Another Way: Listening to the Challenge of Non-Violence

25 April 2009 – Brendan McKeague

  1. Who’s talking: a brief introduction and overview of where I come from
  2. Departures and discoveries: leaving the tribe.
  3. Finding New Treasures
  4. Entering New Territory
  5. Looking Inside
  6. Naming the Holiness in Nonviolence
  7. Spirituality of Nonviolence

1 Who’s Talking

I stand here today as a person who has been invited to speak to you about my experience of the holy through nonviolence. Let my next words seek to dispel any mistaken assumptions that I have achieved the state to which my great passion aspires. I am NOT a nonviolent person. In fact I can be quite a violent man when the notion takes me. As I journey towards becoming less violent in my life, I have come to recognise the holy in my capacities for both violence and nonviolence. In my interpretation, ‘the holy’ transcends any attempt of mine to try to limit the location of the divine exclusively in either one of these constructs. To be holy, to be whole, necessitates the inclusion of my capacities for both violence and nonviolence. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to speak with you – thanks for the invitation.

My name is Brendan McKeague, from an Irish Catholic background in Co Derry, Northern Ireland. I was born into a conventional Irish Catholic family, all of our relatives were Catholic, went to Mass every Sunday, attended Catholic primary and secondary schools (double-dosed with seven years in Catholic Boarding School), played games with other Catholics, father owned a pub, in a predominantly Protestant town, most of the patrons were Protestant.

I was well and truly inducted into the characteristics of my socio-religious extended family, through an enculturation process that included songs, music, sport, schools, church, housing estates, job allocations, socialising patterns that confirmed my identity within, and loyalties to, the Irish Catholic people and institutions.

This process accentuated the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the separation into tribal factions that emphasised the boundaries between who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out. These destructive demons of denominational divisiveness were lauded and honoured as our meaning-making mythology…we were encouraged to pray hard so that we might become martyrs for the cause of Holy Ireland – Holy Catholicism, intertwined in a mesh of nationalistic fervour, passion for the patriotic and allegiance to the God of a preferential option for the Chosen Ones. In our culture, there was no more admirable way to die than as a martyr for Holy Ireland, and especially if that death was executed by our most despised foe, the British. As one of our most famous tribal rallying songs, thinly disguised as a traditional holy hymn, illustrates…

Faith of our fathers living still, we will be true to thee till death….
Our fathers chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free.
Oh how our hearts would beat for joy, if we like them could die for thee…
Faith of our fathers, holy faith, we will be true to thee till death

This pattern was layered into me at so many levels and so deeply rooted in my childhood formation that I’m still, at age 57, coming across forgotten shoots that break through to my surface in varying degrees of inconvenient interruption. This was the background to my formative years that created a comfort zone around living, working and praying within the cradle of my ‘own folks’, where I’d be safe within my tribal territory, ruled ultimately by the one, true God.

From where I stand now, I can see how the twin primal needs for survival and belonging were unleashed when there were any signs of personal or collective breaking out from the tribal ways of doing business – ‘those Prods are out to get us, don’t trust them an inch’. ‘We need to stand up and fight (and die) for our freedom – like Jesus did’. Or when introducing a new girlfriend, ‘is she a Catholic’, or praying the Rosary for all the Catholic suffering souls in the world – offering prayers that entire nations might be converted to the Holy Roman Catholic tribe…

This loyalty also produced rather quirky, creative actions on behalf of the tribe. For example, Shamie O’Neil from the Falls Road in Belfast was dying at the age of 83. He called his wife Brigid and asked her if she’d bring him the local Presbyterian pastor. Brigid asked why he wanted him. Shamie replied that he had made up his mind, he was going to ‘turn’ (convert). Brigid was shocked: ‘why would you do that Shamie – you were born Catholic, grew up Catholic, married a Catholic, sent your children to Catholic schools and now you want to abandon your faith just when you’re dying?’Shamie replied: ‘I’ve thought long and hard Brigid and I’ve worked it out: it’s much better if one of them goes than one of us!’

This was where I started life and spent the first twenty three years or so growing up.

