Remarks delivered on August 7, 2022, at the Pax Christi USA 50th anniversary national conference

Watch the video of the award presentation here, starting at 34:49; this includes brief words from Pax Christi USA national council member Sherry Simon, an introduction by Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM, Bishop John Stowe’s remarks, video messages from previous Teacher of Peace award recipients, and Marie’s remarks.

Thank you so much, Bishop Stowe – and Joe [Nangle, OFM, who introduced Marie]. I am humbled, more than a little uncomfortable and deeply grateful for this honor. I have such tremendous respect for Pax Christi – for all that you stand for and for your deep commitment to promoting peace rooted in justice, to dismantling racism and the other expressions of virulent violence, and to becoming the beloved community. 

Ilia Delio challenges us to “co-create a world bounded in love.” [The Hours of the Universe, p. 123.] You are doing exactly that!

Fifty years ago, Pax Christi USA was founded in an era enriched by 

  • a series of brilliant, strategic, decidedly nonviolent campaigns toward racial justice that together shaped the civil rights movement;
  • by the black power movement in this country and around the world;
  • by the Second Vatican Council that at least began to open a few of the locked windows of the Catholic Church; 
  • by the grape and lettuce boycotts organized by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the UFWA; 
  • by a powerful contextual theological genre, liberation theology, that was articulated by oppressed, marginalized and impoverished communities;
  • by struggles for independence across Africa; for liberation across Latin America; 
  • by an active and short-lived global response to the global food crisis, the oil crisis, the cry of the earth;
  • by a movement committed to solidarity and accompaniment in the context of US proxy wars and dirty wars across the Americas 
  • by a peace movement that finally ended the Vietnam War; that struggled mightily for nuclear disarmament, for demilitarization of US foreign policy, for an end to enemy-making, for an end to the Cold War…

I could go on. 

I am still asking what is the role of a white, middle class Catholic woman from the belly of the beast in response to these cries for justice and liberation. I knew 50 years ago and still believe that somehow I had to address root causes because I am responsible for so many of them; and that my lifestyle and location/where I spent my time had to be informed by the wisdom and experience of the people on whose backs I was standing every day — people at the peripheries, survivors of oppression, racism, economic violence. 

Fifty years later, the struggle seems the same, yet it is radically different. And that difference fills me with hope – not thin hope, but rich vibrant, thick hope. I believe that we are on the threshold of a new way of being, a new paradigm, a new logic for life. What we are birthing will be closer to the beloved community; it will be anti-racist and socially just. It will be built on right relationships with each other and with the natural world. It will be richly, beautifully diverse and decidedly nonviolent. It will not depend on weapons of war but on right relationships, a commitment to inclusive human dignity and respect for the integrity of creation.

This new paradigm will be based on a completely different understanding of our place as humans in the whole Earth community — and a recognition that we are latecomers at that to a spectacular cosmic reality that we are just now (thanks to the Hubble and Webb telescopes) beginning to see. It will recognize that diversity and relationality are imbedded in the cosmos and essential to survival on this planet. And it will clearly identify and reject violence in all its forms: armed violence, physical violence, structural and systemic violence, gender and racial violence, cultural, ecological, economic, spiritual and psychological violence.

Ilia Delio talks about “the new person” emerging in evolution, who is embracing pluralities of gender, race and religion; who is called into a “new type of consciousness where things are first seen together and then as distinct within this togetherness.” (The Hours of the Universe, p. 98.) She affirms that we are being rewired for belonging to the cosmic whole. We are more and more aware that we are one earth community; we have a planetary consciousness that, according to Ilia, evokes a deep concern, especially in younger generations, for the planet and for those who are impoverished or marginalized. She calls younger generations – many of you – “digital natives” because they (you) were “born into a networked world and … think across lines of relationships.” In fact, Ilia says, “we are beginning to see that systems in nature do not work on principles of competition and struggle but on cooperation and sympathy.”

