That Friday evening I was just beginning to lead a weekend retreat at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, when we received word about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Like everyone else, we were grief-stricken, but we regrouped and became even more determined to dive deep into our retreat.
Our topic was “Living Nonviolence, with Jesus, Gandhi and King.” I had been planning it for months. Many of us around the world believe with Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that nonviolence is the world’s only hope, the world’s only solution to insane violence, the world’s best pathway toward peace. As we heard the news from Paris, we turned again to the ancient teachings of nonviolence, and spent the weekend trying to deepen our own nonviolence so we could do our part to hasten a more nonviolent world.
We began by recalling the famous scene in the Gospels, when the nonviolent Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem, after his long campaign of nonviolence, and broke down weeping:
As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it saying, “If this day you only knew the things that make for peace—but they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)
I invited everyone to enter into the same spirit of Jesus who weeps over our violence and then takes nonviolent action in Jerusalem to resist injustice and proclaim a new world of nonviolence. We agreed that we would try to be people “who know the things that make for peace.”
On Saturday, we studied the Sermon on the Mount, which Gandhi considered the greatest teachings on nonviolence in history. Gandhi read from Matthew 5-7, every day, for the last forty years of his life. In particular, he studied the great neglected commandment: “Offer no violent resistance to one who does evil.” So we studied it too:
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say, “Offer no [violent] resistance to one who is evil.” (Mt. 5:38-39)
The Torah had tried to regulate fair punishment so that the punishment for violence would not exceed the injury. But here, the nonviolent Jesus prohibits any form of punishment or violent retaliation. The Greek word used in the text is “antistenai,” meaning “violent resistance,” or “violent rebellion against evil or one who does evil.” Jesus explicitly forbids “antistenai.” We are not allowed to resist violently. The days of violent retaliation are over. No one who claims to be a follower of the nonviolent Jesus is allowed to retaliate with violence ever again.
Jesus wants us to break the downward cycle of violence by refusing to practice further violence. Violence in response to violence will only lead to further violence, he teaches, so do not retaliate with further violence. Break the chain of violence. Stop the killing. Later, he calls us to become instead people of universal love and compassion.
Does that mean sitting back and do nothing in the face of violence? No, quite the contrary. Jesus also forbids passive resignation or indifference to evil. Instead, he demands an active, creative nonviolent response that will disarm our violent opponent without using their violent means. We resist violence but don’t use the means of violence, so we do not end up becoming a mirror image of our violent opponent. Through our nonviolent resistance, we insist on the truth of our common humanity, until through our suffering love, the opponent’s heart melts, scales fall from his eyes, he repents of his violence and agrees to treat us with respect as human beings.
When someone strikes you on the right cheek, Jesus says for example, turn the other one to him as well. As we ponder that teaching, we notice that it’s not possible to strike someone on the right cheek. A right-handed blow in a right-handed world would land on the left cheek, so Jesus is talking about something different—about humiliation and oppression. The only way to strike someone’s right cheek with your right hand would have been to use the back of your hand. This is what a Roman soldier standing over a subdued peasant would do. He would slap him with the back of his hand to humiliate him. But Jesus taught his disciples to resist such violent humiliation and top down oppression. Do not be humiliated. Do not be oppressed. Do not let others continue their violence upon you. Be creative. Take action. Turn the other cheek and show the Roman that you are a human being, that you demand to be treated as a human being, that you do not accept his violence. Then watch him back off in dismay.
During the retreat, we looked at Jesus’ many teachings and examples of nonviolence. On Sunday, we studied Luke 10, where he sends 72 disciples on a campaign of nonviolence, “as lambs into the midst of wolves,” to disarm the world and proclaim the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence. Throughout the weekend, as we studied the methodology and spirituality of active nonviolence, we also read the words of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” Martin Luther King, Jr. taught. “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Nonviolence is the greatest and most active force in the world,” Gandhi wrote. “One person who can express nonviolence in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality. My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the world.”
