• For a Nonviolent Style of Thinking

  • By Piero Coda | 19 Apr 18 | Posted under: Christian-Marxist Dialogue
  • In the brief reflections offered here I am prompted by a provocative idea of the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas and by an approach enunciated by Pope Francis.

    1. Lévinas writes in Otherwise Than Being,

    The true problem for us Westerners is not so much to refuse violence as to question ourselves about a struggle against violence, which without blanching in non-resistance to evil could avoid the institution of violence out of this very struggle (Otherwise Than Being, p. 177).

    Lévinas, frontally facing the depths of violence into which twentieth-century Europe fell, laid bare the structural (to be precise, metaphysical) connection between a certain form of thinking and violence.

    Indeed, thinking is never neutral and does not function independently of the liberty of the person doing the thinking in recognition or non-recognition of the dignity of the other qua other. And, Lévinas stresses that, even when thought wants to defuse the violence that destroys relations as a place in which liberty flourishes, the subtle danger – which is no less destructive for being insidious – is to want to vanquish violence with violence, that is, through a war against violence and through coercion or even by eliminating the alterity of the one practicing the violence.

    The history of religions as well as political thought has had ample experience with the consequences of succumbing to this tragic drift. To exorcise the temptation to violence, even when it is devious and vestigial, the exercise of thinking needs to be brought back to its roots and educated with extreme attention and constant vigilance.

    It is a fact that the dominant mode of thought today, whose form is

    Western, has characteristics that (even when its points of departure are quite positive) have become unilateral and violate, even destroy, the free and creative flourishing of the individual and society, beginning with the weakest and most rejected, in their diverse human, cultural, social, and ecological expressions.

    I will briefly list what I think are the most important of these characteristics:

    • individualism: thought exercised with a view to wielding absolute individual ownership in which otherness is not considered, let alone seen as constituting identity;
    • possessiveness: thought exercised as a capturing of the thing that it contemplates, which is thus reduced to a mere object to be dominated;
    • instrumentalisation: thought carried out as a tool for pursuing what is individually useful for oneself, with tragic consequences on the level of economic and political practice and in the exploitation of Creation;
    • ideologism: thought exercised as the dictating of law to reality, which is imposed on it and bends it to the (explicit or concealed) aims of the person exercising it;
    • male chauvinism: thought exercised in the form assumed in fact in the context of a society dominated by a certain masculine model and, in any case, disregarding the experience of the relationship of symmetrical-asymmetrical reciprocity between the masculine and the feminine;
    • uniformism: thinking that is thought and exercised as something univocal and standardising, aimed not only at reducing all diversity to a lowest common denominator, but at ignoring, as a matter of principle, the value and richness of diversity;
    • immanentism: thinking that is thought and exercised without taking account of, or intentionally disregarding, any reference – not an external and accidental reference but an internal and qualifying one – to the transcendence of the other.

    The need for a ‘new way of thinking’ – as was incipiently defined by Franz Rosenzweig and of which we find an example not only in Lévinas but also in some exponents of the Frankfurt School, in Jacques Derrida, and in others – comprises a radical metanoia of thinking at each of these levels.

    And around this – though, to be sure, with tensions and the obstinate resistance of the political, economic, and technocratic establishment – a significant if small convergence of many voices and many accents is taking place, often with a prophetic flavour. With a crucial advantage: the determination to travel the road of a kind of thinking that defuses the temptation and the practice of violence through a radically nonviolent style of thinking; to be precise, and expressed positively, with a style of thinking inspired by reconciliation and constructing peace.

    2. Now as to the impulse given by Pope Francis:

    His testimony – in words and deeds – is motivated by an inspiration that has at its centre the gospel of Jesus, or, better still, the Gospel that is Jesus, as symbolised by the gibbet of the Cross – as we read in his message for the World Day of Peace: ‘Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace’.1 The context evoked by Francis is that in which the concept of ‘politics’ is understood in its original and most complete sense since it involves ‘cultivat[ing] nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values’.2

    The short and intensely inspired formula of nonviolence, of this challenge to the style of thinking in order to impregnate everything with nonviolence – at the roots, as Lévinas would have it – was given us by Pope Francis in the Regina Coeli of Sunday, 23 April 2017:

    ‘Mercy in the light of Easter enables us to perceive it as a true form of awareness [...] [because it] opens the door of the mind in order to better understand the mystery of God and of our personal existence. Mercy enables us to understand that violence, rancour, vengefulness have no meaning,3 and the first victim is whoever feels these sentiments, because he deprives himself of his own dignity.’4

    I will confine myself to deriving some suggestions from this.

