does not set itself against the basic concept of law. I agree with
the Marxists that the "State is the Executive Committee of
the ruling class", but there is, as I've tried to note
before, a difference between our quarrels with the abstract
"State," and that sense of community all of us seek.
If we violate the laws of the State, it is on behalf of a
deeper sense of law, one that more fully embraces the whole of
community. Yes, many laws are arbitrary - we stop at red lights
and go at green lights because that was, however we came by it,
the original decision. It could as easily have been the reverse.
In Great Britain cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, so
what it illegal here becomes legal there. There is no inherently
"correct and moral" side of the road on which to drive.
But it is desperately important, in order to avoid accidents, that
all of us abide by the consensus - in this country, we drive on
the right-hand side of the road.
A few months ago some animal liberationists in Great Britain
set at liberty a number of caged Mink, which were being held to
make mink coats. This was a foolish act because the mink were
likely, as they sought food, to feast upon pet cats, and cause
havoc to the natural chain of wild life in the area into which
they were released. The act was "nonviolent" only in the
sense no human got killed . It was typical of those acts which
seem to be non-violent but are missing a key element. There was no
one willing to stand trial, to say "I felt called by
conscience to set your mink loose and here I am - arrest me".
Rather, so certain of the "rightness" of their cause
were those who loosed the mink that they took none of the steps
nonviolence would call for. They did not meet and negotiate with
the "mink ranchers", they did not explain their intent
to act if the mink continued to be bred and killed, and of course,
they were nowhere to be found after they released the animals.
Nonviolence does not mean that, so long as we don't shoot the
person we disagree with, we can break laws with moral impunity.
Socrates remains an example of an individual who loved the
community, understood the importance of the rule of law, and
understood also that there were times when the conscience of the
individual must be set against that of the State, and that, when
such a conflict happened, the "wholeness" of the
community required not only the violation of an unjust law, but
also the willingness to accept the punishment. (In his case the
fatal drinking of hemlock - it should be noted that Socrates could
have fled, that those who sentenced him assumed he would flee, but
by his refusal to flee he forced those who judged him to live with
the results of their decision. He refused to accept their laws,
and refused to flee the punishment.
Jesus also met this test. He set himself against the rigid
orthodoxies of his community, was brought to trial, refused to
deny or evade the charges, and was executed.
We are neither Socrates nor Jesus. We would be quite human if
we sought to do good (as we understood it) and also to evade the
penalty. My point is not to preach sainthood to a community of
mortals, but to remind us that we cannot simply act as if the
community had no meaning. There are those, and they will be found
in every group, whether it calls itself Marxist, Anarchist, or
Pacifist, who insist their truth is so perfect they can ignore the
most basic elements of community. The most tragic example of this
is among a handful in the "Right to Life" movement who
feel they are justified in murdering doctors who provide
Whenever your "truth" is seen as so
"profound" that it exempts you from the sense of
community, and of nonviolence toward others in your community, you
are on the wrong path. Actions are not nonviolent simply because
no guns are in play. Nonviolence is much deeper than "not
violent". The loving mother who spanks her child when it has
broken away and run into a heavily trafficked street, is far less
"violent" than the mother who coldly withholds love to
punish the same child for the same act. Nonviolence is much more
than the refusal to hit - it is a reaching out to the opponent.
That, of course, is the very hard part. It is enormously easier
for us to demonize the opponent. For us that might be Newt
Gingrich, or Kenneth Starr. For others, at various times, it has
been abortionists, Jews, Blacks, Communists, gays and lesbians.
Let me just underline this point. The hardest part of
nonviolence isn't breaking a law, or going to jail - it is
insisting on the humanity of our opposition. Nonviolence means
both seeing the full truth of what racism does, or what American
capitalism does (or what Soviet Communism did), and still seeing
our opponent as part of our own family. Nonviolence is an effort
to restore a sense of "the beloved community". If it was
easy to do this, then it would be no big deal. It is very hard to
do it, and much harder in our atomized society where we encounter
one another not as living beings, but as bits and pieces
transmitted by the media or the Internet. Do we have to love
Pinochet? Yes. We don't have to like him, but we must not hate
him. We should be delighted he has been arrested and faces trial
(and we can wish someone would extradite Kissinger) but we still
need to think how his children feel, and realize that he, himself,
charged with such dark and terrible crimes, has shown the darkness
which hides in each of us.
