Respecting Life in a Violent Society
by Mary Evelyn
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.
gospel of life
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?
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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).
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,
Responding in love
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.*
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,
Father Ellwood Kieser
Ellwood (Bud) Kieser knows a good entrance has to be timed just
so. And he should after 39 years in the entertainment industry.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
by Judy Ball
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
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.
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.*