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Respecting Life in a Violent Society
by Mary Evelyn Jegen, S.N.D.

More than half of all people killed in wars throughout history were killed in the past 100 years. The 20th century will be remembered as the most violent in history. This violence is measured not only in war dead but also in the development of weapons of mass destruction, in the enormous increase in abortions and in the failure to take the steps necessary to correct the economic injustices that kill more people than do wars. We are horrified when schoolchildren kill other children, and we increasingly fear random killing. In 1996 (the last year for which there are available statistics), 4,643 children and teenagers in the U.S. were killed by guns. That averages the equivalent of a Littleton massacre every day.

Violence is power used to injure. Ordinarily we think of violence as physicalóa blow, a gunshot, a bombing. But violence can also take the form of destroying a reputation, of a cutting remark or a withering glance. Sometimes violence takes the form of withdrawal of power. Think of refugees, for example, deprived of the power to provide homes and communities for their families.

The gospel of life

As Christians, how are we to respond to violence? Jesus calls himself the way, the truth and the life; he says that he has come that we may have life and have it more abundantly. "The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesusí message," writes Pope John Paul II (The Gospel of Life, #1). What does that mean for us who are surrounded by violence?

We can get an idea of how Jesus understood life by reflecting on our personal experience. Our life at its best is always in the context of our love at its finest. Each of us can remember some peak experiences when we were most alive, full of energy and the joy of living. On careful reflection we can identify love in these experiences, a love that drew us out of ourselves.

We also have splendid examples in the lives of others. I think of my friend Katarina Kruhonja, a Catholic Croatian doctor who lives in Osijek, a city near the Serbian border. At the height of the war in the early 1990ís Katarina and a few of her friends decided to sit with neighbors in their apartments to resist ethnic cleansing without using physical force. Today, the Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights which Katarina helped found plays a major role in healing the wounds of war in Croatia. The Centerís members are Serbs and Croats working together, witnessing by their lives and works to the power of love that requires courage and solidarity and is more powerful than violence.

In Belfast I met women, Protestant and Catholic, who lived together in a house close to the dividing wall between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, an area terrorized by violence. These women organized activities for their children in a risky public witness to their refusal to be drawn into a culture of violence. They lived the prayer of Francis of Assisi, sowing love where there was hatred, hope where there was despair.

The call to conversion

When our United States bishops wrote their landmark pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: Godís Promise and Our Response, they reminded us how followers of Jesus are to respond to violence. A disciple of Jesus, they wrote, is called "not simply to believe with oneís mind, but also to become a doer of the word...and a witness to Jesus. This means, of course, that we never expect complete success within history and that we must regard as normal even the path of persecution and the possibility of martyrdom" (#276).

Have we, as disciples of Jesus and members of the Church in the United States, risked persecution or martyrdom in our witnessing to Jesus? Have we resisted strongly and persistently enough the culture of violence? Have we, for example, yet repented publicly for the violence of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The victims of those attacks were for the most part civilians.

The Challenge of Peace comes to grips with the moral implications of our countryís use of the atomic bomb. Our bishops recognized a stumbling block to redemption from violence when they wrote: "We must shape the climate of opinion that will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945" (#302). As a society we are called to conversion. We who are members of Christís mystical body have a particular responsibility to contribute to that conversion by expressing sorrow ourselves.

It is not only for the use of atomic weapons that we need the sorrow that makes conversion possible. The failure to repent is related to acceptance of other kinds of legalized killing in the United States: capital punishment, abortion and wars we have fought since 1945. That these ways are legal does not make them moral; nor does it mean that there are no significant distinctions among them. One thing they do have in common is their brutalizing effect on our society. Massive legalized killing makes it much more difficult for us to hold fast to the values of human dignity and of life and love as these are grounded in our Christian faith.

At the end of our century terrible violence is increasingly inflicted not only on civilians who are the principal victims of wars fought with guns and missiles, but also on the poor people who are victims of the violence of economic sanctions. In the case of Iraq, the most glaring example today, the death toll resulting from the sanctions is as great as if these people had been killed by bombs.

The arms trade is another of the most devastating kinds of international violence in which the U.S. is involved. Pope John Paul writes, "And what of the violence inherent not only in wars as such, but in the scandalous arms trade which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood?" (The Gospel of Life, #10).

Though we think first of the victims of violence, the harm done to the perpetrator of violence is real and serious because it affects directly the violatorís deepest core, the distinctive powers that make us humans created in the image of God. Widespread violence conditions the conscience, making it "increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life" (The Gospel of Life, #4).

Responding in love

What then can we do? We can first recognize that there is a societal and cultural dimension to violence for which we bear some responsibility. We are probably not personally guilty of violence, but have we done enough to redeem our culture of violence?

We take our cue from the life of Jesus, as a community of his disciples. While he did not have to contend with our particular forms of violence, he did live in a violent society. His countrymen lived under the heel of an efficient and cruel government that used public execution by torture as a means of keeping people in line. Jesus became a victim of Roman policy, a criminal executed for a capital crime. Viewed from a purely political perspective, his life was a tragic failure.

But it is the perspective of faith that gives us the key to interpreting the story differently. Resisting the conventional wisdom of his day, Jesus refused to fall into the trap of thinking that violence can be overcome by violence. Returning evil for evil simply feeds into a spiral of violence. Jesus met violence by consistently living out another vision that he called the kingdom of God. He said that this kingdom was among us, and showed that it was by his unconditional and all-embracing love. He taught the astonishing new commandment that we are to love even our enemies.

