The 1960s are not far behind us.
I suppose adults in those days, like my own parents raising young kids, might have thought that the world was slipping its moorings. A long war abroad. Protests, violence and destruction in the streets at home. New faces and unorthodox cultural tastes redefining neighborhoods. Even the Catholic Church was charting new waters of openness and engagement.
Life is different now but there are similarities. Social upheaval, some of it marked by racist and anarchist violence, is not only present in our time, but accelerating. People feel pressured to choose sides, often to the disappointment and even disdain of family and friends.
One glaring difference I see between 1967 to 2017 is today’s absence of national leaders calling for what I believe is our nation’s greatest need today. It is the only real solution to the evils of division, racism and a degraded national polity.
Now is the time for a renewed commitment to nonviolence.
Visionaries such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Catholic monk Father Thomas Merton inspired millions to offer a pacifist response to the violence present in the hearts and public policies of their times.
Jesus Christ remains the ultimate teacher of a nonviolent response to our current tensions. In every circumstance — wherever racism, greed and fear of the other arise — we can choose not to battle it out with screams, fists or other weapons but to “put your sword in its sheath,” as Jesus told Peter (John 18:11).
This radical reliance on nonviolence is not practical. And it certainly is not popular. But it is possible because Christ lives within us, as he promised. We must realize that cooperating with his grace and his Spirit dwelling in us is the only way to repair the torn tapestry of our country, our communities and our families.
We must be ready always to forgive every assault, physical and verbal. As Dr. King advised: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, but a permanent attitude.”
We must rely on unceasing prayer and boundless compassion, both of which flow from a proper understanding of their source. “The basic Christian answer to hatred is not the commandment to love, but what must necessarily come before in order to make the commandment bearable and comprehensible,” Merton wrote in “New Seeds of Contemplation.”
“It is a prior commandment to believe. The root of Christian love is not the will to love but the faith … that one is loved by God.”
These are the only sane approaches to our problems. The alternative of wrestling with our “opponent” right over the cliff of anger and fear will lead to the death of us both. The other — the one who doesn’t look like me, think like me, talk like me — is not my enemy. The Christian heart, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, holds no room for fear, the fruit of which is hatred.
Jesus speaks to this root of fear directly through the Scriptures: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” he told the frightened disciples in the boat (Matthew 14:27).
The ‘60s didn’t end in a golden era, and neither will this period. King and Merton both died young, with much more to teach. Their witness to nonviolence remains a holy mountain for us today, one we must begin to climb –as individuals, as communities and as a nation.
None of us is without sin. Pointing an accusing finger at fellow sinners must give way to compassion for all, no matter their racism, greed or other failings. What is needed at this moment is mercy for others and for ourselves.
Building a culture of nonviolence will take courage. That starts with each person making a commitment — adopting a “permanent attitude” — rejecting violence in every word and gesture, and asking forgiveness with every misstep. We all carry prejudices and biases in our hearts. But the Father offers his divine mercy and aid. His free gift of love is given through no merit of ours but by his will. It is ours to share freely with our brothers and sisters for everyone — without exception.
We can yet pull back from the cliff’s edge of suicidal anger, hatred and fear. Nonviolence is the only path to life in our times — even if we need to look back to King, to Merton and especially to Jesus Christ our Lord, to find it.