MEATH PEACE GROUP TALKS
49 – “Active Non-Violence: Outflanking the Just War Theory”
21 May, 2003
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Fr. Niall O’Brien, S.S.C.
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
[Editor’s note: this talk was held as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Meath Peace Group]
Fr. Niall O’Brien: “Good evening everyone. I am so happy to be here sharing these ideas with you today…. Maybe there is a slight advantage in having spent my whole life outside of Ireland because I’m not going to be focusing on the terrific problems of peace which face the Irish people but maybe in some strange way by focusing somewhere else that can be it’s own way of helping. I remember that story about King David: the prophet goes to King David and tells him the story about the rich man who had a hundred sheep and how he followed this other man with this tiny little ewe lamb and he had the man killed and took his lamb, and the King jumped up and said “Who is that man?” and he said “you are that man”, because that is what he had done in the case of having Uriah murdered in order to get hold of his wife, Bathsheba. ….It doesn’t do any harm if one is not focused directly on our own problems but on far away maybe.
“There are terrific limitations to a talk on non-violence because it is a vast and wonderful continent which we have just discovered. And the idea of giving it in one talk is really not possible but I thought I’d open your mind up and indicate directions and reading to do of your own [so that you may]… explore it as the years go on.
General background: I spent most of forty years in the Philippines and I must say when I arrived there first of all I was immediately struck by the poverty of the people. I soon moved into the mountains and by a little stroke of luck – I suppose, I don’t know what it was – I went to live on a sugar plantation, which is quite unusual. I mean priests normally live in the priests’ house – in the Philippines it’s called the “Convento” – and I actually lived on the plantation and I had a bird’s eye view of what the people were suffering and it was quite shocking. The owners very frequently were devout Catholics, that was also a shock to me. Because actually some of them were devout, humble, very, very nice people when you met them… I mean some had horns and tails maybe but some of them were very nice , yet the conditions on their own farms they didn’t know about.
“President Marcos took over the Philippines and gradually turned it into a dictatorship and as we began to examine what he was doing and how he was running the country and how the planter owners supported him, the whole system of oppression became very, very visible and many of the people decided that the only solution was revolution. And their feeling was: “all he understands is a gun”, and the expression went around: “power flows from the barrel of a gun. That’s the only language people like him understand”. Among the group I mixed with, some of the young priests and especially the more dedicated ones, one or two in particular were highly educated, having being educated in Germany under Rahner and people like that, those theologians, they were the ones who led the idea of the revolution and I found them attractive. I found them humble, and very fine minds analysing the situation and they felt that there was no other solution than revolution. And they said “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” I since realised that sometimes an illustration becomes a proof, if you’re not careful….
“And they asked to stay with me and they frequently did stay in my house. Those were dangerous nights when they would be having seminars. I didn’t join the seminars. I felt deeply ill at ease. ….. I felt, I just felt that this was not right, the solution that Christ would have used and yet what they were saying was reasonable and if you look back a the history of the world a lot of the great changes in the world took place through revolutions. The American Revolution, the Glorious Revolution in 1688, so many justifications, that they were justified, they were reasonable and yet I held back all the time.
Dorothy Day: “Luckily for some reason or other I had begun to read a famous newspaper called “The Catholic Worker”. Its title might put you astray but it was run and started by Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day was a Marxist, really I suppose a fellow traveller communist in the 1900s and a journalist, and she became a Christian at some stage in her life and she became anti-war, 100% anti-war. And she managed strangely enough to combine in her life a strong stand against war with a strong stand for justice. She refused to pay any taxes all her life in case the money would go for arms under any description and at the same time she opened all these houses for the poor. I mean they were simple…. places were you walked in and you didn’t have hymns sung at you or anything like that, you were welcomed. But she also respected the poor because every week she insisted that there would be a good speaker in to talk on intellectual matters and to analyse the situation. I was very attracted to Dorothy, I still am to this day. I think she’s one of the great women of the 20th century . There are a hundred houses of hospitality across the United States in the skid rows, started by Dorothy, or started as a result of Dorothy. And then hundreds and thousands of people have been influenced by her and the anti-war stand of the American Church, certainly the American Catholic Church in the time of the Vietnam War was inspired by Dorothy, there’s no question about that.