    • First: mercy ‘opens the door of the mind’. That is, it lets it exit from the closed space of the ‘ego’, understood in the individualistic sense, and which tends to the possessive and the ideological, in order to open it up to the freedom of relating to the other. This involves more than opening oneself up to the other because one gives him/her space, one respects him/her, one puts oneself in his/her shoes in order to understand what he/she is experiencing and thinking; in essence one is taking care of him/her. At bottom, what is involved is perceiving oneself and behaving like ‘misericordiati’ (receivers and bearers of mercy), that is, people who live gratuitously through giving (‘perdono’) and through forgiveness (‘di perdono’).

      This is what mercy really is: to recognise the primacy of forgiveness (per- dono) as the event from which life arises and is regenerated.
    • It is thus that thinking – and this is the second suggestion – that looks through the open door of mercy gazes on a new horizon and sees in a new way. Mercy, in other words, is the ingredient – the style – of ‘a true form of awareness’. This is not a matter of a momentary surface ornament of an inexpensive bland, apolitical ‘feel-goodery’ but of the opening up of a horizon of light that illuminates the landscape and lets one see in greater depth the meaning and the justness of things and situations.

      If giving in to the temptation of violence is to deprive oneself of one’s own dignity while depriving another person of her or his, forgiving recognises and rehabilitates the dignity of the other while affirming one’s own. The dignity of a human being is recognised in forgiveness and is exercised through the capacity to forgive.
    • This does not mean ignoring or removing conflicts – and this is the third suggestion – but reading them and managing them not according to the dialectical logic in which one term of the conflict is removed and reabsorbed into the other, which then in the end prevails, but according to the logic of reciprocal recognition in which each of the polarities at play (and in struggle) is in principle conscious of its own perspectivalness and incompleteness, of its own limit and of its own pain, and expressly searches out the true and good part of this in relation to that of the other in a broader and richer horizon. This implies, Pope Francis writes,

      the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process’ (Evangelii gaudium 227). […] Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict. Everything in the world is intimately interconnected’ (Laudato Si, 16, 117, 138). Certainly differences can cause friction. But let us face them constructively and non-violently, so that ‘tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity’ (Evangelii gaudium 228), preserving ‘what is valid and useful on both sides’5 (Evangelii gaudium 228).6

      This matter of the deep ‘logic’ of the thinking that is manifested in (but not exhausted in) how conflicts are managed is a key question because it expresses everything about the style of thinking. Hegel’s intuition, brought back to earth by Marx, so to speak via Feuerbach, has had the merit of trying to express the ‘dialectic’ of identity-alterity as a movement of life and thought. But it ends by reducing the alterity to a negative factor that needs to be removed as such. We need to go to the roots of this intuition, which is the Trinity – in which one part is in front of the other, not to remove the other but rather to meet it again in the new that springs from the, even conflictual, encounter. This is the dialectic of ‘per-dono’, of forgiving/doing in order to give – the Trinitarian dialectic.
    • Finally, I draw a fourth suggestion from Pope John Paul II whom Francis quotes and whose idea he develops in his Message for the World Day of Peace: ‘This peaceful political transition was made possible in part “by the non-violent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth”.’7

    A nonviolent style of thinking is performative, individual, and even creates at once ever new, realistic, and prophetic solutions because it is able to look at the conflict and the problem not only with its own eyes but also, in a sense, through the eyes of the other.


    Certainly – as we were told two years ago by Pierre, a Sophia student from the Congo, who was actively committed to the political struggle and therefore exiled far from his family and homeland – some things can only be seen by ‘eyes that have cried’ – the eyes of the victims of violence and of he or she who has united with them in mercy. Because these eyes already in themselves radiate the light of the new world of peace that expresses justice. These are the eyes of Easter.


    1. Pope Francis, ‘Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace’, 1 January 2017, § 6.
    2. Pope Francis, ‘Message of His Holiness’.
    3. Translator’s note: that is, ‘are senseless’.
    4. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/angelus/2017/documents/papa-francesco_regina-coeli_20170423.html
    5. Translator’s note: Literally, in Italian:‘[preserving] the precious potentials of polarities in conflict’.
    6. Pope Francis, ‘Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace’, 1 January 2017, § 6.
    7. Pope Francis, ‘Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fifti- eth World Day of Peace’, § 4.

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