One of the common misconceptions about persons who are committed to using non-violence in their work for social change is that because they are non-violent, they are passive and nonresistant. Sometimes this misperception is used by persons and groups who are open to the use of violence to disparage those who are nonviolent as being too passive to bring about needed social change. Most major nonviolent movements for change have had to address this criticism at some point, especially if the desired social change was slow in coming to fruition.
The reality is that the persons and movements that have been successful in bringing about change through non-violence have not been at all “passive” in their approach. Quite the opposite, the leaders of nonviolent movements for social change have been active in their resistance to injustice and are continually pressing for justice through action, often direct action to confront the systems of oppression and bring about more awareness of the injustices that are being perpetuated and the need to bring about positive change.
Persons like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Thich Nhat Hanh, Wangari Matthai, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and so many others have shown us that non-violent resistance is not passive acquiescence, but rather the active use of creative tension to keep moving society towards greater justice in the work to cultivate a beloved community.
We know from Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography that he came to realize in his work for the rights of Indians in both South Africa and in India itself that justice was not something that was simply gong to be given to the Indians by the British Empire. That is not what empires do. Justice and independence were things that needed to be relentlessly insisted upon and worked for if they were to ever become a reality.
In the years from 1893 to 1914, while involved in public service work for the Indian people living in South Africa, Gandhi developed an approach to nonviolent social change called Satyagraha, which means a “desire for truth” and has often been translated as “truth force.” Satyagraha is sometimes misleadingly described as promoting passive resistance, but is more accurately characterized as a philosophy of active nonviolent resistance. Like many wise persons before him, Gandhi saw clearly that unjust laws are not laws at all, and he believed that it was a moral duty to directly disobey unjust laws, but to do so strategically, publicly, and nonviolently. The goal was not to vanquish the oppressor but rather to bring justice for all with the hope of reconciliation.
Gandhi’s satyagraha movement would engage in strikes, fasting, protests, and nonviolent and public disobedience of unjust laws. When Indians in South Africa, were forced to be registered for the purposes of discrimination, they burned their registration cards. When the British regulated the production of salt in India, Gandhi and thousands of others marched to the sea to make their own salt in symbolic defiance. When the British restricted the production of textiles in India, Gandhi spun his own clothes and encouraged all other Indians to do so. The satyagrahis – those persons fully committed to truth force – would sometimes be beaten, but they would not return violence for violence. They were imprisoned by the thousands, and Gandhi would make use of this prison time for reading, meditation, and planning. The power of a persistent and widespread nonviolent movement proved to be overwhelming for governing colonial authorities in South Africa and India as they eventually succumbed to the demands for justice, and in the case of India, demands for its independence from Great Britain.
In 1935, one of the most influential African American ministers of the 20th century, Howard Thurman, travelled as part of a four member delegation to visit Gandhi in India where he was leading the nonviolent struggle for independence from British colonial rule. This visit helped Thurman bring the power of non-violence to bear on the struggle for African American civil rights in the United States. It was during his time as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University that Thurman encouraged Martin Luther King Jr. to study Gandhi’s nonviolent direct action approach and apply it in the civil rights movement. King himself travelled to India in 1959 to learn from followers and family members of Gandhi, and King’s commitment to non-violent direction action became the hallmark of his approach to the civil rights movement.
Like the Indian satyagrahis before them, King and others led a movement of nonviolent direct action to challenge the injustices of racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. Like Gandhi, King encouraged civil rights advocates to strategically and nonviolently resist unjust laws. They sat in seats on buses they were not allowed to sit in. They sat in diners they were not allowed to eat in. They protested, they marched, and they agitated for racial equality and justice. The African American satyagrahis led by King in the civil rights movement were beaten, doused with fire hoses, bombed, hanged, and shot; but they did not return violence for violence. They too were arrested by the thousands, and King, like Gandhi, made good use of his time in prison for reflection, writing, and planning. The commitment to direct nonviolent resistance played a key role in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act being passed and signed into law by President Johnson in the mid 1960’s. It even led King to be recognized with the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. Tragically, like Gandhi it also led to his being assassinated by a person who stood against his movement for justice.
The method of non-violent direct action to cultivate the needed creative tension for social change has been used in many other movements for peace and justice in our world with powerful results. The work for peace by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn is another compelling example of nonviolent action for social change through what Thich Nhat Hahn called socially engaged Buddhism.
The work of the Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai in Kenya to plant millions of trees and to work nonviolently for environmental justice in Kenya and beyond even when she was violently opposed and beaten, is another powerful example of truth force in action. And today we see other models of nonviolent direct action in the work of Malala Yousafzai for the education of girls and women throughout the world even though she was shot and narrowly escaped death at the hands of those who perpetuate the oppression of girls and women, and we see the model of the work of Greta Thunberg who is a force for truth in her nonviolent and relentless work for climate justice and a livable climate for all life. Greta courageously speaks out to the powers that perpetuate the practices that are hurling the earth towards climate chaos, and she has helped move a generation to action.
Many who have opposed these nonviolent forces for truth and justice have argued that they are trouble makers, that they are rabble rousers, that they want way too much too fast, and that they are disrupting the law and order of the land. In the name of a false peace and an unjust order, they call for an end to the tension that these nonviolent justice makers are creating. They are the ones Martin Luther King Jr. must have had in mind when he reminded us all during his creative time in prison in a Birmingham jail “that true peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
Creating justice is not a passive enterprise. It requires action, and sometimes it requires direct action that presses creatively on the places of tension within our society to provoke positive social change. May we all find the spiritual and moral courage to be satyagrahis using the nonviolent force of truth to create the tension necessary to cultivate true peace with justice as we seek the Beloved Community together.
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