Moment of grace initiated by ‘the other tribe’ – I was working as a Personnel Manager in a local textile company in my town of birth, three years after completing university, and had all the trimmings of a successful, professional man at age 23. I was well paid, in a position of influence in the community and had pleased my family no end. Then one quiet, mid-week evening, while paying a visit to the outside dunny of a local pub where I was having a pint or two, three men, whom I knew to be from the ‘other tribe’, cornered me and their leader said in a very clear, penetrating voice: “We hear you’ve been hiring too many ‘fenians’ (Catholics) up there. If you hire another one in that factory, we’ll blow up your old man’s pub!”

I did hire a few more Catholics, and Protestants, but for me the writing was on the wall, and shortly afterwards, as a result of this and a combination of other circumstances, I decided to leave Ireland.


2 Departures and Discoveries – Leaving the Tribe

In the ensuing years, I have been a teacher and educational consultant, first in England and then in Australia, working within the Catholic tribe until I could no longer sustain the tensions between my loyalty to the tribe and my need to break away…in an interesting intervention, my tribe forced the decision on me.

Having initially worked in Darwin for first couple of years in Australia, and with particular teaching experience in the area of post-compulsory secondary curriculum and developing teaching processes for those on the margins of the school service provision, I was offered a plum job in Perth. I was thrilled at this affirmation from within my tribe – having been working in the Catholic education system in England and Australia. Then after a couple of years, due to Federal Government change of policy, I was called into the Director’s office and told I was being let go, made redundant at the ripe old age of 33, with four children under the age of seven and another one a few weeks away from arriving.

The sense of rejection and accompanying shock, anger and despair hit me like a rubber bullet. One minute I was a well-paid secondary education consultant in my chosen area of specialisation, the next I wasn’t needed, unwanted and out the door.

After recovering from these initial reactions, and with the support of a strong partner, I discovered that I could exist outside of the conventional professional career pathways that I had chosen. I learned how to access and trust my own resourcefulness; I connected with my passion for peace-making and social justice, participatory and equitable education for all children in the classroom, not just those going on to University, a fair go for the marginalised people in our society and in the wider world. I worked part-time in the areas of my passion, teaching in an Aboriginal College, working with kids in residential care, eking out enough income to pay the bills, feed our family and, more significantly, learning how to tap into the universal abundance that is always available for those who have become clear about what they need and then ask for it. We survived well for the next ten years on the basis of ‘ask and you shall receive’ – learning the difference between what we wanted and what we needed, getting to know ourselves well enough to identify what we needed, then intentionally asking for it – and letting go of the need to control where, when and how it would show up! An extension of this learning was to be able to recognise, and honour, what we needed when it did show up!

The stimulation from these engagements, created a desire to expand my learning and discover more about myself. During the decade of my forties, my explorations took me to the Centre For Action and Contemplation (CAC), and Pace E Bene (PeB) in the USA – and subsequent encounters with the Enneagram, contemplative prayer and the spirituality and practice of active nonviolence, all of which contributed significantly to my spiritual growth.

Moment of grace initiated by ‘an ignorant enemy’:
Being made redundant, a decision initiated by someone who obviously had no idea what he was doing and didn’t recognise the talent he was dismissing, threw me totally out of my planned, controlled life pattern. I came to realise later in life just how important it was for me to have been ‘discombobulated’ and shaken off the pathway of conventional, comfortable and successful achievement. In considering just how significant this unwanted inconvenience has been for the rest of my life, I have come to understand that not everyone who, by accident or by design, has caused me pain has warranted the title of ‘enemy’ and not everyone who makes me feel good about myself has likewise warranted the title of ‘friend’.

3 Finding New Treasures

I continued to work in adult education, facilitation, social justice activism and peacemaking…and by making opportunities to travel and engage with CAC and PeB, expanded my knowledge, skills and wisdom around the integration of action and contemplation, violence and nonviolence, the influence and power of the ‘dominant culture’ and the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. This timeless, universal myth, languaged by Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred (1972), describes how the process of forming a tribal group, bonding together to defend against common threats of other tribes, seeking to convert the others to become like us, and ultimately legitimising the destruction of those others who resist, is the ‘glue that holds society together.’

And of course, there is no better disguise for this myth than to wrap it up in legitimate ‘sacred work’ which often thinly disguise more sinister and subtle agendas such as maintaining power and control, acquiring wealth, seeking revenge and punishment, or the self-indulgent projection of one’s own anger onto enemies.

