The Common Good
November-December 2000

Interfaith Peacemaking

by Dan Buchanan | November-December 2000

Is true nonviolence possible only for Christians?

What is the connection between Christian nonviolence and Christian dialogue with other faiths? Some Christians believe that true nonviolence is possible only for those whose lives have been shaped by the example and sacrificial suffering of Jesus Christ. In practice, however, Christians have worked alongside Jews in the civil rights movement, Buddhists in the struggle against the Vietnam War, and Muslims in pursuit of peace in the Middle East. Interfaith dialogue has become an integral part of Christian nonviolence. But what exactly does it mean for Christians, as Christians, to engage in nonviolent social action alongside people of other faiths and ideologies?

In Nonviolence for the Third Millennium, editor G. Simon Harak, S.J., offers a wealth of materials from which answers to this question might emerge. In 1998 Harak set out to mark the 30th and 50th anniversaries of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi by compiling reflections on their legacy for the 21st century. The result is a compelling testimony to the connection between dialogue and peace.

Three opening essays demonstrate that Gandhi's theory of nonviolent satyagraha was a work of profound religious synthesis. Anthony Parel shows what Gandhi learned from the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy, while Graeme MacQueen unveils Gandhi's appreciation for the life of the Buddha. And in a touching essay, Arun Gandhi shows how his grandfather's Hinduism was shaped by three illiterate women—his mother, his nurse, and his wife. The intimacy of this "family portrait" makes it a compelling introduction to Hinduism.

Subsequent essays show how Gandhi's religious synthesis inspired others. David MacFadden tells how Quaker leader Rufus Jones was transformed by a meeting with Gandhi a generation before King's famous pilgrimage to India. Jones went on to challenge Christian missionaries to shift their emphasis from conversion to dialogue. Two essays trace Gandhi's influence on "engaged Buddhism," a worldwide movement in which Buddhist meditation practices flow together with the techniques of satyagraha. And Paul Dekar shows that King's memory has been preserved in several Latin American centers bearing his name.

A WEAKNESS OF the volume is that most of the Christian contributors fail to explain what it means for them as Christians to be part of a movement that includes non-Christians. The partial exception to this omission is Shelley Douglass's "A Life of Integrity." As a Christian, she insists that people of all faiths must find a spirituality of nonviolence in their own traditions, while also "winnowing our history, repenting, claiming" and distinguishing what is helpful from what is not. But Douglass fails to explain which aspects of the Christian tradition should be repented of, and which should be claimed. Does the Christian practice of "self-giving" depend on the uniqueness of Jesus' death on the cross? If not, on what does it depend? If so, what does this imply about other faiths?

Another perspective emerges in Joseph Groves's beautiful meditation on "self-suffering." Groves describes how his students forced him to question the idea that nonviolent social change depends on "self-suffering" or even martyrdom. This notion has roots in Gandhian Hinduism as well as the Christian theology of the cross, but it is vulnerable to feminist critique. Too often, feminists argue, the Christian glorification of suffering has hurt women—for example, by encouraging battered women to stay with their husbands in hopes of "saving" them.

Groves's essay will not satisfy hard-liners on either side of this debate. His strategy is to place "self-suffering" in the context of a range of nonviolent techniques that emerge over the course of particular struggles. The deaths of King, Gandhi, and Romero were highly significant in context, but they don't provide the only paradigm for nonviolence. Groves also draws on the work of Sharon Welch to argue that the risk of suffering may be more important than the suffering itself.

The great virtue of Groves's essay is not his conclusion, but the way he draws that conclusion out of reflection on both classroom conversations and a labor campaign in Greensboro, North Carolina. He shows that an adequate Christian theory of nonviolence can emerge only from conversations—in the classroom, on the picket line, in the prison, among Christians, and between Christians and others. Harak's book illustrates these conversations and invites all of us to join in them.

DAN BUCHANAN teaches theology and peace studies at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)