All this week, leading up to the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20th, we’ve been featuring some of the best writing from the Bread for the Journey blog that references or is inspired by Dr. King’s witness. Today’s reflection is from Tom Cordaro. This post originally appeared July 16, 2012.

Tom Cordaroby Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The following article was written by Tom Cordaro, a member of the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. Tom has served as the chair of Pax Christi USA’s National Council, as a staff member, and as a local group and regional leader. This article has been broken into five 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 and are posted at the end of each section. The material in the article should make for interesting and provocative discussion with Pax Christi groups around the nation. 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.

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 ONE: Introduction, Reexamining Assumptions, and Acknowledging Our Social Location

“For we know only in part and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (I Corinthians 13: 9-12)


I have been involved in faith-based nonviolent peace and justice work for over 33 years, and I have been active in Pax Christi USA for 23 of those years. I have participated in and organized nonviolent direct action campaigns at the local, regional, national and international levels, and I have spoken and written about nonviolent direct action on behalf of peace with justice throughout this time. I have done all of these things as a white, male, middle-class, well-educated, U.S. citizen with all of the privileges and entitlements that this social location confers upon me–including my sense of racial superiority. (Most of which were unacknowledged for the majority of my life and all of which I still struggle mightily to remain aware of in my peace and justice work.)

As a member of Pax Christi USA, the predominantly white faith-based peace and justice movement in the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the consciousness-raising we have accomplished by emphasizing the important role of nonviolent peacemaking in Catholic social teaching. In many ways we have succeeded in moving nonviolent peacemaking into the mainstream of Catholic social thought and have made concepts like Catholic conscientious objection a legitimate expression of our Catholic faith. Catholics are well represented in all fields of nonviolent peacemaking and conflict resolution, and some Catholic colleges and universities now offer degrees in nonviolent peacemaking. Catholics in predominantly white parishes and in religious communities have received religious formation in the ways of peace because of the work of the Catholic peace movement, and some Catholics increasingly feel called to participate in nonviolent direct action as a part of their religious calling. In short, the impact of the white faith-based peace and justice movement in the Catholic Church of the United States has been impressive.

At the same time, predominantly white peace groups, like Pax Christi USA, have come to the realization that many important voices have been left out of the conversation about what it means to engage in the nonviolent struggle for peace with justice as part of the peace movement. The stories and wisdom of our brothers and sisters of color have not always been heard—this is especially true for communities of color here in the United States.

Unfortunately many in the white peace movement have become comfortable with speaking and acting on behalf of people of color without always being accountable to people of color. This is often done when white peace activists assume that the way they frame issues of violence and injustice are supported by people of color. And we have so thoroughly colonized the language, theology, spirituality and praxis of nonviolent peacemaking in the U.S. Catholic Church that most of the struggles for peace with justice in this country being led by people of color are not even considered to be a part of the peace movement. This perception is not only held by many white members of the peace movement but is often held by many people of color who tirelessly work to end violence and who struggle for justice in their local communities but do not identify with the peace agenda of groups like Pax Christi USA.

In an effort to change this dynamic, Pax Christi USA, through its national leadership, began a 20-year initiative to dismantle all institutional, cultural and theological barriers to achieving the goal of transforming Pax Christi USA into an anti-racist, multi-cultural Catholic movement for peace with justice. One important aspect of this work is uncovering the way unacknowledged white power and privilege impacts the way Pax Christi lives out its core charisms and values.

The anti-racism challenge facing Pax Christi USA is this: in the coming decades, the Catholic Church in the United States will become predominantly people of color. How can an organization that is more that 90% white call itself a national Catholic organization? How can Pax Christi give witness to the “Peace of Christ” if it does not look like the Body of Christ? Can a predominantly white middle class organization accurately read the signs of the times; prophetically speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed; and effectively engage in the struggle for peace with justice? Can any organization that is over 90% white transform itself into an anti-racist, multi-cultural organization? Pax Christi’s anti-racism initiative is an attempt to address these questions and I believe the answers given will determine the future viability of the movement.

The Need to Reexamine Assumptions

Pax Christi has already begun to make some changes in its institutional policies and procedures that have excluded or marginalized people of color in the organization. In many respects these kinds of changes are easier to address because they are easy to identify and progress can be measured. The much more difficult challenge is identifying the way white Pax Christi culture excludes and marginalizes people of color. And the difficulty with examining white Pax Christi culture, like any dominant culture, is that we often don’t view this culture as a white way of thinking, believing or doing peace work; we think of it as normative–“This is just the way peace work is done.”

White Pax Christi culture includes many different aspects that need to be reexamined in light of its anti-racism commitment. But for the purpose of this paper, I want to focus on some of the theology and praxis of nonviolence contained in white Pax Christi culture. In doing so, I do not mean to suggest that the theological contributions and praxis of nonviolence articulated by white Catholic peacemakers is of no value; on the contrary, these contributions have been of enormous value. What I am saying is that these are particular contributions and beliefs about nonviolence but they do not represent the totality of what it means to be a nonviolent peace activist. And if Pax Christi truly wishes to create an anti-racist, multi-cultural Catholic movement for peace with justice, the organization will need to become more conscious of how this particular way of thinking and doing nonviolent peace and justice work marginalizes the unique gifts and perspectives that people of color can bring to Pax Christi’s understanding and practice of nonviolent peacemaking.

