Believers in non-violence find limitless opportunities for discussion and argument about it. This article is
intended as a possible help in those discussions.
Let us first review a few aspects of the mess the world is in at present, then consider what must be the characteristics or features of a successful way out and finally the reasons why nonviolent resistance meets those needs.
It is a commonplace that the world has grown much smaller in space and time and has become physically more closely integrated, much faster, than the moral development of mankind. Some people say that man is no better morally than he was ten thousand years ago, and that modern primitives are in many ways more decent in their human relationships than so-called “civilized” man. Certainly, what moral development there has been has been very spotty, uneven and self-inconsistent. We have had the horrors and brutalities of the two world shooting wars and their consequences, and yet during the same period wonderful programs of aid to other countries, programs quite new in the history of the world. Some say the motives for such aid have been far-seeing selfishness, but even if that were partly true, nevertheless there has been much sincere, unselfish kindness. In some ways men have become more callous, in other ways more sensitive. But the main point is that man's moral development has not kept pace with his technological development, and the result is more and intense conflicts than ever before.
The enormity of violence and cruelty during the last fifty years has bewildered and stultified mankind. The vast scale and complexity of modern social, economic and political forces makes us feel frustrated and helpless.
Out of the continuing bewilderment and frustration has come a large degree of inertia and social irresponsibility, and among some of the younger people violence, despair, rebellion and contempt of older generations. Many people seek escape and compensation in cinemas, gambling, alcohol and drugs.
The world has been deluged too long by fear, hate and suspicion. The Buddha said that anger is like spitting against the wind; it always comes back on you. America’s hatred of Communism blew back on Americans in the forms of McCarthyism and the Un-American Activities Committee and many other forms of suspicion, fear and divisiveness. In the long run such divisiveness, widespread, leads to violence, insanity and death.
Joan Bondurant, in her Conquest of Violence, cogently pointed out that in the last resort most conservatives, liberals, socialists, communists and some anarchists all rely on violence as the ultimate creator and maintainer of order and stability. Look at how most of them joined in on the war effort of World War II. The university educated are stronger for State violence than are the illiterate.
Politicians and military men seem to think that man’s fears, greed, pride, lethargy and weaknesses are the main basis for policy at home and abroad, and so advocate chiefly preparations for more violence. They call that being practical.
You might be so naive as to think that the theologians, the men who study spiritual and religious ultimates, would object to all this strenuously and unanimously. But no, the majority of America’s leading theologians have for many years been saying, explicitly or implicitly, that man is inherently sinful and cannot climb out of his fallen condition; that the evil habits of history are stronger than anything else in the world; that governments (i.e. the organs of immoral society) must be upheld; that war is the lesser of two evils; that the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible ideal. Impliedly they make no allowance for the possibility of any new, strong, human force in history, even though they are faced by such new things as airplanes, antibiotics, radio and atom bombs. Recently, faced with really imminent destruction of themselves, they have begun to hedge and admit that some degrees of violence are not advisable. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” “Practical” people say that it is silly and impossible to expect governments and other large organizations to obey moral laws.
Over all hang the H bombs, ICB missiles and annihilation of all mankind.
A magnificent mess, is it not?
Well, if there is a way out, what features or characteristics must it have in order to deal effectively with the above-described mess?
a) It must be nonviolent and persuasive.
b) It must involve simple action more than talk. We cannot all be orators.
c) Since we are all endangered, the action must be such that everyone can take part in it. That means, of course, that women as well as men can take active part in it. It is better if children also can participate.
d) It must be capable, by its very nature and processes, of inspiring interest, trust, and hope among the participants, the indifferent, the curious, the lazy and other onlookers, and even the opponents.
e) It must compel deeper thinking and feeling and be morally educative to everyone.
f) It must be capable, by its very processes, of stimulating moral and spiritual growth in the participants and all beholders, faster and more effectively and thoroughly than exhortations or present institutions.
g) It must be realistic, taking account of the inevitability of conflicts and of the presence of and possibilities for both evil and good in every person, including participants and opponents as well as others.
h) It must be based on an unshakable belief in the unity of mankind, and that this unity is deeper, stronger, more enduring and more important than the differences, whether the differences be of race, culture, nationality, economics, politics, assumptions, or any kind of ideology.
i) It must be a search for deeper and greater truth, both individual and social.
Why would these conditions be met and an effective way out of the worst of our troubles be produced by nonviolent resistance to injustice and wrong?
The Meaning of Nonviolence
(1) Nonviolent resistance is a form of vigorous action, without violence and with a disposition indicated by that abused word, love. In this context that disposition may be described in the words of one author as “an interest in people so deep and determined and lasting as to be creative; a profound knowledge of or faith in the ultimate possibilities of human nature; a courage based on a conscious or subconscious realization of the underlying unity of all life and eternal values or eternal life of the human spirit; and strong and deep desire for and love of truth; and a humility that is not cringing or self-deprecating or timid but rather a true sense of proportion in regard to people, things, qualities and ultimate values. It is a sort of intelligence or knowledge. It is not mawkish or sentimental. It calls for patience, understanding and imagination. It is not superhuman or exceedingly rare. These traits of love, faith, courage, honesty and humility exist in potentiality or actuality in every person. We have all seen such love in mothers and in some teachers.
