Dr. King, Epiphany events, and the call to peace

Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss: Sister Pam Smith, right, and Sister Marcine Klocko, Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, participate in the annual peaceful Stand Up for Life March and Rally on Jan. 9.

Every state in the Union and 100 nations: that’s what the registrar’s office told us made up our student body.  I was working on a doctorate in theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and teaching there amid a presidential election.  

I vividly recall that in one of my undergraduate classes there were students from China, Japan, India, Brazil, and Iceland. Among the American-born was one whose last name was Montini. When I asked (privately) if his family was in any way related to now-St. Pope Paul VI (aka Giovanni Battista Montini), he nodded yes. 

Not only the undergraduates but also the graduate students on campus were very much fascinated with the way in which we mounted campaigns and, even more so, passed power from one party to another.  When Bill Clinton succeeded George H.W. Bush, my students and my graduate colleagues — including an Anglican, two priests from Nigeria, and an Assembly of God pastor from Sierra Leone — remarked on how amazing it was that the one who lost was shaking hands with the one who won, welcoming him to the White House, and sitting with him as he was inaugurated.  

That was the American way, I would always say, as though nothing less was imaginable. They would respond that in their countries there could be throngs in the streets and militia seizing control.  

They admired our alternative, however, as they also admired the models of peaceful and effective non-violence that they had known: Gandhi’s dismantling of British imperial rule in India, Dr. King and the civil rights movement in America, the then-recent victory of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and the velvet revolution which led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union.  

As we look to the debacle of Jan. 6, 2021, it seems wise for us to revisit the Christian call to peacemaking, clearly enunciated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.  

We know that there are appropriate times to protest and counter all sorts of injustices, whether they be abortion, racial discrimination, dubious wars, or social evils such as predatory lending, mistreatment of refugees, immigrants and migrants, or miscarriages of justice in our judiciary. 

Christians have consistently been exhorted to cooperate with governing authorities, obey laws, and use peaceful means and prudential judgment to work for social change and to right wrongs. We have teachings that tell us when we may resort to violence defensively and that advise us, in the most extreme situations, on the seven conditions which are to be met to justify warfare — four of which date back to St. Augustine in the early 5th century A.D. These four are just cause (defending one’s nation against aggression), right intention (restoring peace as quickly as possible), last resort, and legitimate authority (in other words, a legal declaration of war).  

Over ensuing centuries, three more criteria were enunciated: comparative justice (having to do with the conduct of battle itself and the care taken to spare the lives of non-combatants), proportionality (assuring that the harm done is not greater than the harm opposed), and probability of success (which is, admittedly, a delicate calculation).  What we saw in Washington this past week was not by any means a “just war.”

It is important to recall that, along with the just war tradition, there is also an honorable tradition of Christian pacifism, a refusal to engage in combat but rather to engage in what Dr. King called “soul force.” The bishops of the United States affirmed this as a valid option in “The Challenge of Peace” in 1983.  

There is, additionally, the possibility that persons may decline to participate in that which offends their consciences, whether it be serving in a particular war or payment of particular taxes. The presumption is that conflicts are best resolved through legal recourse and non-violent means.  

If a law is broken (such as sitting in at a segregated lunch counter), the conscientious objector is willing to pay the price — arrest, imprisonment, beating, even death. Jesus admonished his disciples, “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him as well.  If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles” (Mt 5:39b-41).  

In the midst of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cautioned, “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah warned that God’s judgment would require the nations to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is 2:4). When Zechariah speaks of the king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, he has him banishing chariots and archers’ bows (Zech 9:10-12).

It is impossible to shrug off the Lord’s perspective when it comes to civil unrest. His call is to espouse righteous causes — and only righteous ones. He also makes it clear that murder, violence, terrorism and terroristic threats, vandalism, and creating an atmosphere of panic must be eschewed. 

The chilling insight of mob psychology sheds light on recent events in American civic life. That insight is that mobs tend to revert to the rationality of the least rational member. Chaos begets chaos, and chaos is not the atmosphere in which human beings are, under God, intended to live. So we must learn from our examples of non-violent resistance and non-violent protest.  

A timely example of a model for effecting change was seen Jan. 9 at the annual Stand Up for Life rally in Columbia, at the state capital. Those who marched exhibited images and banners showing the cross of Christ, the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist, the Bible, the rosary, and babies.  

The marchers were an inter-generational group — elders who walked painfully or were in wheel chairs and youth and young adults carrying signs that read “I Am the Pro-Life Generation.” 

For two hours of walking and standing, the mix was also interracial, with African Americans, Asian Americans, Indian Americans, European Americans, and Hispanic Americans evident. It was inter-denominational, with Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and others in attendance. It was even inter-collegiate, as the orange “Clem-Tenn” jacket on one participant indicated. 

And it was bi-partisan, in the sense that the Republican Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, introduced the main speaker, while a group bearing the banner “Democrats for Life” looked on. When Statehouse Speaker Jay Lucas received recognition, he made it very clear that the House’s “heartbeat” bill had been passed with Republicans and Democrats advancing it and exerting influence to get it placed as the first bill to be presented to the state Senate in its new term.  

A noteworthy thing about peaceful, prayerful public witness is that “soul force” sometimes changes laws but, more significantly, changes hearts.  Good triumphs when people engage in civil discourse, stand firm on convictions, and recall, as St. Paul VI reminded us, that “the Gospel is not out of date” and that the Holy Spirit is the one who must guide our every action and intention. 

And so we engage with our rosaries, our Biblical psalms and canticles, our St. Michael the Archangel prayer, our principles, and our continued respectful physical presence.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM
About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.