by Nancy Small
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
As Pax Christi USA’s 50th anniversary year was drawing to a close, I found myself reflecting on its logo, that bold image of a full-bodied rose blooming from a stem of barbed wire.
Maybe it was the scripture readings we heard throughout Advent, with Isaiah’s words about beauty blooming in unlikely places, that reminded me of the Pax Christi rose. “The desert and the parched land will exult,” writes Isaiah, “the steppe will rejoice and bloom” (Is 35:1). Barbed wire is a most unlikely place for a rose to blossom, and the beauty of it blooming from an instrument of barbarity is a striking symbol of the exultation Isaiah envisioned.
Or maybe it was Isaiah’s “on that day” refrain, heard again and again throughout the Advent season, that turned my attention toward the Pax Christi rose. “On that day,” writes Isaiah, “the branch of our God will be luster and glory, and the fruit of the earth will be honor and splendor” (Is 4:2). The Pax Christi rose reflects that luster and glory. It reminds us that the humble seeds of peace we plant today contain the hope of tomorrow. We toil today as Pax Christi members have toiled each day for the past 50 years, honoring the nonviolent tradition that we uphold, believing in the splendor of the harvest of justice that is sown in peace.
The barbed wire rose blooms in faithful witness to “that day” which Isaiah foretold. Its bloom never fades. Its stem reaches upward toward ever greater heights. Its blossom testifies to the promise of a brighter future. Through our work, the presence and prominence of nonviolence grows. For 50 years we’ve persevered against the principalities and powers. Each time we do, hope blooms. Promise persists. The vision moves closer to its appointed time, as the prophet Habakkuk pledged it would.
We draw inspiration for the future symbolized by the Pax Christi rose. But the rose also calls us to take an honest look at the present in terms of the challenges we face and the nonviolent choices we make.
When Pax Christi USA celebrated its 20th anniversary, national staff member Jim Dinn wrote about the logo in the anniversary issue of the Pax Christi USA magazine. “Barbed wire exposes our tendency to build barricades rather than bridges,” Jim wrote. “In barbed wire we confront the perverseness of our technology, the possessiveness of our stewardship, the viciousness of our mania for control. Here is our paranoia and our xenophobia: everything threatens. The stranger, the outsider, is the enemy.”
Sadly, this commentary on our society is as true today as it was then.
But so is the audacity of the rose that blooms from that barbed wire. “A rose out of barbed wire is an affront to common sense,” wrote Jim. “It is the stuff of poets and prophets, an absurdity related to the absurdity of a messiah on a cross…. It is inseparable from the absurdity of the cross because it partakes of the absurdity of the resurrection. It is an astounding unimaginable gift.” (From The Barbed Wire and the Rose by Jim Dinn, Pax Christi USA, Vol. XVII, No. 1/No 2, Spring/Summer 1992.)
An absurd and unimaginable gift, indeed. The Pax Christi rose contrasts the sense of captivity that barbed wire represents with a captivating image reminding us that durable peace can grow from division. The rose bears witness to the words that stood alongside it for many years: Violence ends where love begins. A transformative love that hammers swords into plowshares and reworks barbed wire into bridges. An unconditional love that embraces enemies and prays for persecutors. A justice-seeking love that recognizes all are bound until all are free.
Those who live within barbed wire quickly learn to keep their distance from its spikes. Society tells us we best keep our distance as well from those who are different and deemed to be a threat to our way of life. We best keep our distance, too, we’re told, from injustices that are deeply imbedded in the infrastructure of our society.
But we know better. The sharp spikes that protrude from the barbed wire of the Pax Christi rose remind us how painful the reality of living with injustice truly is. The rose calls us to be in solidarity with all who are treated unjustly and with the ache of injustice itself, to feel the barbed wire piercing the flesh of humanity and the fragile ecosystems of Mother Earth.
We know that it is when we bump up against the barbed wire that transformation becomes possible. It is when we dig into the depths of injustice to prune away the root rot that the rose bush thrives and buds anew. It is when we bring the courage of our conviction to reshape the wire from a design that entraps and enslaves to a design that enlivens and empowers that we create a place where we encounter the other as holy. We create sacred space for every person to grow toward their God-given potential and promote the growth of society toward a more just social order.
In this way the Pax Christi rose calls us as a movement to pay attention to the present moment. We discern the signs of the times to learn about the challenges we face and the opportunities that exist. This discernment helps us determine how to act as stewards of a new social order steeped in nonviolent spirituality.
Roses invite us to pause and behold their unique beauty. So, too, our work for peace invites us to pause, sometimes to ponder how to utilize nonviolence in the unique situation we face, sometimes to take stock of the bounty of our work for peace and the blossoming of each individual nonviolent action.