A statement of worldview, that encompasses some of the above validations of violence, was provided by an American Major during the Vietnam War who, after witnessing the destruction of the village of Ben Tre, said: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”

And if we don’t have a common external enemy that we can all project our hatred, mistrust, suspicions and fears onto, then we will create an internal one – the notion of scapegoating so creatively crafted in the ritual of the Jewish tradition. According the book of Leviticus (16:20-22), the priest would bring a goat to the centre of the village, lay his hands on it, transfer the sins of the community onto the goat and then beat it out of the village into the wilderness, thus banishing evil from the village. The escaping goat carried away the sins of all. It was later recaptured and offered as blood sacrifice in atonement.

These concepts, originating in the ancient rituals of offering sacrifices to appease, or to create favour with, angry Gods, have operated universally throughout history and are still alive and well today. It was so easy for me to recognise how this worked so effectively in my own culture where tribal loyalties and obedience, was the glue to hold us together and share in our common victim-hood, always needing someone else to blame for our woes and disasters.

How deep is this patterned behaviour within me – if someone walks in a room and speaks with an Irish accent, my deeply embedded instinct for survival immediately kicks in with the question: ‘one of us or one of them?’ Even after all these years it still takes me a few seconds to manage this reaction when meeting someone from the North for the first time.

These constructs gave me a lens with which to see my own participation in the cycles of violence deeply embedded in the dominant ‘enemy’ culture – and a language to describe it.


4 Entering New Territory

As I began to understand how this is played out in the cultural patterns surrounding us, and exploited skilfully by those who have vested interested in maintaining division, holding on to power and control over socio-cultural constructs, those who benefit from the militarisation of the world and perpetuate the need for wars and weapons, I recognise how the need for an external enemy sustains the legitimation of powerful forces in our world – the ‘Powers that Be’ as theologian Walter Wink calls them. Those who create and maintain the shape of the ‘dominant culture’. The need for enemies is a strong stimulus for bonding the tribe and manipulating energies to support and validate fear of ‘the other’.

Around this time also, I started working with a small group of others (Prison Outreach) visiting people in prison with a view to supporting their transition back into society. I had been encouraged, invited and cajoled into trying this work by a long-term friend who, fed up with my continual procrastinating, finally told me straight (quoting some other wise sage):

“Brendan, you will never think your way into a new way of living, you will only live your way into a new way of thinking!”.

This prison work really took me into places I’d never have chosen to go. I received a few tough lessons about how the process of scapegoating works in all levels of our society – the sex-offender tribe had its own hierarchy of ‘virtually acceptable’ to ‘totally despicable’ that enabled all, save the seemingly unredeemable, to have someone else to castigate and project their demons onto….

Moments of grace initiated by ‘the despised’
I will never forget the first day I walked in Casuarina maximum security prison in Western Australia to begin my work with Prison Outreach. My fear and anxieties were palpable, the long corridors of concrete, the razor wire stringing fences, the heavily muscled uniforms, the tattooed torsos, the smell of control…and I was choosing to enter this domain – why? I don’t think I really knew why at the time – all I knew was that I couldn’t not go, having been invited persistently by my long-term friend and nonviolent activist, challenging me to take this nonviolence edict about loving my enemies seriously…as a father of six children, I would have counted child-abusers as being among the most despicable enemies I could think of.

During thirteen years of regular engagement with these men, I came to realise that what I had despised most about them and their offending behaviours also existed deep within the darker recesses of my own inner prison cells – and, if I could help it, would never be allowed out in public!And as these men opened up their stories to me, and I listened with attentive intention, I understood more about how the patterns of dysfunctional relationships and the so-called ‘stinkin thinkin’ surrounding their family narratives, could have such an impact on behaviours. A revelation from the enemy – and one which I will honour for the rest of my life. If these men, in their commitment to breaking the cycles of abuse in their lives, could go so deeply into their own pain, often the product of fractured childhoods, abusive parents or family members, social rejection and emotional malfunctioning, then surely I too could gain the strength and courage to do likewise – without the need to be forced by civil authorities. Surely this is what Jesus meant by inviting me to discover the gifts delivered by my enemies. If I could take time to really listen to the story of another with whom I disagreed, and listen to understand rather than to convert, then perhaps I could hear the Spirit moving in the lives of both of us.

