Human Rights and Nonviolence: The Christian Theology and Movement for Peace

Every human being on the planet has the right to live in peace. In pursuit of this basic human right, Mahatma Gandhi concluded that the only hope for the human race was for every one of us to become nonviolent. He concluded that we were created to live nonviolently with one another. To be human, he said, is to be nonviolent. The whole world has to reject violence and adopt the wisdom and practice of active nonviolence. Nonviolence, he determined, is our only way toward a future of peace with justice. Nonviolence therefore is the first and most essential ingredient if every human being alive is to possess all their human rights.
“The basic principle on which the practice of nonviolence rests,” Gandhi suggested, “is that what holds good in respect of oneself equally applies to the whole universe.”
Given this vision of nonviolence, I would like to reflect on violence and nonviolence, the theology and practice of the Christian peace movement, the example of Christian peacemakers, my own experience, lessons from the recent U.S. war on Iraq, the right of conscientious objection and finally how Christian nonviolence interacts with the Declaration on Human Rights.
War and Nuclear Weapons, the Ultimate Human Rights Violation
As we know, we suffer a wide variety of human rights violations, from homelessness to torture to the lack of affordable medicine to hunger. But I submit that the ultimate human rights violation is war and the nuclear weapons which sustain our culture of war. With nuclear weapons, we have the potential to destroy all human life and the entire planet. Everyone’s rights are violated by the mere existence of these weapons.
When the United States vaporized 130,000 people at Hiroshima at August 6, 1945, and 30,000 people three days later in Nagasaki, we violated their fundamental human rights and unleashed the threat of total annihilation upon us all. When we bombed Baghdad in 1991 and again in 2003, when we bombed Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua and El Salvador, we violated the human rights of ordinary human beings. When we sell weapons for mass murder to warring nations, when we flame the violence in the thirty five wars currently being fought, we violate the human rights of countless, nameless millions. When we use depleted uranium and poison the earth from Basra to Kosova, we violate the human rights of generations to come, who will be born with birth defects and die early from cancer. When we send radioactive materials into outer space and risk an explosive catastrophe that could spread a plague of cancer on the planet, we violate the human rights of every human being. When we explode nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, build them in Los Alamos, perfect them at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and maintain thirty thousand others in bunkers everywhere, we violate our own basic human rights to live in peace, in good health, without fear. We hold the planet hostage. We put the nuclear gun to everyone’s head. We violate the human rights of every person alive.
Instead of spending billions of dollars on our weapons of mass destruction, we should spend our resources to meet the basic human rights of the world’s poor, for food, housing, healthcare, jobs, education and environmental cleanup. Instead of pursuing global domination, imperial control, corporate greed, and nuclear hegemony, we should commit ourselves to honoring the basic human rights of every human being alive, especially the rights of the poor and hungry, the right to life, the right to peace, the right to live in peace. We all have the right to live without the threat of war, the presence of nuclear weapons, the fear of being vaporized, the threat of global destruction.
Active Nonviolence, the Way Forward
On the night before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” Unless we adopt the vision and practice of nonviolence, the prophet King announced, we are doomed. We will destroy the planet in a conflagration of violence. The loss of our human rights is only a prelude to the great catastrophe to come, unless the world rejects violence as a means of resolving conflict and commits itself to nonviolent conflict resolution.
Nonviolence is far more than a tactic or a strategy. Nonviolence is a way of life. It is the force of active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for every human being and all creation, that resists injustice, reconciles with everyone, and transforms violence into wholeness. Nonviolence understands the world’s crisis as an addiction to violence. It sees every human rights abuse as an act of violence whether toward individuals, nations or the whole human family. It seeks to end, heal and transform the world’s violence, at
every level from the personal to the international and global.
For nonviolence, the method and the goal are one. Nonviolence understands that the means are the ends, that we reap what we sow, that we cannot achieve a nonviolent world through the use of violence, that we cannot reach peace and justice by waging war and supporting systems of injustice, that we cannot attain our common human rights by any method that violates human rights. Nonviolence requires a complete inner change that becomes contagious, politically revolutionary and globally transforming.