Last year, on the day the United States started bombing ISIS, a group of friends and I were arrested in front of the White House for nonviolent civil disobedience. We opposed this latest U.S. war. I held a sign that read, “There is no military solution.” That September, our action was part of a nationwide week of 237 protests across the nation called “Campaign Nonviolence.” We organized another such week this past September, this time with over 370 demonstrations across the nation in every state against war, poverty, racism, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and for the coming of a new culture of peace and nonviolence.
Thousands, millions, of us believe that war doesn’t work; that war cannot end terrorism because war is terrorism; that our warmaking is breeding a new generation of terrorists around the world. Millions want the killing to stop, beginning with our own killing sprees. We want a new nonviolent response to the violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. We don’t want to keep on inspiring millions of oppressed people to join ISIS or Al Qaeda. We want to stop the killing, make reparations, and start the healing. We even want nonviolence here at home—toward everyone, beginning in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore.
ISIS is normal. It’s the normal outcome of twenty five years of U.S. warfare on Iraq. We did not behead several thousand people; we killed some two million people, not to mention militarize the entire Middle East, fund the Palestinian occupation, and use drones to kill tens of thousands civilians in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere.
What is needed instead is a new global nonviolent response to violence. As many others have said before, the United States should halt all its bombing raids and drone attacks everywhere and pursue immediate ceasefires everywhere. We should start a massive reparations program to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and every land we have bombed, on a scale greater than the Marshall Plan. We should cut off all funding to ISIS from all quarters, and fund nonviolent peacemakers throughout the Middle East. Creative nonviolence should become our new foreign policy, and the policy of every nation everywhere if we are going to have a more nonviolent world.
Of course, we are going to have to spend billions, even trillions of dollars, on nonviolence, just as we once spent that kind of money for war. That money is available. All we have to do is close all our nuclear weapons plants, disarm our nuclear arsenal, and allocate those billions of dollars for nonviolent solutions. We have spent some seven trillions dollars on nuclear weapons since Hiroshima. It’s time we spent that kind of money on nonviolent conflict resolution.
Our greatest people have always advocated nonviolence. The greatest thinkers of the last hundred years all taught nonviolence–people like Leo Tolstoy, Jane Addams, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Muriel Lester, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Thomas Merton, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Mairead Maguire, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Pema Chodron, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Howard Zinn, and Leymah Gbowee. Furthermore, all the world’s religions advocate nonviolence, even though their nonviolence is usually ignored.
But we now know that active nonviolence actually works, that unlike war and violence, it brings lasting, peaceful results. Erica Chenoweth’s ground-breaking book, Why Civil Resistance Works, proves through scientific data that wherever nonviolence was used in response to state sanctioned violence or violent rebellion over the last one hundred years, it led to lasting nonviolent transformation. Her book is one of the most important works of our times and should be read by everyone. She demonstrates that violence in response to violence only increases violence, but that nonviolent conflict resolution brings a more peaceful, just solution.
“An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi said famously. That sad truth is being played out every day now. We need to have the courage to stop the cycle of violence and use the methodology of creative nonviolence to end this madness and pursue a more nonviolent world. This is doable and achievable, but it requires that everyone get involved in building a global grassroots movement of nonviolence, like our “Campaign Nonviolence.” We need to stop the warmakers on all sides who are intent on furthering the cycle of violence and war and become peacemakers.
“To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said. “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”
“When evil men plot, good men [and women] must plan,” King continued. “When evil men burn and bomb, good men [and women] must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men [and women] must commit themselves to the glories of love. When evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men [and women] must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”
I hope everyone will stop listening to the voices of violence, listen to the voices of nonviolence as we did on that weekend retreat, and join the grassroots movement of active nonviolence in pursuit of peace.
Rev. John Dear is the author of three recent books, Thomas Merton Peacemaker; Walking the Way: Following the Nonviolent Jesus, and The Nonviolent Life. He is on the staff of Pace e Bene, which organizes Campaign Nonviolence, a week of actions across the U.S. every September. See: www.campaignnonviolence.org and www.johndear.org