Together to end an injustice

Women from a slum in Medellin, the capital of Colombia, repeatedly asked their mayor to extend the water pipes to their neighborhood. More than once, they received promises, but no action was ever taken.  One day, some of them who had taken a seminar on active non-violence led by Jean and Hildegard Goss called the women to a meeting.  They decided to intensify their struggle but in a non-violent way, that is to say by deciding explicitly, that whatever happens, they will exclude all means of violence which degrade the one who commits them as much as the one who undergoes them.

They formed groups of 10 women, each with her smallest child. The first group went to the central square of the city where a beautiful fountain was pouring out its abundant waters. They began to bathe their babies in the puddles beside the fountain.  When shocked middle-class women intervened, it allowed the group to explain to them the lack of clean water they were suffering from and the indifference of the authorities. The police took them to the station, but they were followed by a second group which did the same. The police had to come back to chase them away, and so it continued. In the fifth group, an angry policeman raised his baton to hit a woman but a well-to-do woman grabbed his arm stopping him, and said, « If your wife lived up there like these women, would you hit her? “

Following this incident, women from the middle and upper classes joined the women from the slums and they returned together to address the administration. A solution was found in which each side took a step towards the other. The many unemployed men from the slums dug the trenches and the municipality financed the water supply.

Extract from my article published on May 13, 2000, available at

article n° 6.

Turning the other cheek – misunderstanding

By understanding that turning the other cheek (Mt 5:38-42) is a call to not resist, to renounce one’s own rights, to bear injustice patiently, the coryphaei of Tradition were obliged to limit evangelical non-violence as best they could:

1) Yes, to the evangelical spirit while still assuring an effective defense, was the idea of Augustine.  As the Church became the official religion of the Empire, he organized an internalizing solution that distinguished actions from intentions: the commandments of Mt 5:38-42, which are addressed to everyone, do not teach a specific behavior, but a « spirit » in which we should defend ourselves. The texts do not say: « Let the wicked do as they wish, » but rather, « Correct the wicked, while loving them entirely with your heart filled with pure intention ».

2) Yes, to turning the other cheek, but not for everyone, was the proclamation of Thomas Aquinas reflecting the spirit of his time. In the medieval era, which clearly marked the differences between clerics and laity, Mt 5:38-42 was applied differently to each: one commandment for those who had left everything behind in order to witness in anticipation of the Kingdom, and on the other hand, for all those who had the responsibility of protecting their family, their business or their country, a counsel of perfection subordinated to the duty of defending one’s neighbor.  Religious can bear witness to that radical love which goes so far as to give one’s life for one’s enemy, while the laity exercise their vocation of love by defending their loved ones. This is the solution of a free and personal vocation.

3) Yes, to this impossible precept, but by grace, and only for Christians in their interpersonal relationships, affirms Luther. The Protestant Reformation centers on the Savior who alone is able to give the grace to accomplish what he asks in Mt 5:38-42. This is the Christological solution.  Mt 5:38-42, sets out commandments for every Christian, whether cleric or layman.  But they are valid only in the relationship of Christian to Christian; honoring the Kingdom of God which comes in Christ. They are not valid, as such, for governors, judges or economic leaders in the organization of the affairs of the society.

These three theologies, which express the ideal of the society in which they were produced, agree on the following guidelines: yes as much as possible to the evangelical precepts of non-violence in Mt 5:38-42, but it is necessary to limit those to whom it is addressed, and/or the obligatory character and/or the scope of its application, given the need to protect the innocent against violence and to resist injustice. Hence the dilemma that has arisen in all Christian thought over the last two thousand years between the duty to assist and protect one’s neighbor on the one hand, and on the other, to remain faithful to the non-violence advocated by Jesus in his words and actions.  Ambrose of Milan already spoke in the fourth century of this conflict of duties for every Christian, which is taken up again by the Jesuit Joseph Joblin:  one will either observe the precept that he must abstain from all violence, and fail in his obligation to come to the aid of the victim of unjust aggression (because of the risk of becoming an accomplice of the unjust aggressor); or, he will put his strength at the disposal of the victim of injustice and he will fail in the precept of non-violence contained in the gospel

Today, studies in conflict management reveal that this dilemma is very poorly framed.  See the diagram below: departing from the traditional dilemma because the best possible defense is neither in counter-aggression nor in passivity, it is rather in a mobilization of our best forces and an optimization of those ingredients that there will be an effective resolution to the crisis.  And, on the Gospel side, if we understand that the outstretched cheek is a call to resist, to fight against injustice by taking a disconcerting initiative which does not fall into the trap of counter-violence, but which effectively stops the dominance, then a theology of a just peace becomes possible, integrating both the treasures of the Gospel and the know-how of constructive conflict management.  See my book « La non-violence évangélique et le défi de la sortie de la violence ».