Michael Nagler, founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, talks about “the new story” that is replacing the “old story” told by the dominant white culture about scarcity, competition and violence. He insists that violence is not the nature of humans – that love, faith, trust and the desire for community, peace and well-being are central to our identity and that nonviolence is a creative power, a pervasive energy, a fundamental principle that we can develop and deploy in human interactions. “Violence, he says, “is a tendency that pulls us back, away from the recognition of unity; nonviolence pulls us forward, toward that recognition … We human beings … can play an active role in our own evolution and consequently that of our species. The discovery of our capacity for nonviolence, connected as it is with higher consciousness or love, is a key to this development … Nonviolence is not only at home in the new story, it is the new story.” 

That is the nature of the nonviolence that Pax Christi is learning to embrace. It is more than pacifism; it is a spirituality, a way of life, – let me say that again though you know it very well – it is a spirituality and a way of life, a new way of thinking. It is a potentially universal ethic that could guide the world, including in times of crisis, toward just peace rather than justified war; toward respect and inclusion rather than exploitation. And it is a proven, effective approach to deep peace seen through the prism of justice. 

Pax Christi’s commitment is to a nonviolence that imitates Jesus’ way of life, but that is also challenged and shaped by the history and contemporary experience of those on the receiving end of war and racism and neglect and planetary destruction. As I said in the panel yesterday, it is not just not violent but is muscular and actively engaged in preventing or interrupting the violence that is imbedded in our culture, by the way we relate to each other, by the way too many in our society who have been and still are bruised, broken, killed by “the system” and by the way we humans treat the earth. And it is a nonviolence that energetically promotes just peace, the new story, the beloved community, the New Creation. 

I see this shift happening everywhere. I know thousands and thousands of people, whole communities around the world who are giving their lives to making the new story real – beginning with my own children, their children, their colleagues, all of you and the many circles of struggle with which you/we connect. I see it in brilliant work to root out systemic racism, voter suppression and structural injustice; to end the death penalty and mass incarceration; to redress centuries of oppression against indigenous communities; to break habits of exploitation that are destroying the earth; to learn and promote restorative justice practices; to welcome migrants and refugees; to rid the world of nuclear weapons; to fundamentally rework US budget priorities; to celebrate diversity and promote unwavering inclusion and respect for the rights of all people no matter how they identify, believing that radical inclusion is the foundational message of the Sermon on the Mount.

I see it in efforts (including my own) to be respectful and deeply inclusive in our use of language, including pronouns (I use “she, her, hers”); in growing awareness of where our feet are planted. In this place, in Arlington Virginia, we acknowledge with gratitude and deep respect to elders both past and present that we are gathered on the traditional land of the Anacostans, the Piscataway and the Pamunkey people. 

I see the new story in Pax Christi’s deep engagement with so many of these intersecting violences and in our searching, evolving contextual commitment to Gospel nonviolence. I see it in the courage and willingness on the part of PCUSA members of color and the many Pax Christi colleagues around the world who have been brutally harmed by our country’s policies and way of life, but who stay in/so often lead the struggle for justice and liberation knowing that liberation, much more than individual liberty, is an essential contribution to the common good.

I see a paradigm shift led by Pope Francis’ vision, creativity and commitment to the cry of the earth and the cry of those forced to live on the margins of our world. I see a leaning toward nonviolence in Catholic social thought that is being enhanced by the synodal process; and I see a complex and troubled institutional Church that here and there, including in the Vatican, has been amazingly open to engaging with our Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.

Five years ago in his 2017 World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis said, “to be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing His teaching about nonviolence. …I pledge the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.”

We are doing all that we can to take Pope Francis up on his offer, urging the Church to promote the necessary shift from an ethic of violence and war to an ethic of nonviolence  — through Catholic universities, religious communities, diocesan and parish programs, Catholic communications and diplomatic efforts. To reclaim the centrality of Gospel nonviolence would require a radical transformation of the internal life of the Catholic Church, as well as the public face, voice and engagement of the institution.

