Vowing Nonviolence: What Does It Mean?

Vowing Nonviolence: What Does It Mean? May 18, 2014

This weekend, I stood with my local Pax Christi chapter, as well as a sizeable number of parishioners at the church where we meet, to take Pax Christi USA’s Vow of Nonviolence.  The text of the vow is available through the above link, but I will also reproduce it in full here.

Recognizing the violence in my own heart, yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I vow for one year to practice the nonviolence of Jesus who taught us in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God…You have learned how it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy’; but I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be daughters and sons of your Creator in heaven.”

Before God the Creator and the Sanctifying Spirit, I vow to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus

  • by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life;
  • by accepting suffering rather than inflicting it;
  • by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
  • by persevering in nonviolence of tongue and heart;
  • by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
  • by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.

God, I trust in Your sustaining love and believe that just as You gave me the grace and desire to offer this, so You will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it.

I might have worded this slightly differently if I had written it or maybe if I had said it individually: in a Trinitarian formula I generally prefer using “Father”, which strikes me as more personal than “Creator” and somehow also more robust (maybe because of its consistent place in the tradition of such formulae, not to mention scripture); I also would have preferred the word “violence” be substituted for “war” because it encompasses much more, not least the subtler workings of violence in “my own heart”.

But these are just quibbles over words, and all I actually had to say was “I will” to each point anyway.  My one real qualm, which had me considering not taking the vow, was the nagging question of whether it would actually result in my doing anything differently.  This is not because I think I’m already fulfilling everything this vow promises – far from it.  It’s because I already know that I believe wholeheartedly in the content of these promises but have long struggled to fulfill them in practice.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit to the same level of self-sacrifice to which my erstwhile colleague Mark Gordon once declared his intention in starkly concrete terms, nor have I even worked out exactly what that would entail in my own life.  Yet even the vow I took, which looks vague and perhaps a bit anemic by comparison, is quickly being tested – starting at Mass itself, as my relentlessly critical mind tried to convince me that my musical and architectural preferences were worthy distractions from being fed by my Lord so that I may seek to follow him.  It may well be tested again when next I meet with a handful of others who took the same vow along with me.  And of course, in addition to such flesh-and-blood encounters, I expect my renewed commitment will also be tested in these comboxes.  I don’t doubt that my interlocutors here will not hesitate to hold me accountable, and I hope that they will do so in charity and truth and that I will respond likewise.

Perhaps this vow we made was nothing more or less than a reminder of the same promises we entered into at baptism and reaffirmed at confirmation, and have reencountered in every meeting of Christ in the Eucharist, and recommitted to whenever we seek reconciliation by confessing our sins, and which some of us may pledge ourselves to in a particular vocation of marriage or ordination, and with which we all hope to be anointed when in danger or in need of healing.

Perhaps it is the same vow we make every time we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

That, at least, is what I hope it means.


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  • Tausign

    Julia, May the Lord give you peace.

    What a wonderful vow to make! Don’t quibble over the minutia, a true stumbling block if ever there was one. This is a conversion process and the ideal guide/patron is St. Francis of Assisi. I do heartily recommend (beg) that you read The Saint and the Sultan, by Paul Moses for some penetrating insight (well beyond hagiography) into what moved young Francis from warrior to peacemaker.

    Peace and good.

  • Jordan

    Thank you very much Julia for your observations on this vow. I will take the vow to church with me and recite it before the Blessed Sacrament. I’ve wanted to join Pax Christi for years. I should stop procrastinating and make my donation.

    Julia: This is not because I think I’m already fulfilling everything this vow promises – far from it. It’s because I already know that I believe wholeheartedly in the content of these promises but have long struggled to fulfill them in practice.

    [I] have long struggled to fulfill them in practice. [my addition] This statement is the essence of the personal movement from hatred of those who advocate violence towards a metaphorical embrace in charity of those who advocate for even the most immoral violent actions, especially in the name of state.

    After the recent “botched” execution of a prisoner in Oklahoma (as if any unjust taking of life, especially by a state, is not botched morally and ethically), I have harbored within me an earnest hatred of those who attempt to morally validate state execution. I cannot at all understand any justification for this practice. In particular, I have read editorials by evangelical preachers who attempt to validate state execution through biblical literalism. I find their exegetical and theological arguments childish compared to magisterial teaching and the collected wisdom on the bible verses some preachers indiscriminately sow. Indeed, have not modern rabbis declared the death sentences of the Torah no longer morally applicable? Is Romans 13:4 a call for obedient martyrdom, or a warrant for the state to execute indiscriminately? I have little respect for those who advocate facile readings of any document.