(2) Women can not only take active part in movements of nonviolent resistance; they are better at it than men. Children can also participate, as messengers, for instance. Children took part in Gandhi’s early struggle at Bardoli, India.
(3) Nonviolent resistance is honest and realistic. It recognizes that in every person and every institution there is the presence and possibility of both good and evil.
(4) It recognizes and uses the fact that these forces for good and evil are living forces, that therefore they obey the law of growth (namely that living forces and organisms respond to stimuli, and that the kind of response called growth takes place after many, many repetitions of slight stimuli, what in the moral realm we would call gentle stimuli). In nonviolent resistance these gentle stimuli are nonviolence (indicating responsibility and respect for the personality of the opponent) and love. These stimuli are an inherent and necessary part of this method of handling conflict.
(5) Nonviolent resistance trusts the potential decency in the opponent. Henry L. Stimson, who served the U.S. Government under both F.D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, at one time as Secretary of War and at another as Secretary of State, in a memorandum to President Roosevelt in September 1945 wrote, “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him, and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust”. That is to say, trust is creative.
(6) Another way to say it is that nonviolence, like the military philosophy, recognizes that almost everyone at times is lazy, selfish, greedy, unthinking, irresponsible and afraid of something. But unlike the military, it does not play on or rely on those weaknesses. It is more realistic because it realizes that man is also just as capable of being energetic, unselfish, generous, thoughtful, responsible and brave. It appeals strongly and constantly to that better side of man's nature, and takes pains to stimulate and cultivate those better traits in everyone―participants, opponents and spectators.
(7) Because of a strong and deep realization of human unity and its superior importance, nonviolent resisters are able to forgive opponents for the harm they may have done. This unity is more important and enduring than any injuries committed. It has lasted through all the evils recorded in history.
(8) Nonviolent resistance is persuasive by virtue of its elements of adherence to truth, respect for the personality of the opponent, humility, responsibility, love and moral beauty. It is a dramatic appeal to the best in everyone. The price of the struggle is assumed and paid by the nonviolent resisters, by their voluntary suffering.
(9) Some may say that the two world wars and the cold war and all the cruelties of the last fifty years prove that man's moral nature is so nearly extinct that it is childish to appeal to it. But the propaganda and censorships and evasions of all governments also prove that the governments have to
make their claims appear moral in order to win support from the people. So morality is not dead. The people of all the world hunger for it with a deep hunger.
(10) Nonviolent resistance avoids the dangers and evils of violence and all the moral aftermath of violence, resentment, hatred, desire for revenge, small or large.
(11) It offers a way out of our present frustrations and sense of impotence about public problems. Its very simplicity is a great relief.
(12) It is linked with our ideas of democracy and liberty and government by the consent of the governed. It is a way of voting, more effective in many situations in our large-scale governments than the traditional ballot.
(13) Nonviolent resistance has and steadily uses in all its action the idealism, humanity and compassion which Communism claims but in action denies by its lust for power, its tyranny and cruelties.
(14) Nonviolent resistance constantly uses means consistent with the ends it seeks, and therefore has far greater chances of success and smaller chances of compromise with evil.
(13) It does not leave social change to governments which are so often unresponsive and reluctant to alter old and obsolete methods of making or directing social change.
(16) Because it relies on nonviolent persuasion―and true persuasion is rarely a rapid progress―the advances which it secures come slowly enough so that conservative forces are able to adapt themselves without destroying social continuity. Yet the speed of desirable change achieved by nonviolent resistance is much greater than that of existing institutions, for the chief aim of institutions is to maintain the
(17) Nonviolent resistance is as interested in order as any conservative, but its order is a finer order, nearer to moral truth and social and economic justice. The conservative person is inclined to believe that only what he prefers and is used to constitute order. But there are many kinds of order. As long as there is life or existence of any kind there must be change, and the pace of change varies from time to time.
(18) Nonviolent resistance, by reason of its moral nature, dramatic quality and persuasiveness, is infectious and gathers adherents.
(19) It is experimenting at the growing edge of a new and finer intergroup morality. It therefore offers adventure. Gandhi entitled his autobiography “My Experiments with Truth”. Mistakes may be made in these experiments but that is common to all human movements and institutions, and therefore need not trouble us unduly.
(20) When seemingly insoluble problems arise, the atmosphere and use of nonviolence hold society together while the problems are being lived down, old dogmas and old fighters die off and new generations take over.
(21) Nonviolent resistance communicates both verbalized meanings and meanings that cannot be put into words―these latter meanings being the deeper and subtler ones that go into man’s group and subconscious life, into his spirit and assumptions.
(22) It rests on a firm belief in the unity of all mankind; also on the belief that all people can learn from experience.
(23) It is in accord with the insights and traditions of the greatest moral and spiritual leaders of mankind―Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tsu and Gandhi.