Through a process of engaging with these men over many years, I discovered how the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ and ‘scapegoating’ had been working within me. I recognised that I had the capacity within myself to be an abuser, to groom potential victims, to rationalise my violation of others – maybe not expressed in the societal sins of sex offending – but a disturbing discovery within my own hitherto impregnable fortress of self-righteous commitment to social justice and nonviolence.


Love Your Enemies

This led me to reinterpret what Jesus meant when he said ‘you must love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you’ (Mt 5:43-48). Rather than loving my enemies to convert or redeem ‘them’, Jesus was telling me that this was how I could redeem myself. By engaging with and befriending my external enemy, I could come to embrace more fully the enemies operating at different levels within me – this was indeed a clever and creative way to transfer the focus to an inside job!

As I explored further the spirituality of nonviolence, as distinct from my initial experimentations with using nonviolent tactics and strategies as tools for engaging in the transformation of others, I recognised the parallel journey of entering into the Paschal Cycle. To willingly enter the cycle of death and resurrection, witnessed by Jesus, even as a scapegoat or victim, prepared to absorb the pain and suffering caused by self or others, was about surrendering to the paradox that enables such a crucifixion to transform me, out of which there will be a resurrection into a new life, a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Thus, having discovered that loving my enemy is all about my redemption, not theirs, I began to reconstruct my own story in a new light. I began to see socio-cultural activism and transformation in a new way. I also began to see the need for some deeper soul-searching within….and of course, fear of what I might find there, was a constant distraction from getting ‘down and dirty’…

Reminding me of the story about two men from indeterminate ethnic origins coming out of a pub one night…Paddy bends down by the street light and starts searching for something on the ground.

Mick says to Paddy: “What are you doing down there?”
Paddy replies: “I’m looking for my keys, I’ve lost them”
Mick says: “Well if you tell me where you’ve lost them, I‘ll help you look for them”.
Paddy, pointing to a spot a few metres away, says: “I Iost them over there”.
“Then” says Mick, “why are you looking over here?”
Paddy replies: “There’s more light over here!”

 And similarly, it is often much more difficult and scarier to look in the darker recesses of our own inner landscape – requiring considerable more courage and commitment.


5 Looking Inside

I was jarred by a couple of ‘sit-up-and-pay-attention’ characters in my dreams, and a couple of ‘accidental interventions’ in my life that forced me to admit that, alongside my outer passion and activism to change the world, I needed to make a journey inwards that eventually dragged me kicking and screaming into a therapeutic journey of spiritual companionship… a true gateway to the ‘holy’:

“In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and the exterior, visible and invisible, known and unknown, temporal and eternal, ancient and new together. No-one else can undertake this task for you. You are the one and only threshold of an inner world. This wholesomeness is holiness. To be holy is to be natural; to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, p14

I got to know my in-house tribe – a rag-tag mob of violent and nonviolent folks who each clamoured for my attention and from time to time, sought to dominate my outer behaviours.

I was helped to understand my own inner light-shadow relationship and identify those parts of me that I had banished to the nether regions and shady recesses of my inner world. In digging into this deep tapestry, this messy mixture of good and bad, of violence and nonviolence, of love and lust, of pain and joy, of sacred and profane, I began to understand the meaning of the divine presence, or ‘Kingdom of God’, that dwells within. I, like most of the rest of the human race, was made up of a curious cacophony of voices, an ensemble of occasionally melodious instruments, often playing out-of-tune, with some playing an entirely different score, and invariably with one or two energetic soloists seeking to lead or conduct the whole orchestra. I am a rather complex community indeed! I also began to apply the skills I’d been using in my outer world to facilitating nonviolent peacemaking processes in my inner world – active imagination, Open Space Technology, restorative justice, deep truth-speaking and listening, negotiating emergent outcomes – and understanding the outer-inner links around the work that I was doing in my day-job. There are some deep spiritually-grounded principles in an OST meeting that helped me on this new journey inwards – whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could, whenever it starts is the right time, when its over its over and the Law of Mobility/Two Feet….

Through the process of meeting and engaging with many members of my inner tribe, and I know that there are some I have yet to meet, I came to realise just how difficult it can be to hold some of the paradoxical tensions together while still operating in an apparently functional way to the outside world. Using this experience of gaining more insight and understanding of the inner tribe, led me to see just how easily I could demonise or dehumanise people in my outer tribe. Just as there are times when I want to throttle one or more of my inner family, I can easily feel the same way about those who I meet in my outer world, especially my enemies!