It is my hope that this paper might serve as a starting point in an ongoing conversation about these issues. As a white, male, middle class peace activist, I understand how white power and privilege can cloud my thinking about nonviolent peace and justice work. Because of this limitation, I have availed myself of the analysis done by Miguel A. De La Torre in his book, Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking.[i] While his book is directed to social ethicists, I believe that De La Torre’s work provides useful insights that have helped challenge and clarify some of my own thinking. There are other voices that also need to be added to this conversation (especially the voices of women and other people of color.)

Acknowledgement of Social Location

In reviewing my own writing on nonviolence and some of the resources produced by Pax Christi over the years, I find that in many cases there is little or no attention by the authors of their social location or the social location of their intended audience.  In other words, we often think, pray, study and act without inviting our members to be clear about their own social context,  i.e. their religion, class, race, nationality, education, age, gender and sexual orientation. I emphasize this not as an attempt to enforce some kind of political correctness on white people; nor am I attempting to play the “race card” or the “gender card” or any other card. I believe that attention to social location is a crucial discipline that can mitigate the temptation of asserting our white understanding of nonviolent peacemaking as being normative (applicable and true in every context), instead of being a particular understanding (a product of our own social context).

Being attentive to our social location can also keep us more humble in our sweeping declarations about nonviolence. Our willingness to acknowledge our social location when engaging in nonviolent peacemaking can deepen our awareness of the way social, political and economic power and privilege impacts the way we see, judge and act. As writers like De La Torre point out, “The view of the ethical landscape from the pedestal of privilege is radically different than the view from the depths of disenfranchisement.”[ii]

The lack of attention to social location by many white Pax Christi folks makes it easier to assume solidarity with the poor and oppressed based on superficial markers like political ideology or attitudes about the institutional Church. At the same time our failure to fully acknowledge our social location makes it much harder to engage in critical self-evaluation of our work and makes it more likely that we will fall into the trap of speaking and acting on behalf of the poor and oppressed without being accountable to them.

We often talk about nonviolence without referencing how we live at the heart of empire and benefit daily from the systemic and institutional violence against the poor who are primarily people of color. For instance, our principle resource on nonviolent peacemaking, The Way of Peace: Exploring Nonviolence for the 21st Century[iii], does not invite participants to explore or acknowledge their own social location as they learn about nonviolent peacemaking.  As De La Torre points out, regarding to Euroamerican ethicists, “True, they may have challenged the empire, critiqued the empire and even called for profound reform, but in the final analysis, they contributed to the undergirding racial and ethnic assumptions that provided justification for the empire because they failed to recognize their complicity with the overarching power structures that make empire possible.”[iv]

Without a clear acknowledgement of our social location, we might be tempted to embrace an analysis of oppression that focuses exclusively on the violence, marginalization and disenfranchisement inflicted upon the oppressed without adequately addressing how these various forms of oppression benefit most Pax Christi USA members. This kind of limited power analysis often leads to the kinds of “solutions” offered by the dominant culture; solutions that focus primarily on “fixing” the victims of oppression while requiring little or nothing from those who benefit from oppressive systems. As De La Torre points out in his critique of Eurocentric social ethicists, “The ultimate failure of these ethicists, as well as those ethicists or scholars who uncritically subscribe to the dominant culture’s worldview, is that they have refused to do a serious power analysis and to locate themselves within the prevailing power structures.”[v]

We white faith-based peace and justice activists are keenly aware of being “outsiders” in the institutional Church and of being “marginalized” within the dominant political discourse. But if we are not clear about the ways we are still privileged in the social order, it can become easy to conflate the marginalization we feel as white middle class peace activists with the lethal marginalization experienced every day by the economically poor and politically and socially oppressed.

[Click here for Part Two, “Nonviolence as Individual Inner Disposition,” posted on Monday, July 23.]


1. Why do you think it is important that Pax Christi USA transform itself into an anti-racist, multi-cultural Catholic movement for peace with justice? What gives you hope that this is possible? What are some of your doubts? How do you think Pax Christi USA might go about transforming itself into an anti-racist, multi-cultural peace movement for peace with justice?

2. It has been said that trying to understand how our social location impacts the way we pray, study and act for peace is like trying to explain water to a fish. Why do you think it is important to always be attentive to the way our race, class, gender and sexual orientation influence our understanding of important principles like nonviolence, justice and peace?

3. Do you think there is such a thing as “white Pax Christi culture?” If so, how would you describe it?

[i]  Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, by Miguel A. De La Torre, Baylor University Press,Waco, Texas, 2010

[ii]  ibid, Preface, p. X

[iii] The Way of Peace: Exploring Nonviolence for the 21st Century, by Shannon McManimon, et al, Pax Christi USA, Erie, PA, 2003

[iv] ibid, page 5

[v] ibid, page 31

One thought on “MLK DAY RETROSPECTIVE: For now we see in a mirror, dimly – an anti-racist critique of Pax Christi USA’s theology and practice of nonviolence (part one)

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