A New Theology of Peace and Nonviolence

By: Rick Wayman

August 5, 2020

Keeping Faith in Nuclear Disarmament

I clearly recall the moment I began my journey toward leading an organization working nationally and internationally for peace. As a senior studying international business at Marquette University, I was required to take one more theology course in order to graduate. I landed in a course called “The Theology of Nonviolence,” which examined the theological roots of many nonviolent movements throughout the twentieth century.

I was inspired by these movements’ leaders and their millions of dedicated participants, who all give credibility to Mairead Maguire’s imperative that “we can develop a new theology of peace and nonviolence and articulate a clear unambiguous rejection of violence.”

It was an honor to participate with Maguire, and hundreds of other practitioners of peace and nonviolence, in the Vatican’s conference on “Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament” in November 2017. 

The concept of integral disarmament, as Cardinal Turkson explains in his foreword to A World Free from Nuclear Weapons: The Vatican Conference on Disarmament (Georgetown University Press, 2020), recognizes that it is not enough for states to disarm their weapons. In addition, integral disarmament “calls on every person to disarm his or her own heart and to be a peacemaker everywhere.” This imperative to take deep moral responsibility for one’s own actions was at the heart of Pope Francis’ bold proclamation at this conference that “the threat of [nuclear weapons’] use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”

Maguire opened her speech to the Vatican conference with a strong admonition of the just war theory as “a phony piece of morality. ...Religion cannot be used to justify war or armed struggle.”

Similarly, Pope Francis’ condemnation of the possession or use of nuclear weapons made it clear that those who are willing to commit unspeakable violence with nuclear weapons no longer have the moral cover of the Catholic Church under any circumstances.

Mairead Maguire’s personal experience with tragic violence in Northern Ireland is what compelled her to “be a peacemaker everywhere” for the past 44 years. She deeply understands the connections between interpersonal violence; violent civil conflict; and the indiscriminate, boundless violence of nuclear weapons.

The root causes of the civil conflict in Northern Ireland include mistrust, rage, cynicism, and ruthlessness. Our peace literacy research at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation shows these psychological roots to be related to what we call the “tangles of trauma” that constrain our universal human needs such as self-worth, belonging, and purpose. If we do not help people find healthy ways to meet these needs, if we don’t help them heal their trauma, if we don’t help them increase their peace literacy, then violence is a predictable outcome. 

Maguire and thousands of other peacemakers in 1976 recognized this when they demanded “all-inclusive, unconditional talks—including with those using violence—insisting that we must talk to our perceived enemies, be reconciled together, and find solutions.” She recognizes that the task of meaningfully transforming the conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as conflicts globally, requires individuals to “deepen our virtues of compassion, empathy, and love, so necessary to change our society.” 

We see the same root causes of mistrust, rage, cynicism, and ruthlessness in the decision to use nuclear weapons against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the multi-faceted catastrophe of nuclear weapons development, testing, and financing over the past 75 years.

In order to successfully and sustainably achieve peace after a violent conflict—and to abolish nuclear weapons and ensure that they stay abolished—we must understand and confront the root causes that have led to the problem and continue to prop it up. 

Education in peace literacy, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s new approach to solving the most dangerous technological, social, and psychological issues of our time—including nuclear weapons—gives people the tools they need to identify and confront the root causes of problems, and to strengthen what we call the muscles of our humanity. These muscles include the compassion and empathy that Maguire calls for, along with conscience, appreciation, reason, discipline, imagination, curiosity, and realistic hope.

Just as Maguire’s roadmap for achieving sustainable peace in Northern Ireland requires compassion, empathy, and love, the muscles of our humanity are also key to addressing the root causes of nuclear weapons that have led the political leaders of nuclear-armed states and their many enablers to continue to threaten humanity’s very future. We cannot continue to address the problem of nuclear weapons through policy alone. We cannot legislate our way out of the nuclear age. We must also work to build a peace literate world.

Compassion, empathy, and the other muscles of our humanity are not the fanciful stuff of unicorns and rainbows. Through peace literacy, we have shown that these are real, concrete capacities that can be developed with intentionality and practice through systemic education, just like how we approach literacy in reading and writing. In the absence of their development, we cannot be surprised that violence, militarism, and nuclear weapons are still with us.

I am deeply grateful to Mairead Maguire for her decades of leadership for peace and nonviolence. Her influence on the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Advisory Council has helped to give us the courage to develop peace literacy as a proactive, tangible approach to achieving peace on the personal, interpersonal, community, national, and global levels.

We need leaders like Mairead Maguire and Pope Francis to inspire us and help guide us. But, ultimately, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us as individuals to take responsibility for our own actions and to do the hard work of building our own literacy in peace, as we work together to create a more peaceful and just world.

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