The wisdom of nonviolence teaches us that violence does not work, that violence in response to violence always leads to further violence. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword. Those who live by the bomb, the gun, the nuclear weapon, will die by bombs and guns and nuclear weapons.” When we see the world through the lens of nonviolence, we realize that war can never stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War never ends wars; war only sows the seeds for future wars. War can never lead to lasting peace or true security or a better world or help us become more human or overcome evil or deepen the spiritual life or uphold human rights. Furthermore, the spirituality of nonviolence denounces the lie of the spirituality of violence and insists that war is not the will of God. War is never blessed by God. War is not endorsed by any religion. War is the ultimate mortal sin. War is demonic, evil, anti-human, anti-life, and anti-God. Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future, the human right of peace and the God of peace.
Active nonviolence begins then with the vision of a reconciled humanity, the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, already one, already united. Given this vision of the sanctity of human life, we can never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, builds nuclear weapons, and allows others to starve. We have to defend everyone’s human right to live in peace with justice.
But nonviolence is not passive. It is active, creative, provocative, and challenging. It is a life force that when harnessed can disarm nations and change the world. Gandhi described nonviolence as “a force more powerful than all the weapons of the world combined.”
“Nonviolence is the greatest and most active force in the world,” Gandhi wrote. “It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of humanity. When we tap into the spirit of nonviolence, it becomes contagious and can topple empires.”
The world claims there are only two options in the face of violence: we can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option: creative, active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist war publicly, through creative nonviolent love, trusting in God, loving our enemies and opponents, and wearing them down until injustice is transformed into justice.
But nonviolence carries with it one absolute condition. It insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of any human being. It claims that we cannot pursue the human rights of others while violating the human rights of anyone. Instead of killing others, we give our lives in the nonviolent struggle for justice and human rights, and are even willing to be killed in the process, but we will not retaliate with further violence, murder or war. Instead of inflicting violence on others for the noble cause of justice or the ignoble cause of global hegemony, we accept and undergo suffering in pursuit of justice and peace, without even the desire to retaliate or seek revenge. Nonviolence calls us to lay down our lives for suffering humanity, indeed, for everyone on all sides.
Nonviolence begins in the heart where we renounce the violence within us. Then it moves out with active nonviolence to our families, local communities, cities, nation and the world. When organized on the large scale level, active nonviolence can transform nations and the world, as Gandhi demonstrated with India’s revolution from Britain, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement revealed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the struggling, heroic blacks of South Africa showed against apartheid.
Gandhi dreamed of a new world of nonviolence, where we fund and support unarmed international peace teams that travel to conflict zones, disarm opposing sides, and work out peaceful resolutions. He hoped every school, religious and civic organization in the world would teach children to act and live according to the discipline of nonviolence. He taught that where nonviolence has been tried, even against Nazi Germany, it has worked.
Today, nonviolence is spreading throughout the world as never before, but it receives little attention on the evening news. Nonetheless, it remains the only way forward if we are to secure the human right of peace for every person alive.
Love Your Enemies, the Theology of Christian Nonviolence
All the world’s religions, I believe, are rooted in active nonviolence. Islam means peace. Judaism upholds the vision of shalom, where people beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. Gandhi exemplified Hinduism as the spiritual life of active nonviolence. Buddhism calls for compassion toward all living beings. Even Christianity, I insist, requires active, creative nonviolence.
Gandhi said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who do not know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians. Jesus practiced creative, public nonviolence. He called us to love our neighbors, show compassion toward everyone, seek justice for the poor, forgive those who hurt us, put down the sword, take up the cross in the struggle for justice, and lay down our lives in love for humanity. At the climax of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), he spoke the most significant, revolutionary words ever uttered. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your countrymen and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly God, for God makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and the causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Be compassionate as God as compassionate.”(Mt. 5:43-48)
If this is the core message of Jesus, then Christians can no longer support war or nuclear weapons. Christians renounce violence and the just war theory and practice the nonviolence of Jesus. Starting in Galilee, Jesus served the poor and then walked on a campaign of active nonviolence into Jerusalem’s Temple, the symbol of imperial and religious oppression of the poor, the center of systemic injustice, and in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, turned over the tables of the moneychangers. “From now on, we are going to be contemplatives,” he said. “This is a house of prayer.” He did not hurt anyone, kill anyone, or bomb anyone, but he was not passive. Jesus engaged in peaceful, dramatic, nonviolent action for justice on behalf of the victims of the empire. For this, he was immediately arrested, brutally tortured, and capitally executed, a victim of the death penalty. His last words to the community, to the church, to us, as the soldiers dragged him away to his death, could not have been clearer or more to the point: “Put down the sword.”