    [I] have long struggled to fulfill them in practice. For me, the stumbling block to fulfillment is intellectual pride. This is an insidious but persistent corrosion. The vows are a welcome corrective.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you as usual for your thoughtful comment, Jordan. Your introspection models very well the reading of Thomas Merton that inspired Mark’s year-long personal commitment to what he called “conversion therapy” (which I linked to in this post). Merton says, “instead of hating the people you think are war makers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” My stumbling blocks are similar to yours, but that is the corrective I’m aiming for.

      • Jordan

        re: bill bannon [May 20, 2014 8:14 am]: Bill, I’ve often thought about this situation. I do not own guns on principle, so I would not be able to shoot the assailant. I am also not strong enough to wrest the rapist from my relative. I would be powerless. This, in itself, is distressing.

        I pray every day that I could forgive any person who might do grave harm to me, my family, and my friends. Christ calls us to the radical, uncompromising forgiveness he has taught us from the cross. In my view, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) is not a historical statement but rather a commandment. It is not enough to merely love a neighbor who is at peace with you. One must also love the neighbor who has wronged you, even gravely, even to the point of being crucified by a neighbor.

        It is natural and justifiable for persons who have been gravely wronged to experience feelings of anger. No white-hot anger can be quenched in capital punishment, because injustice cannot be corrected through injustice. I do not for a moment think that those who have received “justice” for the wrongs done to them receive any solace from the execution of the wrongdoer. Quite the opposite: the anger continues unabated.

        The salve of anger is mercy, not retribution.

        • bill bannon

          Well….Christ never addressed atrocious assault at all. He said in one gospel that if your opponent strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other. Scholars like Fr. Raymond Brown have pointed out that the right cheek means the man used his weaker hand…the left. The passage then is about a ritualistic striking not atrocious assault. It is the level of ordinary acrimony at work or in family trouble. Christ, when struck more than that in John 18 when before the high priest…does not turn the other cheek:

          “22 And when he had said these things, one of the servants standing by gave Jesus a blow, saying: Answerest thou the high priest so? 23 Jesus answered him: If I have spoken evil, give testimony of the evil; but if well, why strikest thou me?”

          Paul likewise is struck before the high priest in Acts 23 and also does not turn the other cheek: “Then Paul said to him: God shall strike thee, thou whited wall. For, sittest thou to judge me according to the law and, contrary to the law, commandest me to be struck?”

          Retribution should not be a factor when defending yourself or another. Your state law only allows you to use necessary force which can be lethal but still is not retribution. Retribution is when you keep shooting someone who has dropped their gun on the floor after you’ve shot their collar bone. Most states will prosecute the defender who goes beyond defense into retribution.
          The meaning of Rom.13:4 is that only the state can execute God’s wrath…not man’s wrath. God protected Cain from man’s wrath when there was no state. That same God mandated execution for murder a little later in Gen.9:5-6 …why?….because the first kingdom was about to begin under Nimrod in Gen.10:8. Gen.9:6’s death penalty was given to all mankind. Later God would give a plethora of death penalties to the Jews only in Leviticus and Deuteronomy for largely personal sins and God ended those with Christ….but Gen.9:5-6 is repeated in Romans 13:4. It is not for man’s wrath but for God’s as the text states. The state alone executes but it deputizes the homeowner by its laws to kill if necessary in self defense or in defending a loved one. But again retribution is sinfully going beyond self defense but self defense can include killing if absolutely necessary.

          • Julia Smucker

            Bill, I’m confused about your exigesis, especially of John and Acts. How are the responses of Jesus and Paul in tension with the command to turn the other cheek? They are both challenging the reasoning by which the high priest justifies violence against them, not striking back.

        • bill bannon

          Jesus and Paul clearly signalled before the high priest that they were against receiving more abuse on the other cheek (or place in their heart).
          Real turning the other cheek allows another hit from the other person….happens in marriage when you understand where the other person is really getting their anger motivation and understanding let’s you let them vent more than once or twice. At some point beyond twice or thrice for their good, you then do what Jesus and Paul did…stop the hits.

          • Julia Smucker

            Nonviolently, yes – there’s the difference.

            I think part of the point of “turning the other cheek” is to expose the guilt of the perpetrator of violence by remaining innocent oneself. Jesus and Paul did something similar by using reason to expose the irrationality of the violence being committed against them. I suppose you could say they tried to talk their way out of those situations, or at least that their objections went on record. But in the end, they both accepted death rather than trying to save themselves by returning violence for violence. To quote Jesus elsewhere, they were “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”.

