The power of nonviolence

IssueOctober - November 2018
Orlando Ospino, member of the community of Las Pavas, sings in front of the remains of a ranch burned by orders of the palm company Aportes San Isidro, 10 April 2014. Photo: Return to Las Pavas
Feature by Pat Gaffney

Building on the 2016 gathering in Rome (see article), Pax Christi International created the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, invited by the pope to ‘revitalise the tools of nonviolence, and active nonviolence in particular.’ The project has been organised around five international round tables, to pull together and document experiences of the theory, thinking, theology and practice of nonviolence to help the evolution of Catholic church teaching on nonviolence.

I have been involved in the round table on the power of nonviolence. As well as the models, tools and approaches that we identified through our sharings from the front line (see below), our group has offered many ways in which the Catholic church can move forward in revitalising the tools of nonviolence. Among them are these:

Identify and scale up existing Catholic-affiliated unarmed civilian peacekeeping programs and give them special recognition and support. Answer the question: ‘Where’s the Catholic peace army?’

Revitalise or institute a lay community dedicated to nonviolence that takes the vows of nonviolence. Consider integrating this with a more robust encouragement to conscientious objection to military service for Catholics. Consider a lay youth movement that takes a vow of nonviolence.

Institute an archdiocese for nonviolent peacekeepers to provide the Catholic church’s full range of pastoral ministries and spiritual services to those representing the Catholic church on the front lines of violent conflict.

Advocate for funding, research, models and legislation for nonviolent civilian-based defence in national and international settings.

Review church-related investments at all levels to screen out revenue from military-related products and services or weapons manufacturing. Support positive shareowner action to address the underlying problems that lead to armed conflict and target investments to address conflict triggers and build positive peace.

As Erica Chenoweth noted: ‘We have a critical mass of actors within the Vatican institutions and outside who could mobilise, effect change.’

A miracle babel

Two of us agreed to co-convene the round table on the power of nonviolence: Rose-Marie Berger, activist, poet and senior associate editor of Sojourners in Washington DC, and me in London. We feel we created a little miracle, a babel, which in its own way became a model of co-operative nonviolence. It is partly thanks to Peace News that our project worked! How were we going to work in a participatory process with over 25 people from every continent, with different time zones and languages and intermittent internet access? All without leaving home! Skype to the rescue.

With some great guidance from some PN articles on Skype meetings, we embarked on 11 carefully-structured 90-minute meetings over the course of a year. We had contact in between via a working website and file-sharing. On the calls, we used photographs, slides, checklists, fishbowl groupings and prepared inputs.

“The faithful must get to the front lines themselves.”

Some of those in our group had been involved in the gathering in Rome, others had not. We came from, or had worked in: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Croatia, India, Italy, Kenya, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Uganda, the UK and the US.

Early in the conversations, we gave time for each person to share their front-line story of community or structural violence and their response to it. To give some shape to this, we offered questions such as: What form did the violence take? What needed to be exposed and challenged? Who were the key actors or stakeholders? How did faith or spiritual practice guide your actions? Which partners and allies did you identify to work with? What nonviolent models, tools, approaches did you use?

Month after month, as people shared their stories and approaches, it became clear that we faced the same struggles. While there were cultural distinctions to be made, the underlying causes of violence and the tools and methods employed to challenge violence were very similar.

Warriors build peace

ImageOne grouping identified non-militarised structural violence, manifest in knife, gun, drug and gang crime, violence towards women, nationalistic and xenophobic violence, violence cultivated through fear passed down through generations, community power struggles over resources, and violence within organisations that devalues and disempowers.

Elizabeth Kanini Kimau is a peacemaker and educator from Kenya working in Sudan and Northern Kenya with internally-displaced people. This is how she described her front-line experience: ‘For the last five years, I have met participants who were born, lived, married and are now ageing in war. Most of them have been in and out of refugee camps.

‘I observed that the Rendille and Borana communities were deeply divided and never interacted. Each community used its own source of water and means of transport and never traded with each other. They perceived each other as an enemy and whoever killed an enemy was praised and termed as a hero. I witnessed situations where people were killed and cattle were raided. The pain of loss, bitterness, anger, was temporarily “relieved” after revenge.’