Jesus died on the cross saying, “The violence stops here in my body, which is given for you. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not allowed to kill. Go and love one another.” Christians believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he then sent his disciples into the culture of violence to teach and practice the way of loving nonviolence. From now on, if we want to claim to follow this nonviolent Jesus, we Christians can no longer support war, injustice, nuclear weapons or violence of any kind. We not only uphold human rights for all people everywhere, we love our enemies, beginning with the people of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Colombia. Instead of bombing them and killing them, we serve them, stand with them, and defend them.
If we follow the teachings of the nonviolent Jesus, it becomes clear war is never justified. According to the Gospel of Jesus, there is no such thing as a just war. It has nothing to do with the Gospel. The just war theory was originally invented by Cicero, a Roman pagan, as a way for the empire to get this dynamic Christian movement involved in its brutality. Over time, St. Augustine espoused it and declared that we could love our enemies by killing them. Now nearly two thousand years later, we have long ago abandoned the Sermon on the Mount as impractical and invoke this theory of justified war to gain control of the planet and maintain our nuclear hegemony. In the process, we completely reject the nonviolent Jesus and his church of nonviolence.
Now that we stand on the brink of global destruction, however, we are beginning to realize that even if we wanted to meet the conditions of a just war, as Thomas Merton said, we can no longer do so. War has change so much in the last century, that it has become the complete disaster of total violence. The strict condition that non-combatants, civilians, will not be killed in war is now impossible to meet. With our weapons of mass destruction, dropped from 35,000 feet, we will always kill ordinary civilians in war. So the conditions for a just war can never be met again, war can never be justified again, and so war and the just war theory must be abolished once and for all. As the late Bishop Carroll Dozier once said, the just war theory belongs in the same drawer as the flat earth theory.
The Witness of Christian Peacemakers
Though the world stands on the brink, Christians everywhere support war, nuclear weapons and human rights violations, many Christians are beginning to understand and accept Jesus’ nonviolence and are starting to speak out and act for peace. Three great Christians, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Philip Berrigan, exemplify the way to follow the nonviolent Jesus in these times of total violence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomized the modern Christian vocation of active nonviolence. He taught nonviolence around the nation through his sermons, lectures and most of all, his campaign against segregation and racism. But one year to the day before he was assassinated, on April 4, 1967, this great prophet of nonviolence broke new ground when he linked the struggle for civil rights and equality with peace and an end to the war in Vietnam. King connected all the issues in the web of life and summoned us to protect the rights of every one, including the right of the suffering Vietnamese people to live in peace without fear of our napalm. “Somehow this madness must cease,” he said that night in his famous speech at the Riverside church in New York City. “We must stop it now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours…America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war….We still have a choice: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. king said in Memphis, “In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the people of color in the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.” King called to link all the issues as one struggle for the nonviolent transformation of humanity. He did so as a Christian, a follower of the nonviolent Jesus.
Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker in 1932 with Peter Maurin to offer hospitality to the homeless and hungry, to give them their human right of housing and food. But as a Catholic Christian, her genius was to link this day to day practical work of mercy with concrete suffering people on the streets of New York with the global struggle to bring peace and justice to people everywhere. She announced that as a follower of Jesus, she would also oppose war, nuclear weapons and poverty. She called Christians to enact the works of mercy, justice and peace, to stand with the poor wherever they live and to speak out for peace and justice for all the world’s poor. She was arrested repeatedly for protesting war and single-handedly gave birth to a new church of peace and nonviolence.
“The greatest challenge of the day,” she asked, “is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. War and the poverty of peoples which leads to war, are the great problems of the day and the fundamental solution is the personal response which each of us makes to the message of Jesus. It the solution which works from the bottom up rather than from the top down.”
