Reflecting on Our Call to Nonviolence

July 29, 2020

By Sister Diane Guerin

Late in the afternoon of July 17 I heard the news that C.T. Vivian, an iconic civil rights leader, had passed away; later in the day, the passing of Congressman John Lewis filled the airwaves. A feeling of profound sadness enveloped me. I did not know C.T. Vivian except for what I knew and read of the struggles he endured in shaping the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. John Lewis I had the privilege of meeting on two occasions; one of times we shared a rather lengthy discussion. He was an amazing man!

Portrait of Representative John Lewis by Sister Judy Ward. Click here for quote source.

Both of these men were fearless, unequivocally committed to justice and filled with a deep faith that propelled them to action. Despite being mocked, beaten, disrespected and jailed, their faith and focus never faltered. Each was steadfast in his belief that nonviolence was a path to conversion and that nonviolent social action was a means to accomplish justice.

The lives of these men have led me to reflect about the future of nonviolence as a tool for social change. The initial and most profound conversion for each of them, as well as for each of us, is our own personal decision to live a life of nonviolence. This nonviolent belief must manifest itself in our thoughts and choices as well as our actions and interactions. It is a lifetime of learning and relearning what a nonviolent lifestyle really means. Faith, steadfastness and grace accompany the journey.

In the current climate of protest and especially in the Black Lives Matter movement, there is much for us to contemplate about nonviolence. The protestors have often acted nonviolently, only to be met by violent force attempting to disrupt and discredit their actions. This response is similar to that experienced by protestors during the civil rights movement.

The skills and strategies of nonviolent protests are well known to many of us. Prior to participating in a demonstration, we may have signed an agreement to conduct ourselves nonviolently during the action. If we planned to be arrested, we were trained in how to respond to violence directed against us. Knowing these tactics and putting them into practice is a cognitive approach. What of the affective aspect of nonviolence?

The affective, feeling level of nonviolence runs deep. How does one overcome anger while being kicked, beaten or handcuffed? How does one not return hatred for hatred? Maintaining love for the oppressor is the essence of nonviolence. Not love for the action, not love for the injustice, but rather love for the humanity present before me. Only a deep commitment, the grace of a higher power and the belief that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) sustain one to stay in the struggle.

We, as Mercy, aspire to and have committed ourselves to work to create a culture of nonviolence. The first step must begin with each of us disarming our own hearts, and seeking to live a more nonviolent lifestyle. The challenge is great but not impossible.

C.T. Vivian and John Lewis were individuals, like each of us, but their faith, commitment and passion for racial justice led them on a journey. They believed in the transformation of hearts, minds and souls that had the possibility to create a more just and equitable world for all. We are called and challenged to do the same.

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  1. Patricia Cook, RSM

    Thanks so much for your vibrant words, Diane……and for the strong tribute to icons of such stature as they both were.

    You invite a response of deeper mercy and I am grateful.

  2. Victoria Incrivaglia RSM

    “This nonviolent belief must manifest itself in our thoughts and choices as well as our actions and interactions. It is a lifetime of learning and relearning what a nonviolent lifestyle really means.”

    Thank you, Diane, for the reflective words that reminds us that nonviolence is a transformation that spans our lifetime.

  3. Marisa Guerin

    Thank you for your words of tribute to the great souls who have gone before us, and for your encouragement to grow in faithfulness to a nonviolent vision of life.

  4. Sue LaVoie, Companion in Mercy.

    Diane, your words renewed my own commitment to nonviolence … not an easy commitment during these times. The greatest challenge is with my unobserved thinking … angry, not spoken aloud words, towards Donald Trump and others who agree with his policies.
    This road of nonviolence takes a lifetime of prayer and practice.
    Thank you so much for your inspired words.

  5. Ann Welch

    Thank you Diane. Very well said.
    Your article detailed what nonviolence is, not just an action. It is a way of life! Easy to say but often hard to live!
    These were truly great men. I followed JohnLewis for years!
    Thank you. It is good to use for a meditation.

  6. Kathy Wade, Mercy Associate

    With gratitude for the time and energy you have devoted to practicing anti-racism and to creating a culture of non-violence.

  7. Marian Uba

    Thank you Diane! The commitment to work toward creating a culture of nonviolence is indeed a life’s work. Grateful for the reminder from these great examples to “stay the course”.

  8. Anthony Hart

    Thank you, for sharing and reflecting on two civil rights activists, and their pursuit of social justice and nonviolence. Thank you also, for your tenacity, zeal, and spirit of Mercy, in all that you do and your commitment to social justice issues. My continued prayers for the Sisters of Mercy, and all who bring God’s love, care, and mercy.

  9. Jean Strawbridge

    A real call to soul searching! and for seeding non-violence in myself …Thanks Diane and Judy Ward also. Jean S.

  10. Virginia Fifield

    Thank you Diane, for your words and your work over the years.

  11. Sister Carren Herring

    Yes, yes, yes!
    May we live our call, not just say it

  12. Janet Rozzano

    Thanks so much for this reflection on John Lewis and the example of nonviolence which is his legacy. I hope and pray that my/our action for justice is grounded in nonviolence. It’s something that we need to cultivate every day of our lives–and it’s no easy task!

  13. Jeanne O'Rourke

    Thank you, Diane, for your reflection and for the challenge you put before us.

  14. Katie Mindling

    So many of the pictures we saw around the death of John Lewis reminded me that being non-violent involved being mistreated and returning again and again because deep injustices had to be addressed. His courage and fortitude inspire imitation. Thank you for reminding us of our call to deep oneness in the face of similar injustice.

  15. Pat Kenny

    You have a gift for connecting the dots, Diane, a gift we are always trying to perfect. Pinning down one’s “violent” ways or tendencies and learning how to defuse them is an ongoing struggle but so necessary in these times. Thank you for pointing the way.

  16. Dorothy A. Kline, R.S.M.

    Diane, I read your well written fantastic article. I thank God for your prayers, support, and love. We are blessed that you are in the Mercy family and I lean on your faith and model of discipleship in times like this.

  17. Nancy Byrnes

    Thanks Diane, I loved your article. C.T. Vivian and John Lewis inspire us to live lives of non-violence. They endured violence from others, yet did not respond with violence. They had a great love for this Country even without enjoying all of its freedoms. They had great faith and were truly humble. Their courage and passion for justice is so inspiring.

  18. S. Rose Morris

    Thank you Diane, for your reflection on non-violence. It does start at home, each of us in our own hearts. God bless you.