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Discernment for Non-Violence

Discernment for Non-Violence

Some Personal Reflections on a Recent Workshop

Rudolf C. Heredia SJ


The Social Justice Secretariat of the Society of Jesus organised a workshop on ‘Violence and War: Cultural and Economic Interests.’ 4–17 September 2005 at Santa Severa, Italy. Three kinds of methodologies were involved at three different levels of engagement. The first level is discussion. Here there is an input in terms of position papers or academic studies. The purpose is primarily an intellectual quest to clarify ideas. This is what a dialectic process is all about, but all too easily it can be stymied in fruitless debate.


The second level would be one of dialogue. Here the emphasis is on open communication between the participants for a conversation in an effort to understand, not just intellectually or notionally but at a more comprehensive and inclusive level, a more human and personal one. Many cultural and religious differences can only be usefully engaged with at this second level.


The third level would be one of discernment where the priority is to listen together to the inner voice of conscience, where the presence of the Spirit that can best be heard and felt in the ‘gentleness of the breeze’ that blows where it wills, and we often know not where it comes from or where it goes. Such listening is a spiritual experience and may well be counter-intuitive as when it leads to a prophetic witness.


The first level of discussion is well suited to clarifying issues and concepts and so deepening insight and sharpen ideas. It is all too often more ideologically than intellectually driven, especially when sensitive and divisive political and social concerns are involved. As a result the clarity and incisiveness it effects may well bring difference and division into the open without necessarily reconciling or integrating them. As such, it may be a useful but still a first step in a constructive group encounter. But discussion can get so polarized as to be unable to proceed any further.

The second level of dialogue must then follow on first. Defensiveness and distrust do not make for open communication. We all have our baggage of suspicions and apprehension and so a measure of self-awareness and introspection is a necessary condition for any real open communication. Hence, a fruitful dialogue demands careful preparation. However, open communication without some clarity and comprehension of the issues we are dialoguing about can only lead to a sharing of ignorance, not to a real understanding, or worse, to misunderstandings. Obviously, dialogue is a delicate matter and is best seen as an on-going learning process inviting us into ever deeper sharing. It is not just a one-off event. The mutual understanding and self-discovery that such a dialogue results in becomes the basis on which contentious issues can be resolved and acted upon.


There are however issues which are complex and complicated beyond any clear certainties, yet demanding a response. Confronted with such human ambiguities and uncertainties, when we have reached the limits of our own abilities, we must seek the guidance of the inner voice of the Spirit to make a prudential judgement and act. This precisely is what discernment is all about. The Spirit does not substitute for human endeavour but meets us on the way to guide us farther along. Hence, group discernment must follow, not precede a dialogue in open communication. This dialogue in turn must be first enriched by a discussion that leads to a clearer understanding and wider comprehension of the issues involved.


The workshop at Santa Severa was organized to include these three methodologies in a process that reiterated itself over two weeks. If it demonstrated anything, it was surely how rewarding such a process can be for the participants. The inputs from the experts, the three case studies (from Chad, India and Colombia), and the issues and concerns arising from all this, represented the first level of discussion. The dialogue on these expressed the second level in this group sharing. And finally, a careful attention to the movements of one’s heart and the urgings of the inner voice of the Spirit culminated in the third level of the group discernment.

Without doubt, this is an experience and a methodology to be replicated on any issue as complex and urgent as the one this workshop was gathered around. But if replication demands that we learn from what went right, we must also be sensitive to where we fell short. And here I express a personal disappointment, a sadness, at ‘the path not taken,’ even though the general consensus seemed to be moving in this direction. Yet forcing a conclusion on the issue of non-violence would have been a contradiction in terms. However, I still retain the hope that the threshold will be crossed in some future follow up.


Non-violence does find an important place in the workshop’s statement, but it did not become an explicit option in its recommendations. I believe the lack of clarity at the first level of discussion did not make for a deeper dialogue and a more sensitive discernment of the question that gripped us all: how far is an option for non-violence viable in a violent world? To address such a question in dialogue and discernment we must first clarify the issues involved. Now if we understand “violence” as the violation of persons, of people of groups and communities, then it cannot ever be justified. To speak of “defensive violence” is extremely problematic, if not a contradiction in terms. It is far more exact and proper to speak of the legitimacy of, and justification for “defensive force” against violators who have forfeited their rights by failing to respect the same in others, and so can justifiably be restrained and prevented by proportionate and appropriate force as required or necessitated.


The option for non-violence does not condemn the use of such “defensive force”. Rather it is sensitive to the real possibilities of any use of force, particularly in situations of collective violence where it too often results in unintended and uncontrollable collateral damage. In the most complex situations, there are no precision-guided instruments even for the use of defensive force. I am not here urging this as an option for all, or even for all Christians. But just as the option for the poor is not an option against the rich, but a prophetic witness to the kingdom, so too some can be called to make a similar option for non-violence without judging those who do not.

To suggest that this is an impractical option, is to ignore the freedom movement of Gandhi that brought down an Empire, or the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King that steered the racial violence of the ghettos away from further bloodshed, or the peaceful coup against the armed power of President Marcos in the Philippines led by Cardinal Sin, or the “Rainbow Coalition” of Nelson Mandela in South Africa that avoided a blood bath there. We need only to imagine what the use of even defensive force, however justifiable, might have meant in all these instances in order to realize how the moral power of non-violence can be both realistic and humanising.


 Too often discernment has focused, not on non-violence as a prophetic response, but on violence and force as a justified defence. Undeniably structural violence in society, genocidal massacres of defenceless victims, pogroms against ethnic minorities … are difficult and intractable issues. However, we have been better at developing a theory of a ‘just war’ that justifies force, than adept at discerning non-violence as the means to a just peace. How different would this workshop have been if it had focused on “Non-Violence and Peace”? For non-violence is more than the avoidance of violence or the renunciation of force. It is a positive option to suffer rather than inflict suffering, an appeal to conscience premised on the moral authority of the cause and its promoters.


Surely, this is the way of Jesus, the way of the Cross, of power in powerlessness, the Paschal Mystery? But of course, it is those who have experienced the injustice and terror of violence that can speak for such an option. To propose such an option from a position of power and pelf, of privilege and security cannot ring true. Nevertheless, there can be some who are called to make such an option as they listen to the inner voice of the Spirit and the still small voice of conscience. Archbishop Oscar Romero did make such an option even as he refused to condemn those who did not. There are many Jesuits who have witnessed thus with their blood and surely not in vain, from those martyred at San Salvador to others in similar situations across the world.


The workshop at Santa Severa did not conclude with such an option, but it did not close the door either. Perhaps at some later date, may be at the next General Congregation, the door will open again and the Spirit will invite us to walk through, to walk as Jesus walked, for he too lived in a violent world, and in truth triumphed against it non-violently in the end, but only at the cost of his own violent death. This is the cost of discipleship that we are called to discern.


Santa Severa, 4–17 September 2005


Rudolf Heredia SJ

Indian Social Institute

10 Institutional Area, Lodi Road

New Delhi 110 003 – INDIA