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Maria Stephan: The power of active nonviolence

Maria Stephan

Dr. Maria Stephan delivered a speech in October in which she named key factors proven to make nonviolent resistance twice as successful as armed insurgencies and the important role the Church and civil society plays. The following article was written by Kevin Carroll, MOGC peace fellow, and published in the January-February 2018 issue of NewsNotes.

At the University of San Diego in October, the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture hosted a conference entitled, “The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace Just War In Dialogue.” The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Maria J. Stephan, director of the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Stephan focused her speech, “The Nonviolent Option: The Power of Active Nonviolence,” on the “power and potential of nonviolent options to prevent, mitigate, and transform violent conflict and advance sustainable peace.” 

Stephan described in detail her work with Dr. Erica Chenoweth researching the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. They collected data from all known major violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006 resulting in their book, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” They found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies, achieving their goals 53 percent of the time compared to 26 percent for violent campaigns. Stephan said, “We found that the most important variable determining the outcome was the size and diversity of participation. Nonviolent campaigns attract on average 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign…(drawing) women and men, youth and elderly, able-bodied and disabled, rich and poor.” 

They also found that nonviolent campaigns contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies, concluding that “the skills associated with nonviolent organizing, negotiating differences, building coalitions, and collective action reinforce democratic norms and behaviors.” 

Stephan went on to cite the Catholic Church’s involvement in some of the most significant nonviolent struggles in history: Filipino religious and laity in the 1986 “people power” revolution, Pope John Paul II and local priests and nuns in the worker-led Polish Solidarity movement, Archbishop Oscar Romero martyred for his solidarity with campesinos and other victims of junta brutality in his native El Salvador, and the Nuns on the Bus anti-poverty campaign in the United States. 

She also cited examples from recent history of successful nonviolent civil resistance amid violence and named unarmed civilian protection (the use of unarmed civilians as ‘peacekeepers’) as a way to deter violence and human rights abuses in conflict zones. She highlighted prevention or “supporting inclusive and participatory economic and political processes...fostering dialogue and trust between communities and police...using diplomatic, military, and trade levers to challenge crackdowns on civic space and human rights violations” as an area where the United States military could make a significant contribution. 

“Military advocacy on Capitol Hill and in the private sector for massively increased investment in violence prevention and peacebuilding is a concrete way to advance just peace around the world.” She continued, “Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding.” She cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on the power of nonviolent direct action to shift power imbalances, to lift up the oppressed and bring the oppressor to the table.

Stephan also pointed to the essential importance of the involvement of civil society, e.g., religious groups, women’s groups, and human rights organizations, in creating a sustainable and just peace. “A core tenet of just peacemaking is addressing and overcoming legacies of gross human rights violations and other historical injustices. Faith groups have historically contributed in significant ways to transitional justice and reconciliation.” 

Among the nonviolent techniques Stephan suggested are: civil resistance, dialogue, mediation, negotiation, unarmed civilian protection, trauma healing, and transitional justice. The Church can “build strategic and tactical bridges between the techniques of grassroots nonviolent action and peacebuilding and invest in them,” Stephan said, through education and training, diplomacy and policy-making, interreligious efforts, and work with conflict-affected communities. 

She called on the military to advocate for greater investment in nonviolent alternatives and peacebuilding, and cited Lithuania with its civilian-based defense program, as an example. “Building up the nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding skills and capacities of citizens, in schools and communities, is a great investment in national and international security.”

Stephan urged, “A papal encyclical on nonviolent action and just peace, building on Pope Francis’ Peace Day address, would help focus the Catholic Church’s energy and resources on all these options.”

Faith in action: Watch videos and read presentations from the conference "The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace Just War In Dialogue" held at the University of San Diego, Oct. 6-7. Visit the link to see videos of Cardinal Peter Turkson and Maria J Stephan; read the presentations from Marie Adele Dennis, Ken Butigan, Gerald Schlabach, Terry Rynne, and Eli Sasaran McCarthy.

Photo: Dr. Maria Stephan courtesy of the U.S. Institute of Peace.