“Nonviolence is a crop that can feed the whole world, but the farmer must know her own soil.” - Elizabeth Kanini Kimau

Kanini believed that in order to build a rapport with these two rival groups, she had to live with them. She accompanied the priest and spoke at mass in each area, so people could get to know her. She ate, walked and worked with them.

Kanini described conversations with children that highlight how hatred is passed from one generation to another. ‘What will you do when you grow up?’ ‘I will go kill Borana and take back our cattle.’ ‘Who created your parents?’ ‘God.’ ‘Who created the parents of Borana children?’ ‘The devil.’

For Kanini, it was work with the elders, who are the key decision makers, and young men, hailed as warriors, that brought a breakthrough. She took them away to a neutral place, allowing them to listen and interact with one another, using some of the tools of nonviolent communication, to see each other as human beings, which helped them discuss how the violence enslaved both communities.

These elders returned home as a team, surprising many. They then became educators for peace, visiting villages to ask people to unite and take responsibility for their own peace.

The young men took on the role of promoting interaction between the two groups, the Borana and the Rendile, using sports, parties, games and simply eating together.

Of her experience, Kanini said: ‘Nonviolence is a crop that can feed the whole world, but the farmer must know her own soil.’ Kanini is a great example of responsible farming. And for the communities? Incidents of killing raids have reduced. People are going back to their farms and resuming their agricultural activities – actually helping to provide food for the drought-hit neighbouring areas. Elders also created a restorative justice approach, tracing cattle that had been stolen and returning them to the owners.

Drop the knife

Closer to home, Valerie is working with others in her local parish to address knife crime: ‘For about 10 years, I have been working with my parish in north London to prevent knife crime. This began after a 14-year-old boy was stabbed and killed in an unprovoked attack by a gang of boys. Two years ago, another parishioner lost her son in a stabbing. Tragically, the problem is growing. Across London in 2017, knife crime killed 35 young men under the age of 25 and many more have been injured.

‘Our parish Justice and Peace group is committed to doing what we can to oppose this fashion for knife crime. We have tried various approaches. The biggest challenge for our society as a whole is to give all young people a positive sense of identity and belonging, enjoyable leisure-time activities and hope about their own future, so that they are not drawn into the destructive belonging that gangs represent.’

Work to achieve this has involved meetings and co-operation between members of the church, the local community, including local mosques, schools, police, and shopkeepers to share concerns and map ways forward. Getting weapons out of circulation has been a priority. The church is to host a knife-gun collection scheme and parishioners have undertaken a number of weapons-searches of local parks.

With London Citizens, part of Citizens UK, the Justice and Peace group have worked with local shops to create zones of safe haven where children can go if they feel afraid.

All of this opens opportunity to communicate about the issue – to bring it into the open, to help people become more confident in speaking about and responding to local problems. The church is a focal point, displaying a banner, ‘Choose life: drop the knife’ across its entrance. Valerie is aware that structural violence also needs to be addressed: ‘There is the even bigger problem: the close link between gangs, crime, and the sale and use of drugs.’

Solidarity across borders

Another grouping identified the militarised violence related to commerce and civil-war scenarios. This included encounters with private security firms over land and resources, indigenous communities and other small landholders drawn into violent conflict over land rights, state and military expansion and destruction of communities and habitats.

Two of our group, Sarah Thompson, from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and Martha Inés Romero, Pax Christi’s regional person in Latin America, related similar experiences from Colombia.

Since 2001, CPT have worked in Las Pavas, Magdalena Medio region, to support local landowners and bring the story of their exploitation to the high street shops of the US and UK. Sarah explained: ‘As a result of US-backed war, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities were disproportionately impacted. Colombia has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world.

‘Traditionally, if people cultivated land for seven years it became theirs. However, in Las Pavas, when they completed the seven years, the land was sold out from under them to Aportes San Isidro, an Colombian-based oil palm producer.

‘The indigenous community at Las Pavas came to their fields and found bulldozers guarded by armed private security (“demobilised paramilitary forces”), their fields destroyed and planted with oil palm monoculture. The state did nothing to intervene. Instead it prioritised strengthening large business interests over vulnerable populations that struggle to remain on the land and develop their life projects in that region.

