Maybe a commitment to a nonviolent philosophy isn’t so bad after all…

This past weekend, I came across a book that made me very happy. David Hartsough, one of my living heroes, has written the story of his life and of his life-long commitment to using nonviolence to create a world of peace and nonviolence.

The book is Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist.

I am re-experiencing an interesting emotion – the excitement I first felt when I read about Gandhi and King and decided to commit myself to nonviolence. The philosophical nonviolence. The “turn the other cheek” nonviolence. The “love and pray for those who persecute you” kind of nonviolence.

I know these are based in the teachings of Jesus. Gandhi used these and other sources to create his concept of satyagraha or truthforce. These are both the foundations of my activism and of my commitment to nonviolence.

David has made that commitment and has lived his life based on this commitment.

However, with this remembrance comes an uneasiness.

Somewhere along the way, I accepted the belief that you need to make a choice between either committing to the philosophy of nonviolence or to the strategy of nonviolent resistance. And my choice was to commit to the strategy of nonviolent resistance.

After 30 years, I am not really sure if setting up this kind of dichotomy is necessary or even helpful.

I actually think they belong together.

I understand why this was necessary, back in the 80s when I was first learning about nonviolence. Nonviolence as a means of struggle was not taken seriously, either by governments or academic institutions. Because it was not taken seriously, the history of the effective use of nonviolent resistance to overthrow dictators, expel foreign invaders and fight oppression was not documented and studied. So, rather than building a base of information that could be studied and expanded upon, we were left to only hope that it could actually work.

I believed that nonviolent struggle would be dismissed (and was dismissed) because people would be unwilling to make this commitment to adopting nonviolence as a personal philosophy.

One of the shortcomings of the philosophical side of nonviolence was that it seemed like many of its adherents did to not make “winning” the the struggle their goal. “Witnessing” against evil or taking symbolic action to express moral indignation were their goals.

I was not interested in expressing my moral outrage—I wanted to stop the nuclear arms race, end US support for terrorism and dictatorships in Central America, and end our genocidal policies being used against Native American communities.

So, I chose to become a follower of Professor Gene Sharp, who had painstakingly written a theory of how and why nonviolent struggle worked, called The Politics of Nonviolent Action. And decided to drop my commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence.

Reading David’s book, Waging Peace,  has reminded me what a difference that commitment makes.

It is possible that nonviolent resistance may work best when there is a moral commitment to nonviolence combined with the understanding of how it works strategically.

Two dynamics which are very important in the success of civil resistance are easier to achieve when there is a deeper commitment to nonviolence:

  • winning over the opposition is easier when you do not hate them
  • continuing the struggle and remaining nonviolent when faced with brutal repression makes more sense if your commitment is based on deeply held principles

Change in a civil resistance campaign happens on a personal level first—the daughter of the police or army officer joins the civil resistance campaign; the office worker here’s a sermon at the church, synagogue or mosque; the student hears an inspiring lecture; the politician watches a documentary their son asked them to watch.

My favorite example of this is a story I first heard from David first at a direct action trainers training and then in jail after a protest at Livermore Labs. He was the lone white student at a Virginia lunch-counter sit-in, with his fellow African American resisters to segregation from Howard College. During this action, an angry white man pulled out a knife and threatened to kill David if he didn’t leave immediately. Because of he believed in his soul in the nonviolence he was practicing, he told this angry man “Friend, do what you believe is right and I will still try to love you.” The man started to shake, dropped his knife and left.

Throughout his book, David has many, many more stories of the power this kind of commitment to reach people on this level.

The more I read this book, the more I am convinced that the world would be a much more peaceful, much more just and much more beautiful place if we had millions of Davids waging peace everywhere.

Posted in My Heroes & Sheroes, Where civil resistance stands
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