Note: This essay was just published in the Fall 2019 theology journal, “Oneing,” by Fr. Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation. To order a copy, visit: www.cac.org ]
By Rev. John Dear
“I believe in the essential unity of humanity, and for that matter, of all that lives,” Gandhi once wrote. He thought all life was sacred, that we are all one, all sisters and brothers of one another, even one with all creatures and Mother Earth.
This foundational spiritual truth led Gandhi to the conviction that nonviolence is now a normative requirement for every human being, if we are to honor our sacred unity. If every living human being is our very sister or brother, we would never dare hurt anyone, much less sit back silently or passively in the face of global suffering, endless wars, poverty and killing. Neither can we ignore the millions of creatures going extinct because of our systemic violence or remain indifferent in the face of systemic greed and nuclear weapons leading to environmental destruction. Knowing our oneness with creation, we would never harm Mother Earth, or sit back passively while others dig up fossil fuels regardless of the consequences of climate change.
We are all one, and so, we try to practice meticulous, creative nonviolence toward every one, every creature and Mother Earth.
Through his long search into the truth of our common unity and its requisite requirement of steadfast nonviolence, Gandhi came to celebrate the diversity of life everywhere—among all humans, all sentient beings, and creation itself. This nonviolent openness to our common unity leads, he learned, to the celebration of diversity in all its forms. These seemingly disparate sides of reality point us to our generous God—Creator, Christ, and Spirit—as Fr. Richard writes, a loving God of unity and diversity.
I write these words by hand on a hot summer evening on the mesa in northern New Mexico where I live, looking out over a hundred miles of sagebrush, junipers, arroyos and distant mountains as the sun sets in the distance, setting off a wild explosion of red, orange, and yellow colors against the blue sky.
The daily news breaks the heart with reports of never-ending war, bombings, gun violence, racism, sexism, the mistreatment of immigrants and prisoners, nuclear threats, wildfires, drought and catastrophic climate change. Each day brings new evidence of how we have lost sight of our common unity and beautiful diversity, and this systemic blindness is killing us–spiritually, emotionally and physically.
In the distance, I see the mountains of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was built over 73 years ago, where tens of thousands of others have been built since, and where today business is booming, thanks in large part to the thousands of devout, rich, faithful, church-going Christians who work there.
Seeing both the glories of creation spread out before me—as well as the end of the world in the distant nuclear labs, I ponder once again the lesson of Gandhi—that since we are all one, created by a loving Creator to live in peace and love with one another on this earthly paradise, we are invited to pursue the ancient wisdom of nonviolence, put down our swords, dismantle our weapons, vow never to harm anyone, return to our right minds, and receive the gift of vision. That led him to set off on a journey to universal love, universal compassion, and universal peace. He thought that was the path set out before every human being. Along the way, we discover and see new depths of our common unity and celebrate new layers of our glorious diversity.
Earlier this year, I crisscrossed the country on a three-month, fifty city speaking tour about my new book, They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace and Nonviolence in a Time of Climate Change. My thesis was that Jesus’ third beatitude offers a beautiful way forward in this insane culture of violence, war and environmental destruction. Thomas Merton wrote that “meekness” was the biblical word for active, Gandhian nonviolence, so I translate Jesus’ teaching as “Blessed are people of active, creative nonviolence; they will be one with creation, with all humanity, all creatures, and Mother Earth.”
In the course of writing the book, I spent time with friends at Tewa Women United in the Santa Clara Pueblo, the second poorest county in the nation. Seventy-five years ago, the U.S. military barreled through, stole half their land, including the Los Alamos mountain, and built the nuclear weapons laboratories there. From the start, they dumped the radioactive waste, literally, off the cliffs down onto the indigenous people of the pueblo, poisoning the land, spreading cancer, and ensuring their permanent poverty.
I asked one of the elders, my friend Marian Naranjo, as I write in the book, about her long journey and Jesus’ third beatitude, and she shared about the indigenous way of peace and nonviolence. She said that they have been living that beatitude for centuries, that they live and breathe at one with all humanity, all creatures, and Mother Earth, in their day to day peaceableness, and not only celebrate diversity but learn from the diversity around them, in each other, in the creatures, in water, land, plants, trees and sky, so they can better live at peace with each other. As they learn from the diversity in nature, and honor each other’s gifts, they also learn more about the Creator. In other words, unity and diversity, within the framework and geography of nonviolence, helps deepen their culture of peace and devotion to the God of peace, the Creator.
The mystery and scandal of Christianity is that God is nonviolent. It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount, which Gandhi read from every day for over forty years: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called the sons and daughters of God. I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons and daughters of your heavenly God for God makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Mt. 5:9; 44-45)
There, in the most radical, hard-hitting, political, revolutionary sentence in the entire Bible, in this call for universal nonviolent love for those targeted with death by your nation/state, the nonviolent Jesus clearly describes the nature of God. God practices universal nonviolent love.
Jesus teaches that God is nonviolent, that to be human is to be nonviolent. We are all called to be nonviolent. To deepen our awareness of our common human unity and glorious diversity, we have to deepen into total, universal nonviolence, into the very nature of God. That is the spiritual journey that lies ahead of every human being.
