What does Gospel Nonviolence Have to Do with this Election?

Election 2020Election Week 1

Election Tuesdays—Working Group on Gospel Nonviolence

By John Heagle

During this election season there are critical values that confront Catholics as they prepare to vote. But the overarching—or perhaps, more correctly, the underlying reality—that we confront in our society is the issue of systemic violence. How can we form our consciences and those of our fellow Catholics around the prophetic vision of Gospel nonviolence? 

To put it mildly, this is an immense challenge—for at least three reasons. 

First, most citizens—including many Catholics—understand violence primarily through the lenses of TV and social media. As a result, the focus is more often on the destruction of property than on the systemic violence that permeates our culture.  This summer we heard a great deal about the violence surrounding ‘Black Lives Matter’. After decades of systemic violence by police unions, the murder of George Floyd became the flash point of national protests. Tragically, many commentators focused more attention on the destruction of property by fringe groups than on the systemic causes of violence that ignited the protests in the first place.  Focusing on the destruction of property can easily become an excuse—even a convenient distraction—from the deeper, more destructive systemic violence of racism, white privilege, economic injustice, and the violation of voting rights.  

Secondly, neither political party is effectively addressing the call to personal and interpersonal nonviolence as a moral—and critically necessary—way of life. In an interview following the murder of George Floyd, Harvard University philosophy professor Cornell West said, ‘Our culture is so market-driven—everything for sale, everybody for sale—it can’t  deliver the kind of nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose.”  Clearly, the ache in our hearts is a cry for ‘nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose’. It is strangely ironic, therefore, that when many Catholics speak of the ‘culture of death’ they are referring only to abortion, as though this is the only thread in the ‘seamless garment’ of life. They choose to ignore the other violent threads in our social tapestry: environmental devastation, an out-of-control pandemic, widespread addiction, racism, sexual abuse, suicide, domestic violence, misogyny, gun violence, homophobia, ‘cowboy capitalism’, sex trafficking, the marginalization of the disabled and elderly, rampant consumerism, immigrant children in cages, homelessness, white collar welfare, joblessness, political polarization, and the numbing psychic denial that moves the doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.

Finally, we need to acknowledge, sadly, that the contemporary teaching of the Church on nonviolence is widely unknown or, in some cases, ignored, resisted, and outrightly rejected. Recent popes including John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have all condemned the use of nuclear weapons. At the Vatican conference on disarmament in 2017, Pope Francis went further and condemned the very possession of nuclear weapons. He firmly reiterated this stance on the 75th remembrance of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, declaring that the mere possession of atomic weapons is ‘immoral.’ What response do you think this teaching would evoke if it were forthrightly presented in a homily this autumn?  Most Catholics consider the commitment to live a life of Gospel nonviolence as something atypical, at best respected from a distance, as in the lifestyle of Catholic ‘eccentrics’ like Dorothy Day, Ben Salmon, the Berrigan brothers, Elizabeth McAlister, or the Kings Bay Ploughshares Seven. Over the centuries, the Sermon on the Mount has gradually been domesticated from its prophetic matrix in the socio-political world of Jesus to a vague invitation to engage in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. 

Gospel nonviolence may not be on our political platforms this autumn, but it is integral to reclaiming the soul of our country. And the future that is our responsibility to shape. 

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