‘Daabon corporation was the foreign owner of Aportes San Isidro. The Body Shop, a British cosmetics company with a brand that promotes ethical supply chains, was one of Daabon’s largest purchasers of palm oil.’

On the ground in Las Pavas, CPT, as an international actor, accompanied Colombian communities affected by the armed conflict, safeguarding life and supporting the restitution of rights. To hold the community steady, CPT relayed information within and beyond the community, used music and drama, documented the community’s ordeal, and supported the cultivation of land regardless of the threats. Local people also called in lawyers, land rights advocates, and Colombian government bodies to work with them.

“The church and spiritual communities acted as connectors and facilitators where there was a weak civil society.”

Globally, CPT and other NGOs also led a campaign of nonviolent direct action against the Body Shop, urging them to cut the contract with Daabon, challenging the morality and legality of its actions. The campaign included: tracking the economic trail from the front line to Global North consumers, direct conversations with all the stakeholders, a letter-writing campaign, and documenting the abuses in the Las Pavas community and taking them to the Body Shop. In 2010, Body Shop finally broke its commercial links with Daabon.

After the massacre

Martha Inés, working in the small village of Bojayá, Choco, Colombia, relayed a story of innocent villagers caught between pro-state paramilitaries and anti-state guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In 2002, around 250 paramilitary combatants arrived in Bojayá. Around 500 villagers sought protection in the only strong building, the Augustinian missionary church.

On 1 May, intense combat began when FARC forces launched gas cylinder bombs toward the paramilitary positions. Two landed nearby and the third went through the roof of the church, exploding on the altar. 119 were killed and 98 wounded.

Martha reported: ‘After the massacre, the church workers were the primary group who accompanied the villagers. Slowly, programmes were established to cultivate new leadership and support people with trauma, using John Paul Lederach’s Comprehensive Peacebuilding Framework and the Caritas Internationalis training manual, Peacebuilding.

‘A new style of leadership in confronting violence was developed by the community that was later employed at the regional level of the Colombia peace process. The consistent value that was taught was not to use violence as a form of revenge. A collective way to nonviolently confront perpetrators and the Colombian government to protect civilians and to investigate links between the army and paramilitaries is being developed.

‘In 2014, victims from Bojayá went to Havana in Cuba to meet with the FARC members involved in the massacre, who wanted to ask for forgiveness. The process of working with the Bojayá community built a place that allowed many displaced people to return to their homes. Now, in 2018, they are organised as victims of the conflict, waiting for reparations and justice as part of the transitional justice tribunal for the Colombian peace accord with FARC.’


Central African Republic Central African Republic religious leaders visit Washington DC, USA, in March 2014 (left-right): Nicolas Guérékoyame Gbangou (president of the [Protestant] Evangelical Alliance); imam Omar Kobine Layama (president of the Islamic Council); and Dieudonné Nzapalainga (Catholic archbishop of Bangui). Photo: Nicolas Pinault (VOA) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Lighting a fire

Jean Baptiste Talla from the Cameroon has worked in peacebuilding and nonviolence projects in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2013. He described a front line where, in 2012, the political situation worsened, with a surge in violence resulting in approximately 20 percent of the population of 4.8 million (especially Muslims) being displaced from their homes and over half requiring humanitarian aid.

This violence has often been labelled religious and ethnic violence. Others point to political and resource issues that are at the root of the conflict. Thousands have been killed. Jean Baptiste’s work, supported by Catholic Relief Services, has focused on rebuilding social cohesion and implementing anti-genocide measures amid years of civil war.

He has provided support to communities and to an interreligious platform for peace led by a Catholic, cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga; the president of the Islamic Council of CAR, imam Oumar Kobine Layama; and the president of the Evangelical Alliance in CAR, reverend Nicolas Guérékoyamé-Gbangou. These religious leaders have become symbols and offered leadership in advocating for nonviolence in CAR, going beyond their religious identity to call for love, reconciliation, justice, and peaceful cohabitation.

