by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The following is part three 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 the earlier parts before reading this one:
- Part One can be found by clicking here.
- Part Two 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
PART THREE: Nonviolence and the Language of Disempowerment
This internalized spirituality expounded by white middle class peacemakers often gets expressed in the language of relinquishment; giving up or abandoning a position of advantage or power. This is an important virtue for those who are the beneficiaries of social, political and economic power and privilege, but very problematic for those who are marginalized, oppressed and disenfranchised.
If we look at the language used in the Pax Christi USA Vow of Nonviolence, the first thing we notice is that it is written for individuals acting apart from any community. There is no commitment or vow to be engaged in nonviolence as a community nor are there any promises to be accountable to any community. This is one characteristic of white power and privilege: white people do not have to be accountable to community in order to thrive; alternately people of color have to be accountable to their community in order to survive.
The other thing we notice about the language of this vow is the emphasis on being nonconfrontational. The vow talks about “striving for peace within myself,” “accepting suffering rather than inflicting it,” “refusing to retaliate” and “persevering in nonviolent tongue and heart.” Even though the vow includes “actively resisting evil” the focus is first “from my own heart” and vaguely “from the face of the earth.”
Many oppressed people and people of color embrace nonviolent struggle as a means of empowerment, not simply as a palliative to ease their internal moral struggles or to avoid conflict. For a people suffering racism, sexism and oppression of every kind, there is little appetite for “accepting suffering.” For those who are marginalized and silenced by the institutions of power and privilege, the call of a predominantly white organization to persevere in nonviolent tongue and heart can easily be interpreted as a call to keep quiet and don’t make waves. And a white peace movement’s call to refuse to retaliate in the face of provocation can be interpreted by those who face discrimination every day of their lives as a call to stay in their place.
For people who are already marginalized and oppressed, this language of disempowerment and individualism is not often received as good news. And when it comes from a white organization that speaks and acts without acknowledging its own position of power and privilege and can choose when to suffer indignity and when it will not, it can easily be interpreted as just another tool of control. It is hard to imagine that a vow like this would become widely used in communities of color who are actively engaged in the struggle for peace with justice.
What if, instead of a “Vow of Nonviolence,” Pax Christi propagated a “Vow of Nonviolent Struggle for Peace with Justice”? What if the vow called on people to first commit themselves to nonviolently struggle for justice as members of a community that is accountable to the poor and oppressed–starting where they live? What if instead of vowing to accept suffering we vowed to nonviolently resist all violence and oppression even at personal cost? What if instead of refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation we vowed to speak and act nonviolently in defense of the powerless in the face of any and all provocation? What if instead of vowing to strive for peace within ourselves, we vowed to never become complacent in the face of injustice, that we pledge to always acknowledge and repent of our own complicity in injustice, that we always keep our hearts open to the suffering of others, and that we always be ready to comfort the afflicted and nonviolently afflict the comfortable?
The truth is that as white, middle class, well-educated Americans, most Pax Christi members have little “skin” in the game. This makes most of our peace work an optional extra-curricular activity. At anytime we choose, we can opt out of the struggle and retreat to the comforts afforded us because of our social location. For the poor, the truly marginalized and for people of color, the struggle for justice and peace is not an optional activity–it is critical to their survival.
De La Torre talks about how important the concept of struggle, la lucha, is for the Latina/o Community. La lucha for survival not only describes their social location, “it also provides the means by which Latina/os develop their world view, learn to maneuver among the consequences of ethnic discrimination and begin to construct a more liberative understanding of themselves. … la lucha becomes a struggle toward a revolutionary restructuring of how power is presently distributed and how knowledge is constructed.”
Can the nonviolence articulated by Pax Christi ever be attractive to the Latina/o community if it is not expressed in the language of struggle, survival and liberation in the context of community? Again, De La Torre argues, “It is crucial to note that la lucha for survival is not an individual quest. … Contrary to the salient individualistic motif among Euroamericans, Hispanic religious thought attempts to be communal.”
Along with the calls to accept suffering, not to retaliate with violence and to live more simply, the popular Pax Christi prayer card, Disarm the Heart, Disarm the Nations, asks God to “Disarm my heart and I shall be your instrument to disarm other hearts.” But if the primary source of violence for Pax Christi members and others is in their hearts, how can liberation be anything other than freedom from personal sin? De La Torre insists that Christ as liberator moves the Latina/o community beyond the narrow constructs of liberation from personal sin. “The Christ of Hispanics is just as concerned with the sins of the entire community, specifically of those within the dominant culture, whose sins wreak chaos and havoc upon the lives of those forced to reside on the margins.”
As part of this dominant culture, Pax Christi’s call for disarming the heart may not be embraced by communities of color unless it is explicitly tied to a commitment to be in accountable relationships with marginalized and oppressed communities struggling for survival, dignity, justice and liberation. Accountable relationships are distinct from many of the coalitions and collaborations between white progressive organizations and organizations of color. Sometimes in mixed-race coalitions and collaborations, people of color are treated as junior partners or window-dressing while the real power and decision-making remains in the hands of the white folks.
Accountable relationships, on the other hand, signify a different kind of dynamic. More than just treating people of color as equals in our work, being in accountable relationships means that, because of the persistent legacy of white supremacy and privilege in our culture (even in our white peace movement culture), we create mechanisms that allow people of color to exercise a preferential option in our decision-making process.
[Part Four, “Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and the Theology of Unaccountability,” will be posted on Monday, August 6.]
REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR PART THREE
1. Do you think the refusal to accept suffering is contrary to the principle of nonviolence? Why might the call to accept suffering be problematic for people who suffer injustice, humiliation or marginalization?
2. What do you think of the author’s alternative “Vow of Nonviolent Struggle for Peace with Justice?” Would you be willing to take such a pledge? Why or why not?
3. In order to insure that our peace and justice work truly serves those who are oppressed, the author emphasizes the need to be in accountable relationships with communities of color, especially where we live. Do you think this is necessary in order to be faithful to the Gospel call to nonviolence? What are some of the challenges facing local Pax Christi groups in forging these kinds of accountable relationships?
One thought 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 three)”
Yes Tom! Because of the insidious nature of white privilege and power (often invisible to white folks themselves), it is all the more important to ground one’s peace and justice work in and WITH accountable relationships with marginalized and oppressed individuals & communities of color struggling for survival, dignity, justice and liberation — “toward a revolutionary restructuring of how power is presently distributed and how knowledge is presently distributed and how knowledge is constructed.” (De La Torre & concept of struggle, “la lucha”.)
And yes, although white enculturation in the persistent legacy of white supremacy and privilege may include conditioned resistance, I think it wise & effective to create mechanisms that enable people of color to exercise preferential (more than equal) options in organizational decision-making processes. Such increases the chances that peace & justice work is based and grounded in existential reality and actual praxis (and not just in theological/ideological theory or self-serving egoistic story).
Thank you Tom for your insightful empowering words.
P.S. — By the way, I believe James O’Dea’s book: “Cultivating Peace — Becoming a 21st-Century Peace Ambassador” is an excellent integral map toward the transformation of self and civilization. His book reframes and expands the work & vision of creating inner security and the systemic work of cocreating nonviolent cultures and just and sustainable societies.