6 Naming the Holiness in Nonviolence

So what have I learned about seeing and naming the holiness in nonviolence? Nonviolence is a spiritual process that necessitates a deeply convicted acceptance of who or what ‘is’ – and the ‘courage of self-encounter’. This creates a capacity to transcend the self or self-interest, in situations of conflict-generated tensions.

There is a capacity to willingly participate in the myth of ‘redemptive suffering’ and embrace the paschal cycle in everyday living, moving intentionally and inevitably towards potential crucifixion – and to see this as a sacred journey.

In situations of high risk or conflict, which is where our most truthful tensions appear, this necessitates seeing the Divine in self, in the ‘enemy’ and in the event….here’s a moment of noticing such a ‘theology of nonviolence’ in action….

About ten years ago I first read the story of Angie O’Gorman in a book she had edited: The Universe Bends Towards Justice (1990). Angie told her story about being confronted in her bedroom, alone and in the middle of the night, by an intruder who had broken in to her house. She awoke, startled, frightened and disoriented, with a very short time to gather her senses and respond to what had invaded her familiar, safe environment. As Angie tells the story, in a split second she realised that, in her words:

‘either he and I made it through the situation safely – together – or we would both be damaged. Our safety was connected. If he raped me, I would be hurt both physically and emotionally. If he raped me he would be hurt as well. If he went to prison the damage would be greater. That thought disarmed me. I found myself acting out of concern for both our safety’. (p242)

In that moment, she summed up for me what a nonviolent response to a violent action might feel like in a spiritual sense. By refusing to dehumanise or demonise this intruder and potential abuser, Angie centred herself in her belief that God was present in both her and her unwelcome visitor in that moment and she reacted out of that belief. She felt the presence of the divine spirit within herself and somehow managed to acknowledge that it was present in the ‘other’ also. Because of this ‘centering belief’, Angie was then able to use the skills of disarmament that she had learned in her life journey up to that point. She took the man by surprise by asking him what time it was! He replied that it was 230am. She noticed that the clock by her bed said 2:45AM and hoped that his watch wasn’t broken. She then asked him how he had got into her house, He replied that he had broken a kitchen window and soon the ‘energy of escalating violation’ was replaced by a social conversation…

I have drawn on the courage of this wonderful practitioner of nonviolence many times in situations where I have felt myself falling into inculturated patterns of fight or flight. Angie put into words and images what an authentic ‘spirituality of nonviolence’ looks like, where she, like Jesus, trusted and surrendered to the presence of the Divine in the moment. I also learned something about the skills of practicing nonviolence from Angie. For many years I waited for an intruder to break into my bedroom so that I could ask him or her what time it was – hasn’t happened – yet! I also found it comforting and relieving to know that the nonviolent practitioner doesn’t actually know how the script will go – and doesn’t really need to! I can expand my capacity for nonviolence by learning and developing skills, but in the moment of trial, I need to feel and trust the presence of the holy in me and in the situation confronting me. Either God is in it – or God is not at all! (There is an oft-quoted Richard Rohr line that goes something like: either we accept that God is in all things, or we have no basis for believing in God’s existence at all.)

One such incident happened in my life a few years after encountering Angie’s story that did confirm these insights. I was sitting outside a café in an outer-Perth suburb waiting for one of my ex-offender friends to arrive for a meeting – he was late and I was enjoying the warmth, the coffee and the newspaper – actually beginning to hope that he didn’t show up at all! Then he did –with a roar and a screeching of tyres, his car wheels bounced off the kerbside and he jumped out of his car, cursing and swearing and bowling over tables and chairs as he moved menacingly towards the café and other customers. I was disturbed and knew that I needed to act quickly – and that didn’t include the option of running away! Angie’s story flew fleetingly past and I stood up, felt my feet firm on the ground, acknowledged the presence of the divine in me and in my friend, and began to move directly towards him, cutting off his path to others who were by this time beginning to prepare for engagement. I placed myself between him and the others in the café, including the owner who had come out to see what all the racket was about, so that my friend couldn’t get past me, nor could they, without pushing me aside – and I wasn’t easily pushed. I held my arms outstretched to make it harder for him to get round me, and with strong intent, continued to move moved closer to him, forcing him to move backwards, away from the gathered crowd. By this time, the café owner had recognised both of us as we had been there a couple of times before and he calmed the customers down while I continued to force the direction of travel – away from the incident. I calmly and firmly said: (What time is it?) “Wow – you’ve really lost your cool. I’ve never seen you this angry before. What’s happened?” A few more torrents of abuse and deletable expletives later, he finally managed to tell me about how he had just been refused his CentreLink payment by a very young-looking officer because he had filled out the form incorrectly. So we walked and talked for about an hour, him going deeper into his story about childhood abuse, bullying stepfather, alcoholic mother, absentee siblings – and his only learned strategy for dealing with anger was to hit and be hit, inflicting and feeling the force of physical pain was his connection to normality…and I breathed long and gratefully for the privilege of being alongside a man who was delving deeply into his soul…an immersion in the holy.