Martin Luther King and Gandhi: “At the same time reading her newspaper got me into reading about Martin Luther King – I only knew him as a name – and reading Martin Luther King got me into reading Gandhi. And suddenly these were new openings for me, other solutions than the gun, the arms struggle, for solving problems.
Just War Theory: “What my young companions in those days were relying on was the Just War Theory and I don’t avoid it, but basically it still is the theory – so much decision are made for war and the just war theory is credited to Saint Augustine…. How does he combine “love your enemies” with defending yourself against them? And so he came up with the Just War Theory. It comes out in various forms all the time. The conditions have been rehearsed quite a lot recently. They go something like this:
A nation has the right to act in its own defence
The damage inflicted by the aggressor nation must be lasting, grave and certain
War must be a last resort
There must be a serious prospect of success
The war cannot cause greater evils than the ones it is trying to eliminate
“Now there used to be another condition which disappeared for a while. And that was that the war should be sanctioned – somebody had to say that it was ok. I think the king or the Pope or somebody had to say it was ok to have this war. But then you see, in the beginning of the 20th century, as we all know, so much of the wars were internal, so much were revolutions. So no government was going to give their ok, no Congress was going to give its ok to an internal revolution. So the papal encyclical ….in 1967 – 1966 or 1967 – that had an enormous effect on people throughout South America, I don’t know about Africa, but throughout Asia and throughout South America because Paul VI made it clear that these conditions for a just war would actually apply for internal revolution just as much as for a war between two states and I can tell you my companions and I myself read this with great belief. I mean we were absolutely delighted that at last people were being told that it wasn’t wrong to revolt against an unjust regime.
Weaknesses of the Just War Theory: “But the problem about the just war – and I’ve got to be very careful here – there’s been so much written about the just war it’s alive and well and its easy to make fun of it because you can show that the conditions for a just war seem to have changed throughout the years. How can you possibly judge the conditions under each circumstance? But it is a genuine attempt to try and put a cap on war. It really is, and the people who agonize over the just war were not messing about. …. So you’ve got a history – since Augustine right up to our present day – of seriously trying to put conditions under which you would be allowed to go to war.
Flaws in the Just War Theory: “But there are a couple of basic flaws in it.
One is that ultimately, you are the judge – there is no outside person. The only outside person we seem to have had …was the United Nations, and you can see therefore how important it would be to have a healthy strong United Nations, if that was one of the roles they had to play. So it is one of the weak points.
And the second point against the just war theory is that it just hasn’t worked. I mean, where did anybody about to go to war, suddenly say “well, part 3 of the Just War Theory says we shouldn’t be doing this”. Somehow or other they just managed to massage all the facts and the figures and decided “we can go to war”.
“And so, having said, that I would like to say that I still think that the Just War Theory is something very noble and wonderful and should not be, as I said, rubbished. It has to be given time, and work has to be done on it and it’s not the end of the story.
Sermon on the Mount – “love your enemies”:
“But suddenly there is this new continent opened with Gandhi. Gandhi was very attracted to Christianity, he was a devout Hindu but he said he believed in Christ but not in Christians. …… Now I have to spend a little bit of time on the problem with the Sermon on the Mount. You see that is the hard saying of Jesus: “you must love your enemies”. According to Christians, and this is a sort of irony, Christians disagree on many things, but on one thing they seem to agree is that they can drop that little bit about loving your enemies.
“They could find ways around it – you could sort of love them, but still kill them. Now obviously real situations arise where people have to make decisions. There’s a theologian from South Africa, his name is David Busch, maybe Anglican, professor in the University of South Africa. I think he was killed in a crash but he did a great examination of this Gospel as to how we were or were not bound by these hard sayings of Jesus with regard to loving our enemies. And he said … that the Catholics got around it by saying “well, it applies to priests and sisters and those in religion who could never carry arms” – that’s in the Canon law to this day I think. I hope it is anyway!