But the pushback to this proudly radical movement, of which you are such an important part, is ferocious and powerful; our work is not done and I am afraid it won’t be for a long time. This is a truly generational effort – so a big thank you to the younger members of Pax Christi USA who are so ably assuming leadership in our movement! 

Let me just say a few words about the war in Ukraine and about the culture wars in our own society, which, though profoundly different, are important examples of this aggressive opposition to the new story, the paradigm shift for which we are yearning. 

We have all watched in horror as the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated into a war of immense brutality with vicious attacks on civilians and essential infrastructure; a blockade that dramatically increased food insecurity especially in the Middle East and Africa, and an ominous threat to use nuclear weapons. 

The war in Ukraine is not more important than the other violences destroying human lives and the earth, but it is extremely serious because it is threatening to upend humanity’s real, though still very tentative, steps toward a new way of being on planet earth.

The Ukraine war has greatly intensified the choice between life and death. Either we will continue to live our way into the new story of right relationships and commit to developing and scaling up diverse, powerful nonviolent tools to address root causes of conflict before it reaches such catastrophic proportions or we will remain stuck in the old story that violence and war are inevitable.

Even now, although examples of creative, active nonviolence on the ground in Ukraine and Russia are plentiful, and nonviolence practitioners in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and around the world have proposed a strategy of essential nonviolent actions for during and after the war, weapons continue to flow to Ukraine and nonviolent strategies are largely marginalized. 

For as long as we humans fail to absorb the significance of the new person emerging from evolution who is wired for cooperation and inclusion or to focus on making the shift to nonviolence that I have been describing, military action will always appear to be the only option, creating a platform for self-serving, powerful forces to fuel a new arms race; to recenter the insane and morally bankrupt strategy of nuclear deterrence; to dismiss the horrific loss of human life, damage to essential infrastructure and wounding of the precious earth community wherever wars are fought. The realization of a new paradigm based on nonviolence is even more necessary than it was a few months ago – and more difficult. 

The other example – of culture wars in the United States may be, if you can believe it, a slightly more hopeful sign. I say that because I believe that white nationalism, blatant racism, xenophobia, extreme individualism, irrational demands for personal liberty and individual security that undercut human security and the common good are a fear-driven reaction to the deep, transformative change that is underway, especially at a structural and systemic level. We know now, and with so many others are now acting on the knowledge, that racism is imbedded in our culture and in our socio-economic structures; that enemy-making is good business for some; that nonviolent strategies have been proven to be effective; and that it is criticall important that our society listens to and learns neglected or repudiated Black, Brown, Asian, indigenous, immigrant and LGBTQ histories and all of herstories is critically important;. We are helping to realize a societal transformation that is slow, but deep, powerful, threatening. And the stronger it is, the more effective, the more savage will be the backlash! 

And so we will continue in the struggle, claiming the grace and courage to walk unafraid and filled with hope as new humans into the new story about nonviolence told to us by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

Once again, what we are birthing will be closer to the beloved community; it will be anti-racist, diverse and socially just. It will be built on right relationships with each other and with the natural world. It will not depend on weapons of war but on a commitment to inclusive human dignity and respect for the integrity of creation. It will be diverse, nonviolent, a new way of being viewed through the prism of justice.

With Amanda Gorman let us “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one…There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Thank you so much to Bishop Stowe, to Charlene [Howard] and the Pax Christi USA National Council; to Johnny [Zokovitch] and to every member of the Pax Christi USA staff and the many conference committees for this beautiful conference and for this honor.

4 thoughts on “Marie Dennis’s Teacher of Peace 2022 acceptance speech

  1. John August Swanson, who just went to God after a lifetime of Pax Christi dedication and brilliant
    Christian art that embodies it, has been giving us vivid takes of this peaceable kingdom for decades.

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