Nonviolence Begins With Me

Nonviolence Begins With Me January 16, 2021

I write these words in Dubuque, IA, USA, on January 16, 2021 among national concern about armed protests planned in all fifty US state capitols in response to Joe Biden’s upcoming presidential inauguration. I hope and pray that whatever happens tomorrow, there will be not shots fired, no one beaten, no lives lost…and that the following day, we will honor in peace and gratitude our nation’s prophet of justice and nonviolence, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior.

That said, I know my hope is not enough for the times we live in. As Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings has stated, “Prayer is being in relationship and communication with God. It breaks open our heart to the world and calls us to action. Simply stating that your thoughts and prayers are with someone is meaningless unless you are actively engaging in and with the pain and suffering in the world – and doing something about it.”

When I was a teenager, crime rates in my hometown of Buffalo, NY were very high, fueled by racism, poverty, illegal drugs and gangs. Around the turn of this century, signs began appearing outside homes around the community. Some of them said “Nonviolence Begins With Me,” while others said “I Leave Peaceprints.” This campaign to fill my city with messages of peace was initiated by Sister Karen Klimczak, a Sister of St. Joseph, who founded and administered a communal home for men recently released in prison. On Good Friday, April 14, 2006, she was murdered by a resident when she walked in on him stealing her mobile phone for drug money. Her commitment to peace and mercy were such that, fifteen years before her death, she imagined that she would die violently and actually forgave her killer. 2,000 mourners attended her funeral, and her legacy lives on.

I’ve been thinking of Sister Karen a lot lately as I witness the ever-widening political divide in this country which culminated on an attack on our Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Just one week prior, I had published an article in the National Catholic Reporter on politically divided Catholic families. I myself come from such a family, but fortunately it is also a loving family, and while we have had some heated discussions, we have not let our divergent beliefs and values come between us.

Nevertheless, political beliefs continue to be divisive for many within the Church. When I put out a call for interviews for the article in late November, I received an overwhelming response; after twelve interviews, my transcript amassed no fewer than 15,000 words for a 1500-word piece. I’d like to share some of the comments from my interviews just to offer a sense of the depth of this divide…and the varied ways that US Catholics are seeking to tolerate it and occasionally cross it.

Matt Kappadakunnel, an investment banker from Torrance, CA who voted for Biden in the 2020 election, states that we are called as Catholic Christians to be bridge-builders and to practice what Pope Francis has called accompaniment:

In 2016 when it was between Hilary and Trump, I knew I could not vote for either – I could not accept Trump, but I couldn’t support a pro-choice candidate. I voted third party knowing that my state of California would go for Clinton, but I could not vote for a pro-choice candidate.

I believe my Dad voted for Trump in 2016 on the pro-life issue, and I think my mother did too. My wife has only one living parent, her father, who was very much in favor of Trump. My wife’s brother became a QAnon follower, and in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic I came to a closer examination of faith, and I united with other Catholics to decide Trump should not be reelected. Also, I’m Indian-American, so the racism in his rhetoric made me very frightened. That alone made me plan to vote for whomever would take Trump out of office.

I was not happy with Biden at primaries, but his faith shined in a way that I had not seen before, and choosing Kamala Harris really spoke to me. I think my parents decided not to vote for Trump this time, especially having Harris as a running mate. My wife’s father is still a Trump supporter. My wife says, “You have a biracial grandson – you’re supporting someone who wants them to be mistreated.” My wife said she would not continue to speak to her father if he voted for Trump. My brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) was defensive of Trump.

My wife does not talk frequently with her Dad, but it created a strain. He doesn’t see his own white privilege or know how Trump’s ideologies are diminishing to his grandchildren and people of color in general. Her father ended up not voting in this election, even though he supported Trump.

My parents went with Biden because they came to believe that Trump was not as pro-life as he claimed. It’s really hard for my wife to see eye to eye with anyone who will be a Trump supporter.

Now that Trump is leaving office, I feel I can reach across the aisle more easily. Before, I hesitated talking to Trump supporters because mostly they’d talk about how great he is, how wrong the media is…Now, I feel I can connect with them about other things besides politics. If people complain about liberals, I can say, well, there were people over the last four years who had to deal with Trump though they didn’t like him; that’s how democracy works.

