    At the same time, Pax Christi has to struggle with the complexities of a violent world. There is not unanimity within the global Pax Christi movement (which is racially, ethnically and geographically diverse and becoming more so) that police or even military presence can never contribute to the reduction of violence or the protection of communities in desperate situations. For example, in post war Liberia, the presence of an armed, female peacekeeping force was an extraordinary experiment in a country where rape was used regularly as a weapon of war. Their point was to stop the violence. I think that some of work of Gerald Schlabach and others on “just policing” is worth studying in such a context.

    The layers of violence perpetrated by the United States; the disinformation surrounding U.S. foreign policy decisions; and the ulterior motives that usually drive U.S. engagement in the world make it impossible for me to imagine supporting any U.S. military action now. One gift of being part of a global movement committed to nonviolence is that we can learn from each other what nonviolence might look like in a given context and work together toward a world in which the violences encountered by every community are overcome.

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