"May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n 1.

World Day of Peace 2017: A Call for Active Nonviolence

A War Fought Piecemeal

Pope Francis says that we are engaged in “a horrifying world war fought piecemeal”. More violence cannot fix it, but will only cause further suffering, and even the physical and spiritual death of many people. The answer, Francis says in his Message for the 50th World Day of Peace, lies in promoting active and creative nonviolence.

Pope Paul VI began the tradition of observing the first day of January as the World Day of Peace. Francis begins his message by affirming the current significance and ongoing urgency of that first message. He describes how the “piecemeal” violence of our times operates at different levels and is of many kinds (n 2). For example, Francis speaks specifically about wars, terrorism, organised crime, trafficking in persons, the exploitation of women and children, environmental degradation, and domestic violence. He says that the origins of all this violence lie in the human heart, in our thoughts and values. Thus violence operates at an individual level, within the family, in local and national communities and in international life. It touches our relationships at all levels (n 2).

"Violence is not the cure for our broken world." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n 2.

Jesus’ Message of Nonviolence

The title of this year’s message is “Nonviolence: a style of politics for peace”. It is a slightly unusual phrase. Francis describes nonviolence in this way because it is a way of conducting ourselves in the body politic, that is, in our collective relationships (n 1). He stresses that nonviolence is not surrender to evil, a lack of engagement, or passivity. It is an active and creative way of building peace (n 4, 6). Most importantly, Francis says the basis for promoting nonviolence is Christological.

Jesus lived in violent times and his message and example were one of nonviolence to the very end, to the cross (n 3). Francis demonstrates this by drawing on Scripture. He goes so far as to say that “to be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence” (n 3). Furthermore, he says that “whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation” (n 3).

"To be followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n  3.

Nonviolence is Practical & Realistic

Francis rejects the argument that nonviolence is unrealistic. He agrees with Pope Benedict XVI, who says that it is in fact very realistic to acknowledge that there is already too much violence and injustice in the world. It makes sense to respond with more love and more goodness rather than more violence. We break the chain of violence by responding to evil with good. Willingness to love our enemies is at the heart of what Benedict called the “Christian revolution” (n 3).

Francis also presents historical examples to demonstrate that nonviolence is practical and has in fact achieved results. He points to Mother Theresa’s witness of active nonviolence in reaching out with great love to those who were suffering, and to her words: “we in our family do not need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace – just get together, love one another …” (n 4). He points to the achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the liberation of India from colonisation, and of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in combatting racism in the USA. He acknowledges that often women are leaders in nonviolence, and specifically acknowledges Leymah Gbowee’s leadership in non-violent action that contributed to the end of the second civil war in Liberia. Francis also points to the role of Christian communities in the fall of communist regimes, and especially to the influence of St John Paul II (n 4). The Catholic Church has a long history of involvement in nonviolent peacebuilding strategies around the world – but it is not alone. Francis stresses that this is typical of many religious traditions, and that violence in the name of religion profanes the name of God (n 4).

"An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures that break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n 5.

The Role of Families

Because the source of violence is in the human heart, it is essential that we practice nonviolence in our families. Families are the first place where we can learn to communicate and show concern for one another and resolve tensions and conflict through “dialogue, respect, concern for the good of the other, mercy and forgiveness” (n 5). Drawing links between different levels and kinds of violence, Francis says that the politics of nonviolence must begin in the home and spread to the whole human family. However, too often, families are the first place where we learn violence. This leads Francis to plead with great urgency for “an end to domestic violence and to the abuse of women and children” (n 5). He says this is just as urgent as disarmament and the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons (n 5). Fear, violence, closed-mindedness and nuclear deterrence cannot ground an ethic of fraternity and peaceful coexistence between people and among peoples.

"Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n 6.

Limiting the Use of Force, Building Peace

Francis says that “peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms” (n 6). Here he brings together two strands of the Catholic peace tradition that are sometimes seen as being in opposition to one another. They are a pacifist or nonviolent stance, and efforts to limit the use of force by proposing moral norms. The “just war” theory seeks to limit the use of force by proposing moral norms to guide decisions to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the use of force within war (jus in bello). There is currently a lot of debate about whether church teaching should abandon the “just war” approach. Some say that this approach has been misused to justify rather than limit the use of force. Others say that it is not possible in the contemporary world to meet all of the requirements of its criteria. Francis distances himself from this way of trying to limit the use of force by not naming it. Instead he gives the example of Church efforts to limit the use of force using moral norms through “participation in the work of international institutions and through the competent contribution made by so many Christians to the drafting of legislation at all levels” (n 6). Furthermore, he points to the beatitudes as Jesus’ “manual” for the strategy of limiting the use of force through the use of moral norms (n 6). Francis says that the beatitudes are a “program and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives” (n 6).

"I pledge the assistant eof the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence." Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message 2017, n 6.

A Wish for 2017

Francis concludes his Message with his wish for 2017:
“…may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and to building nonviolent communities that care for our common home” (n 7).

For Reflection:

  • Do modern communications and mobility make us more aware of violence than in the past, or inured to it?
  • What do you know about the nonviolence peacemakers named in this Message?
  • Who are the active and creative nonviolent peacemakers in your community, country or region?
  • Can you think of a time when you, or someone else, solved a conflict by “preserving what is valid and useful on both sides” (n 6)? What happened?
  • What are some concrete ways in which we might “show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost” (n 6)?

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Nonviolence: a style of politics for peace

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