« You have heard it said… but I say to you… »

« You have heard that it was said to the elders… But I say to you… » is the refrain that provides the cadence of the verses in Matthew 5: 21 – 48.  The refrain is repeated six times, ending in the crescendo: the law says no to all forms of violence; from the nearest to the farthest away; to that which we inflict on others (murder, lies, concupiscence) to that which is inflicted on us (5th and 6th antitheses*).  Jesus fulfills the law; he holds it upright from its very root; he establishes it definitively in accordance with his own intention: « It has been said… but I, I give the fundamental meaning » in accordance with the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven (these are the 3 words that come up most in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5, 6 and 7). That we are all his daughters and sons, and therefore brothers and sisters, radically changes the relationship between human beings…

These six antitheses, these six roots, all maintain the same dynamic: « Not just murder…  but also the judgments that demonize the other, and the words of hate that lead to the judgments. Not just the finality of justice: an eye for eye – but also the importance of choosing other ways than violence; not only a just struggle, but also the means for a just peace; not only the truth about the warlike ideology of the neighbor who attacks us, but already regarding the enemy with a look filled with love.

Unfortunately, until the 20th century, theologians understood that the outstretched cheek was a call to not resist, to renounce one’s own rights, to bear injustice patiently.  Since this non-violence is socially and politically impracticable, it is logical and wise to limit its scope and to deny its obligatory and collective character. This continuing interpretation has thus set up the proposition: « Yes to evangelical non-violence, but not in certain cases », which is a dynamic very different from « not only… but already, and again… »; hence, the difficulties in reconciling such an altruistic, self-sacrificing love and a realistic political stance in the world.

Everything changes if the Gospel of turning the cheek invites us to resist with realism, lucidity and love! It can then inspire a responsible political response. This was the subject of my doctorate in theology. Laissez-faire is toxic and passivity is the breeding ground for the abuse of power by the unscrupulous, but resistance to oppression has an interest in inventing alternatives to violence…

* Antitheses is a term in biblical scholarship used to characterise the repeated refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

« Violence » and « non-violence »: two operative concepts

Here are the first lines of my book: The New Paradigm of Non-Violence:

Is it possible to effectively counteract violence by means other than violence?  How can one exercise the « right » of legitimate self-defence without being drawn into the terrible trap of becoming part of the conflict – without becoming an accomplice to the violence of the aggressor? Is this question different for individuals in their interpersonal relationships than it is for human societies in their international relations?

Certainly, taking responsibility in the midst of this violent world is to assume a part in the battle that will require a certain power. Love without power is powerlessness. Authority without sanction is laissez-faire. Passivity produces the worst conflict scenarios.  Impunity is the breeding ground for the worst abuses of power. To love someone is not to let them do harm. However, at the other end of the spectrum, how much anger and how many ‘holy’ wars are gangrenous with the evil they claim to be fighting? Where is the dividing line between the power of domination, which contains the seed of destructive violence, and legitimate forces based on law, which are respectful of people and capable of building justice in a context of love?

« Violence » and « non-violence » are two operative concepts that crystallise a paradigm shift. One use of the term « violence » is to push back the line of the « lesser evil » that is tolerated. At the end of the 20th century, « violence » became an operative concept that was used within some human groups to stigmatise practices in order to better ostracize those that had lost their integrity, legitimacy or necessity. For example, in ‘countries embracing human rights’, it was tolerated – not so long ago – that, to curb a child’s indiscipline, a parent could use a whip, or lock the child in a dark cellar for a whole night. As these practices have crossed the threshold of unacceptability, today, in the name of children’s rights, countries are saying no to corporal punishment as a means of education. The value of the operative concept is to mobilise the group: behaviour that shocks people’s consciences because it has become humanly contemptible will only be outlawed through changes in awareness, and a long maturation on the moral, cultural and psychological levels.  Each member of the group will be effectively confronted with his or her responsibilities when on the political level legislation outlaws the act described as ‘violent’, and the law is accompanied by sanctions.

A teacher who hits a child today, is disapproved of and sanctioned, however well-meaning his intention, however just his cause. In fact, his action is the expression of a tragic powerlessness.  If he were sufficiently trained in conflict management, he would find resources other than physical violence in order to exercise his authority and obtain effective respect for the rules. The objective of the principle of non-violence is to formalise a clear and precise limit for all:

« Whatever the end pursued or the extenuating circumstances, physical violence towards a child is a mistake and a counterproductive action. It is unjustifiable, it is prohibited.”