“And Protestants got around it by saying – their four main churches tended to say – that it was impossible to fulfil these commands, therefore they served us by bringing us humbly to our knees, making us admit our sinfulness and making us rely totally on Christ. Then in the liberal 19th century they came up with the idea that what the commandments say were not so important, rather it was the attitude of mind and disposition of heart …
“However Busch says the following – and he’s an internationally accepted scripture scholar – “scholars across the religious divide are radically re-evaluating the Sermon on the Mount and the consequences of Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies” …..
“Today, however, most scholars agree that these and similar interpretations are inadequate, that there is no getting around the fact that in Matthew’s view Jesus actually expected all his followers to live according to these norms always and under all circumstances.
Gandhi: “And strangely it was Gandhi who seemed to come up with a bit of light when he introduced what he called “truth force”. And Gandhi felt that there was another way and that we should not confuse passive – being passive – with pacifist.
We could be actively against war without being violent, and he developed loads and loads of strategies and tactics …in fact the British left India, basically without a bloodbath. I know there were incidents …but that wasn’t due to Gandhi or anything like that. Basically it was Gandhi’s “truth force” which actually did it.
Active non-violence: “So we’re going to talk about active non-violence for a couple of minutes here. It really gets a bad press because people confuse it with other things.
I want to say what it is not:
Active non-violence is not passivism,….. Let’s take the Holocaust. … Gandhi had a great fight with a Jewish philosopher [Buber ?] who condemned Gandhi for proposing non-violence. He referred to what had happened the Jews in Germany … I don’t think Gandhi managed to answer him in the heat of the argument properly. But I think the proper answer was that the Jews in Germany were passive, they weren’t using active non-violence. There were cases where they did use it and where they escaped and I think we know the cases, there are several cases which have been examined very carefully: the case of Denmark – there were practically no Jews killed in Denmark. And there was another case in Bulgaria and another case in what we call Eastern Germany, where the Jews were saved due to extraordinary active, pro-active actions by the people.
Active non-violence is not neutrality. Albert Nolan, another theologian from South Africa, has a good bit to say on this, I hope I can just find his little statement which I find very good on neutrality …. He said: “the commandment to love one’s enemies only makes sense when we recognise that we do have enemies and that they are really, truly our enemies. When people hate you and curse you and persecute you, Jesus does not say that you should pretend that they are not enemies, they are. And when he says that you love them in spite of this, he does not mean that you must avoid any conflict or confrontation with them”.
So it’s not avoiding conflict or confrontation you do have to confront.
A famous peace activist after Gandhi used to say at this point, “ I hope you all have enemies. How can you love them if you don’t have them? I hope you all have enemies.”
Evil must be resisted: “Walter Wing says that in translating the King James version of the Bible, that there was a deliberate – I don’t really think it was a conscious, but at least a subconscious – attempt to translate it in a way that would make the people a bit passive…. I’m not going to go into the Greek or the Hebrew, I’m no scholar on those things, but he does say that … “do not resist evil” is a wrong translation. It should be read “do not resist evil with evil”. So we are to resist evil. Evil must be resisted. It’s how we resist it.
Gene Sharpe: “Now for me one of the great great truths in my life was when I discovered this character called Gene Sharpe. Gene Sharpe is a professor in Harvard and when he was a young man, for some reason or another he was over in Oxford, he had to examine an embargo on food going into Germany and he had to examine its effect as a strategy. From that he suddenly began to realise how powerful active non-violence could be as a tool. For me it was a great breakthrough because obviously, if I’m talking to Marxists, and people who are convinced Marxists, you cannot start quoting your own private beliefs from the Sermon on the Mount. You have to come with something which is universally acceptable from the point of human beings and that is where Gene Sharpe is very, very careful in his study of active non-violence. He doesn’t give it a religious base. For me it has a religious base….
Theory of power: “Gene Sharpe wrote thee books on this, the first is called The Theory of Power, the next one is The Method of Non-violent Action, and the third is The Dynamics of Non-Violent Action. In his first little slim volume, his basic thesis is this – it’s terribly important, it s the heart of all of this – “where does this power come from? Does it come from the barrel of a gun?” And he says: “absolutely no, the power comes from consent, that you consent to people doing to you what they’re doing to you. That’s where power is. The day you say ‘no’, no amount of guns can help.”
