Standing up to conflict can yield wondrous results

I look back to the time when, as a young man, I learned how freeing nonviolent action can be.

I was a member of the ordination class of 1966 for the Chicago archdiocese. I was assigned as an associate pastor to St. Luke Parish in River Forest, Ill. I loved being a parish priest. I was not timid in responding to programmatic needs as I perceived them. In collaboration with others, we developed a summertime program for college students, a coffee house for teens, a theology for homemakers program, an area-wide interfaith clergy association, and an adult faith formation program.

I was not timid when it came to facing up to society's problems. For example, I felt obliged to speak out against the Vietnam War — without indicting the young people we had sent to fight. In one Sunday sermon, I described the 3-mile long and 1-mile wide swath of destruction that a B-52 bombing run produced in the farmlands of Vietnam. Members of the parish had sons serving in Vietnam. The pastor got an earful. We argued heatedly about the morality of the war and the church's obligation to speak up.

My life with the parishioners was for the most part, a joy. My day-to-day life in the rectory was, on the other hand, very tense. The pastor and the other associate were fine men whom I respected. But it was the time of the "changes in the church," just after the Second Vatican Council, and we disagreed on many points of teaching and practice. I felt constantly judged and not appreciated. I took it for almost four years.

The book The Non-Violent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace by James Douglass at this time affected me greatly. I was fascinated by his description of Gandhi's nonviolent method. Gandhi thought that if one worked hard within the zone of truth that one possessed, stood up to conflict with a loving heart, and was willing to suffer for that truth, as limited as it might be, then one could accomplish great things.

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I meditated on the book and wondered how it applied to my life. My conflict was not the kind of global problem Gandhi faced. The conflict I had was with my relationships in the rectory. Of those elements that Gandhi described, I felt I was being faithful to the truth as I perceived it, that I had a loving heart for my colleagues, and that I had taken some suffering without complaint. What I was missing was standing up to the conflict.

One evening, I was returning to the rectory with the pastor after a meeting of our adult faith formation committee. He said, "Wasn't that impressive the way the chair of the committee led that meeting?"

I swallowed hard and said, "Do you realize that I spent weeks setting up that committee and hours beforehand working with him to be ready for that meeting?"

He looked thunderstruck and said, "No, I didn't realize that."

I felt I had at long last, mildly to be sure, stood up.

I still cannot believe what happened as a result of my simple response. He began to sing my praises to anyone who would listen. It even got embarrassing. He wrote me a long, beautiful letter of reconciliation. I confessed to him that I had always admired him.

From that moment on, everything was different between us. My simple words of anguish and appeal for appreciation had somehow touched his heart and he saw me afresh. My problem had been timidity and not trusting that my colleagues could handle a personal retort. My problem was that I did not let my soul see that my timidity was causing my own suffering.

In my heart, I thanked Gandhi. Ever since, I have cherished the message and method of nonviolent power. I had experienced personally the wondrous results that can come from simply standing up to conflict. As Gandhi said: "The only thing worse than violence is cowardice in the face of violence." I learned that sometimes you have to be "cruising for a bruising."

The following week a march against the Vietnam War concluded with refreshments in our gym. The pastor strode in and warmly welcomed the gathering.

We were close, intimate friends until the day he died.

Later in life, I went on to help found the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University, and to publish books that explore the power of nonviolence -- expanding on the personal discovery of so long ago. I now have the privilege of teaching peace studies to college students and adults.

After we have reviewed the amazing success stories of nonviolent power, from India to South Africa, from Poland to the Philippines, from Serbia to our own civil rights revolution, people often ask, "Yes, but how do I apply nonviolent power in my own life?" I smile and think of that moment so many years ago, when I worked up a little courage and everything changed.

[Terrence Rynne is the author of Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Non-Violence and Jesus Christ Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace.]

This story appeared in the Jan 2-15, 2015 print issue.

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