The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The way of peace

Three insights for breaking the cycle of subtle violence in your life

It happens so often we think it's inevitable--subtle jabs, verbal jousting, offhand but not-so-spontaneous put-downs. They poison our workaday life and our most intimate relationships, sometimes with tragic results.

Small but long-harbored resentments grow into annoyance and angry words: "Don't criticize me; you're not so perfect." "Why must you always get your way?"

It's all violence--words and attitudes that disrespect people's dignity as creatures made in God's image. Violence finds its roots in subtlety and in things hidden. Broken relationships begin with a small or misunderstood word.

We have three choices: We can participate in this cycle of anger, resentment and retribution; passively refuse to participate; or intentionally break the cycle through acts of nonviolence.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and many Gospel parables, Jesus calls all who come to him to break the cycle of violence. He emphatically showed that the way from violence to peace and God's kingdom is paved with acts of nonviolence: Turn the other cheek when insulted; love even your enemies; act--and speak--toward others as you would have them act toward you.

For the great role models of nonviolence in the 20th century--M.H. Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day--Jesus was the prime example of nonviolence and peacemaking. Here are three insights they provide for breaking the cycle of violence in our lives.

1. Respect all life

Global and personal peace begins within us. To "love our neighbors as ourselves" we must first know that we each are cherished creations of God. Nonviolence requires the acknowledgment that this created goodness resides in all people--including ourselves. When we meet another, including an enemy, we meet an image of the holy God, a life worthy of care and reverence.

The truth of love is at the center of nonviolent living. Our world teaches us that more violence is the best defense. Jesus teaches otherwise. Love breaks the cycle of violence not with a rush of warm feelings but by respecting and honoring the dignity of all creation.

The way of nonviolence rests on the concept that we need one another for all of us--or any of us--to be whole and at peace. "Love your enemies" makes great sense when we see this.

2. Watch your tongue

Personal nonviolence must reveal itself in our living. Our speech and actions reflect what we think, what we believe in, what we hold most important. Listen closely to your vocabulary. How do you speak with and about others? Do you actively listen to and honor others when they talk? Or do you violate their space by interjecting your thoughts into the middle of their sentences, hoping that your ideas will hold more power? Do you listen, or are you always thinking about what you will say?

Do you speak well of others, hoping and believing in their basic good? Or are you quick to criticize and resort to name calling? What's your first response when someone cuts you off in traffic? Does your vocabulary imply support and cooperation, or does it imply violence and separation?

As we listen to our words we become more aware of how we inflict subtle--and sometimes outright--damage and violence on others. As we change our speech in loving ways our hearts will also be transformed.

3. Listen to your life

"Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest," Jesus tells his followers ( Mark 6:31). Even without cars, televisions, phones and the media, he understood the benefit of silence in a world of stresses.

Most of us need to pay closer attention to what is happening inside us to discern what God is telling us. Ask: Is what is happening to me and others harmful or harmless, life-draining or life-giving? This question applies to every situation.

I think of this often during church meetings. In some meetings, I vainly wish for someone to "beam me out." I feel dishonored or drained of energy. I wonder, "Does this group need to abandon its current course and seek another direction? Is this where I am needed, or do I need to be doing other work?" If we are being drained of energy something isn't right. Conversely, I can't wait for other meetings to get started because they create energy despite the hard work they require.

Once this question of discernment is answered the next critical question might be, "What would Jesus do in this situation?" Study of Jesus' words and actions provides some answers. Ongoing study of the Bible and other peace resources (see box) is critical because we do not always have the luxury of "studying up" when a situation arises that requires us to act.

The most mobile form of discernment is prayer and silence. Prayer feeds our actions, and our actions feed our prayers. Praying for peace in the situations we face can create amazing results. How we see the situation changes; consequently, so do the ways we and others act.

Action without prayer becomes empty, self-serving and leads ultimately to burnout. The same is true of prayer without action.

Remember also Jesus' words to the disciples about traveling light. When we carry less baggage our lives are less cluttered and complex. There's more room for flexibility, God, others and our real selves. Our society rewards complexity and overwork. This, too, is a form of violence that eats away at us.

Simplicity, prayer, action, discernment, truth, nurturing speech, honoring one another's dignity are the ways of nonviolence that pave the way to peace. Pack light. Pray for peace.

For further reading

Active Nonviolence: A Way of Personal Peace, Gerard A. Vanderhaar, Twenty-Third Publications. Check your library; this is currently out of print.

Alternatives to Violence, edited by Colman McCarthy, Center for Teaching Peace, (202) 537-1372, $70 including postage and handling. Curriculum for high school and up.

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, available from Augsburg Fortress, (800) 328-4648, $10. Reflections on Christian community.

Educating for Peace and Justice, Institute for Peace and Justice, (314) 533-4445, kindergarten-sixth grade, $9.95; seventh-12th grade, $12.95. Curriculum for children.


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