So what does the way of Jesus regarding violence mean? What are some of the actions available to us, actions that meet violence with love?

Starting with prayer

Prayer is surely one way. We are accustomed to praying for the victims of violence. Can we learn to pray for the perpetrators of violence as well? And can we add those who are passive in the presence of violence, who feel helpless before it? That might include ourselves.

We can learn how to listen with care and compassion to those labeled enemies by our society, making the effort to find out what their genuine grievances are and refusing to demonize them. Members of the Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Osijek teach compassionate listening to students and adults. They call it "giraffe language." They explained to me that the giraffe has a very large heart, needed to pump blood up that long neck to the brain. By listening with large hearts the people of Osijek are coming to new and truer understandings. A minister of education told me that he was convinced that the war could have been avoided had giraffe language been a part of the school curriculum in the decade before the fighting began.

One way to counteract violence, but a way that may be difficult for some, is to turn off the television when it makes entertainment of violence, conditioning us to want to seek excitement from it. One practical way to deal with media is to fast from television one day a week and to use the time saved to reflect on what was seen the other days, especially the news and its significance. That way, what is happening in the news can become a matter of prayer and citizen action.

We can renew a commitment to join our bishops in their pledge: "As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year" (The Challenge of Peace, #298).

Many families make a family pledge of nonviolence, committing themselves to respect themselves and others, to communicate better, to listen carefully especially when there are disagreements, to forgive and to make amends when they have hurt another and to avoid entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny or acceptable.

As citizens we can exercise our responsibility to support legislation that respects life and defends it, and we can oppose policies that do the opposite. It is our faith that calls us to such action.

'Transforming love'

In all our efforts we have the great blessing of knowing that violence is not a problem to be solved by our own strength. It is a mystery of evil to be addressed in union with Jesus who unmasked its claim to power by bringing into the world a far greater power. He labored to bring home to us how closely he wants to share that power with us. He tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches....By this is my Father glorified, that you should bear much fruit and become my disciples" (John 15:5,8). "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:56).

There is only one way to bring these words to life, and that is by testing them in action. These actions, simple daily acts of love in our families, schools, parishes, neighborhoods and the larger community, contribute to an environment in which violence has much less chance of expression. As we enter the third millennium by celebrating Jesusí birth, there is no better way to honor him than to grow in his way of meeting violence with transforming love, a costly but not impossible love because it is a participation in his own.*

Mary Evelyn Jegen, a Sister of Notre Dame, is the author of several books. She teaches about Christian spirituality and social concerns at Creighton University and in the Education for Parish Service program in Washington, D.C.



Father Ellwood Kieser

Father Ellwood (Bud) Kieser knows a good entrance has to be timed just so. And he should after 39 years in the entertainment industry.

The 70-year-old Paulist priest, producer of such films as Romero and Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, recently stepped into the Hollywood spotlight and issued a challenge to his fellow filmmakers: Letís diminish the level of violence in movies and TV. And letís start portraying the truthóthe truth that violence doesnít work in real life or, often, on the screen either.

Actually, Father Kieser maintains, nonviolence has all the ingredients of good drama, even if Hollywood doesnít readily turn to such stories. "With nonviolence," he told Millennium Monthly, viewers "have characters they can root for and identify with. There is suspense and jeopardy. There are issues of life and death. All those ingredients are present when love and hate collide in a nonviolent situation." Nonviolence makes for fine drama, he says, but in real life it is hard. "It takes more courage to endure than to engage in conflict."

What is Father Kieserís script for the film and TV industry to help diminish the level of violence? He has outlined three points in recent speeches and in a widely read article published in the Los Angeles Times this past summer: Reveal the sickness from which violence arises and the lonely, weak, isolated core of the violent person. Reveal the lethal effects of violence on victims and perpetrators and the families of both. Explore the dramatic potential of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Father Kieser also serves as president of the Humanitas Prize, a nonsectarian group which awards prizes to writers of movies and television shows that reflect human values. As such, he has some advice for the viewing public: Support good programming by writing to the sponsor or the network. "Positive letters do have their impact," he says, "especially ones directed to the sponsor. Better to support the good, watch a show as a family and discuss it together" than to turn to boycotts.

Father Kieser doesnít know if his co-workers in Hollywood will rise to the challenge he has issued. "Itís too early to know. Itís like a sermon. You plant a seed and hope it will germinate in time."*

— by Judy Ball




Prayer Summit

Leaders of the worldís religions will gather in Italy October 24-28 to explore the gospel values they have in common, including justice, peace and the good of the family. About 200 participants have been invited to the event, which is being coordinated by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The theme is "On the Threshold of the Third Millennium: Cooperation Among Various Religions."

After several days of presentations and group discussions, the invited guests are scheduled to make a one-day pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. The birthplace of St. Francis was also the site of an interreligious day of prayer for peace in 1986, with Pope John Paul II as host. The final day of this yearís gathering will begin back in Rome with participants observing a day of fasting and praying, in their own traditions, at sites near the Vatican. The Holy Father will join the religious leaders for a concluding public ceremony in St. Peterís Square.

The event fulfills a dream outlined by Pope John Paul in his 1994 apostolic letter, On the Coming Third Millennium. In that document he speaks of the eve of the year 2000 as providing "a great opportunity" for interreligious dialogue, with special focus on the participation of Christians, Muslims and Jews.*


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