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The Doctrine of Non-violence and The Paradox of Pacifism.


The Flower Power photograph by Bernie Boston, taken during the March on the Pentagon, October 21, 1967


A topic ceaselessly bouncing around my mind recently has been the concept of non-violence, as a philosophy, a radical political movement, and a way of life.


I want to take time today to look at non-violence and the effects it had on religion, spirituality, and political philosophy to see if there is any truth to the fact that the world can only be cured by love.


We don’t have to look too closely to notice the integral role non-violence plays in many of the major religions of the world. In Hinduism, this is related to dharma (principles that order the universe, allowing for life and order to flourish) and ahimsā (non-violence), as inherited from Buddhism by way of Jainism. In Buddhism, ahimsā is an enabling virtue for karunā (compassion), one of the highest virtues.


Looking at Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam respectively we see an outline of non-violence as a seed without which peace (especially inner peace) is impossible.

From the Mahabharata: ‘One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behaviour is due to selfish desire’ (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8).

From the Udanavarga: ‘Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’ (5:18).

From the New Testament: ‘Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets’ (Matthew 7:12).

From the Hadith: ‘the Prophet said: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don't do to them”’ (Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146).


Seen as rooted in love, whether that is Hindu ahimsā, Buddhist mettā, Christian agape, and Muslim muhabat, all four religions advocate for non-violent approaches to peace from this starting point.


It would be disingenuous to stop here and say – see look all the religions agree that violence is bad when in fact they equally agree that “just” violence is perfectly fine. I am not going to delve into detail on how each justified certain violence in certain situations (there are a lot of loopholes) but this is a very important note to make.


The relationship between himsā (violence) and ahimsā is long-standing as can be read in the Rigveda and Bhagavad Gita. Force was seen as sometimes necessary, particularly to protect the community, create justice, and "def[end]…social and ritual order [dharma]"Meaning that while emphasis is put on the importance of being non-violent, space is yet still carved for our human impulses.


In Buddhism, Buddha gave his often quoted, stunning guidance on nonviolence, “Even if bandits brutally severed him limb from limb with a two-handled saw, he who entertained hate in his heart on that account would not be one who followed my teaching.” [Majjhima 21] Yet even this famous passage does not prevent one from self-defense free of hate.


Here we come to the very precipice of my meditation on this topic. How non-violence can be linked to non–action, pacifism, and in times of unrest what pacifism can mean for us all.


After all, Desmond Tutu said it best when he said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.


We mustn’t forget that while later discussed philosophical and political movements will perhaps be inspired by these scriptures, religion is inherently individualistic. Buddhism speaks of kindness and love and compassion and healing but most of all it speaks of breaking your individual cycle of Saṃsāra (yes, for the benefit of all living beings) but at the center is still your individual spiritual transformation.


So when we apply these principles to modern society we must not accidentally fall into the trap of confusing Buddhist nonviolence with non-action. The committed meditator is not only nonviolent, but is also a witness to non­violent potential in daily living. This again expresses “…activity by way of the good…”


Gandhi described himself as being overwhelmed upon reading Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You and he called himself Tolstoy's humble follower.


In common with others who professed nonviolence Tolstoy was deeply offended by a religion of ecclesiasticism, of dogmas, of sacraments, fasts and prayers. Religion, he held, gave meaning to life, but the Church was an insult to his reason. "A life based on Christian truth was precious and indispensable to me, and the Church offered me rules completely at variance with the truth I loved."



"A good deed", he said, "does not consist merely of feeding the hungry with bread, but of loving both the hungry and the satisfied. For it is more important to love than to feed, because one may feed and not love, but it is impossible to love and not to feed."

Gandhi was inspired by the great tradition of ahimsa in India but he spent a lifetime elaborating a rational structure for his faith, in which he reasoned: self-sacrifice is superior to the sacrifice of others; if the cause is not right then only the resisters will suffer; nonviolence is the aseptic way of permitting the poison to work itself out by letting all the natural forces have full play; nonviolence arouses the best in others; apparent good from violence is temporary, while the evil is permanent; good brought through force destroys individuality, while nonviolent non-cooperation preserves individuality.


Still in Calcutta in August of 1947 when riots raged between Hindus and Muslims, the Hindus, now in authority, being the aggressors. A question of the efficacy of the nonviolent technique in group relations was raised. He declared that on that subject he was at the moment in darkness. He had spent almost a lifetime teaching that nonviolence was a weapon not of the weak but of the strong, of those who are able to strike back but will not. He realized then that his people did not understand.