(By the way, Angie O’Gorman will be in Australia: Brisbane, Ballina, Adelaide, Melbourne, in July-August this year as a guest of Pace e Bene – to continue to inspire us on our journeys towards nonviolence. See our website for details.)

7 Spirituality of Nonviolence

A spirituality of nonviolence, as distinct from the use of nonviolent strategies or skills for pragmatic purposes, includes and embraces the capacity for violence in us. This oft-feared dimension of well-raised good Christian folks, for whom violation of self or another is a cultural taboo, is either actualised on the outside or the inside. If I develop a pattern of suppressing my urges to strike out at my enemies on the outside world, due to fear of social, religious or physical repercussions, then unless I have a way of acknowledging and channelling the energies into some other outlet, I can risk violating myself, or as is often the case, taking it out on some poor unsuspecting, innocent victim – often someone in my own family.

I have experienced the holiness in my own life when I have courageously confronted my own desire to lash out and dehumanise, diminish or destroy part of myself or another – and struggled – often with accompanying physical and emotional tensions – to divert from the deeply embedded patterns of fight or flight within me. And might I add that violence comes in many forms – not just the physical violence that is easy to see! There are other more subtle and insidious forms at work on a daily basis – verbal, psychological, emotional, economic, spiritual violations take place in everyday relationships – and some of these are much harder to recover from than physical violence.

I have been fortunate to be able to review my life from a healing and reframing perspective that has enabled me to recognise that what I might have considered to be violations of me have in fact been blessings. Being forced to think seriously about leaving Ireland helped me in my individuation process, being forced out a career-path job helped me to rely on my own resources and spend time with my young family, being enticed into relationship with sex-offenders helped me to begin my own journey inwards….all blessings in my life. As Richard Rohr says, ‘God shows up disguised as your life!’ In another time or culture, I might have described these moments of grace as visitations by ‘angels of the Lord’!

As the late John O’Donohue wrote in Anam Cara, ‘often the deeper meaning of a fact emerges when it is read in a spiritual way’. (p113). This wisdom of hindsight, otherwise known as ‘retrospective retrojection’ (Borg and Crossan), is a great gift indeed.

Holiness is about a journey towards wholeness. Jesus pointed me in this direction when he tagged on the key words to the end of a significant piece of scripture for me. In Matthew 5:48, he calls his friends to be “perfect – just as God is perfect’ – and it is only in my latter years that the true meaning of the original Greek word, teleos, was revealed to me – the notion of being complete or whole just as God is whole. My journey to wholeness is about aligning my life to my purpose for being on the planet at this time in history. That wholeness will include all of me, including my imperfections, including my tendencies towards violence.

The Navajo people who make the most beautiful blankets, each one containing a miniscule deliberate fault, have this wonderful, embodied way of reminding themselves that: perfection is the inclusion of imperfection, not its exclusion.

I’d like to add a couple more stories of how I’ve connected with the holy through nonviolence – these are about how the stories of others have become part of my story by the way they have impacted on my life, my beliefs and my behaviours…the stories of people known to me who continue to inspire and energise my commitments…

Just about this time last year I was working in the Solomon Islands providing training programs in the spirituality and practice of active nonviolence, and I discovered in that experience a little more about the universal presence of the myth of redemptive violence, scapegoating, tribal belonging. In the midst of this new cultural context, I felt connected to ancient themes – the perpetrators of violence, projecting their hurt and pain out onto someone, anyone, else. Alongside the bystanders and observers, there emerged the courageous and bold who not only believe another way is possible, they seek to make it happen.