“I could go on reading the reason for this, but he says there are two basic ways of looking at power in the world: the first sees power as coming from above, the second sees power coming from below. In Volume One … he says that theory 1 says that power is monolithic, It comes from above, the people depend on the goodwill of the leader, the leader keeps this power intact by means of an army. And then he goes on to say that in theory 2 – which is the one I hold to and which is the one Gandhi held to and which he was very effective with – power comes from below, from the people themselves, and if the people withdraw their consent, then the ruler can rule no longer. It happened in India. It is the second understanding of power which is the basic presupposition of non-violence, so it’s a philosophical basis. Up till recently the modern example of this was the Shah of Iran. In 1979 the people withdrew consent and he was left powerless in spite of the total backing of America and a huge well-equipped and well-trained army. His was one of the great armies of the world but at some stage or other, one layer in the pyramid of power leading up to him withdrew consent. The soldiers refused to fight with guns, and so I firmly believe that that is the power.
Rosa Parkes: “That is illustrated by lots of very beautiful and wonderful stories. You know the story of Rosa Parkes, don’t you? Right up to the 1960s, in the southern US states, in parts of Alabama, black people could not take a seat in a bus if a white person was standing. And Rosa Parkes was coming home very tired and a young man got in and the bus conductor told her to stand up and give her seat to the young man and she said ‘no’, and the rest is history. You know it just needed Rosa Parkes, that old lady, to say ‘no’ and she went to prison for it. And of course all hell broke loose and in time the laws were changed. I don’t want to go into details, its all written up. She was just this marvellous woman, and that can be seen so often, I’m making out a list of so often where this actually happened.
Bull Connor: “I don’t know whether you know the story of Bull Connor, famous Head of Police in Montgomery in Alabama when a group of black people came to protest on the conditions they were in. … It is really a marvellous story. They refused to ride on the buses so the buses would go bankrupt so they gave each other lifts in their cars and then the white government brought out a law saying they couldn’t give each other lifts, so they walked. And on this occasion they were massed up walking when Bull Connor sent out these huge water cannon …… and there’s that marvellous moment where the people refused to step back and Bull Connor was beaten.
“We know also that the Vietnam War was stopped by means of the protests that were taking place at various places and so many other people involved, and Greenpeace in New Zealand….[tape break] and the French military or secret service who attacked it. Then you’ve got the extraordinary case of Franz [?]….have you ever heard of him? A simple Austrian peasant who refused to go into the Second World War. He said it was wrong. I suppose he was thinking of the basic sort of idea of the just war. He said it was wrong. He said it was just wrong. They brought the bishop in, they brought the parish priest in, they brought everyone in. He just refused. And they beheaded him. He was so important not to let him live. He was a threat to the whole system, because if everybody began to withdraw consent, you couldn’t run the war. You couldn’t run any war, anywhere, and if you were to look at a scale – I’m not going to go into this but I’ve done it a few times – you make a draft of wars you’d be surprised. Wars are getting more and more common. You’d have thought with the Second World War that was the main war, but if you just start listing the wars after the Second World War you’d move up into Vietnam and Korea, and then into the 10-year war between Iraq and Iran, and all the wars in Africa and Middle East, Bosnia and also the wars in South America, and they just go on and on and on.
“So people standing up and just refusing are so important.
Czechoslovakia: “The story of Czechoslovakia is just quite extraordinary, it really hasn’t been heard. Basically, the Czechs opposed the Russians in their face, they didn’t oppose them with arms and Yan [Pollak?] was one of those who burnt himself alive and his grave became the place of protest and the locus for tens of thousands. They had to remove his body and hide it. There are many cases where Russian officers ordered their own men to fire and they refused to fire and where Russian officers committed suicide. And I know a man, Jan Hildegard [?] who was a very famous peacemaker throughout Europe….. And there is the story that there is a plaque up somewhere in Russia to those who were killed in Czechoslovakia, Russian soldiers who were killed liberating Czechoslovakia. All of those Russian soldiers were either shot by their own people, by their own soldiers, or committed suicide. None were shot by Czechoslovakians.