To illustrate this last point, when we wonder what is behind
the crimes of violence against gays we will find the attackers
almost always have a fear of being, themselves, homosexual, and
have often had homosexual relationships. The more angry a man is
about "queers", the more likely he is struggling against
this aspect of himself.
The more certain you are that Pinochet is unique, and you'd
like to get in line to hit him with a club, the more certain it is
that there is "a little Pinochet" in you.
One of the things which the American pacifist movement has not
inherited from Gandhi - and needs to! - was Gandhi's conviction
that the main work of his movement was not the nonviolent
resistance campaigns, but his "Constructive Program". In
our country - and generally in the West - there has developed an
unhappy split between nonviolent resistance, and a positive
Gandhi, in his struggle to defeat the British, counted the
various non- resistance campaigns as being of very secondary
value. An essential tool, but not his main focus. Without trying
to recapitulate the history of the Gandhian movement let's note
some of the key factors. Gandhi was dealing with peasants who
lacked basic education, and lacked skills in sanitation. They also
lacked a history of acting on their own, for their own interests.
Gandhi stressed education, literacy, sanitation, health
measures - all at the village level. (If we examine the success of
the Communists in Vietnam we find very much the same pattern - the
military struggle was as secondary as, for Gandhi, the satygraha
campaigns were. The Communists went to the village level in
Vietnam, taught literacy, gave medical care, and gave the
villagers a sense of "empowerment". The method of
struggle - violent or nonviolent - was quite different, but not
the consistent stress on a "Constructive Program".
What is our constructive program? We are good, certainly, at
saying no, at protesting, but where is the pacifist program that
would provide an alternative sense of community?
The socialist movement, both in Europe and here, during the
time it was a mass movement, did much the kind of thing which
Gandhi did in India. There were youth organizations, cultural
programs, credit unions, trade unions, programs for the elderly -
in short, the socialists were not waiting for their triumph at the
ballot box but had already begun to establish some of the key
elements of the "new society". (Including their own
media - something which was also true in India).
It is impossible to expect one organization, the War Resisters
League, to develop and project such a positive program. But it is
not impossible to realize the need for it.
One task for the next century might well be a serious effort
for the pacifist movement to examine how to build a program for
youth (YouthPeace is one example of such an outreach), or how to
build a true alternative media, so that we are not at the mercy of
the talking heads on the networks.
Too much of our work is "anti" - anti-racist,
anti-imperialist, anti-death penalty, anti-sexist, anti-ageist,
that I think a lot of folks take one look and say "Hey, life
is far too short for this. I'm looking for some fun".
It was easier for Gandhi to develop a constructive program
because in his struggle against British rule he sought to create
an "alternative society" so that gradually, and
deliberately, the framework of a new society could begin to grow
inside the shell of the old. Gandhi's movement organized a system
of education that was an alternative to that offered (to a few) by
the British. There was an effort by Gandhi to set up Indian courts
through the Congress Party, so that Indians that felt they needed
legal remedies in some dispute could take their cases to these
courts, ignoring the British ones.
In our own time very much this pattern had been developed by
the Albanian population in Kosova - until an outbreak of violence
(for which both sides share blame) broke down the authority of
this "alternative" framework. In Vietnam, also, the
Vietnamese Communists did much more than wage guerilla battles (or
provide health and educational aid). They collected taxes,
arbitrated disputes, and in every way possible
"displaced" the authority of the US-backed government
operating out of Saigon. Much more than Americans understood at
the time, a very large part of South Vietnam was governed by the
Communists even though the maps showed it as controlled by Saigon
and US military forces.
It is very difficult, if you live in a society where there is
no foreign occupation, where control is accepted as legitimate, to
organize a Constructive Program which can operate in the way
Gandhi's did (or the Communists in Vietnam). Where the general
public can see, clearly, that they are ruled by an invader (India)
or by a puppet army created and trained by a foreign power
(Vietnam) it is relatively easy to organize an opposition. Where
"we" are already in control, where the domination is
harder to pin down, then organizing a parallel government is much
harder. (The Black Panthers tried this in some areas but for a
variety of reasons this failed - and the issue of whether the
resolution of the problem of racism can be solved by integration
or by separatism is one I am leaving aside for reason for space. I
personally come down for integration - but the argument is long,
complex, and needing more space).