This is how Jean Baptiste describes the work: ‘By the end of 2015, more than 3,000 people in the CAR had participated in our workshops. Of those participants, 35 were selected and trained as trainers. During an assessment, we were struck by these individuals’ resourcefulness and ingenuity.

‘For example, trainers had translated the guides accompanying tools into Sango [the national language – ed] and adapted the exercises to their local environments. In one instance, the trainer had asked villagers to gather sticks and branches to build a fire so that the community could clearly grasp the different stages and dynamics of a conflict – gathering fuel, initiating a spark, conflagration, coals, and dying out.

‘Over the course of two and a half years, I was inspired to observe that the great majority of the people we trained were committed to actively rebuilding social cohesion in the Central African Republic. Such is the case of a former chief of Bangui who mobilised his militia to protect Muslims. In collaboration with the local imam, he initiated a connector project to rebuild the neighbourhood mosque that his fighters had damaged, defaced and looted during the crisis.

“In collaboration with the local imam, the former chief began to rebuild the mosque that his fighters had damaged, defaced and looted.”

‘During critical moments in 2013–2015, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim women, relying on the learning they had derived from the training sessions, jointly organised awareness-raising sessions to instil calm and order in their segregated communities. They did so at considerable risk to their lives. Several social cohesion committees and subcommittees became active in north-western CAR solely because a few courageous participants put their training to use for the good of their country.’

Adding capacity

What did we learn about the distinct contribution of our faith-based peacemakers? What can they offer and what challenges remain for us to share with the Catholic church?

With us in our conversations, we had several ‘listeners’ including Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, and Erica Chenoweth, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

“Victims from Bojayá went to Havana to meet with the FARC members involved in the massacre, who wanted to ask for forgiveness.”

Jamila commented: ‘What came through very clearly is that in each of the cases I looked at, the church and spiritual communities acted as connectors and facilitators in environments where there was a weak civil society because it has been eroded due to conflict, or for other reasons… As a global institution with a deep and diverse network, the church connected local struggles with global movements.’

Erica noted: ‘One of the most poignant statements in these case studies was Sarah’s observation that “The faithful must get to the front lines themselves.” It certainly seems plausible – based on both historical cases (for example, archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador) and contemporary cases (for example, reverend William Barber in North Carolina) – that active participation in grassroots contentious mobilisation by faith-based communities would have a profound effect on the political power of such movements. Communities of faith can provide inspiration, moral imagination, stamina, spiritual nourishment, spaces for collective grieving, celebration, discernment, preparation, training, hiding, and mobilisation, and various other essential capacities’.

Where’s the church?

There were critical questions too, such as this posed by Pietro Ameglio, who works with the Movement for Justice and Peace in Mexico, where the struggle in building a nonviolent movement is immense. Pietro says the people are not just afraid, they are terrified. He reminded us of the importance of the moral reserve of a society in providing a nonviolent presence: putting their bodies in front of the adversary, being in the street, denouncing violence. All churches can be a part of this ‘moral reserve.’

However, Pietro noted: ‘The church is all too often distinguished by its silence. When it is visible, its public statements or actions are often not very balanced. When it does speak out about injustice or threats to society, the closeness of church leaders to those with political and economic power seem to make its pronouncements seem soft and inconsequential’.

And Merwyn De Mello, working now in Bangladesh, called out the mis-use of power within the church: ‘The church should do more to “dismantle violence” within its own institutional structures. Violence and abuse are used to establish and maintain power and control over another person or group, and often reflect an imbalance of power between the victim and the abuser. Maintaining control and power is one of the hallmarks of clericalism.… It could use programmes and practices of nonviolence to work with trauma survivors, perpetrators, and to root out internal corruption.’

The work and resources identified by all of the round tables is being gathered to be shared at different levels within the church, including the Vatican and its departments of education, doctrine, training and formation of clergy and so on. But the process is rolling, it is not waiting!

It is a privilege to be a part of this initiative. I appreciate even more the depth of change and transformation brought through nonviolent action, and the place of faith and spirituality in the work to challenge violence. This is often neglected in traditional measures or analysis of nonviolence.

I also recognise the responsibility on people of faith to reflect the best of their traditions and to challenge their institutions to actively confront violence in all its forms. Watch this space!