by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The rich Spanish phrase Hilo Conductor means “guiding force, or common thread, or best put “live wire.” In English It refers commonly to electrical current but in Spanish it can mean a coalescing force, a guiding principle for any number of human situations. For example, economics have been described as el hilo conductor of history.

The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI), while not using this exact terminology, posits violence as the hilo conductor of every situation of injustice, discrimination, and conflict in human affairs. For many this expanded understanding of violence is something new. Don’t we usually think of violence as physical aggression between individuals or nations? The dictionary reenforces this limited understanding of violence, defining it as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something”; “brutality, roughness”; “the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.” We need to review our common understanding of violence as limited to actions of a physical nature.

A simple example and useful for our purposes in this final week of the Season of Creation is the  phrase we often use to describe the plight of Planet Earth: “Humans are doing violence to the environment.”

In his epochal encyclical Laudato si, Pope Francis cites the complex and intertwined causes for this heretofore unheard of human situation – threats to the very existence of the Earth. In the first chapter of that document, titled “What is happening to our Common Home,” he mentions the horrifying effects of our violence against nature and their impact on us all. They are to an alarming degree already injuring impoverished peoples but the entire world as well.

Briefly summarizing the pope’s analyses is a short list of modern violence against nature. We know them well: 

  • High levels of smoke in our air due to industrial fumes. 
  • Acidification of the soil by substances like fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.
  • As consequences of these violent human activities in vast areas of the world the water is polluted, the air is toxic and the ground is arid.

As the pope says, “Frequently no corrective measures are taken until after people’s health [and the health of Mother Earth] has been irreversibly affected.”

CNI, through continuing dialogue with people who are most suffering from these forms of violence, has come to a comprehensive hilo conductor which confronts violence in all its dimensions. These conversations have resulted in a spirituality of nonviolence as a way of life.

However, the meaning of nonviolence can be misunderstood. For example, nonviolence does not mean passivism as some understand it – an attitude of total non-engagement with the harm being done. Nor is it pacifism – refusal to confront the evil being done. Instead, CNI insists that “nonviolence is a force that resists injustice and violence, a spiritual discipline and a powerful strategy that challenges violence without using violence, transforms conflict, fosters just, peaceful, effective and sustainable resolutions to conflict and seeks the well-being of creation and community.”

CNI is not something new, a sort of popular idea dreamt up by a group of modern-day Catholic activists. It is deeply rooted in Hebrew Scriptures and particularly in the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. It is a deepening of Catholic Social Teaching. This is detailed in the book Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and the World.

Typically, Pope Francis points to an available way to oppose the monstrous violence afflicting our Common Home – lifestyle choices. He says, “Change in lifestyle could bring about healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power.” 

Or as CNI puts it: What if every U.S. American Catholic – every Catholic worldwide – implemented the pope’s call for conscientious decisions regarding our footprints on Earth?

 Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

One thought on “The spirituality of nonviolence as a lifestyle choice

  1. Perhaps it’s quibling to point out that “pacifism” comes from two Latin words, “pax” and “facere”, that is, to make peace. Hence, it seems to me that Joe’s description of nonviolence applies to pacifism. Don Helder Camara, deceased Brazilian Abp, summed it up in his small book “Spiral of Violence”: Oppression, Rebellion, Repression. Pope Paul VI words are most fitting here, “If you want peace, work for justice.” …. Thanks, Joe.

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