The Burden of Nonviolence

A Jewish tale relates that a young woman once said to an old woman, “Old women, what is life’s heaviest burden?” And, we are told, the old woman replied: “Life’s heaviest burden is to have no burden to carry at all.”

Ah, yes, the message is clear: The smallest of us is each responsible for something bigger than ourselves. To do less is to be less than we should be. The problem is that it is often so difficult to know exactly what the big thing really is. Martha, of Bethany got her responsibilities wrong for a while, we know. Judas couldn’t get them straightened out at all. The fishing disciples were sure, at first, that fishing was far more important than following Jesus. We need not, in other words, smugly conclude that we in our time will know our responsibilities when we see them.

It never crossed my mind when I was growing up, for instance, that a Christian’s real responsibility was not to the Church but to the gospel, not to the country, but to the world, not just to my own kind but to everyone, not simply to the private things that I wanted to do but to the great things that had to be done whether I wanted to do them or not.

And the struggle for insight is not getting much easier as life goes along. The only difference is that now at least I know that there are questions. For instance, there are faults in the Church, but is risking disunity by pointing them out necessarily a better state of affairs? There are major policy mistakes in the country but, as people in the peace movement are so often told these days, is the danger of finding ourselves in an even worse system a better solution than simply bearing the little sin of nuclear possibility? There are sick and old and poor and wounded in my own society but, knowing that I really can do very little about all of that, isn’t it just as well to let those things to the officials whose responsibility it is to respond rather than to do so little noisily?

The questions were all bad enough as they were until fifteen of my own sisters in my own monastery gathered to begin the study of the Pax Christi vow of nonviolence with a view to pronouncing it in the priory chapel on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Then the clanging really started in my head. Of what good are foolishness and symbol in life? Of what good is a drop in the bucket? Of what use is it for the weak to institutionalize their weakness? Let’s get excited when George Shultz or Zbigniew Brezinski or Ronald Reagan take a vow of nonviolence, not when it’s fifteen nuns, fifteen peaceniks, fifteen women. Let’s hear it from the men before we think it means anything.

And then I began to think of the old woman’s warning that to have nothing to carry at all was a greater burden than carrying what was too heavy for you.

It is an irreparable burden to be without conscience. To live at a moment of time when my country is capable of annihilating the planet and make no attempt to say no is to be weighed down in soul. What kind of hollowness does it take to see the effects of sin but have no sense of sin?

It is an irreparable burden to be without voice. The closest thing I know to the burden of silence in the face of the sacrilege of militarism and macho and nuclear madness is not that it makes a person a sheep; it is the pain of not being able to scream in the middle of a nightmare.

It is a galling burden to be without obligation. Life becomes perfectly meaningless when we are finally convinced that nothing we do has any meaning. Why then do we live at all? Rosten wrote once: The purpose of life is not to be happy; the purpose of life is to matter–to have it make a difference that you lived at all.” If I am not obliged to something bigger than myself, even though it may be unattainable, then has my life really been worth anything at all?

It is a frightening burden to be without trust. To live in a nuclear world and never say a word against it is to live in a bubble of arrogance and hate. And arrogance and hate are the worst kind of pollution. Arrogance poisons reality and hate poisons life. Arrogance and hate make diplomacy and negotiation and human community impossible because they render trust important. Someone has to be able to be humble enough not to have to be the best, the first, the perfect. Someone has to be trusting enough to say, “I believe; I accept; I’ll try.” That is, perhaps, Gideon’s best gift to the Church. Having raised an army of forty thousand to do battle for his God, Gideon was instructed to reduce the army to three hundred and face the enemy with screeching trumpets and banging lanterns so that when the battle was over its observers would not say, “See what Gideon has done for God,” but “See what God has done for Gideon.

Indeed, my fifteen sisters have confronted me with the real burden of my life.

The real burden of my life is not nuclear disarmament and elimination of sexism. The real burden of my life is the vow of nonviolence. The real burden of my life is the thought of being without conscience, without voice, without a sense of obligation, without the strong defense of trust.

Oh, true, the vow will not be easy. It means I must be a peaceful peacemaker. It means I must turn every moment of ridicule into resurrection, It means I must learn to love what does not love me. It means that I must make a clear distinction between being assertive and being aggressive. It means that, like Gideon, I must go forth without an army in a culture where John Wayne is king, Rambo is Mister Everyman, and Al Capone got respect.

And will it work? Well, it worked in India for Gandhi. It worked in Selma for Martin Luther King, It worked in the Philippines for Cory Aquino. And it worked for the third graders of St. Veronica’s School when I went there as a child. Every year we all got up in church and recited the Pledge of the Legion of Decency, promising that we wouldn’t go to sleazy movies even if it meant we would never see another film on Saturday afternoons in our entire lives. And it affected the film industry: they had to categorize their films and they had to provide what we wanted or face ignominious defeat at the hands of the third graders of the world. I trust that it can work again.

Imagine a world whose third graders and ushers and teachers and fathers and college jocks vowed never to use violence again to achieve their ends. Vowed not that they would be passive, just that they would be nonviolent. Imagine the strength of the challenge.

Well, sixteen of us are going to start, without waiting for Shultz and Brzezinski and Reagan.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it won’t be effective at all. But the old woman has taught me a lesson for life. For me, at least, it is better to bear the burden of being ineffective than it is to bear the burden of being unconscionable.

—from A New Moment: an invitation to nonviolence (Pax Christi USA 1986)