“And then of course when the Velvet Revolution took place in Czechoslovakia, it didn’t fall out of the sky. It was coming for years. People had been thinking in this direction, about withdrawing consent …
Philippines: “So when I wrote some of this stuff I used to sit down with my bosom pals in the Philippines, we’d be talking and they thought I was talking a lot of dreams when I was talking about non-violence. They used to say “look Niall, you’re wasting your time ….. the British were gentlemen, they would understand non-violence, but we’re talking about Marcos”. In actual fact the Marcos regime changed because the ordinary people stood up, knelt in the streets, prayed and had sandwiches and flowers, and the soldiers refused to fire. It was a classic example of non-violence. And strangely enough the revolutionaries who I knew and know personally to this day, they so despised all of this as being a sheer waste of time … that they remained in the mountains and kept miles away thanks be to God, because if they had have been there they would have added a certain amount of terror?
“And certainly there would have been blood. Strangely enough as a result, since that was the first revolution which took place totally on television, it wasn’t long before you had the Candle Revolution in Leipzig and the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and so much of the Eastern Europe thing took place actually, in the long run, non-violently.
What active non-violence is not: “I have written here what active non-violence is not.
It is not neutrality as I say. You do take sides in non-violence. But you really need sharp and clear political analysis, and I think we run away from that sometimes.
It is not cowardice. Well you would know that, I wouldn’t need to tell you that. But I tell you, when you’re living with young people – and people are sitting around the table in Palestine at the moment and the young men are wondering “have I got the courage to be a suicide bomber?” – I remember sitting at the table and I remember fellas saying to me “I wonder would I have the courage to go up the mountains? I would leave my parish, go up and take a gun and do what is right”. I used to say “well, it’s not about courage. Would it work? Does it work? Would it be right?” But it is true that a lot of the violence comes from people who are challenging one another to be brave.
It is not a deus ex machina, it’s not a magic wand that you wave, a fire engine that you call in to put out the fire. How much have they spent on this war, the recent war, 59 billion is it? But that army didn’t fall out of the sky. That’s been kept continually supplied for the last 20 years, bringing it up to date. It’s a standing army with all that that means. So violence has preparation, they really know how to prepare for violence. And we think that with our active non-violence we might do a Rosa Parkes and stop the whole thing you know. Rosa was something beautiful, but basically non-violence is long years of preparation and discipline and thought and careful planning. It’s not a bit of magic. And that’s what we in the non-violent movement must realise: that we’ve a long period to go.
Presuppositions of active non-violence: “There are certain presuppositions connected with non-violence.
The first one, and the most important one, is that power does not flow from the barrel of a gun. It flows from consent and therefore the name of the game is getting people to withdraw consent. You target the people on whose consent this particular thing depends and they have to be targeted.
“The next presupposition of non-violence is that actually most violence – not all, but most violence – is caused by injustice, and every time we work to remove injustice, we are pre-empting the violence that results. And there is a statement somewhere, I don’t where it comes from … but it goes like this: “the church which does not fight injustice loses it’s moral right to speak against violence”.
So how in South Africa could you start knocking the ANC, which was the revolutionary group of Mandela, when you had said nothing about the apartheid which had gone on for decades before? Or how in the island of Negros could the bishop start condemning – and he didn’t thanks be to God, but in other places they did – how could he start condemning the New People’s army when they started a revolution if he had not stood up for the rights of those working on the plantation?
“You lose your moral right to speak on peace if you have not previously spoke on injustice. That’s why it is so important for the churches to speak, to be heard on justice.
“Another presupposition to remember is that the real causes of injustice are usually hidden. The need for social and structural analysis is very important and we borrowed that from the Marxists. .. Now I don’t go along with Marx’s solution which is the war of the classes and that, but his idea was who was doing what to who and what is the reason for this.
So analysis, structural analysis of what’s happening in society [is needed]. Religious people – and I include myself there – can sometime run away from that important action of finding out why, what is the cause, what is going on here?
