Rewired for a just society: 2023 conference keynote urges shift to nonviolence

April 5, 2023

In the years following September 2001, Marie Dennis tried to demonstrate in her work with Pax Christi that violence and war were not an appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks. In the process of doing so, she began to realize that while the organization was committed to nonviolence, it needed a better understanding of what nonviolence meant, particularly from those who were already practicing it. “I wanted to listen to others because it was easy for me to say I was nonviolent when I lived in a safe place,” Dennis said. She and her colleagues at Pax Christi International began to contact Pax Christi member organizations around the world to understand how and why they practiced nonviolence. Eventually these efforts would become the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI), a project of Pax Christi International, of which Dennis currently serves as the program chair. 

This spring Dennis gave one of the keynote addresses at the center’s 2023 Catholic Social Tradition ConferenceJustice Sown in Peace. In her address she defined nonviolence as distinct from pacifism. “Nonviolence does not retreat from conflict. It actively engages and transforms conflict for the common good,” she explained. But Dennis notes that many of us have been wired to believe in the dominant understanding of scarcity, violence, competition, and seclusion, so that turning towards a new story of nonviolence requires intentionality. “We must decidedly reject the suggestion to be afraid,” she said. “Too often fear is orchestrated in our society, we need to push back on that fear and see the good in society. There is enough for everyone if we have a more just society.”

This shift can take place at both the individual and institutional levels. For institutions of higher education, Dennis recommends continuing to provide opportunities for students to develop keen skills in social analysis––including the ability to identify root causes of issues and where change can be most effective. Students must also be given more information about nonviolence and nonviolent strategies, and be able to connect those strategies with the results of social, political, and economic analysis. Above all, Catholic institutions have a particularly rich theology for giving students an important context for why we seek a just world for all: human dignity. “Catholic higher education must ground in the dignity of every person. This shows the integrity of every person, even the perpetrator. It is a deep spirituality.”

View Marie Dennis’ talk, Gospel Nonviolence: The Heart of Catholic Teaching on Peace, on the center’s YouTube channel).