In the name of peace

May 24 2003 | by

IN THE FIRST photo a young woman in a fluorescent red jacket is standing in front of a bulldozer, challenging the driver with a megaphone in her hand. Her hair is loose around her shoulders and she places herself between the weakened wall of a house and the shovel of the bulldozer at the moment it moves to tear the wall down. The house is a Palestinian home, belonging to a physician, at Rafeh in Gaza. In the second photo, the young woman is on the ground bleeding. In fact, she is dying. According to eyewitnesses, the Israeli army bulldozer ran over her and then backed up, crushing her chest and skull, before manoeuvring and driving away. The house was left standing. The Israeli army said her death was a regrettable accident, but also accused the group she was with of acting irresponsibly by intentionally placing themselves in a combat zone.

With her blond hair and U.S. nationality, and the fact than no Arab blood ran in
her veins, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie had stood out among the young women in the Gaza Strip. She belonged to the International Solidarity Movement, which tries to prevent Israeli occupation troops from demolishing Palestinians’ houses and to help Palestinians harvest their olive crops amidst threats from armed Israeli settlers. She was a ‘human shield,’ spending time in Gaza before returning to the U.S. for her graduation. Her death, on 16 March 2003, in one of Gaza’s most poverty-stricken refugee camps, led to her being hailed in the Arab world as “the beautiful face of the United States”. Rachel Corrie’s actions were not unique.

Non-violence is assertive

Challenging injustice and violence without using violence – whatever the risks - has provided many famous images for us over the past few decades. There was the young man who stood in front of a Chinese army tank in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989, in an effort to stop it reaching Chinese student demonstrators. Caught on camera, a small figure in slacks and white shirt, carrying what looked to be his shopping, posted himself before an approaching tank, with a line of 17 more tanks behind it. The tank swerved right; he, to block it, moved left. The tank swerved left; he moved right. It was later that same year, on 9 November, that images of Berliners dismantling the Berlin Wall after weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations in East Berlin, were flashed around the world. Built in the 1960s, the twenty-seven mile wall had divided the city of Berlin between East Germany, aligned with the Soviet Union, and West Germany, aligned with Western Europe and the United States. Ordinary Germans had simply decided to bring down a key symbol of division and to do it non-violently, amidst champagne and revelry.

In 2001, for the second time in 15 years, the people of the Philippines forced the resignation of a corrupt president, in a dramatic but peaceful revolution heavily influenced by the leaders of the Catholic Church. In 1986, tens of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets, encouraged by Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin, in the ‘People’s Revolution’ that convinced President Ferdinand Marcos that he could no longer govern the country. Again in January 2001, responding to a call from Cardinal Sin, nearly two million citizens assembled at the shrine of Our Lady of Peace in Manila, demonstrating their belief that President Joseph Estrada - who was accused of plundering the national treasury - was no longer fit to govern. Once again the people had their way. Estrada vacated the presidential palace, and a new leader was sworn in. Archbishop Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio in Manila, said that the second revolution had been an “exemplary non-violent approach to the crisis” in Filipino politics.

Non-violence is imaginative

There are many instances of communities challenging injustice in creative ways without using violence. The Chipko Movement in India, for example, was started by women living in the hill villages of the Himalayan mountains who regarded the forest as essential for firewood, fodder for their animals, and the harvesting of rainwater. When loggers arrived in the village of Gopeshwar during 1973 to cut down 300 ash trees to make sports equipment, the women stopped them by putting their arms around the trees to protect them. Each day, whenever loggers appeared, the women hugged the trees and this was repeated in other villages. The loggers could not get on with their work, awareness of the importance of trees was raised, and by 1980, the felling of trees in the Himalayan area was banned.

Columban priest Niall O’Brien, in his book, Island of Tears, Island of Hope, tells the story of small Christian communities on the Filippine island of Negros who adopted an unusual strategy in the early 1980s for dealing with a rich landowner who had illegally stolen a field from a sharecropper. This landowner was known to have employed a local death squad, reputed to have killed more than fifty people. The small wet rice field belonged to Juanito Serrantes. The communities arranged a day when they would all converge on the rice field, each carrying some rice seedlings. Together they would plant the rice paddy in the name of Juanito Serrantes. When they reached the field there were met by gunmen carrying high-powered rifles, but they moved into the field singing and then proceeded to plant. The gunmen were perplexed and did not move – no shot was fired. Serrantes got back his field. Afterwards, Brian Gore, a Columban priest who accompanied the group, said: “You know we in the Christian communities in the mountains are like ants – you see one ant and you step on it, you see a million ants and you run”.


Peacemaking respects people and environment


The Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio has earned a UNESCO peace prize for its efforts to achieve religious reconciliation in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Yugoslavia. Sant’Egidio believes passionately that “only peace is holy” and in its mediation work all sides in any conflict are respected. The community’s most famous success at international mediation was in 1992 when, after two years of patient negotiation, it convinced armed rebels in Mozambique to renounce violence and enter the political process. Since 1987 annual inter-religious meetings of prayer for peace have been held, crossing barriers of faith in friendship. The model for the Sant’Egidio approach is the old tale of St Francis taming the wolf who terrorised the citizens of the Umbrian town of Gubbio, by visiting the wolf and making peace with it.