        • FWIW, I’m skeptical of the “it means the guy has to hit you with the left hand” intepretation. The idea is that the one who strikes has to use his weaker hand, and that makes him have to strike you as an equal, rather than back-hand you as a slave–in effect a sort of one-upmanship. It smacks too much of the old interpretation of the “eye of the needle” as a low gate that the camels had to crawl through–in short, it’s trying to make what Jesus said less radical. He didn’t really mean a real needle, so it’s just hard for a rich man to go to heaven, not impossible. He really meant the striker brings himself down, so you’re not just being a passive punching bag.

          However, if you look at the other parallel statements (giving your coat as well as your tunic, going the extra mile), there’s nothing at all to mitigate the radical nature of what he says. I think Jesus isn’t saying that we’re engaging in passive-aggressive spiritual one-upmanship. I think he’s saying that the whole outlook that sees non-resistance as making oneself a punching bag or doormat, or that is concerned with putting the other guy in his place, even by implication, is wrong to begin with. The world will always see the way of Jesus as the way of losers, doormats, and sheep (as Nietzsche would say). That’s not our problem; it’s the world’s.

    • bill bannon

      What if you come across a female relative being raped as you enter her house?

  • Mark VA

    Ms. Smucker:

    I’m very impressed with your post – your humility, gentleness, and honesty strike me. As I was reading it, a question for your private consideration entered my mind – have you thought about a vocation to the consecrated life, or a vocation as a lay person associated with a religious order?

    Going on a little tangent, please allow me to share a (hopefully humorous) little story:

    A while back I resolved to really get this humility thing right. I analyzed the character traits that mark a truly humble life, quantified them on applicable scales, and set to work on this project in earnest. And guess what, it actually worked, I became very humble, especially when I compared myself with other people around me.

    I became very proud of my new found humility, until when one day Father took me aside, and asked rhetorically: “Now, let’s be honest, it really isn’t working, is it, Mark?” On sufficient reflection, I had to agree with him, and then there was nothing else left but to throw all my humility scales in the trash. But on the upbeat note, I did learn how to laugh at myself, and that’s one skill I intend on keeping.

    • trellis smith

      I echo the sentiment here, right out of Franklin’s Autobiography. We don’t get better and probably get worse that even if bedridden our thoughts alone would give sufficient employment for the confessor. Only through grace…

  • Brian Martin

    I think you describe one of the things at the very heart of this faith we call Christianity. None of us live up to the example of Jesus. I especially agree with your last two paragraphs. We, as we try to move closer to God, must continue to look at our intentions, and whether we are actually trying to live them out. I have spent the majority of my life focusing on what I believe, and educating myself, and going to church, but I never really “lived” my faith. And, I find that upon truly trying to live my faith, I become more aware of my failings, and also more aware of the “tuggings and temptings” of satan. As I try to integrate a spirit of discernment and looking for God’s will, and living my faith, I find my faith asserting itself in subtle and helpful ways throughout my day as a therapist, as a husband, and as a parent. But it is the continued focus and refocus of intentionally focusing on God…the daily “practice” to borrow from my study of mindfulness, that I have to keep coming back to. The vows are the goal…that you, as you stated so well, must continue to renew your commitment to.

  • Jordan

    re: bill bannon [May 20, 2014 8:18 pm] [transferred]:

    Bill writes,

    The meaning of Rom.13:4 is that only the state can execute God’s wrath…not man’s wrath. God protected Cain from man’s wrath when there was no state. That same God mandated execution for murder a little later in Gen.9:5-6 …why?….because the first kingdom was about to begin under Nimrod in Gen.10:8. Gen.9:6′s death penalty was given to all mankind.

    This perspective might be true from a biblically literalist standpoint. From a historical-critical perspective, the allegories of Genesis do not speak of “states” in a manner that is resonant with the modern experience of nominally-representative and nominally-democratic governments. I scarequote “state” because it is clear that the authors of Genesis describe Nimrod as an inchoate settlement of humanity which likely did not have non-lethal means to protect the welfare of the settlement.

    Unless we think that Nimrod’s kingdom is a distant figment of imagination, even 18th century England had difficulty maintaining sufficient and humane imprisonment (instead, Australia beckoned). I am sure you know that John Paul II considered capital punishment to be functionally obsolete in most cases. Developed countries have the means today to protect society from violent offenders through lifetime imprisonment. Why is this an insufficient means of protection?

    The use of a phenobarbital cocktail to kill a person who would otherwise be sufficiently protected from society through life imprisonment without parole is retribution. A state which practices capital punishment commits two actions which are beyond its mandate: first, the state takes upon itself the facade of deterrence. Second, the state extends a false proxy retribution to the wronged. Neither is the prerogative of American government, whose only obligation in incarceration is protection (and perhaps rehabilitation). Nimrod’s kingdom and St. Paul’s sword are historical statements which speak not of doctrine but of a civil necessity which is no longer morally feasible.