“Another last presupposition of non-violence is that people are basically good. You might disagree with me on this. I’m asking for an act of faith on this one because there are people who believe people are basically bad. But I feel those of us involved in a non-violent struggle believe, I believe, that people are basically good and that there is a possibility that a person can change. It’s why we’re against the death penalty ultimately I think. And so that is a very important thing to accept: the fact that people are basically good.
I didn’t prepare any stories about that but I know I’ve had many beautiful experiences in my own life. I remember being asked to review a book in some university in Negros, the island of Negros, and sitting up on the front bench was a big plantation owner and he was also a big business entrepeneur and we’d had several clashes with him over the previous thirty years. And he’s sitting right up in the front and I felt very embarrassed because I was really giving a strong talk, and more or less giving out about a lot of things as I understood he would have stood for. So when he came over – in the Philippines,when you finish a talk everybody … rushes over and shakes your hand. And if they don’t shake your hand you see, that would really mean they disliked you. I mean they definitely didn’t have anything to do with what you’ve said. …. So when he came up and shook my hand I didn’t put any store by it. But then he called me aside and he said the following: “I am 77years of age now, and as you can see I’m using a walking stick and I don’t need any more hassle in my life. But I have 200 hectares of sugar and 2,000 mango trees. Now let’s say each mango tree produces 100 mangoes(It produces a lot more) and even if you were to sell them for so much a mango how much would that be?” So he’d make a calculation. “That’s a very big income … now I’m going to hand it over to the people” he said. “But I know if I go the route of handing it to the government, they’ll make a mess of it.” And I utterly agree with him. “So I have to do it bit by bit” he said, and he explained to me exactly how he would do it, very intelligently, step by step you see. It could be misunderstood that he was still trying to get money from them but that wasn’t the case, he really knew that it would be wrong to throw the whole farm at them and walk away. He had to stay with them for maybe 10 years if he could.
That sort of thing happened over the years, took me quite by surprise. So I believe that people – deep within people – there is a goodness and I think that we [must] keep that. If we ever lose that, I don’t think we could ever be in the whole struggle for non-violence.
Just War Theory – violence a last resort: “Let’s imagine there are two myths, let’s call them myths. You know the sociological term “myth”: a story by which you live. It’s not referring to the historical event as being correct or incorrect. It’s just the truth that the story is a vehicle of truth. Now let’s imagine the Just War Theory as a myth and let’s imagine our non-violence approach – the possibility of change through non-violence – as a myth. If you live by the Just war theory, you’ll be allowed to use violence as a last resort. One man said to me after one of these talks, “I always use violence as a first resort!”. Anyway if violence is a last resort, you’ll always find a way of using it. There comes a moment when you say “well enough is enough”.
Active non-violence – finding other ways: “But if you live by the myth that violence is not a last resort, then you must find another way, you will find other ways. I read a book some years back where an analysis was done on the number of people who were killed, being attacked, somewhere – it was New York, or was it Washington? I can’t recall – and those who were armed were more likely to be killed than those who were not armed, because those who were not armed had to think of other ways out of this dilemma when somebody burst into their house with a gun to steal things. They had to come up with some other solution. Often people will ask me, or maybe you will ask, “what would you do if your grandmother is about to be shot and you’ve got this gun. Would you defend her or would you not?” Well my answer is I wouldn’t have a gun in the first place, because that’s precisely what I live by. So I would have to come up with something else. This, as I said, is enormous.
May I just mention The Politics of Non-Violent Action? It’s absolutely a secular bible for understanding the whole process of Active non-violence. It’s hard to get hold of it but you can get it on the Internet. They reprint it again and again. Gene Sharpe is a sort of guru. The Politics of Non-Violent Action and The Dynamics of Non-Violent Action. Actually, you see, the history of the world as it is written is all about the kings and their wars and the wonderful things they did. And victors always write the story of course, the others aren’t around to write.
History of non-violence has to be recovered: “But the story of non-violence is actually lost and Gene Sharpe has done a great lot to recover it. So actually he’s come up with the most extraordinary [research] and he hasn’t just come up with it in an anecdotal fashion – you know what I mean like “my aunt told me and somebody else told her”. He actually has people do complete theses on whether or not the wives of Jews married to Germans were saved in Eastern Germany in 1944. They were. Their wives got together and went outside the various police stations and they screamed and cried and roared and those men were released. And that small group of people at least were saved. He has examined the cases, the lost cases of non-violence. I remember vaguely from my Roman history as a child, the story of the Plebs and the Patricians. I think the Plebs went on strike and the Patricians didn’t know what to do. So the history of non-violence has to be recovered. And there’s something we could think about.
