Pervasive and powerful: Nonviolence

Anyone who works for social change can tell you, it’s not an easy road. Like all grand-scale, emotionally and morally charged issues, environmental activism can be frustrating. Playing the blame game has been a primary tactic for many, including myself, in the environmental movement.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” may be true, but it may not be the best way to gain new converts. Of the many things I learned from the women I interviewed for the Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project, the all-encompassing approach to nonviolence has easily had the most lasting and dramatic impacts on my life and activism.

I began the Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project as a project to document the environmental activities of Catholic sisters in Kansas but in the end, I was radically changed by the experience. I went to the first interviews with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Concordia, Kan., with a preconceived notion of who the sisters were and a pretty solid understanding of who I was. Now, three years later, I still find seeds of wisdom in my memories of those interviews. The organizational style, systems for social change, understanding of the Gospel call, and the profound reflections on ecology still percolate in my brain and encourage me to continue working for the Earth. Many ideas challenged me and helped me on my way. However, the most surprising of all was the ethic of nonviolence. I had considered myself a nonviolent person but quickly realized that I was barely skimming the surface. Little did I know how pervasive and how powerful nonviolence could be.

While the theme of the Green Sisters interviews was environmentalism, on many occasions, an interview would veer off into discussions of nonviolence and – initially – I tried to redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand. This was an oral history about environmental activism, after all, not nonviolence. Like any thick-skulled, know-it-all student, it took me a while to realize that the two concepts were intricately connected.

During those early interviews, I tried to coax out the dark side of the story – “Are all sisters supportive of environmental initiatives? Do you get frustrated by people’s lack of enthusiasm?” In truth, I probably wanted some gossip. In retrospect, it took me forever to make the connection between nonviolence and the responses I got to these types of questions. The community-wide focus on nonviolence encompasses anything that denigrates the dignity of others. Gossip about other sisters simply did not happen in my presence.

One of the sisters related a story in response to my queries about frustration. She had met a priest from another country who cooked her dinner. In the meal preparation, she noticed that he used all of the red pepper – seeds and all. Ever-mindful of waste, she took to this same method of preparation, incorporating the whole pepper into dishes. She prepared a soup for the community using the whole pepper. One of her fellow sisters got very upset that she used all those parts that should have been thrown out. Instead of arguing her point, the cook continued to use the whole pepper in meal preparations but did not make the offending soup again. Herein lies a win-win situation for non-violence and environmental activism. The sister-cook was able to embrace a waste-reducing food preparation technique in a way that avoided direct confrontation. This story exemplifies the non-violent approach heard over and over in interviews. Embracing nonviolence can direct actions in such a way that respects the dignity of others while still achieving the overall goal.

Instead of direct confrontation, even within their community, sisters chose to stand as a witness to the right behavior. If some thought recycling was too much effort, others would handle it all. In many ways, they would take on additional tasks to make up for the lack of interest or commitment in others. The sisters acknowledge that the lack of commitment to sustainability issues can be frustrating but acceptance and support are ways to address it. As Sr. Bernadine Pachta related, “Not all people are at the same place. I think it’s grace. I think it’s something that God showed me somewhere along the line that this is our Earth.”

Embracing nonviolence goes far beyond side-stepping direct confrontations. It spills over into all interactions, all behaviors, and even language. In many situations, nonviolent communication can change negative dynamics into productive, mutually beneficial relationships.

Everyday language is riddled with violent imagery. I proudly showed off an article written about me and my project by my university. It was entitled, “Fighting the Good Fight.” I grimace to think of how many times I said something like, “That really struck me,” or times when I pressed an interviewee to talk about frustrations with those who were less environmentally aware. The most moving example of adopting the language of nonviolence was Sr. Jeanette Wasinger. When diagnosed with cancer, Sr. Jeanette declined to adopt the violent language of cancer: fighting cancer, killing cancer, etc. She had no intention of “fighting the battle” but rather chose to see her cancer as her “sacred guest” that would help her transition past this life into what lies beyond. She is one of the most peaceful souls I have ever met.

Taking it a step further than I was comfortable with at the time, several sisters explained to me that competition is a form of violence. Sure, there is a winner, and the winner is the best at what she does, but in any competition there is a loser. In most competitive situations the losers far outnumber the winners. Like many seeds that were planted during my time with the Sisters of St. Joseph, this one grew into a clear realization as I paid attention to the language used in sporting. The thing that crystallized it all for me was an image that was passed around social media after “our team beat their team.” After a high stakes game, one of the players was photographed sitting on the bench weeping. This exceptional athlete was devastated by the loss after doing his best and ultimately falling short. The caption read something like, “Keep crying, loser.” People loved it. How can we reconcile that sort of directed disrespect with Jesus’ call to love one another? Let’s just say that was a game changer for me.

After many years on the environmental scene, I was more than comfortable pointing fingers, bad vibing people who weren’t “doing enough” or who just didn’t “get it.” It is so easy to become self-righteous when you feel you are working for a good cause and even easier to be angry and nasty when you feel like others are hindering progress. Yet, is it effective activism to discount huge swaths of the population because they don’t see the problems as clearly as you do? Or, is it more effective to continue working alongside those folks, using positive reinforcement, and gradually bringing them along?

If the sisters taught me anything, it is that change takes time and we are all in this together. While it isn’t always easy to turn the other cheek and pick up the slack, nonviolent activism respects the dignity of all while working steadily towards the ultimate goal. As Sr. Janet Lander assured me:

“Part of living in community is seeing difference not as a problem, but as a richness. Each person doing her best in her own way is fine.” She later reflected, “the best counter to apathy is to – by your own example – spark a new flame. So, rather than grumble, it’s much more productive to just redouble your efforts.”

Amen, Sister.

[Rachel Myslivy, MA, conducted the Green Sisters in Kansas Oral History Project documenting the environmental activism of Catholic sisters in Kansas. She is involved in a number of Catholic and environmental organizations and runs a family farm.]

Editor's note - The sisters in Concordia shared with Rachel when Sr. Jeannette was in the final stages of dying, so she could keep her in her prayers. Rachel wanted to honor her by sharing these audio files of a talk Sr. Jeannette gave in 2011, called "The challenge of living and dying with zest and zeal." Sr. Jeannette passed away October 22.