“But what about Hitler…” Anyone arguing for nonviolence is probably confronted with the ‘Nazi problem’ by those who insist violence is a necessary evil or even a good for our world. How else could the treacheries of the Nazi’s have ceased without a massive war, so the argument goes and thus nonviolence is debunked. Case closed.
“But what about Tuff…” I would respond. Antoinette Tuff is the Georgia women who prevented untold deaths in an Atlanta school using nonviolence, and her witness informs the conversation far more than arguing stale historical points. Most of us will never find ourselves talking down an armed person. Still Antoinette Tuff can teach us about daily being a nonviolent person of faith. Nonviolence demands (at least) three things from its practitioners: vulnerability, hope, and an openness to the Spirit.
Vulnerability – Antoinette’s first lesson is that in encountering others, we must make ourselves vulnerable. Antoinette exemplifies Henri Nouwen’s “Wounded Healer,” wherein we must access our own current wounds as we minister to others. Nouwen writes:
“…none of us can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with our whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process…[we must] make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.”
The armed man is upset and struggling with his mental health. Antoinette exposes her wounds to connect with the man over his, mentioning that her husband left her after 33 years and she has a disabled son. She risks further pain and death in entering this relationship, but Antoinette’s initial vulnerability allows the de-escalation that follows.
Hope - It is cliche, but bears repeating that nonviolence is not an acquiescence to evil. Vulnerability is complemented by an unshakeable conviction that alternatives exist and life is a good, which I would call hope. Face to face with a gun, Antoinette refuses to accept that this man must kill children and then himself, as America witnesses all too often. She offers her own suicide attempt as an example that though “we all go through something in life, ” life improves. Fate for this man is not sealed; a less violent ending to this scenario exists and a brighter future for him is still possible. Never does Antoinette concede to fatalism in this most deadly of scenarios, but endures in talking, building a relationship, and figuring out a solution with the police.
Openness to the Spirit – In an interview on CNN, Antoinette Tuff explains she never should have been at the school’s front desk when the armed man entered. She received devastating news moments before, which caused her to linger a bit longer at the desk. Antoinette attributes all this as a movement of God, who called on her then to set aside personal struggles and encounter the armed man. She was ready to answer ‘Yes’ to God’s will without notice or preparation. Trusting the Spirit would work through her in God’s way of peace, rather than responding to violence with violence, allowed Antoinette to save many lives.
Nonviolence demands much more from practitioners (which should be all of us!), such as bodily presence (Antoinette offered herself as a human shield at one point) and the cultivation of inner peace (which I cannot comment on other than she remained calm the entire time). Nonviolence is not about stopping the Nazis for most of us, but about responding to the smaller acts of violence in language and in action we confront daily.
It is time for Catholics to seriously affirm nonviolence as a way of living, not merely an intellectual exercise over wars. While certainly important to talk about strategic nonviolence for geopolitics and social movements, we are empowered by Christ to reduce daily violence as we move through this world. Antoinette Tuff is a living witness to the power nonviolence possesses in saving lives and bringing about the peaceful Kingdom.