Now there is a call for unity and mending, but also for truth and calling a spade a spade. I don’t think I can get a Trump supporter to agree with me, but I know I should not demonize them for those beliefs when I encounter them in my parish or in young adult Catholic circles I am part of. But honestly it’s easier to navigate now that Trump is not going to be in office.

Pope Francis is advocating a Jesuit model of exchange, dialogue, sharing. I don’t necessarily have to agree with what the other person said. But one must begin with knowing this is another child of God, another person made in the image and likeness of God as a way of not demonizing or objectifying them or putting them in a box. It’s not an easy practice, but it is what Francis has called for throughout his Pontificate, and I think it is what is most relevant at this time.

Christ is a bridge between heaven and earth; we are called to be bridge-builders and receive other people who might be different. I think it will be a radical call and challenge. I think Francis wants our bishops to be bridge builders with Biden, to focus on accompaniment. He’s modeling this, calling bishops, priests and laity to follow in that model.

Vox Nova’s own David Cruz-Uribe, OFS, is a Secular Franciscan who did not vote for Trump but has contact with Trump supporters through the Knights of Columbus and his Franciscan community. He commented,

I don’t think the problem is gap between left and right. I think it’s a gap between cultural Catholicism based on American ideas, and the fullness of Catholicism. My question is how do you get a parish to build a kind of community to let these conversations happen? A lot of parish organizations have withered away…When I lived in Connecticut and now that I live in Alabama, I love the Knights of Columbus. It is just a group of men doing charitable activities. But I didn’t like it at the national level. Here, there are some women’s groups that might be a place where there is potential for these conversations.

The place where I can have more successful conversations is with my fellow secular Franciscans, and the key is that there we have built community. We develop a real sense of family, and that community allows us to have conversations that aren’t possible in the parish setting.

Anna McLellan is a pseudonym for a Bay Area educator who deals with family conflict over politics. She was unwilling to be quoted under her real name for fear of their reactions:

It’s been hurtful to feel that some of my ties with my family have been broken over politics; it’s so odd to see such a huge rift between what it means to be Catholic Christian for some people. I try to understand the other side.

I’m not Democrat or Republican; I’m not fond of either party, and I vote third party a lot. I tend to lean left on a lot of issues, with the exception of abortion; I’m conservative on abortion but don’t push for more legislation on it. The Catholics in my very large family tend to be strong Trump supporters, very vocal about it; I also have a few in my family who follow QAnon; I try to be delicate, but there is no persuading them. I try to do a gentle tug to pull them into reality, but it’s just been very hard to feel isolated within my own family; there are only a few of us who are not Trump supporters, and they’ve also felt isolated. We’ve reached out to each other for support to have a feeling of family. I’ve seen some family members on social media who have suggested violence toward people on the left. I don’t think they would hurt me, but to whom do they think a violent action would be okay?

In the very beginning, when Trump won in 2016, I tried to put myself in the shoes of Trump supporters. I was accused by liberal friends of being a Trump apologist. It was a genuine effort to understand their concerns and motives and not vilify them, to seek common ground even if we don’t agree on everything. But the more time went on, the more I saw family members starting to mirror his behavior, the less I was able to understand it. I understand overlooking that personality if you have concerns and don’t like either candidate. He’s ugly but gets the job done…But when you see that continue and escalate, and the retaliation, vindictiveness and constant insults, and when you start to justify that…I lose my ability to understand, as it seems so antithetical to be a Catholic or a Christian – it seems vindictive, retaliatory, not the way we are called to be.

I think what happens next will depend on what Biden and Harris say and do. If they engage in vilifying Trump supporters, if they make any kind of comment like Clinton did when using the term “deplorables,” it will escalate things. I think the Trump supporters will look for any reason to criticize Biden and Harris, so they will have to be above reproach. So will regular voters who supported Biden and Harris. The Trump supporters are so wounded that they are going to be looking for any reason to lash out. I think Biden will need to listen to the valid concerns of the people who voted for Trump – like employment, industry, and globalization – and try to address those. We as US Americans will have to understand we might not get everything we want, but we’re going to have to find common ground. I do worry about the right-wing extremist groups and their activity, but I hope things will settle down if Biden, Harris and their supporters take the high road.