Philip Berrigan, along with his brother Daniel Berrigan, gained international fame when they and their friends burned draft files with homemade napalm in Catonsville, Maryland in May 1968 to protest the Vietnam war. They spent years in prison for their symbolic action, “for the burning of paper, instead of children,” but did not stop their resistance once the war ended. On September 9, 1980, Phil, Dan, and six others hammered on a nuclear weapon nosecone at the General Electric Plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania in the first of eighty “Plowshares” disarmament actions to begin symbolically the process of nuclear disarmament. They invoked the prophet Isaiah who said that some day people will “beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more.”
Until his death on December 6, 2002, Philip Berrigan called upon North American Christians to practice nonviolent resistance to imperial America as a way of life. More than anyone else I have known, Phil embodied nonviolent resistance. For twenty years, I heard him speak about the imperative of steadfast resistance to imperial America as a moral requirement for these times, indeed as a spiritual duty of faith in the God of peace and justice. This resistance was not just a periodic fling for Phil, but hard work every day.
Phil spent over eleven years of his life in prison for protesting our country’s wars and nuclear weapons. When he was not in prison, he lived in Jonah House, a community of nonviolent resistance in inner-city Baltimore, where friends study the issues and the scriptures, serve the neighborhood poor, organize vigils and demonstrations, write and speak out for disarmament, and storm heaven for the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence.
This might sound romantic or idealistic, but Phil made revolutionary nonviolence a day to day spiritual practice. He did not just dream about it, speak about it, or write about it. He lived it, suffered through it, and died resisting imperial America so that we would no longer live under the nuclear shroud, so that all might one day have the human right of peace. Christians need to learn from Phil’s example, and take up that same tireless, persistent resistance.
A Personal Testimony to Gospel Nonviolence
My own journey has taken me into soup kitchens, homeless shelters, inner city community work and death rows across the country, as well as into the war zones of El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iraq. For years, I have tried every legal means of working for peace and justice, from lobbying and organizing, to holding press conferences and rallies, to speaking, teaching and preaching. But as our addiction to violence gets worse and I study the witness of these peacemakers and the challenge of Gospel nonviolence, I have decided to cross the line and risk arrest to protest war, nuclear weapons and our human rights violence. I have been arrested over 75 times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience around the country, at the Pentagon and the White House to Trident submarine bases and the Nevada Test Site, the Lawrence Livermore laboratories in California and the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the U.S. trains terrorist Latin American death squads to assassinate and murder their people.
On December 7th, 1993, along with Philip Berrigan and two friends, I walked onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, right through the middle of wargames, and hammered twice on an F-15 nuclear-capable fighter bomber in a “Plowshares” disarmament action. We were immediately surrounded by armed soldiers. I said on behalf of our group, “We are unarmed, peaceful people. We mean you no harm. We’re just here to dismantle this weapon of death.” For that nonviolent action, I faced twenty years in prison, was found guilty of two felony counts (destruction of government property and conspiracy to commit a felony crime) and spent eight grueling months in a tiny jail cell, never to leave except for the few days we went to court. It was a terrible experience, as well as the most powerful experience of my life. From our action to our trials and imprisonment, it was a spiritual experience, a daily encounter with the God of peace.
My journey on the path of active nonviolence is teaching me the difficult lesson of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the labor and civil rights movements, and the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, that positive, nonviolent social change comes about through risk and sacrifice, when good people break bad laws which legalize injustice and war and accept the consequences, when we accept suffering without retaliating as we insist on the truth of justice and peace with love, that peace and justice comes about, in the end, through our participation in the paschal mystery of Jesus, through our sharing in the cross and resurrection.
While living in New York City, I began immediately to volunteer after the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, and became the local Red Cross coordinator of over five hundred chaplains at the Family Assistance Center in Manhattan serving tens of thousands of grieving relatives. I personally counseled over 1,500 grieving relatives, escorted hundreds of them to pray at Ground Zero, and talked with hundreds of rescue workers at Ground Zero. At the same time, I marched and spoke out against the U.S. bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan. I was trying to defend the human rights of New Yorkers, Afghanis and Iraqis, to practice the nonviolence of Jesus which commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies. It has been a difficult, painful journey for me, but a great blessing because through active nonviolence, I am learning not only what it means to be a Christian, but what it means to be a human being.