One person famously inspired by Gandhi was none other than Martin Luther King Jr. but here even more so than before we must be careful not to distort King’s own doctrine of nonviolence in terms of societal change.

While in religion we can outline the effectiveness of individual pacifism as a steppingstone for achieving moksha (liberation) or admission into the kingdom of heaven, how truly effective is it in liberating the oppressed?


Gandhi and his philosophy were of special interest to the progressive African American community. Referring to the African American freedom struggle, Gandhi had called the practice of segregation “a negation of civilisation” (“Letter from Gandhi”). Howard Thurman met with Gandhi in 1935, Benjamin Mays in 1936, and William Stuart Nelson in 1946. King’s colleagues Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, and Mordecai Johnson had also visited India.


Gandhi’s philosophy directly influenced King himself, who first employed strategies of nonviolent direct action in the 1955 to 1956 Montgomery bus boycott.


But perhaps through the fault of revisionist history, time has seen the removal of teeth from King’s philosophy of love and nonviolence. King’s use of moral suasion did work for a time on white moderates who pushed through legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it had a limited shelf life and on April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In the same way, despite Gandhi’s urgings, partition was accompanied by violence and rioting, and on the 30th of January 1948, Gandhi was assassinated while entering a prayer meeting in Delhi.


King like many Southern black people armed himself before the 1960s against violent attacks by white supremacists.

His nonviolent resistance never meant private abandonment of self-defense or even complete conversion to pacifism.

Yet the distortion of King’s rhetoric continues in analysis such as the Heritage Foundation’s 2006 article, “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Legacy,” which reduced King’s activism to a campaign “not to change laws, but to change people, to make neighbors of enemies and a nation out of divided races. King led with love, not racial hatred.” What writer Carolyn Garris and many other conservatives misinterpret in King’s emphasis on love is that he believed love would change people and inspire them to dismantle unjust laws and systems of oppression. The conservative belief in racism as an individual sin or moral failing, rather than a system that requires community and governmental reform, makes King’s writings on love convenient fodder for warm-and-fuzzy quotes. It no longer performs the work he originally intended—bringing about social justice for morality’s sake.


Scholar Gene Sharp’s three-volume work The Politics of Nonviolent Action serves as a basis for pragmatic nonviolent protest for movements such as Occupy Wall Street, even though Sharp himself criticized the Occupy movement for having no discernible demands. His 198 methods of protest emphasized civil disobedience as an opportunity for the oppressed to use their power of noncompliance to push for change outside of demonstrations. Sharp admired Martin Luther King Jr. but wrote that “exhortations in favor of love and nonviolence have made little or no contribution to ending war and major political violence.”


And yet still, recent research suggests that nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful in creating broad-based change than violent campaigns are. Violent campaigns have fared much worse, in terms of absolute rates of success, than nonviolent campaigns since 1960. In fact, in the aggregate, from 1900 to 2015, nonviolent campaigns succeeded 51 percent of the time, whereas violent campaigns succeeded 27 percent of the time.


Although organizations like Black Lives Matter practice nonviolence as a matter of strategy, love for the oppressor does not find its way into its ethos. Seemingly on the opposite end of the spectrum, the antifa activists behind “punch a Nazi” normally use several tactics of nonviolent direct action but reserve the right to employ violence toward those who espouse annihilative ideals. The debate on whether (mostly nonlethal) violence toward violent opponents discredits an organization’s message requires one side to occupy the high road permanently.


Clearly, there is much more to learn about nonviolent resistance: It is an emerging phenomenon, and research on the topic is likewise emerging within the social sciences. People seeking to confront oppression would benefit from more systematic review as to when and how to wage nonviolent struggle in various contexts. Policymakers grappling with challenges ranging from authoritarian resurgence to state fragility to violent extremism would benefit from a deeper understanding of when and why nonviolent movements succeed – and what it means to effectively support them.


In this decade — in which more people are using nonviolent resistance than ever before — scholars and practitioners alike would do well to both consult and critique the pragmatic and principled wisdom of Gandhi and King in building the society we want to see.


As for the coveted religious individual, there is much less debate.


Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule. – Siddhārtha Gautama

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