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Confessions of Another Guilty Bystander

Written at the time of the Greenham Common Women’s protest against nuclear missiles, Tom argues that part of being a follower of Christ I to engage in a non-violent struggle for a just world. Based on the Matthew chapter 5, each Beatitude is examined, not as ‘cop-out words inviting us to struggle with our own private virtues’ but as a call, an unmasking of the lies that control people’s lives and a warning against any falsehoods in non-violent action.


Reflections of

another guilty bystander

The Beatitudes and Non-violence

Thomas Cullinan

To be poor in spirit, to know our need…

To be meek, to be merciful…

To mourn…

To hunger and thirst for what is right…

To be pure in heart…

To be peacemakers…

To be persecuted in the cause of right…


– to a sister at Greenham

Dear Sister,

I send you these reflections on non-violence out of gratitude. I hope we can encourage each other. Your presence at Greenham is not merely to do with Cruise missiles, but is one with struggles in many countries to confront brutality and its language with life giving alternatives. I fear that the self-important and the over-serious will never hear your song. But please keep singing.

And you will, I am sure, forgive me if these reflections are from a faith we do not share. I can only write from where I am.

I sat in our chapel; the picture of that beautiful cylinder lying peacefully on its transporter lingered in my mind. The end product of such concentrated technology, of such gifted and imaginative minds, of so many people with so many God–given skills.

I wander, for all things connect. I see, and shudder at, a grandmother in a Salvadorean camp, whose teenage grandchild was skinned alive by soldiers; I am with those in prison in the Philippines for defending people dispossessed of work and now merely a charge on society.

All things connect? Well yes, because there is a violence, a common violence, not only in our economic policies and pursuits, but – and I believe more grievously – in the way we think of ourselves.

The missiles are claimed to protect freedom. But they can only protect ‘our’ freedom, and even that is a plausible conceit to retain our power, our interests, and our self-image intact. These interests, which cannot but be at the expense of other people’s lives, are made legitimate by our western ideology of the individual, and baptised by Christian moralism. Our western ideology has managed to re-create God in its own image, and will be virtuous in killing in his name.

The God of that ideology would crucify the Jesus of the gospels.

Jesus grew up to a God who had been revealed in the history of his people. An historical God and therefore a political God.

That history, and politics, had been sustained and challenged, by the great promise of a kingdom of justice, the Sabbath shalom where each would have a place to be and the community be freed of violence and domination.

Such utopian dreams are usually popular with everyone as long as they are kept in the realm of ideas. They form a sort of opiate to enable people to cope pragmatically, with the harsh realities of the present.

But woe betide the prophet who says they are for real, they are for today. And Jesus did just that. His kingdom was both present and future. The task of the present was to cash out in real daily economic and political terms the demands of the future hope, in order that God could realise that future in the present.

I think the reason why Jesus’ own family thought he had gone mad was precisely because he took that future promise out of the realm of ideas and into the realm of present daily life.

This is the basis of non-violent living and non-violent resistance. The mad conviction that the future can only grow out of the present by being anticipated in it, however partial and ambiguous that may be! In divine and human affairs we only enable what we live. Paths are made by those who walk them.

And the Christian basis for non-violence is that, although the kingdom is for real in history, our history – and engages us fully – yet its realisation is always experienced as a gift, with amazement. It superabounds, like dough rising from yeast. Non-violence lives not by planning and controlling, not by expectation, but by hope.


When I was young I used to hear words like ‘meek’, ‘humble’, ‘poor in spirit’, ‘obedient’, in a pious and over-spiritual way. They are cop out words, inviting us to struggle with our private virtues (and leave the world to God).

It is memories of that passive spirituality that makes it difficult for Christians, (or ex-Christians) to find any nourishment in scripture or worship once they have come of age politically. Marx’s words resonate: “The social principles of Christianity encourage dullness, lack of respect, submissiveness and self-abasement.”

Surprise, surprise then to discover that the beatitudes – in their original setting – were not a programme for repressed living in domestic concord but a defiant manifesto for non-violent living and protest in an age, any age, which only understands violence in its polite or crude guises.


Each beatitude, it seems to me, contains a) a call, b) an unmasking of some of the lies that control people’s lives and c) a warning against falsity in non-violent action. Let’s look at them.

1. To be poor in spirit, to know our need

a) A call to abandon the stupid self-image we have of being self-sufficient. A call to the ‘wonder of empty hands’, of knowing our need of God and of people. To receive life as gift and all things as bonus.

b) Living by such freedom of spirit unmasks the lies about only changing our world from positions of power and wealth. It subverts and challenges those who ‘play God’.

c) Jesus warned the poor of his day that they were ‘blessed’ only if their hearts were free of longing to be rich. Likewise the freedom of knowing our need and dependence is creative only if we are not secretly longing to control and manipulate others.