    • bill bannon

      John Paul II and his revised catechism never thought of deterring those outside prison who have not been caught yet. They don’t mention it at all. Life sentences only deter captured murderers (the catechism’s only insight area) which in Guatemala are five percent of murderers. Yes…it like five other non death penalty Catholic countries are among the worst in the world including nos.1&2 …no death penalty Honduras and El Salvador. Oops…the Magisterium only looked at the antiseptic Euro world. Mexico and Brazil are the two largest Catholic populations…no death penalty, porous prisons and they are 20 times less safe than China which has hundreds of millions of poor people and they are an astounding 60 times less safe than Shinto Japan. Your Catholic daughter is safer touring death penalty Japan than all of the Catholic continent and Central America.
      Would the death penalty make Mexico like Japan? No. But it would help. Cartel members number over half the number of the Mexican army. China would actually make Mexico safe overnight because they have little regard for Western delusions about executing.
      Deterrence of uncaptured killers… by execution was found in studies by the US Supreme Court during its moratorium on the death penalty between 1972 and 1976. The Court halted the death penalty, studied deterrence studies, and opted for those which found executions deter premeditated murders not passion murders. Lawyers and sociologist studies tended toward finding no deterrence; economists who use regressional analysis tend to find for deterrence.
      Actually reality made an appearance. Murders went up in death penalty states after 1972 and went down after the moratorium ended. Pretty basic. They feared the death penalty more than life sentences …as Acts 5 substantiates after Peter and God jointly execute Ananias and Sapphira and the passage ends with… “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”

      • I think the appropriate response to violence is two-tiered. The ideal is non resistance, period. A good example of this attitude is in Chapter XXXVI of Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, a translation of the stories of the Desert Fathers:

        One of the brothers asked Abbot Sisois: Suppose some robbers or savages attack me and try to kill me: if I can overcome them should I kill them myself? The elder replied: Not at all. But commit yourself entirely to God. Any evil that comes to you, confess that it happened to you because of your sins, for you must learn to attribute everything to the dispensation of God’s wisdom.

        This is nonresistance and pacifism without compromise, and I think this is the ideal Christian response. It’s not a numbers game. It’s not about penal policy or Eurocentric views or deterrence or what countries are safer. Heck, back in the days of the Soviet Union, they said that Russia was a very safe place in terms of crime. Totalitarianism will do that; but it’s not Christian.

        However, most of us aren’t at the level of the Fathers. Thus, in the spirit of Christ’s “let him who can do so, do so”, I think we are allowed to defend ourselves as a concession to the fallen world we live in. I would certainly defend my daughter or wife with violence, even deadly force, if need be; but I’d go to Confession afterwards, since I think even justified violence is still sinful.

        As to the Ananias and Sapphira pericope, it is very weird and disturbing and seems to imply that it’s OK for Popes at least (Peter is considered the first), if not other clerics, to curse people to death! Seems at odds with what Jesus said! My take on that story is over here, where I also reference Chapter LX of The Wisdom of the Desert.

        • Julia Smucker

          Turmarion, I have some reservations about the idea of spiritual elites being called to a higher level of discipleship than most Christians (kind of making what Jesus said less radical, as you say in your other comment), but having said that, I find your honesty refreshing. Your willingness to go to confession after even the kind of violence you concede to is, it seems to me, a recognition that every act of violence does some sort of harm to the soul of the perpetrator, whatever extenuating circumstances there may be.

          I’m usually annoyed by hypothetical attacker situations, as they tend to reductionistically remove the human moral agency of the attacker or victim or anyone except the one person with the means to use force against the attacker. But the nuance of your example has me thinking. For my part, I’m sure I would feel relieved and grateful to someone who used non-lethal force to restrain a would-be rapist or killer. And I hope that my conscience has been formed in such a way that I would ultimately desire redemption rather than retribution, although nobody can be sure how they would respond to a hypothetical situation until it becomes reality, and I certainly do not hope to be tested in that way. But I can’t imagine wanting to live with the knowledge that someone has killed another for my sake.

          What I really respect about your concession to violence (there’s something I almost never say!) is that it appears in all honesty to be made grudgingly. That, I can understand. What boggles and appalls me (and where I often struggle against becoming what I hate, as Jordan has described) is the eagerness with which some invariably rush to defend violence – and that in the very name of God, even of Christ and his Church. That is something that no Christian should ever want to do.

