By: Ellen Teague
The first of this week's Pax Christi's seminars on the theme of 'Nonviolence Works!' has taken place in South London at the Amigo Hall of St George's Cathedral. Around 50 people heard a panel of speakers pick up on the words of Pope Francis in his 2017 World Peace Day message that nonviolence is 'a style of politics for peace'. They explored what this might mean in practice, building on the work of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. This is a project of Pax Christi International, launched at the 'Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference' held in Rome April 11-13, 2016 and co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Pax Christi International, and other international bodies.
The South London seminar was chaired and introduced by Valerie Flessati and Pat Gaffney of Pax Christi UK. Keynote speakers from the United States were Marie Dennis - co-president of Pax Christi International since 2007, who played a leading role in the joint Pax Christi/Vatican International Initiative on Nonviolence and Just Peace – and Maria Stephan, senior policy fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and an expert on civil resistance and its relevance for violent conflict prevention.
Marie Dennis quoted two people who live in war-torn situations - Sr Nazil Matty in Iraq who says that, "we can't respond to violence with more violence" and Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu in Uganda who feels that "war is a lie because it destroys what it seeks to defend". She herself felt that, "the role of the Church in these times is to emphasise non-violent alternatives", using its great network of media, schools and universities, parishes and rich theological resources. She pointed to grassroots initiatives demonstrating nonviolence in practice, such as a Pax Christi project in Haiti to rehabilitate young gang members by providing sports programmes and peace education. And peaceful protests to get nuclear weapons banned because "they pose an existential threat to life on this planet".
Maria Stephan talked about her research which showed that nonviolent resistance has increased significantly and is actually proven to be more effective than violent strategies. Civil resistance to various injustices, for example, can have a huge participation and by people of all ages and backgrounds. "Civil disobedience is very powerful, especially when large numbers are involved" she said. Global activist networks can be very powerful, making good use of social media tools.
Questions were raised by participants about military chaplains, who are ranking officers in the military in the UK and the United States, and the presence of a cadet corps in many Catholic schools. It was felt that both legitimise militarism. It was hoped that an encyclical on Peace and Nonviolence might be forthcoming and cover such areas as pacifism and conscientious objection. Involvement of women in peace processes was felt to be vital, and that would include conversations within the Church. The Just War principle needs revisiting, and peace campaigner Bruce Kent felt that if it is applied to today's realities then modern weapons could not be used to deal with tensions because of their destructive and indiscriminate power.
Fr Joe Ryan, Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace, wrote after attending the seminar:
"Heard two powerful speakers from the United States - Maria Stephan and Marie Dennis. In a militarised world where war and violence are the response to conflict, we need to realise there is another solution - Creative Peacemaking. So often the 'oxygen' of peaceful dialogue is stifled out at an early stage of the peace process by economic or national security concerns and so the efforts are dead in the water. We need the vocabulary and method to present an alternative solution of nonviolence."
Fr Rob Esdaile of Thames Ditton parish in Arundel and Brighton Diocese said: "Excellent Pax Christi seminar with Marie Dennis and Marie Stephan reminding us that "to be Catholic is to be nonviolent - that is the normal state of affairs."
Further seminar dates:
3 October Leeds Beckett University, Leeds
4 October Newman College, Birmingham
5 October Liverpool University
Full details at: www.paxchristi.org.uk