By Craig Hovey
Last week’s horrific and deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris call first and foremost for silence. After Pearl Harbor, Dorothy Day began her column in the Catholic Worker by asking “shall we keep silent, or shall we speak? And if we speak, what shall we say?” Like the commendable silence of Job’s friends when they saw that his suffering was great, human tragedy of this sort and on this scale shocks us — the most human thing we can do is suffer with the sufferers and mourn with the mourners.
DAVID GREENE: You brought 40 strangers into your apartment… who were just very afraid?
JULIE MARKS: Yeah … I said, of course, come in. I mean, being friendly is all we have now. Having compassion, it's all we have now because if we just keep being afraid and being lonely and alone, you know, an individual, we have lost everything.This initial burst of spontaneous mutual support and compassion for strangers, born of the mayhem of the last few days, is impressive. It is the spirit of nonviolence: discovering the community-building alternatives that meet needs and build people up.
But it also contrasts with the long-term war-planning coming out of the French government. Inevitably, it seems—as with Job’s friends—the talk will change from openness and solidarity to explanations and calls for justice, punishment, and revenge. Dorothy Day went on from her initial silence to affirm her organization’s commitment to nonviolence in the remainder of her column, “Our Country Passes from Undeclared War to Declared War; We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand.”
The nonviolence tradition with which I most identify is a faith tradition that, in an earlier time, preferred the language of nonresistance to nonviolence, peace, and even justice. Nonresistance was a way of talking about refusing to respond in kind: hatred for hatred, violence for violence. The cycles of reprisal and revenge, it was acknowledged, would go on indefinitely until they are decisively and peaceably broken when one side embraces an alternative instead.
This tradition, and ones like it, have always faced their toughest opposition when nonresistance appears simply to be inadequate to some injustice, usually in wartime. Speaking about nonresistance in times like this feels a lot like speaking as Job’s friends: unwelcome and ill-timed.
Yet I believe it is necessary to speak, primarily since others are speaking too. French president François Hollande has called these terrorist attacks “an act of war” against France. The decision to call these acts “war” is the choice to respond to violence with violence rather than find other ways, ways to break the cycle. Hollande, we have heard, has promised a “merciless response” to the attacks.
War may not only be waged mercilessly, but it is also itself a response devoid of mercy. After Pearl Harbor, Dorothy Day acknowledged that war is a place and a circumstance where mercy is most needed. “Our works of mercy may take us into the midst of war.” She urged members of her organization to refuse to contribute to the fighting, but instead to look for ways to continue works of mercy where there are especially great risks because the needs are also so great.
Nonviolence does not mean being passive in the face of violence and injustice. It requires our greatest innovation and creativity in addressing the serious troubles endured by victims and which threaten to make victims out of yet others. What it will not do is withhold mercy in order to accomplish its ends.
Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.