In Economics we talk about maximizing “utility” subject to a given constraint. For example, a shopper wants to choose the best combination of groceries that can be purchased given their present budget. I thought of this recently, as I recalled a class I fell into in my last days of college. Realizing that tuition had been paid that allowed me to take up to eighteen credits my last semester, and also assuming that I would never again have access to courses in Theology or Philosophy, I decided to take as many of those classes as I could before graduating. Doing so landed me in a class the class called “The Nonviolent Revolution of Peace”. It was years before I learned that the teacher, Father Richard McSorley S.J., had once been a confidant to the Kennedys and had been instrumental in founding the organization Pax Christi. The central idea of the course, that there are nonviolent ways to confront evil, comes to mind as we celebrate the birthday of one of our most famous advocates of nonviolence, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recall the conversation I had with my daughter when she first learned of our country’s shameful history of segregation. After being told that she would not have been allowed to go to a restaurant with anyone of African descent, and thinking about her youngest cousins as well as their father and several other family friends, she asked “but then who could I go out to dinner with; just Grandma and Grandpa?” It would have been a much duller world had Dr. King not made it easier for her to foster those relationships that she holds so dear.
I also think of nonviolence when I recall the American Labor Movement. My father tells a story of going to one of the hat factories in my home town in search of a summer job, only to see people standing in hip-high water as they worked on assembly lines to produce the hats that every self-respecting man of the time wore. My father was lucky enough to be able to leave and take a job at a drug store on Main Street instead. His startling descriptions of the working conditions of the middle of the 20th century help me understand why such workers might have wanted to challenge the conditions they faced.
I recall a couple that I knew in Boston whose consistent “pro-life” perspective led them to adopt a home filled with children, some already teenagers, until it overflowed in a rainbow of love. And I think of an Ursuline Sister who is appalled that the United States probably helped to train the people who murdered her fellow Ursuline Sister, Dorthy Kazel in 1980. She is so outraged at that connection that she allowed herself to be arrested at multiple demonstrations until she eventually served sixty days in a women’s prison.
But it is the violence that slashed through my home state before Christmas that most haunts me this year, and reminds me how much the world needs the ideas of Dr. King. As my home state searched for enough tiny coffins to burry twenty little children, people who grew up not far from where I did became appalled at the violence that seemed to beget more violence. Some recognized that there were non-violent measures that could be taken to address the culture that led to the carnage of mid December. They began a boycott of a large retail firm that is known to sell the type of weapon that was used in the slaughter. I am impressed with the decision to choose nonviolence in the face of such horror, and this makes me hopeful in the face of darkness. I am even happier to learn that this movement started in my home town of Danbury, Connecticut, just miles from the Newtown shootings. It leaves me hopeful that, in the end, the powers of anger, fear and hate will prove to be defeated by the power of love.