Methods of non-violence: “Then he goes into methods of non-violence. There are thousands, I couldn’t even begin to go into them. Who was it who wrote the book Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye. Was it Madonna? She says when there are only two alternatives, pick the third – that’s what this non-violence is about. It’s insisting that you are not going to force us to believe that there is only fight and flight and there is nothing in between. That if you don’t, “we bomb them to bits or else they’ll get us”, you know that there is nothing in between. And we say that there is, and I’d say that there is a whole continent, like when they discovered the New World and in that continent there are rivers and waterfalls and wonderful new fruit that we’ve never seen of non-violence. Wonderful possibilities waiting for us to discover once we open our mind that there is this third way. Well I’m sure I’ve skipped about most of what I’ve written here but I think I’ve given you as much as you can take. These books I do recommend: The Politics of Non-Violent Action by Gene Sharpe. They’re in our library here and they’re published by a group called Porter and it’s connected with Harvard and I think it is one of the basic encyclopaedias on the whole business and he approaches it from a secular point of view. I recently wrote an article called “Pre-emptive Strikes for Peace” and its available here in the Far East magazine for January 2003 [published in Dalgan Park].
Reconciliation the ultimate aim: “Just a quick look over my notes to make sure that I haven’t missed the whole point, as can happen. … Oh yes. I have to say this work for justice is basic, but it must be done in such a way as to sow the seed of reconciliation. So while we’re working for justice, if we raise our voice too high and become too strident and too bitter and too marvellous well we can never … the ultimate aim is reconciliation. The ultimate aim is reconciliation it’s not to beat that person. It’s to be reconciled, so we really do have to lower our voice and make sure that what we say now will not in it’s own way prevent reconciliation in the future.
Definition of active non-violence: “And I came up with a definition of non-violence as I have come to understand it: it is a way of life, a life of assertive, pre-emptive, imaginative – I believe in the importance of the imagination, the importance of art and music, anything that will stretch your mind beyond the ridiculous point that it’s fight or flight is the only way we can solve – systemic action .. rooting up injustice and eventually bringing about reconciliation. It is both an art and a discipline.
Reconciliation and forgiveness: “Last point, I could do a hundred last points, but my last one. I’ve had the joy of being invited up to Rosnowlagh recently, a few months back and there were some people, who really had done a wonderful job of bringing together people from both sides of the divide up there. In fact, there was a man who had blown up a whole hotel and in the process killed the father of this other woman. They both sat at the table like this and they spoke a lot about trying to understand each other’s position and everytime people asked the woman “what about forgiveness?” rightly she said: “now don’t ask me about forgiveness, I just don’t know what you’re saying”. And I could see the problem. The problem was that reconciliation and forgiveness are two totally different things. I can forgive you, you can forgive me, without you even knowing it. But reconciliation demands two people. Forgiveness can be an act: I can say “well I do forgive the Japanese you know”, if I want to, nobody can stop me. Forgiveness is for one, reconciliation is for two. Forgiveness is an act. Reconciliation is a process, it’s a journey. Reconciliation is a journey and that’s the journey we’re on and thank you all for listening.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS [incomplete]
[Editor’s note: due to time limitations and the fact that Fr Niall was departing for the Philippines two days later, he was unable to stay to answer all the questions asked. Afterwards, due to his continuing illness we were unable to send him on the questions as originally planned.]
Q.1. Re standing up to Hitler. It was wrong to do nothing. Accepting the guilt is it possible to fight on the same basis?
Niall: …. I remember once putting this question to Brendan Lovett who is our guru in the Columbans. And I said if you had the chance to kill Hitler would you have done so? And he said “I’d have killed him and I ‘d have asked forgiveness”.
