The toughness of nonviolence

I was a kid when protests against the Vietnam War were in the news practically daily. An image sticks in my mind of a photo from back then: a young woman walking in front of a line of armed soldiers or National Guardsmen or riot police (all looked the same to me at that age), putting a flower into each gun barrel. It’s odd, what one sees at age ten on the news, persisting in memory to this day.

No one was pointing a gun at the young woman, so her silent statement for peace cost her nothing. Her statement was worthwhile, but she wasn’t at risk when she made it. I realize now the armed men in the photo were probably her age, scared to death themselves, under orders not to respond to provocation from demonstrators whose methods might have been more forceful than the young woman’s.

Both sides chose nonviolence that day. Among the long list of things I’ve learned since age ten: nonviolence is a choice. It’s not a feeling –  that would be simple passivity. It’s not necessarily pacifism, for one may embrace nonviolence while recognizing the right to self-defense. Nonviolence is a choice, and practicing it requires discipline and preparation.

Pro-life men in Argentina assaulted by abortion promoters

Some men from Argentina showed me nonviolence in action last weekend. They were praying outside the cathedral in their town, which was under threats of vandalism from abortion advocates gathered nearby for a conference. The abortion advocates confronted the men, who continued to pray. The men were then assaulted. The abortion demonstrators sprayed paint onto the mens’ crotches and faces,  scrawled swastikas on the men, and pushed their breasts against the mens’ faces. The men refused to respond in kind, remaining steadfast in prayer. The demonstrators failed to get into the cathedral, where 700 people were at prayer.

A video of the incident is here along with an article from It isn’t pretty, but you ought to watch it to understand what abortion advocates were willing to do that day.

photo from of men in prayer outside cathedral in San Juan, Argentina, after assault by abortion advocates
photo from of men in prayer outside cathedral in San Juan, Argentina, after assault by abortion advocates

Spray paint, swastikas, unwelcome physical contact: violence? You bet it is. Imagine if the people at prayer were women, and the demonstrators were men. Everyone would recognize the violence fast enough in that case.

Now imagine what could have ensued if the men had fought back. Surely some of them wanted to. Get away. Stop profaning my church and mocking my faith. Stop killing children. Such thoughts must have crossed some minds, I think. The provocation was unmistakable and probably nearly irresistable. And yet each man there – without exception, if news reports are accurate – decided to respond to violence with peace and prayer.

Would I have had the self-discipline to do that? I’d like to think so. But really, what would I have done? Every fiber of my being would have wanted to push back and scream. Not doing so would require not only an act of will but also practice and study. I need to develop self-discipline as I’d develop a muscle. It would be silly for me to expect it to come through for me if I never worked it out.

You’ve got to be tough to be peaceful

The Argentinean men may have been strangers to one another until that day, for all I know. If so, more power to them. Preparing as a group for nonviolent action is a much less daunting project than going it alone.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew about the value of unity and organization to nonviolent public witness. Add his Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story to your Basic Books list. It’s about the 1955-56 boycott of public buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in an effort to break segregation. Public officials went so far as to put an injunction on carpools, which people were using as a device to avoid using the buses. Ultimately, the boycott worked, and segregation of the buses was declared unconstitutional. The boycott had to last a year in order to prevail, though. Impatience and violence would have undermined the effort. In his book, King outlined some aspects of nonviolence that were critical to the Montgomery effort.

  • Nonviolent resistance isn’t for cowards. It is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. King pointed out that the weekly mass meetings associated with the boycott always included prayer, and that ministers took the lead exhorting participants to Christian love and nonviolence.
  • Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate an opponent, but rather to win friendship and understanding.
  • Nonviolence is directed against the forces of evil rather than the persons doing evil.
  • Willingness to accept suffering without retaliation is crucial. King frequently repeated the theme that unearned suffering is redemptive.
  • Have faith in the future and in God’s Providence; “the universe is on the side of justice.”
  • Avoid not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. Motivation must be love, not hate.

All those things ring true where the right to life is concerned, except that the last item – avoiding internal “violence of spirit” – gives me pause. Abortion kills children. The abortion industry fights to prevent accountability for outcomes to women’s health. It wants my money. It has destroyed my confidence in the medical arts, as I see abortion apologists at the state house fight conscience protections for health care professionals who choose not to participate in abortion.

Makes me mad, all that. I can’t pretend to view the landscape with satisfaction. There is real urgency to the call to build a culture of life. To do so with conviction and persuasiveness, without giving way to anger – the “violence of spirit” of which Dr. King wrote – is a challenge I’ll probably have to face every day of my life.

Strategy or tactic?

Pope Benedict XVI in 2007: “It is thus understood that nonviolence, for Christians, is not a mere tactical behavior but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is convinced of God’s love and power, who is not afraid to confront evil with the weapons of love and truth alone.”

An attitude, not a tactic. The same attitude held by the men on the steps of the cathedral in Argentina. An awesome challenge to me, really, and to all of us.

Speaking of attitude, I treasure a letter I received in 1996 from Pastor Bob Mears in New Hampshire, may he rest in peace. A man had been convicted back then of murdering two abortion facility workers in the Boston area, and a few activists in our area were being careful not to make any public comment about the convicted man, even to condemn his actions. “Not our issue,” said these people. They were totally wrong and I said so. So did Pastor Mears, in much more articulate fashion. I wrote to him to thank him for his outspokenness. He replied with this note.

Dear Mrs. Kolb, Thanks for your note of 6/24. I believe the issue of violence is crucial. We are Christians first and Americans second. For us the example and teaching of Jesus are decisive. Can you imagine Him wielding an attack weapon like Rambo? He calls us to take up the cross, not the sword. It’s a much more effective weapon because you don’t have to lay down the truth and justice when you use it. Blessings to you – Bob Mears