Elizabeth Kale, a mother of five in East Dubuque, IL, voted for Trump in this election, primarily due to the abortion issue. She attends Latin Mass and finds that most of the people in her church community also voted for Trump, though she has one Catholic friend who did not.

I was baptized and received First Communion, but my mother was remarried more than once and could not receive communion. I was drawn to the faith as a child, and my grandparents made sure I understood the rosary; that is what kept me alive.  I got wild for a while as a teenager – I was promiscuous, had tattoos, was tending bar at 15, making a lot of money. I loved my life and didn’t realize I was in a state of sin. I eventually came back to the Church and made a true first confession, which changed my life. I drew close to St.Therese, got interested in the saints. I fell in love with the church. Of my own accord I decided I wanted to receive communion with a veil, not in the hand, not standing – it just came to me organically. I naturally started becoming more traditionalist without even realizing it. Going to Latin Mass, my habitual sins melted away. The community is wholesome and everyone is family.

It seems like the Democrats are trying to create a new sense of socialism. It’s the feel-good party, saying we’re going to accept everyone, but at the same time, they are slowly trying to take rights away. Trump is not the best person on the planet; I don’t put all my faith in him, but in God. I think he is the most pro-life president we’ve ever had.

Meanwhile, Democrats have shown through COVID-19 that religion is not essential while liquor stores are. As a police family, we appreciate the Second Amendment. Taking our weapons is what they do first. I feel like it is a spiritual battle; communism is Satan’s playbook. The Democratic Party’s colors show that is what they are pushing. I will not let them create a socialist world, a one-world government. If Trump is not the best person, he is pulling us back. I see the WHO and Paris Agreement are steps toward totalitarian one-world government. Trump is against that.

I want a clean world, clean water; the Mississippi River is completely polluted. I want a clean earth, but I’m not going to bow down to Mother Earth. God promised us a new body, a new earth glorified. My focus is on making sure we have the freedom to practice our faith and on saving the unborn.

My family has done the Jericho March (led by Taylor Marshall) marching around state capitols praying the rosary. We do the Divine Mercy chaplet; there may be thirty people or two hundred, with lots of moms, kids and elders. It’s been moving because people see that we are not stopping. There’s a Mary statue, a state flag, a cross. It’s been incredible, and we’ve been able to talk to people on the other side, including angry ones. We pull them in and pray with them so that they are not as hateful.  People who want to do a Trump rally are surprised when they see us praying.  One guy who’d been to a “Stop the Steal” rally said this is the most beautiful, peaceful thing I’ve been to. We’re Trump supporters but just want mercy on us and on our country.

Julett Broadnax is an 88-year-old spiritual director from Texas. She voted for Biden, and she lives with her son and his wife, who both voted for Trump.

They can’t understand where I’m coming from, and I can’t understand where they’re coming from, but we’ve elected to live in peace. We’ve developed skills of listening to each other and using “I statements” rather than “you statements.” You statements divide people. I statements are less trouble. We try to listen first, rather than formulating our comments while they are speaking. We have these ground rules, but we are limited.

I see the same divisiveness in more distant family members, and I wonder…rather than separating, why can’t we lay down some ground rules and really listen? I did that once on a pilgrimage, where a stick was placed in the middle of the room where people had to wait to take the stick back. It made for a productive experience. We’re not that formal here, but we kind of follow those rules.  It’s hard to have peaceful conversations when we are on such opposite poles in our thinking. But I think the conversation is necessary if we’re ever going to come together.

Michael P., a retired financial planner from Dallas, did not want his last name published due to concerns over potential conflict with his liberal family and friends.

I voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 I like the fact that he’s a businessman, not a career politician. I see him as doing things that benefit the country economically. Another issue is abortion. I can’t understand Biden being a Catholic and supporting abortion. I don’t know how someone who is a Christian can support abortion. Aborted babies don’t even have a chance to live. They are created in the image and likeness of God, and they are destroyed before they even take a breath out of the womb.

I’m not in favor of capital punishment; I am for helping people who are poor and need food; I volunteer with Catholic Charities and work all the time with people who are about to get evicted. But I see the best way of getting out of poverty is by creating a good economy, which Trump was doing. Maybe people will start out in low-paying jobs, but then they can work their way up and get better jobs. I am for racial justice but believe that welfare has divided and destroyed families, adding more problems to the racism that is part of our country.

For most of my 42-year marriage, my wife has been as conservative as me. She has changed recently; she’s turned off by how Trump talks, his rudeness, how he has treated women. We just don’t talk about politics; if we do, we get worked up, so we decide it’s too divisive.

In my parish I don’t know what people think; when I have volunteered for people experiencing homelessness, I knew a few people with more of a conservative view rather than a liberal view, but we mostly do not talk about that. I am in the minority of our close friends – I’m the anomaly. Sometimes I bring it up, but I don’t want to bring that attention to myself. I don’t think I’d ruin the relationship, but they may look at me differently.

Johna Burdeos is a clinical dietitian who lives with her husband Ramón in Lake City, TX.

The Catholic Church does not give endorsements. “Vote your conscience” is as much as they will say. But I feel this is a topic to be discussed now because of how divisive Trump is. He is not like the Republican candidates we have seen before. Those could understand or appreciate people like myself, my husband or others who see gray areas.

I try to see both sides; I look at the pro-life issues as non-negotiable. But there are things Trump has done that for me are too hypocritical. How could you call yourself pro-life and then separate children from parents at the border?

I kept an open mind when he became the president. It’s gotten worse. I’m a health care worker and got COVID-19. I had it mildly and took care of myself. I have the privilege of being able to stay home in an isolated setting. But not everyone does. That made me even more frustrated with the situation of this administration – here I am, working with people who are on machines to keep themselves alive due to a virus I feel this administration has downplayed, ignored, and handled very poorly. Seeing people struggling for their own lives really made me think of life issues in a broader way.

I have a close family member who voted for Trump. I understand why people did vote for him; I consider myself a socially conservative Catholic. But at the end of the day Trump’s positive actions – against sex trafficking, for example – are not enough. On top of that it’s the rhetoric. He’s not willing to acknowledge the reality of what has happened with the election results. I’m dumbfounded that people can still support this and undermine our democracy. And if something you say on social media is flagged as untrue, you need to question why instead of escaping to an echo chamber of people who think just like you.

That is what is scary about our times – it’s easy to escape onto online platforms. My father and father-in-law could talk to their friends in the military truthfully, but now we are not able to just talk to each other, even on the phone.

My friends who are staunch Trump supporters are very frustrated with how far things are going. They were frustrated with Obama’s overreach and the removal of God from the public sphere. I tell them that we live in a world of people with different beliefs and values. We talk about the need to act in a Christlike way, to love our neighbor, and that means we also need to respect the values of others.

The thing that is difficult for some of my friends on the right is they want to talk to someone with different politics from a religious standpoint. It’s important to understand why someone has that view – it may have nothing to do with religion or God, but where they came from. This is true on both sides – we need to get to know the story of a person, to learn why they are voting as they are, to listen first before coming back with our own points.

What struck me about all of the people are interviewed was that, no matter how passionately they held their beliefs, none of them demonized the other side. They wanted common ground, reconciliation, and nonviolent communication. In the cases where relationships have been severed, they feel personally hurt.

One of my interviewees, Dominican Sister Quincy Howard, who works as an advocate in Washington, DC, mentions in the article that there are big-money interests invested in pitting people against each other, especially through social media. As true as this is, I believe that the protection of our democracy and the restoration of civility in our civil society must begin at the interpersonal level among family members and friends. This is the time to remember Dr. King’s strategy for social change as well as his vision. Regardless of what we think of the presidential transition occurring this week, may we continue to seek peace and nonviolence in all our interactions.

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