Q. 2: “Would suicide and acts of destruction be condoned under the active non-violence stance?
Niall: “We have two big sections here, suicide and acts of destruction . Let me take the easier one first. Acts of destruction. I can only say they are divided …. like this guy who hit the plane [in Shannon] with the hammer and is being charged 4 million I think and he claims that well I’d rather hammer that plane than the plane hammer a whole city and drop a bomb on it , a hospital of pregnant women. So I don’t know.
“As to suicide attacks: there are so many different types of suicide bombing I feel it involves killing others, destructive I can’t see that that would ever be in any way involved in the non-violence. There are different types of hunger strikes and I remember Jean Hildegard comes to …. they spent their life they toured the whole world teaching the non-violence and especially the Sermon on the Mount … I got him …to move to Manila and speak to the Columbans and he began to speak very strongly against certain types of hunger strike. His wife knelt over to him and said. N’oubliez pas.These are les Irlandais. And he said that’s precisely why I’m saying it. So there are different types of protest and if the protest I suppose is to create a violent situation. On the other hand, there is a tradition in Irish culture, where it’s a way of protesting against injustice and opening a person’s heart and Gandhi did a lot of that. On one famous occasion there were these temples the Buddhist temples and the poor were not allowed inside the precinct and well he could have smashed their way in. He could have forced them one way or another but they remained outside on hunger strike, till the actually broke the hearts of the Brahmins and they then shred the same temple. That was the type of hunger strike leading to suicide, that he would have approved.
Q. 3: Quote from tonight’s talk “if they withdraw consent, the oppressors cannot continue. Some of the present leaders of the Catholic Church appear to be opposed to this style and thinking. Is the present decline in the vocation of the church due to this?
Niall: “Yeah it could be people voting with their feet you know.
Q. 4: “How do you cope with and manage Muslim, Islamic violence in any Christian situation?
Niall: “Well I can only present to you our dear, dear friend Fr. Rufus Halley who was shot there last August 12 months. He was known to all of us here. Rufus became known as the peacemaker between Muslim tribes so much so when two tribes had been fighting one another for 10 years and many people were dead on both of those Muslim clans, they called in Rufus and swearing on the Koran he got them to lay down their arms and some to peace. So he didn’t try to create, he created peace among the Muslims and it was so visible, his work for peace was so visible that they called him to be their peacemaker and it reminds me he seemed to forget what Francis used to say ..those famous words ..none of us will ever forget ….“Preach the Word” not “Preach the Gospel and sometimes use words”.
“OK If the provos became pacifist then the Brits would leave Ireland. How do you persuade them? Now that’s beyond me. I haven’t lived in Ireland for the past forty years. So that’s all I have to say to you tonight and thank you so much.
John Clancy: Just to conclude this part can I on behalf of you all thank Fr. Niall for an amazing 45 minutes or more thought and insight. I think that one of the things that come very clearly through … is that as we each make our footprints in time .. we know not what …we’ve had as we’ve walked and I think that is something very clear that’s coming out from what he was saying. We’re not here to win the other side, we’re not there to beat the other side. We’re not there up to be admired. We’re to walk our life by example and reaching out to those around us. So Niall thank you very much and God bless you.”
Meath Peace Group talks
Report compiled by Judith Hamill and edited by Julitta Clancy
©Meath Peace Group 2003
Biographical notes: Fr. Niall O’Brien has worked for almost 40 years in the Philippines. On arrival, he was struck by the poverty there, particularly when he went to live on a sugar plantation. He has worked continuously and tirelessly for the poor and oppressed, and has often suffered for it. He was imprisoned in 1983 for 18 months and was later expelled from the Philippines. He returned in 1987 after the Marcos government had fallen. He has been awarded several peace prizes, particularly the U.S.A. Pax Christi award and the Aurora Arabin peace award in the Philippines. At the time of this talk he was Pax Christi chaplain in the Philippines. Fr. Niall has spoken widely and written on “Active Non-Violence”
Books he has written include: “Revolution from the Heart”; “Island of Tears, Island of Hope” and “Seeds of Injustice”
[Editor’s postscript: Fr. Niall O’Brien died on 27 April 2004 in Pisa in Italy (from cancer). Air dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dhílis]