For many adherents of nonviolence, the rationale for it being the preferred method of political activism rests on more than a pragmatic assessment that it works better than other methods. It is good not only because it ‘works’ but also because it is ‘right’. These activists tend to see the aim of nonviolence as persuasion and conversion of opponents, rather than coercion.
Most Western believers in nonviolence as a creed belong to one of two groups: firstly, members of nonviolent Christian sects or individuals who have come to the conviction that nonviolence is the only method of disputing that is consistent with the teachings of The Bible. and secondly, those who have been influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
(a) Christian Views of Nonviolence
(Nonviolence International Note: Read as Faith Based)
Christians generally accept the proposition that ‘God is love’. This leads to the logical corollary that the main enemy is hatred itself. Relying particularly on New Testament texts, such as the sayings of Jesus that “Whoever shall say [to his brother] , Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire” (Matthew 5:22) and “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15), Christians have interpreted the terms ‘brother’ and ‘neighbour’ (following the parable of the Good Samaritan) at their widest. And this means loving opponents and even enemies:
Care as much about each other as about yourselves… Never pay back evil for evil… If your enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink… Do not let evil conquer you, but use good to defeat evil.(Romans 12:16-21)
While the exhortations of Jesus to nonviolence are legion, the way of putting this nonviolence into practice has been interpreted in different ways. Throughout history Christians have had to make a decision whether it was their duty to shun an evil world or to act to change it.
Of those that have chosen an active engagement, many of the most notable peace activists have belonged to the Society of Friends -the Quakers. Quakers believe that there is something of God in every person and that in the face of evil, as Christians, they are called upon to act in a way that is most likely to reach ‘that of God’ in the other and so change an evil mind into a right mind. And this is not something that can be achieved by violence.
Catholic monk Thomas Merton is probably the best known of the recent ideological Christian nonviolence theorists. While his nonviolence closely resembles that of Gandhi, the focus of his writings was the evils of war and particularly the Vietnam war and nuclear armaments. Although he lamented the lack of active protest among Catholics, he warned of the dangers inherent in a philosophy that aims to proclaim the truth and to help the adversary realise it. The temptation to self-righteousness and an unwillingness o see the other’s point of view had to be guarded against, as did direct action that was ‘oriented to the of the rightness, the determination and the conviction of the protesters, and not to the injustice of the law’ that was being protested against. And of course if, in breaking a law during protest, the punishment provided is not accepted the Christian nonviolent resister becomes ‘a mere revolutionary’ (Merton, 1980, p. xxxvi).
Varieties of Christian Campaigns
During the Vietnam anti-war movement in the United States, Christians, even priests and nuns, took part in many campaigns of direct action. Probably the best known of these activists were Merton’s friends, the Jesuit priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. The Berrigans were imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience such as raids on draft board offices and the destruction of draft records, and eventually for trespassing in a weapons factory and damaging nuclear missile nose-cones with hammers. They maintained that their destruction of property was nonviolent as long as the destroyed property belonged to a class that ‘has no right to exist’.
While Merton may have had some doubt as to the inclusion of such actions under the rubric of ideological nonviolence (see definition above), he may have been at least tacitly supportive as long as the Berrigans were willing to accept and endure punishment as part of their witness. In this case however a further dispute arose as to whether ‘going underground’ to continue educating people (the course of action chosen by the priests), rather than immediately accepting the punishment of the State, is still within the bounds of nonviolence.
One of this century’s most celebrated nonviolent activists has been Martin Luther King Jr. The Alabama pastor achieved world prominence following his organisation of the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. Inspired by the example of Rosa Parks, Blacks, who were obliged to give up their seats to white passengers, started boycotting the bus system entirely. Under King’s instructions to sustain ‘Christian love’. the Blacks maintained nonviolent discipline in the face of terrorism from white extremists. Within a year the bus system had been desegregated.
King declared that ‘The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love’ (King, 1958, pp. 103-104); and he warned that the ‘tactics of nonviolence without the spirit of nonviolence may become a new kind of violence’ Yet, nonviolent tactics were important. Reflecting on matters in jail following his arrest during the Birmingham desegregation campaign, King responded to religious leaders of Alabama with a tone of despair. They had told him that ‘When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets’. King, showing disillusionment with white moderates, answered in his acclaimed Letter From Birmingham City Jail that ‘history is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily’, hence the need for direct action.
(b) Satyagraha – The Nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi
Satyagraha, Gandhi explained, is ‘literally holding onto Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is therefore known as soul force’ (Young India, 23 March 1921). The technique of nonviolent struggle that Gandhi evolved in South Africa to gain rights for Indians was originally described by the English phrase ‘passive resistance’. Gandhi, however felt that the term ‘was too narrowly constructed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred and that it could manifest itself as violence’ (Gandhi, 1966, p. 266). These attributes were not applicable to his method of direct action and so he coined the new word ‘satyagraha’ (sat: truth, agraha:: firmness).
Satyagraha implies working steadily towards a discovery of the truth and converting the opponent into a friend in the process. In other words, it is not used against anybody but is done with somebody. ‘It is based on the idea that the moral appeal to the heart or conscience is … more effective than an appeal based on threat or bodily pain or violence’ (Gandhi, 1961, p. iii). And for Gandhi it had to be a creed, a way of life, to be truly effective.
In satyagraha the following propositions are kept in mind:
- The aim in group struggle is to act in a way conducive to long-term, universal, maximal reduction of violence.
- The character of the means used determines the character of the results.
- A constructive program – positive peacebuilding work should be a part of every campaign.
- One should engage in positive struggle in favour of human beings and certain values; that is, fight antagonisms, not antagonists.
- All human beings have long-term interests in common.
- Violence is invited from opponents if they are humiliated or provoked.
- A violent attitude on the part of would-be satyagrahis (advocates of satyagraha) is less likely if they have made clear to themselves the essential elements of their case and the purpose of the struggle.
- The better opponents understand the satvagrahi’s position and conduct, the less likely they are to resort to violence. Secrecy should therefore be avoided.
- The essential interests which opponents have in common should be clearly formulated and cooperation established on that basis.
- Personal contact with the opponent should be sought.
- Opponents should not be judged harder than the self.
- Opponents should be trusted.
- The property of opponents should not be destroyed.
- An unwillingness to compromise on non-essentials decreases the likelihood of converting the opponent.
- The conversion of an opponent is furthered by personal sincerity.
- The best way to convince an opponent of your sincerity is to make sacrifices for the cause.
- A position of weakness in an opponent should not be exploited. Satyagraha is concerned with morality over and above ‘winning’.
How is one to decide which of two opposing cases is nearer the truth? According to Gandhi, the voice of conscience must be obeyed in these circumstances. Of course this may present further problems: what one person sees as truth may just as clearly be untruth for another. For this reason, Gandhi warns, ‘no one has the right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth’ (Harijan, 24 November 1933); therefore, nonviolence is the only appropriate means for arriving at the truth. If the position held by the satyagrahi proves to be further from the truth than that of the opponent it will only be the satyagrahi who suffers; others will not be made to suffer for the satyagrahi’s mistake.