Once the action is recognised as intrinsically wrong, the so-called ‘non-violent’ alternatives that have existed all along, become obligatory. The « non » of « non-violence » means STOP to violence. It is much more than a negation.  It is a « no » to rupture and to combat; it is a mobilising « no » in refusing the fatality of violence. Thus, this dynamic is of great practical fertility in pushing back against customs that have been tolerated until now, as lesser evils.

This dynamic also affects international relations, even if it is less easily apprehended there.  The violence of states, linked to their sacrosanct sovereignty and “raison d’Etat”, is diminishing as human groups manage to eliminate their various forms of honour, of ideological justification and the idea of inescapable necessity. Are there still just wars? In any case, consciences are becoming increasingly aware of the role of lies and propaganda in justified wars!

The hypothesis at the beginning of this essay is that the capacity of men to progressively outlaw violence gives rise to a new paradigm of thought, which can be summed up in a formula: the challenge of our time is to learn how to exercise force without violence. In understanding this new paradigm, the activist philosopher Jean-Marie Muller, born in 1939, was the first in the French-speaking world to state: « The ‘non’ that non-violence opposes to violence is a ‘no’ of resistance. Non-violence is certainly abstention, but this abstention itself requires action. […] It is a question of creating a dynamic that aims to limit, reduce and, as far as possible, eliminate violence, starting with the reality of violence that we are used to considering as necessary and legitimate. There is a chain reaction of economic, social, political and police violence that cannot be interrupted if at any point in the process violence is legitimised. To break the logic of violence, a political dynamic must be created that reverses the process of the violent development of conflicts. It is this dynamic that the political philosophy of non-violence invites us to implement.

Below is the conceptual framework I have invented to mark out the path: leave the horizontal line of the ill-posed dilemma to pose a double vertical: where do the lines pass that separate, on the one hand, violence (column 1) and passivity, its accomplice (column 4) and, on the other hand, the non-violent forces of law (column 2) and love (column 3)? Then, how can columns 2 and 3 be increased, while continually reducing 1 and 4?

Mobilising the group when violence occurs

Imagine that you live in a working-class neighbourhood in Kinshasa (capital of the Congo, former Zaire).  You are attending a seminar that is teaching you how to resolve situations of injustice, without falling into the trap of violence yourself (which is radical injustice).  You are asked to precisely describe an example of injustice.  You choose this example:  the women in a neighbourhood are regularly beaten by their husbands, under the guise of socially accepted customs.

With your working group, you think about how, in this case, to turn the other cheek.

You decide on the initiative of creating, in concentric circles, the most general mobilisation possible of people of good will in the neighbourhood; those that are convinced that it is time to end, and declare unlawful, these practices of patriarchal domination.  From now on, whenever a woman is beaten, all the people in this network will relay a special rallying cry, prompting all of them to converge on the home concerned, where the group will stand together, in silence, occupying the house/yard, for several days.

A non-violent Jesus – more revolutionary than the revolutionaries

Jesus did not directly attack the political oppression of the Roman invaders, nor the socio-economic enslavement of his people, but he did undermine its foundations.  He went to the root of the domination of some over others in order to awaken our consciences, and to urge our hearts to let go of our abuse of power and our structural violence.  It took a few generations for the fermentation of his Good News to subvert the Roman Empire, but it did subvert it… In this way, the radically non-violent Jesus is more revolutionary than the revolutionaries!

The heart of the story is that his Father is JUST and MERCIFUL:  a God bowed over us with His heart pressed against our sufferings. And He invites us to conversion: to choose to trust in Him, to believe in His infinite patience and mercy, in the radical benevolence of His Divine Providence.

Our conversion during this Lenten season is not primarily about what we do, but about what we think; how we imagine God. He tells us that, despite the appearance that the superficial and short-term are effective, it is the radical transformation of human hearts that has the power to change the face of the world. Do we believe it?

Spring is not only the right time for strategists to launch a military operation against our neighboring country; it is also our annual, resolute ascent towards Easter, towards death and resurrection.  Joyful Lent – a Lent joy-filled in peace and in the determination for a just peace!

A case of active non-violence stopping the deportation of Jews

Imagine that you are in 1940. Your country has been invaded by Germany. The Nazis demand that Jews wear the Star of David on their arms, without saying that this is the first step towards their deportation and extermination. You are a simple citizen, poor and destitute. What do you do? Because you are creative and resolutely committed to active non-violence, that is to say, to the art of preventing any human group from abusing its power, from making the slightest profit from it, you begin to think, with that imaginative intelligence that creates new solutions. You say to yourself:  they want to single out the Jews and prepare us to set them apart from our society.