Non-violent direct action by Christians to challenge the right of any nation to develop nuclear weapons and threaten to use them elicits controversy because it involves breaking the law. On 7 April, a U.S. federal jury convicted three Dominican nuns of defacing a nuclear missile silo in Colorado by swinging hammers and painting crosses on it with their own blood in October 2002. Their defence lawyers had argued the nuns’ action was symbolic and never jeopardised national security. When they are sentenced on 25 July they could face up to 30 years in prison. In the UK too, Catholic Peace Action is a group which has thrown blessed ash and written calls for repentance in charcoal over the walls of the Ministry of Defence in London every Ash Wednesday for the past two decades. Those involved argue that the commitment and resources devoted to nuclear weapons – at least 25,000 owned by eight countries - jeopardize the future of the whole earth community and desperate measures are necessary to challenge their morality and legality. They claim that God’s law of love is superior.

In the same tradition, in March, two women Nobel Peace prize winners were arrested in Washington for protesting against the Iraq war. Police handcuffed Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who won the prize in 1976 for peace activism in the Northern Ireland conflict, and Jody Williams, a 1997 winner for her work to ban land mines, after they refused to leave Lafayette Park, opposite the home of the US president. The Nobel laureates and others – including two bishops - had sat in a circle in the park and chanted “Peace, Shalom”. They held roses as well as posters showing civilian casualties from the war. “In Northern Ireland we were encouraged to resolve our problems with dialogue and I would like to see that happen here,” said Mrs. Corrigan Maguire.


Education for non-violence


Pax Christi (the international Catholic peace organisation), Pace e Bene (which runs a Franciscan Non-violence Centre in Las Vegas), the Catholic Worker Movement and the People of the Way in Australia are amongst those Christian groups convinced that non-violent peacemaking could transform the way injustice and conflict is dealt with at all levels, from the personal to the international. All provide resources and workshops for studying its spirituality and practice. In their view, non-violence seeks to defeat injustice, not people, and there is a deep faith that justice will eventually win because God is a God of justice and love.


Most people don’t approve of violence, but, in the view of these peace groups, many have come to take it for granted as part of everyday life. There is little challenge, for example, to the language commonly used in relation to the war: the contradictions of, ‘smart bombs’, ‘friendly fire’, ‘war for peace’; the expressions which pussy-foot around harsh realities - ‘clearing up pockets of resistance’, ‘collateral damage’ - all serving to create a distance between what is actually going on, and our human responses to it. The groups feel we have to learn to choose differently and that the teachings of Jesus Christ offer clear leadership. Working for social justice, advancing understanding and tolerance and resisting the use of God’s name to justify and glorify violence are some of the issues they encourage people to examine before they move into active peacemaking or advocacy.


Towards pacifism


Taking a stand against state-sponsored violence has been a feature of Catholic witness and church teaching over recent decades. In August, thousands of Christians from around the world will visit St. Radegund in Austria to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the execution of Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic who refused to fight in Hitler’s army. He chose conscientious objection because although he knew he could “change nothing in world affairs”, he wished “to be at least a sign that not everyone lets themselves be carried away with the tide”. Amongst the court papers which record his court martial in July 1943 it was written: “God had made him think that it was not a sin to reject armed service; there were things over which one should obey God rather than man; because of the command ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ he could not fight with weapons.” To fight so that Hitler might aggressively conquer other countries he saw as a matter of personal guilt and serious sin. Jägerstätter’s widow, who supported his stance, is still alive and hopes to greet this summer’s visitors.

In our own time, Pope John Paul II has been a prominent anti-war critic of both Gulf Wars. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, in widely publicised letters to Presidents Bush and Saddam Hussein, he pleaded with them to use peaceful means and diplomacy to resolve the crisis. Between 2 August 1990 and March 1991, the Pope condemned the war fifty-six times. Five days after the U.S-led invasion of Iraq on 20 March this year, in an address to military chaplains attending a Vatican-sponsored course on humanitarian law, he commented that the large-scale international war protests since February reflected progress in humanity’s conscience. He said that by now “it should be clear to everyone” that “a large part of humanity” has rejected the use of war - except in legitimate self-defence - as a means to resolve conflicts between countries. The Pope told military chaplains that beyond their strictly religious role, they must help educate soldiers in the ethical values that underlie humanitarian law. This will almost certainly bring them into tense situations with military authorities.

Peace activists looked with interest at what happened in Mozambique in April – the country’s Defence Ministry announced that the vast majority of young Mozambicans had failed to turn up to register for compulsory military service this year. All Mozambicans are supposed to register in the year of their 18th birthday. Only 21,000 – around 5% - of those eligible had willingly entered the army. The young men and women of Mozambique had spoken with their feet.

Rachel Corrie’s actions on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza were not isolated. Gush Shalom, for example, is an Israeli-based organisation, whose name means ‘The Peace Bloc,’ and whose members regularly participate in rebuilding Palestinian houses destroyed by the occupation army and fill trenches dug by the army to cut off Palestinian villages. Building solidarity and waging peace, with a similar commitment and training that goes into waging war, is going on all over the world.

Updated on October 06 2016