This problem of organizing an opposition where the people seem
in control was true in Europe during the Nazi period - in Germany,
the people, while deprived of all real freedom, accepted Hitler as
more or less legitimate. But in those countries which had been
militarily defeated by the Nazis and occupied by them, it was much
easier to organize some kind of resistance, and the various
"Quisling" or collaborationist governments the Nazis
imposed never acquired legitimacy.
To create a real "Constructive Program" here will
mean a fascinating engagement in "real politics", in
building coalitions of different groups. I do not think the
solution will rest in trying to create communities outside of the
existing society - though the drive toward communal living was
appealing during the 1960's and has, in fact, a long and honorable
history in this country. But such communes, while they may provide
an alternative to the people living in them, do not transform the
society as a whole.
Let me try in the few paragraphs that remain to bring these
notes to a close.
I hope those who have followed these essays will realize that
nonviolence does NOT have an answer to all problems. It is, in the
words of Barbara Deming, an experiment that has just begun.
Nonviolence is not an academic exercise - it is a matter of
testing theories in practice, asking what went wrong and trying
Nonviolence is a theory of managing social conflict in order to
achieve social change. It is not a theory of generating social
chaos, except in brief periods. It is an effort to bring the full
community within the framework of compassion.
Nonviolence is a search for truth - not a search for ways to
prove your opponent wrong. If you are not ready, as you examine
the facts, to realize you may be wrong and your opponent right,
you aren't ready for nonviolence.
You must not be attached to your theories, but only to the
method. The method is the theory. We create the path by walking.
The ends will be determined by the means - they do not exist
separate and apart from the means.
Nonviolence certainly needs men and women with courage, but if
it must count only on the courageous, it will lose. Nonviolent
actions are not a test to see how many times you can be arrested,
how often you can be beaten up, or how long a jail term you can
serve. Any of those things may happen (they can happen if you are
But our goal is a good life, it is happiness. It is not the
glorification of suffering. We need a movement of ordinary people
who, sometimes, can behave in extraordinary ways. We need to honor
those whose nonviolence may be the most effective and challenging
of all - the nonviolence, the love, the compassion, of the parent
who risks everything to give life to a child, and to nurture it.
The nonviolence of the teacher, who may never be arrested, but
whose life as a teacher can transform so many children. Dorothy
Day should not be remembered for her various arrests - which were
relatively easy to bear. She should be remembered for housing the
homeless and feeding the hungry - her own "Constructive
I have been hesitant throughout these essays because my own
life is not a long and heroic record, and I am aware of that.
While I've been arrested more than a dozen times, I've never been
beaten by the cops. My times in jail have been brief - not the
long prison terms many have undergone. And as a "peace
bureaucrat" it is much easier to be "outspoken"
than if I held a job where being outspoken could also mean being
out of work. So let what I've written stand on its own merits, not
There is always about nonviolence the need to see ourselves in
those we hate. In 1951 I took my first trip to Europe, to a
pacifist conference in Denmark. I traveled through Germany to get
there and saw the destruction left by the war. In Hamburg whole
blocks in the center of the city had been leveled, the gravel
neatly swept so no trace of buildings remained. ( I thought
"how strange that in the center of such old cities there are
vacant lots" - and then I realized they had once been filled
with buildings). At first all my views were traditional - that
this destruction had been caused by the righteous struggle between
the Nazis and the West. Then, in Bremen, the damage was more
overwhelming, not yet tidy. A church, broken by bombs, its roof
gone, a tree growing in its very center among what had been the
pews. I remembered in High School my intense interest in current
events. The headlines have never left my mind: ONE THOUSAND
BOMBERS MAKE HAMBURGER OF HAMBURG and SIX HUNDRED BOMBERS BLAST
BREMEN (in the Bremen attack 60 bombers were lost to anti-aircraft
fire). I had rejoiced reading those headlines, sitting in High
School, my father in the Army Air Force in India.
And now I was here, in Bremen, in the ruins which so recently I
had rejoiced to read of. In one of two genuine religious
experiences in my life I suddenly realized that I was a bomber of
Bremen, that nothing the civilians there had done justified the
horror of the fire and blast so randomly scattered on their homes
. . . that their killing of the Jews could not be undone or made
right by our killing of the Germans. It is when we realize that we
can will the act of murder, that we at last can begin to choose
the alternative. So long as we think we are exempt, that we could
never have been a death camp guard, we have not yet begun our