What can we do, so as not to fall for their low-grade trick?

… Eureka, let’s all wear the star. How to do it?

…I’ve got it: I will find the king of the country and tell him about it.  When he is convinced, I will ask him to convince the political and economic power elites + the intelligentsia that they all start wearing the Star of David armband at the same time.

…and that they all invite everyone around them to do the same:  spouse, children, neighbours, etc., etc.,…

Translation (without the pun / play on words in French) :
Shameless (takeover/control) turning into a lowly quest

« No one can make you feel inferior without your consent » (Éléonore Roosevelt).

From war suffered to war waged

« During the Second World War, a Russian soldier returned home from the battle lines for a short break. As he approached the apartment where he lived with his wife, he saw a pile of bodies piled up in the street that men were loading onto a truck for burial. When he got close, he saw a woman’s leg wearing a shoe that he recognised belonged to his wife. Taking her in his arms, he realised that she was still alive.  In the apartment, he took care of her and she survived.  Eight years later, in 1952, their son was born: Vladimir Putin » (Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices).

I receive this story as an invitation to look consciously at the often unconscious and muted chain of violence, which begins in the concrete reality of our personal dramas traumatised by war…

« Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed » (preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO, 1945).

From just war to holy war to crusade

How we go
from a just war
to a holy war
and then to a crusade?

1) In the 11th century, military expeditions were essentially an act of solidarity by the West towards its brothers in the East who were threatened by Turkish expansion: a war justified by Realpolitik, a lesser evil necessary for geostrategic reasons.

2) As the violence escalated, it became a holy war: by dying in battle, you became martyrs for the Christian faith that you were protecting against Islam.

3) The term crusade appears only at the end to reinforce the justification of the violence: killing and being killed became meritorious; it ensured the salvation of your soul.

10 (21 – 11) lessons from the 11th century for the 21st century?

In World War 2, “never in his history has man competed so much with the devil nor given so many lessons to hell” (André Malraux).

The fall of the Berlin Wall thanks to October 9, 1989 in Leipzig

On October 9, 1989, in Leipzig, East Germany, exactly one month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the whole city was talking about the non-violent demonstration planned for the evening.  Everyone had been ordered not to go to the city centre in the evening.  Everyone saw the tanks deployed, especially around St. Nicholas Church where weekly prayer meetings for peace were held and which had become the symbol of the protest against the oppressive regime.  More than 8,000 soldiers and paramilitary militias of Communist workers were mobilised, with orders for a relentless crackdown. All the inhabitants knew about it:  tonight, the order to shoot had been given. The fear of a bloodbath was great.

In the evening, 2000 people defied the ban, praying for peace in St. Nicholas church as they do every week. The other churches in the city centre are also full. The tension is at its peak at the end of the prayer; outside, weapons pointed at them will be waiting. The slightest spark will set things off. And then, like the young man who offered his 5 loaves and 2 fishes, someone proposed to light candles and for all to go out holding them in our hands while singing and praying.  Here is the testimony of one participant: « When you carry a candle, you must use both hands. You have to protect the flame so that it doesn’t go out. This means that you can’t carry a stone or a stick in your hand at the same time.  And this is the miracle!  The armed forces were a bit shocked and began discussing among themselves.  Then they withdrew.  A member of the Central Committee of the East German government confessed: « We were prepared for everything, we had thought of everything, except for the candles bathed in songs of prayer.”

It was the flame of little candles that turned the tide: about 70,000 people dared to go out and gathered at Karl-Marx-Platz.  They marched through the city centre, calling « Keine Gewalt! », « No violence! », even passing in front of the railway station and the Stasi headquarters, without any provocation,  but with determination.  In their just and non-violent struggle, they were ready to be killed, without killing in return. The lamb led to the slaughter?  When millions of other people are ready to follow, what can those in power with their weapons do in front of such a mass of unarmed demonstrators?  The fall of the wall was already underway as a result of these feet in the street and these hands holding candles aligned with their resolute vision. The spark ignited the fire?  Via the international news, the whole country was informed.  Millions more in the Soviet Bloc were encouraged to dare to contribute to the change that was happening. Awareness and time are more important than violence and rage!

Thank you for helping to make known the date of October 9, 1989, a decisive date for the rest of history:  the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the awakening of consciences and hearts without violence, without a violent revolution. Thank you to the people who will forward this post. Peace in the world begins with such small acts, which can seem as insignificant as candles held in the hand, and yet they make a difference!