by Bob Shine
“Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony.” (John 3:11)
These words, voiced by Jesus in his response to Nicodemus, confirm our way of being as members of the Catholic peace movement. We speak frequently about the hurts and hopes we know, and we testify to the Gospel motivating our lives. These words confirm, too, that many people do not accept our testimony.
Some folks scorn peacemaking outright or, after listening for a time, reject our witness. But more often, people responding to our testimony are like Nicodemus and the skeptical Jewish leaders he represents who will come to believe in time but not now. Their questions and their fears leave them wary. Perhaps from their privilege they question what a wandering prophet from the hinterlands could offer. Perhaps they are not ready to hear such a powerful witness. Or perhaps they realize that accepting Christ’s claims will radically claim their life. Can any person be truly ready for the Gospel and its terrifying implications?
These words are part of a longer conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, as the latter figure moves towards belief in Christ. We see that conversion is not a defined moment, but a process lived out in history. Our journeys of deepening belief in God happen over many years and decades. We see that dialogue is essential, and there is a dialectic between the call Jesus puts out and our response to it. Christ calls, we resist. Christ calls, we question. Christ calls, we sideline. Christ calls, we finally submit in faith to God’s love. And then we resist, question, sideline, and resubmit all over again. This is conversion as process.
What is the significance of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus for Catholics today, especially for those of us involved in movements for justice and peace? There are many, and here I offer three.
First, Jesus’ words not only confirm our existing work for peace and justice, they compel us to keep speaking and keep testifying. Being denied and rejected by others, especially when we make ourselves vulnerable by sharing our story, is hard. But we are commanded to keep at it. The Greek word for “speak” used by the Gospel’s author is notable; it signifies not conversation or banter, but the proclamation of divine truth. When we speak about what we know and testify to what we have seen, we are not merely sharing knowledge attained or experiences had. We join our lives with Christ to proclaim deeper divine truths of just peace and inclusive love that we have come to know by the Spirit’s guidance.
Second, we must keep speaking and keep testifying because the conversion to God which we seek for ourselves and to which we call others is ongoing. Disbelief becomes belief, injustice becomes justice, violence becomes peace only when we speak and we testify without ceasing. We must create grounds where grace may flourish, often through most gradual of movements for many of us. Enjoined with God and in God’s time, our unceasing efforts become transformed. God uses our witnesses to transform the skeptics and the fearful towards Her and, in so doing, we too are transformed.
Third, contemporary movements are confirming these Scriptural insights. The immense power that proclaiming the deeper truths one knows and testifying to one’s experience have to provoke social change is visible each day. We are moved by the stories of Black communities brutalized in our criminal justice system, of veterans returning from war with lasting injuries, of immigrant friends subjected to increasing levels of hate speech, of LGBTQ people rejected by their families and faith communities, of sexual violence survivors seeking justice, and of people in poverty whose suffering is compounded by the disdain of others. Movements today are growing and flourishing in large part because of personal narrative, and because personal narratives at the local level rapidly become social phenomena in a global and digital age. We are moved into forming movements, joining together many stories into one voice demanding justice.
I conclude with a caution. This mode we practice, so confirmed in John’s Gospel, can quickly fail if we are not listening too. Each time I speak of what I know and testify to what I have seen, the Gospel is advanced that much further. But equally important is that each time someone speaks of what they know and testifies to what they have seen, their claim on my life grows and my conversion process keeps going. To be in dialogue is to enter a vulnerable space. It requires respect for our partners, humility about our truth claims even as we affirm them, a willingness to be uncomfortable and even challenged, and an openness to be changed by the dialogue. There is no room for enemies in what must be mutual walking together in the process of being converted.
In the United States, those powerful forces who resist shining a light on the systemic injustices and social sins afflicting our nation have provoked conflict. Political discourse is becoming ever more divisive and hateful, and the powerful have even blamed the conflicts they provoked on the oppressed. Imperialist warmaking by the U.S. inflicts unquantifiable suffering and death across the globe. We are wounded in this nation and we wound as a nation.
That is why today, the testimony of the Catholic peace movement is so deeply needed. We may not be accepted at first, but we must continue speaking what we know of God’s justice and testifying to what we have seen of God’s peace. I pray we may have the fortitude and the grace to keep proclaiming Christ’s love in these challenging times.
Bob is a graduate student at Boston College and works with New Ways Ministry