        • Julia Smucker

          Come to think of it, staying in the hypothetical another minute, I’m not sure it’s a good thing for me to automatically see myself in the position of the passive “damsel in distress” in the first place. I’m not just talking about kicking an assailant in the groin – although I’m sure I would instinctively use every immediate non-lethal means of escape and probably not regret it afterward – but I hope I would have the moral courage and presence of mind to find some way of appealing to his humanity and conscience. Admittedly, though (and this again is where any hypothetical falls short), it’s easy to imagine myself as the saintly nonviolent hero and a lot harder to actually know what to do or say at any given moment.

        • Jordan

          Julia Smucker [May 23, 2014 8:50 pm]: What boggles and appalls me (and where I often struggle against becoming what I hate, as Jordan has described) is the eagerness with which some invariably rush to defend violence – and that in the very name of God, even of Christ and his Church. That is something that no Christian should ever want to do.

          The fruits of the Catholic faith arrive from its proper application, as Turmarion explains in his [May 23, 2014 10:02 am] example from the abbot Sisois. The revolution of Catholic social justice begins with self-examination, the sacraments, and internal peace in the commitment to non-violence. The ideal Christian social justice rule will never exist; we are through observance the socially just state writ small. The revolution in the self begins to heal the personal disgust for persons who advocate for violence and especially for societal violence.

          Maybe it is not only better to ask if violence can deter violence, but also rather if sin can deter sin. In my experience, violence is not merely external force but also disdain, hatred, and at its worst, a noxious intellectual pride which whispers lies that one is endowed with greater intellegence than most people. Always remember Zeffirelli’s Judas in Jesus of Nazareth, who approached the Master with a laundry list of academic accomplishments. Our Lord turns and merely looks wearily at him. It is not not only as if Christ sees his passion in Judas’s pretenses, but also the futility of an education that is devoid of charity.

        • I agree with you about hypothetical attacker scenarios, Julia. Any kind of hypotheticals like that (especially the “ticking timebomb” used to justify torture) are really problematic.

          As to spiritual elites, I didn’t really intend that. I think all Christians are unconditionally and unequivocally called to total nonviolence; but I think most of us will fail because of our fallen nature. It’s not like Jainism, where you aren’t allowed to join the army or be a butcher or to do anything remotely connected with violence; it’s more that Jesus calls us to “be perfect as my Father in Heaven is perfect” while at the same time knowing that most of us will fall very much short, and forgiving us nonetheless.

          As I get older, I appreciate more and more complete pacifism. I can’t look at myself honestly and say I’m anywhere near being there; but it’s something to strive towards.

          My patron Deadly Sin is wrath, and I’m well aware of it and struggle with it. I honestly believe it’s always wrong to use deadly force, but I can’t figure out how to structure the world so that complete abjuration of deadly force works, and I can’t honestly say that it wouldn’t go out the window if I had to defend a loved one (though I’d try to keep it non-lethal). That’s why I said I’d still go to Confession; and I’d consider that getting off easy. In the East, St. Basil said, for example, that soldiers fighting in a just war did not commit murder, but still should abstain from Communion for three years. I wish the West had done something like that, instead of going with Augustine’s just war theory.

          Finally, I totally agree with you that the eagerness of some to defend violence is totally appalling.

  • Ronald King

    Thanks for this Julia. This takes me back to the late ’60’s and early ’70’s when I began reading Krishnamurti’s “You Are The World” and was practicing transcendental meditation. Little did I know at the time that it was a step towards my return to the Church in 2005. One point of attention was built around identifying within me what is love and what is not love in my interactions with self others and the world. Man, what a scared and selfish human being I observed especially when I realized that Love’s natural course is to give up everything for the other. Dying everyday to self, isn’t that what He said? Oh well, I hope I have created more peace than violence when I meet the Love of my life. I know I have fallen short and I know what I have failed to do…
    Excellent post!

  • One of the greatest lessons I learned on non-violence came from my mom some years ago. She was amidst a few of her elderly friends in a community room and a ‘debate’ emerged regarding the death penalty. Finally, one of her friends asked her while pointing to me…”And what would you want if someone murdered your son, wouldn’t you want that person put to death?” “Yes”, she replied, “I probably would. But I hope that someone around me would stop me.” What an insight! We are not left alone.

    One of the greatest ‘justifications’ for violence is our own anger and rage. But lowering the incidence and intensity of violence requires a fraternal or social response. To suffer a grave injustice is traumatizing and requires recourse. The Christian response involves consoling the victim, promoting true justice, sharing the pain and burden, and providing a commitment to bring about healing and reform. Unfortunately, this often gets emotionally short-circuited and the response (both individually and collectively) gets channeled into vengeance and the birth of more violence.