2. To be meek, to be merciful

a) To know our common earthiness, our common humanity, and that every person is our kith and kin. To know ourselves to be under the same mercy of God as our enemies. ‘Love your enemy’. An absolute refusal to compound violence by destroying others once they are somehow in our power

b) We are beset by hard-headed ideologies. And each must have its enemy. It must divide the world into goodies vs baddies, persons vs non-persons. Propaganda, easy language, anecdotes, jokes – all can build up this scenario of the world. In the end people are killed, not perhaps because they are non-persons, but in order to prove that they were.

c) It is quite possible for those engaged in non-violence to fall into the same trap, (we do so long to clean up and simplify the ambiguities!) to write “them” off as beyond hope.

3. To mourn

a) The word used is a strong one, calling for a real capacity for compassion, for grief, with those suffering, a laying bare of where people are harassed or oppressed. It calls for readiness to be ‘counted among the accursed’, to accept their shame.

b) One of the pervasive myths of societies which idolise merit and achievement is to believe that no one is afflicted without it being in some way their fault. A true compassion, not for but with people, unmasks this terrible lie.

c) If non-violence becomes too much of a self-conscious game, it can lose the capacity for compassion and grief.

4. To hunger and thirst for what is right

a) The constant heartache to see justice and love and truth prevail. The readiness to stand up and be counted, forgetful of self. It is a hunger to see the kingdom realised today, in this political and historical reality. And also a call to the long haul needed to remain faithful and start all over again any number of times.

b) Because the hunger is for what is right in an objective way it challenges those easy, noble phrases I mentioned before about defending democratic freedoms and human rights, when they are really our freedoms, our rights, our privileges, our property.

c) Non-violent struggle is not a clever technique for any end we happen to be interested in – a sort of soft-sell which is thought more efficient than hard-sell. It is a struggle for truth and love, which are neither of our ordaining nor choosing. It is for ‘what is right’. Nor, indeed, does non-violence aim at winning, as such. It is precisely not about winning and losing. “We shall overcome” is not a song of non-violence.

5. To be pure in heart

a) Our hearts are scattered. Most of what we endeavour we do with four or five motivations at once. We may hate ourselves for the meanest of these but rejoice in the most generous of them. And it is precisely in our struggle, in engaging and reflecting, that God will purify us to single-mindedness. It becomes a self-forgetting joy in truth as such, wherever or whoever it comes from – even our adversary.

b) There is, especially in political leaders, a single-mindedness which is more a desire to be right than a concern for truth. This brutal single-mindedness is unmasked by the simple candour of those who are not worried by being right or wrong, nor ashamed of changing their minds, but are urgent to perceive and live what is true.

c) Non-violence must lead to a loss of self-concern. It is not about doing one’s own thing or about being true to oneself. And although every political situation is full of ambiguity, at the time, we have the ability to perceive sufficient truth in it to give ourselves, without carte, to that truth. And that truth sets us free.

6. To be peacemakers

a) We are called not to preserve peace but to make it, to be instruments of peace not merely its patrons (we have plenty of those). Non-violent peacemaking, like that of the prophets is a challenge to the imagination both of the weak and the powerful, that life can be other. Lateral thinking, creative imagination that the weak are not under a hopeless curse, and that the security of the powerful is in fact a myth. Non-violence extends what is possible in the art of the possible.

b) Everyone talks of peace. Law and order peace. Absence of war peace. Merely quiescent peace. But real peace-makers unmask such false peace. ‘Peace, peace, there is no peace’. We have not disturbed the peace, only revealed that it does not exist. Jesus was killed as a disturber of the peace, in part at least because he refused to look on the external enemy, the Romans, as the problem and insisted that the internal injustice within their society was their true enemy.

c) Non-violence must take seriously the existence of evil and make peace within that reality. It is not a romantic set of ideas, it does not argue a naïve pacifism: if only everyone ate brown rice and didn’t carry guns, then we would have peace. It is right to live the dream, but that does not excuse us from taking the presence of evil and of demonic powers seriously, in the here and now.

7. To be persecuted in the cause of right

a) An open readiness to suffer evil oneself, to accept misunderstanding, abuse, violence, death itself. Vulnerability is the final assurance that we are in touch with truth and reality and love, not self-interest. ‘If you are struck on one cheek, turn the other’ is not a call to ignore violence, but a defiant: “Now that you have had your way, what now?”

b) Accepting violence in oneself unmasks the self-interest of those who will do anything to avoid suffering themselves; it shows up the ultimate impotence of violence to generate life. Having confronted the authorities of his day, Jesus submitted to the logic of their abused power. St Paul comments that by so doing he unmasked the false dominion of these Sovereignties and Powers in public.

c) Non-violent openness to suffering is not stoic toughness, it is not ‘being a hero’. It makes no sense except as an act of love, and a statement of what is true. (Robert Bolt’s play on Thomas More quite misrepresents More on this matter. If ever there was not a hero to ‘self’. More was it!)


Jesus himself was the archetype of the beatitudes. His death took its meaning from his whole journey through non-violent alternatives to non-violent confrontation. But we only understand the cross if we understand something of his intimacy with his Father. His prayer and his poverty and his peace were all one, so that his death was not a technique for winning but a final and total act of hope that in spite of all evidence, God could bring new creative alternatives out of seeming disaster.

And it came to pass…


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