But in fact, we not only ignore and deny our unity and diversity, we wage permanent war against unity and diversity. Literally. War kills our sisters and brothers. In our willingness to support warfare, we declare, “We are not one.” We label others as non-human, as enemies, as disposable, as objects for death. Along the way, we join the business of death and serve the idols of death.
To reject the culture of disunity and destruction, to embrace human unity and celebrate diversity is to practice nonviolence.
If you deny anyone their humanity, if you do not recognize everyone as a sister or a brother, if you oppose others who are different and seek to dominate everything according to your group or nation, you renounce God, reject Jesus, disregard the Gospel, lose your vision but more fundamentally, lose your humanity. You become inhuman.
To honor and celebrate human unity and diversity means living within the boundaries of nonviolence. There, we refuse to hurt or kill another person, we non-cooperate with the culture of violence, war and killing, we do our best to stop the violence and killings, and we do our part to build up the global grassroots movements of nonviolence to transform our world into a new culture of peace and nonviolence.
As people of contemplative nonviolence, we pursue our sacred unity and diversity with all 7.6 billion human beings, and all creatures and Mother Earth, too. We practice active nonviolence, prophetic nonviolence, and visionary nonviolence, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We seek first God’s kingdom here on earth, which Gandhi defined as nonviolence everywhere on earth, as the spiritual landscape of nonviolence. Awareness of unity and diversity summons us not only to a whole new attitude toward life, but to public action for justice, disarmament, creation and peace.
Jesus lived, taught and practiced active, creative nonviolence. Even his last words to his followers in his little community were a plea for nonviolence: “Put down the sword.” In the end, I think he calls us to live eschatological nonviolence, to act as if we are already in the kingdom of God, in God’s reign of total, universal nonviolence. In this landscape, we live in sacred unity every day, every moment, with every word, with every breath.
At the river Jordan, Jesus learns that he is the beloved of God and realizes that everyone is the beloved of God. He goes forth to call everyone to claim our true identities as beloved sons and daughters of God—as peacemakers, as sisters and brothers of one another, as people of universal nonviolent love. But he knows well how unaware and blind we are, and how determined we are to crush, dominate and destroy that unity and diversity. That’s when he sets off on a campaign of nonviolence to Jerusalem to confront systemic destruction head on. At one point, after he reveals his true self in the transfiguration, he teaches his disciples to leave their spiritual comfort zone on the mountaintop and follow him down the mountain into the public fray of the grassroots movement for justice. This is the journey of those who honor sacred unity and diversity.
When he finally arrives in Jerusalem, he breaks down weeping over our failure to understand our sacred unity and diversity (“If only you had understood the things that make for peace,” he laments) and goes into the Temple where he turns over the tables of injustice, where the religious authorities people cooperate with the empire to make money off the poor. “No more injustice,” he proclaims. He undertakes symbolic nonviolent civil disobedience. He’s not mad or angry; he’s grieving. (I understand this from experience—having been arrested some 80 times, I’ve learned that anger and yelling only provoke the authorities and violate our meticulous Gospel nonviolence.) Jesus’ nonviolent pursuit of unity, like Gandhi’s and King’s, leads to nonviolent public action and its consequences.
The lesson? The Gospel portrays the fulfillment of the contemplative realization of our common sacred unity with one another and all creation as the difficult public journey into the fray to speak out and take action in grassroots movements of nonviolence to stop the killings and the destruction of creation. It entails the willingness to help build the global grassroots nonviolent movements for justice and disarmament. This unpleasant, untidy, unfulfilling, often frustrating nearly hopeless, unsuccessful, ineffective work is the fullness of the spiritual life. It’s the journey of the cross in the footsteps of the nonviolent Jesus from Galilee to our own Jerusalems to confront our own empire and call for a new culture of peace, nonviolence and global unity, with all its social, economic and political implications.
With this in mind, my Pace e Bene friends and I organized the fifth national week of action this September 15-23, 2018, “CampaignNonviolence.org,” with over 2000 marches and events against war, poverty, racism, and environmental destruction and for the coming of a new culture of peace and nonviolence. This grassroots organizing is our way of upholding our unity and diversity. Around the world, billions of people are engaged in the power of grassroots movements of nonviolence. The recent Parkland students’ “March for our Lives” shows how this methodology of active nonviolence can awaken new widespread awareness of our common unity, with powerful social, economic and political implications.
We all do our part to continue Jesus’ campaign of nonviolence. Together, as movement people of eschatological nonviolence, we are entering the new land of nonviolence and heralding that day when there are no more wars, no more racism, no more sexism, no more poverty, no more starvation, no more gun violence, no more torture, no more executions, no more nuclear weapons, and no more environmental destruction.
We go forward in this beautiful campaign of peace, come what may, because we know that, in our beautiful diversity, surrounded by the glories of creation, with the eyes of faith and hope, with sacred hearts of universal love, in the spirit of resurrection peace, in the land of nonviolence, we are already one.