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 Philosophy of Nonviolence


by David McReynolds
from Nonviolence Web

 

Part Seven


THE COMMUNITY

THE ROVING MINK

SOCRATES AND THE LAW

THE HARDEST PART

CREATING THE NEW SOCIETY HERE AND NOW

WHY OUT JOB IS MUCH TOUGHER THAN INDIA'S

BRINGING THINGS TO A CLOSE

TWO FINAL POINTS

 


 THE COMMUNITY

Nonviolence 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.

 

THE ROVING MINK

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 AND THE LAW

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 abortions.

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.

 

THE HARDEST PART

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 program.

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.

 

CREATING THE NEW SOCIETY HERE AND NOW

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.

 

WHY OUT JOB IS MUCH TOUGHER THAN INDIA'S

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.

 

BRINGING THINGS TO A CLOSE

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 again.

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.

 

TWO FINAL POINTS

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 violent, also).

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 Program".

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 on mine.

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 journey.

 

The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part One ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Two ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Three ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Four ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Five ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Six ] [ The Philosophy of Non-Violence - Part Seven ]


 ] 비폭력/무저항 주의자 ] The Philosophy of Non-Violence ] Nonviolent Action Handbook ] 악한 자를 대적치 말라 ] Kingdom of God Is Within You ] Ahimsa ] 시민 불복종 ] 양심적 병역 거부 ] 사이버스페이스  독립선언문 ] 미국 독립 선언문 ] 삼일독립선언서 ] Satyagraha ] Last Message to Mankind ] Nonviolence Web Links ]


   
 
 

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