We paused to ponder and honor our legacy as we made our way through our 50th anniversary year. Old connections were renewed while the seeds of new relationships were planted. The beauty of who we are and the bounty of the gifts we bear were evident as we honored our past, embraced our present and dreamed our future. The logo was prominently featured in our gatherings as we celebrated burgeoning new life within our movement. It stood strong beside us as we reflected on our past, celebrated our accomplishments, admitted our failures, mourned our losses, and renewed our commitment to persevere. The bloom of the Pax Christi rose bears witness to the living, breathing movement we are, a movement that endures whatever momentary challenges we may face. We prune as needed and press on with promise.
As we journeyed through our jubilee year, the growing power of gospel nonviolence symbolized by the Pax Christi rose was evident. Our actions may seem small, but each one is like a mustard seed, packed with the power of muscular nonviolence, capable of moving mountains. In her speech at Pax Christi USA’s 50th anniversary conference, Marie Dennis, Pax Christi USA’s 2022 Teacher of Peace, spoke of this muscular nonviolence as “actively engaged in preventing or interrupting the violence that is imbedded in our culture…, a nonviolence that energetically promotes just peace, the new story, the beloved community, the New Creation.”
Pax Christi USA’s work for the past 50 years bears witness to the new story Marie speaks about, including a new articulation of nonviolence within the Catholic narrative. As a faith-based movement with a formal tie to the Catholic Church through our bishop president, we’ve strengthened the Catholic peace tradition. The spirituality of nonviolence and peacemaking holds a more prominent place now than it did 50 years ago because of our work. As we’ve practiced nonviolence with creativity and courage, we’ve broadened its reach within the Catholic church and the wider society. The bloom of the Pax Christi rose has grown more full.
At the 50th anniversary gathering of Pax Christi International in 1995, Pope John Paul II said, “Movements like Pax Christi are precious… They help to develop conscience, so that justice and the search for the common good can prevail in the relations between individuals and peoples. These are the foundations for lasting peace.”
Pope Francis has consistently called for peace through nonviolence, making it a major theme of his papacy. In his 2017 World Day of Peace message he wrote “to be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” In 2016 and 2019, the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (a project of Pax Christi International) organized conferences on nonviolence and just peace in Rome, the first one (in 2016) co-sponsored by what was then the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the second one (in 2019) by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. These seminal events situated nonviolence more prominently within the Catholic faith. Leaders present at these gatherings have been calling for Pope Francis to issue a papal encyclical about nonviolence. In December 2022, at a Rome conference entitled “Pope Francis, Nonviolence and the Fullness of Pacem in Terris,” 75 leaders from around the world came together in what Terence Rynne called “a peaceful revolution” where they amplified the call for this papal encyclical (New Rome conference on Gospel nonviolence could serve as push for papal encyclical, National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 59, No. 7, Jan 6-19, 2023, p. 20).
The seeds of peace that we’ve been sowing for 50 years have been recognized by two pontiffs as precious and prophetic.
The fresh bloom of the Pax Christi rose reminds us that the fields where we labor are fertile, no matter how dry and arid they may seem, no matter the size of the boulders that protrude from the rocky soil of a society prone to resisting the prophetic work that we do. Nonviolence has shown itself capable of overturning the biggest boulder and taking root in the parched land. “The earth shall yield its increase,” writes Ezekiel. “They shall be secure on their soil, and they shall know that I am God when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them,” (Ez 34:27). Through our efforts in gospel nonviolence, the yield of nonviolence is increasing and the yoke of oppression that holds our nation, our world and sometimes our own hearts in bondage is slowly breaking.
The hope that runs through these words of Ezekiel runs through the veins of each petal of the Pax Christi rose. It is a resilient hope born of the nonviolent story and struggle that defined the early Christian community. This hope endured defeat, death, rejection and persecution. It’s a hope born of belief in a power greater than ourselves, given by a God whose love cannot be eroded by hatred. This hope is stirred by the breath of the indomitable Spirit that comforts and consoles, advocates and agitates. It is the hope that rolled away the stone of death and rose triumphant from the grave.
This hope harbors a dream that is held within the Pax Christi rose, a dream of a world that recognizes nonviolence not as the absence of conflict but as the axis upon which our world must spin in order to survive.
We enter 2023 renewed by our jubilee year, ready to continue building a just peace. As we do, I’ll keep my eye on that rose that has been blooming for 50 years and shows no signs of stopping. There’s a fullness in the rose that bears witness to the fruit of our labor. Keep your eyes on my prize, it seems to say. Remember that each time you feel the pain of the barbed wire you feed the promise of that day when swords and spears are recast into tools for planting and plowing. Each time you till the rocky soil you bring us nearer to that day when barbed wire is refashioned into structures that support a just social order grounded in gospel nonviolence.
Onward we go as together we grow.