A mid-life priest in his early forties, let me refer to him as Matthew, told the group his story during one of our sessions, He had been sent out to an outlying parish in the highlands, and was intent on being a peacemaker, encouraging people to stop fighting, lay down their weapons and talk to each other. Some of the local warlords and tribal elders saw him as a disturber of their peace – interfering with their power and vested interests. He continued to talk and walk the way of Jesus, about blessed are the peacemakers and love of enemy. Late one evening on a trip out of the village to a distant village about 6 hours drive away, he was stopped at a roadblock and a group of armed, masked men forced him out of his vehicle. One of them held a gun to his head and said he was going to kill him, this meddling priest who was becoming a real nuisance, limiting recruitment to their gangs and interfering with the local ways of doing business. Matthew felt his own physiological fear, his body was trembling – and he could also smell the fear in the man holding the gun, whom he fleetingly thought he recognised. Then he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence within him, gathered his courage and said to the man: ’I can see you are very troubled by what you are going to do. So, if you are going to shoot me, then do it quickly now for both our sakes’. The man began to tremble uncontrollably, dropped the gun and ran off into the bush…

Matthew started talking with the other men and gradually disarmed them with his calm, strong assurance. They asked him for a lift into the village – and he agreed. Some weeks later, the man who held the gun to his head came to confession and sought his forgiveness.

It was not just Matthew’s story that moved me in a moment of holiness; it was his way of telling it and the way in which it deeply touched the others in the group, some of whom were in tears as he brought the tensions of those moments of near-death into the room. Not only were we hearing about his sacred story, we were feeling the presence of the holy all around us in his telling of it. This led to other stories coming out of the group – many for the first time, as this community engaged in the process of healing and recovery from years of vicious violence directed at each other.

Alongside these stories of personal nonviolent responses to violence, there are many more I would love to tell here today – give an Irishman an audience, a microphone and a pint of Guinness (oops) and its hard to stop him – stories about whole communities and tribes collectively reflecting the presence of the holy in their collaborative actions….stories like the students in Tiananmen Square, the Tibetan Buddhist monks, the peasant forest-dwelling people of Novozybkov in the shadow of Chernobyl, the people of Serbia and their nonviolence movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic, Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji community at Wave Hill, the Pine Gap Four or the Samuel Hill five protesting against the presence of US war games and satellite installations in Australia…countless stories of the holy at work in the spirituality of nonviolence that refuses to destroy, diminish or dehumanise self or others…while courageously standing up for their truth. Such stories many of you know and can access them easily on your websites…

Finally though, one last story that I need to tell and honour here today … the story that has continued to inspire, challenge and confront me with my own limitations to this nonviolence ‘stuff’… his name was Michael – a student with me at my Irish Catholic boarding school – an ordinary young boy, bright, wide smile, sparkling eyes, game for a laugh, quiet and unassuming, active in sports, a background social-dweller, with occasional front-of-house appearances. I never saw him after leaving school, he was a couple of years younger than me, and we went to different universities. I heard about his death though. He was standing at a bus-stop in Belfast going up to Uni to sit an exam when he was picked up and bundled into a car by three men, taken to a hide-away in the mountains outside the city, tortured horrifically for three days and when he wouldn’t give any information – because he didn’t know anything, it was a case of mistaken identity – the men told him they couldn’t let him live and were going to kill him. We heard all these details years later when one of the men confessed to his murder. Michael managed to ask if he could have some time to say his prayers to which they replied it wouldn’t do any good as they were going to kill him for sure – but go ahead, pray away for yourself if you like.

Michael replied: ‘No, you don’t understand, I don’t want to pray for me, I want to pray for you’!

My work to grow and expand the spirituality of active nonviolence into mainstream culture is dedicated to the memory of Michael, a young man who reflects to me the presence of the ‘holy of holies’ in his nonviolence.

“For all of us, the only beliefs to which our deepest heart and soul can consent are those which our personal experience endorses. Sacred spaces are opportunities to meet that experience and allow it to take us beyond itself”

Margaret Silf, Sacred Spaces, p14

Angie O’Gorman, The Universe Bends Towards Justice, 1990
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, 1997
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week – A Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem, 2006
Margaret Self, Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way, 2001
Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 2005
Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 1998