Ramón Del Castillo, PhD
Editor’s Note: Dr. Ramón Del Castillo, co-founder of the César Chávez Peace and Justice Committee of Denver, delivered the following remarks at a Mass at St. John’s Chapel, Regis University in honor of César Chávez on April 2.
Welcome to the mass this morning prepared in the tradition of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers and organized by the César Chávez Peace and Justice Committee of Denver in collaboration with Regis University.
The theme for this year is Community Resilience as an Essential Pathway to Justice. The Committee decided on this theme before the current war in Ukraine was initiated. It appears that the United States is on the brink of World War III and dealing with a potential Civil War in this country.
As one of the founders of the César Chávez Peace and Justice Committee of Denver over 20 years ago, I believe, respect, and honor César Chávez’ philosophy of non-violence in achieving social justice. I have learned that practicing nonviolence is a way of life. Historically, Chávez was always in mental turmoil with how to best practice nonviolence, especially as he was surrounded by violence while Teamster Union goons and the police departments would bash farm worker heads on the picket lines. Chávez was a veteran, having served in the Navy for 2 years. He was an opponent of the Viet Nam War, believing it to be an unjust war. Essentially, wars go against the grain of those who believe in nonviolence. As he stated about farmworkers during the Viet Nam War, “In our case thousands of poor, brown, and black farm workers go off to war to kill other poor farm workers in Southeast Asia. Why does it happen? Perhaps they are afraid or perhaps they have come to believe that in order to be fully men, to gain respect from other men and to have their way in the world, they must take up the gun and use brute force against other men.”
I think that César Chávez, if he were here, would be compelled to comment on this war. During his time on earth, he was often caught in moral conflict. All good and decent leaders often tread muddy waters of morality and politics. During the Viet Nam War, he wavered between satisfying the political ambitions of Democrats that supported President Lyndon Johnson’s continued war effort and his own conscience. He chose the latter.
I am personally and profoundly perplexed regarding the current Russian invasion of Ukraine—caught in middle of the magnetic forces of contradiction. I have preached nonviolence for 40 years and find it difficult to embrace as I watch human annihilation, which is antithetical to nonviolence, taking place in Ukraine. As a journalist and a firm believer in the power of the pen to penetrate and change minds, I experienced ethical conflict about commenting on the war—caught in a conundrum with a responsibility as a journalist to speak my truth to power; yet adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence. As a journalist I have a moral responsibility to write commentary that is based on research, the wisdom of our ancestors, and a philosophy that is coherent. I am left with ambivalence, wondering how we can triumph over evil and achieve peace in the presence of violence—while maintaining our dignity as human beings in trying to create a just social order through nonviolence.
As people of conscience, we often have to balance our values in order to maintain honor and dignity as human beings. I examined the theory of the just war and revisited the work and writings of other nonviolent activists. I hope I have found the common ground to morally reconcile my ethical conflict? In my mind, the preservation of human life must always be the ultimate goal. Mahatma Ghandi stated in his writings, “My creed of nonviolence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. There is hope for a violent man to be some day nonviolent, but there is none for a coward. I have therefore said more than once in these pages that if we do not know how to defend ourselves, our [families} and our places of worship by the force of suffering, i.e. nonviolence, we must, if we are men [humans] be at least able to defend all these by fighting.” (June 16, 1927).
In the tradition of Catholic social thought, more specifically, in the Pastoral Constitution, it states, “Peace is not merely the absence of war. Nor can it be reduced solely to maintaining the balance of power between enemies. Nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Peace results from that harmony built into human society and actualized by human beings as they thirst for greater justice. Unconditional and effective respect for each one’s imprescriptible and inalienable rights is the necessary condition in order that peace may reign in a society.”
Practicing nonviolence in a violent world is fraught with the imperfections that human beings carry as they struggle to find adequate answers to ethical dilemmas that are in contradiction.
Let me preface my brief comments regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine by stating that a rebellion has ensued; therefore, violence exists at this point in time. Angry, self-determined nations led by dictators will likely not forfeit their arms; unless, there is a payoff. Self- defense against the Russian aggressors, in order to protect families and children and maintain human dignity, seems to be a rational response and perhaps the only method that can be used. Russia has broken palabra in the peace negotiations.
Chávez watched farm workers suffer at the hands of violent men. Farm workers also participated in many of América’s wars. They fought for democracy in all of America’s wars. With respect to the Ukrainian War, I don’t think we can sit idly and watch the decimation of human life. Those who aspire to nonviolence should never be cowards. What we can strive for from where we are situated is non-violent protests.
Mistreating defenseless families and children is an inhumane way of treating your neighbors. Chávez witnessed this during the many strikes and boycotts that he organized. His philosophy to achieve justice was to fast. “Fasting was a religious act for him, a form of prayer.” As he stated, “It is my deepest believe that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a [woman] to suffer for others. God help us be [women] men.”
As a journalist and a firm believer in the power of the pen to penetrate and change minds, I experienced ethical conflict about commenting on the war—caught in a conundrum with a responsibility as a journalist to speak my truth to power; yet adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence.
Nations that have consciously decided to become allies for a country under siege should consider more than just giving people food and clothing. Supporting nations need to dig deep into their pocketbooks and provide not only humanitarian aid but also armaments—even if they are used as a threat—to resolve this merciless assault. Russia’s savage onslaught against the Ukrainians requires international intervention and courage with peace through love as the ultimate outcome. NATO members should use their wherewithal to put a halt to this. Certainly, I hope and pray that authentic peace talks begin soon and that human exploitation seizes—an idea that some may believe is too idealistic.
In the theory of the just war, one has to justify when it is appropriate to cause harm to others. Saint Augustine tells us that “war [arises] disordered ambitions, but it could be used, in some cases at least, to restrain evil and protect the innocent.” Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was an inhumane act—it was simply an act of cowardice. A peaceful resolution must be sought out, agreed upon by all, and adhered to, following this mass destruction. As Pope John Paul stated, “Peace involves mutual respect and confidence between peoples and nations. It involves collaboration and binding agreements. Like a cathedral, peace must be constructed patiently and with unshakeable faith.”
As I have mentioned in prior talks, you have to develop the courage to love your enemy; that takes immense courage. Why should we love our enemy? Desmond Tutu argues that “courage is best demonstrated when you talk to the person you most hate. And that’s where the courage of a leader comes, because when you sit down with your enemy, you as a leader must already have very considerable confidence from your own constituency.” As Martin Luther King preached, “we have to learn how to love our enemies.” Let us hope that wisdom, humility, and love will prevail.
What I have shared is not the position of the César E. Chávez Peace and Justice Committee of Denver, it is simply one of the many moral dilemmas that believers of goodwill face as we strive for peace in the world in the face of contradiction. I may experience more stress and moral doubt about my decision to promote self-defense of our children and families, but I will never walk down any path as a coward. I am not promoting violence; that is never really the true response to hate. I remain a proponent of nonviolence. We will continue to use Chávez’ strategies of nonviolence, sacrifice, pilgrimages, fasts and boycotts, but today we will march for peace in our world.
¡Que Viva El Espiritu César Estrada Chávez!
Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist. ©4-2-22 Ramón Del Castillo.
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