Nonviolence, Human Rights and Iraq
The human rights revolution around the world is making great strides toward protecting the rights of suffering peoples. But I suggest that the human rights movement needs to connect with the global movement for peace and use the strategies and wisdom of Christian and Gandhian nonviolence to push for the transformation of the world.
The recent U.S. invasion and slaughter of Iraq shows the need for combining forces. When I led a delegation of Nobel Peace prize winners to Baghdad in 1999, we met with United Nations, NGO, religious and political leaders, but meeting hundreds of dying children who suffered because of our economic sanctions was devastating. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died during the 1990s because of our unjust sanctions. Now, after the U.S. invasion, bombing and occupation of Iraq in 2003, innocent civilians continue to suffer and die. During the war, we bombed the marketplace in downtown Baghdad and killed 57 innocent civilians, and wounded hundreds more. Thousands are affected by the depleted uranium we used on our bombing raids. Civilians are terrorized as U.S. troops break into their homes in the hunt for Saddam.
In the name of democracy, we have violated every one of the human rights. The U.S. war on Iraq was, among other things, one massive violation of human rights. The innocent Iraqi people suffered under Saddam, then under our sanctions, then under our bombs, and now under our occupation. They did not ask to be invaded or bombed. Literally, thousands of Iraqis told me during our delegation that they wanted the sanctions lifted, that they wanted food and medicine to survive, and that they wanted nonviolent support for their own democratic movements. But they understood better than us that our country has no concern whatsoever for human rights, only for their oil.
If we want to pursue global human rights, we need to stand for peace and denounce war, the ultimate violation of human rights as the catastrophe in Iraq shows. Unless we join forces together and demand an end to our own arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the Pentagon’s imperial war machine, the world’s poor will continue to suffer every kind of human rights abuse, and we may risk future Hiroshimas and the destruction of the planet itself.
The Declaration of Human Rights and Christian Nonviolence
The beautiful vision of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” endorsed by religious leaders on December 10, 1998 gives us hope and strength in its call for respect for human rights and a future of peace.
In particular, the first several articles lay the foundation for a new world of peace and nonviolence. “All human beings have the right to be treated as human beings and the duty to treat everyone else as human being,” we read in Article 1. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus put it. We have the right to live in peace and nonviolence, I hear the religious leaders saying, which means we ourselves have to treat every human being on earth nonviolently if we are going to fulfill our human and spiritual potential.
“Everyone has the right to freedom from violence in any of its forms,” we read in Article 2. “Everyone has the right to life, longevity and liveability,” we read in Article 3. “No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” we read in Article 3. “One is duty bound, when asserting one’s rights, to prefer nonviolence over violence,” we read in the conclusion (Article 29).
These statements summon us ultimately as people of faith to stand up against war and nuclear weapons. The Christian vision of nonviolence runs throughout the document. I would only suggest the addition of two specific points: “Everyone has the right to live in a world without nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear destruction;” and “Everyone has the right of conscientious objection, the right to refuse to kill when ordered
by their government.”
The “Universal Declaration” offers a blueprint toward a nonviolent world. If every major religion began to promote these articles, we would all come to Gandhi’s conclusion that we must renounce our war and violence and become individuals, communities and nations of nonviolence. Indeed, we would find ourselves finally taking up the great commandment of Jesus not only to love one another, but to love even our enemies.
The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions” invites us repent of violence and walk the way of nonviolence. It calls us first back to the God of peace who will disarm our hearts and send us forth as God’s instruments for the disarmament of the world. It challenges us to delve deep into the roots, spirituality and practice of peace at the heart of every religion. In particular, it challenges Christians to adhere to the nonviolence of Jesus.
Everyone has the right to live in peace, we read between its lines. That means, everyone of us, beginning with people of faith, has to undergo the spiritual conversion toward nonviolence; renounce our violence; denounce war, nuclear weapons, and poverty; and practice creative nonviolence for a global transformation into a new world of peace with justice.
If we dare take up the challenge of nonviolence, we will discover what it means to be human. We will receive the blessing reserved by Jesus for peacemakers, and be called “sons and daughters of the God of peace.”