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Synthesis/Regeneration 21   (Winter 2000)


by Ron Ouellette, Northeast Connecticut Green Party

Gandhi said, "No man has ever been able to describe God fully. The same is true of ahimsa (non-violence)." The first level of non-violence is non-violence as one of our natural states of existence. Each one of us is non-violent most of the time. Even the worst of us are non-violent some of the time. From this recognition that we all are naturally non-violent, that it is not something alien to us, we can build toward the next two levels.

The next level is when we make a conscious commitment not to be violent. Non-violence at this level is resisting the urge to respond to violence with violence. It is to this level that most of our religions guide us. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye,' and, 'A tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you not to resist the evildoer; on the contrary, if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…" Matthew 5:38-39. The first precept in Buddhism is against harming any living being. Most of the major religions have teachings that advocate peace and non-violence.

The highest level of non-violence is that which was advocated by Mahatma Gandhi. At this level the practitioner not only resists the use of violence, but also directly confronts violence, injustice, and oppression with non-violent resistance. There were many instances of Jesus confronting the injustices of his day; in the end he actively confronted the temple priests and accepted death for this action. But the Mahatma brought the world convincing proof of the power of non-violence; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and others have confirmed this power. It should be noted that Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy, who was in turn influenced by Henry David Thoreau's essay on Civil Disobedience, so when MLK brought Gandhi's teachings to the United States he was completing a circle.

Within these levels of non-violence are variations of focus and depth. Are we non-violent to humans alone or do we include all beings in our practice? Are we only against war, believing that violence used in self-defense or to protect our property is acceptable? These are questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. As Gandhi said, which is certainly true for me also, "The more I practice it the clearer I see how far I am from the full expression of ahimsa in my life."

So how do we make the transition from our natural non-violence to a commitment to practice non-violence? We get a clue from Thomas Merton; "The whole Gandhian concept of non-violent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved." Satyagraha is a term coined by Gandhi meaning "holding on to truth; resistance by non-violent means."

For me there were three forces or ideas working simultaneously within me that led to an awakened natural commitment to non-violence. The first is the recognition of our self in our enemy and a real belief in the ability of a person to change. The whole thrust of non-violent action is the belief that we can change a relationship from a violent one to a less violent one. We can not realistically believe a person will always be evil and at the same time believe our relationship to her or him will change. We must see the other with a human face, capable of good and evil, just like we are. This may be difficult with the likes of Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, but we can focus on their followers. Surely many of these can be swayed, the individual soldier, the captains, and the citizens. When enough have changed their minds the leaders will change their policies even if their minds remain fixed. They need the support of the masses to continue their oppression.

When enough have changed their minds the leaders will change their policies even if their minds remain fixed.

The second idea necessary in working toward non-violence is that the past is just a memory. To the extent that we hold on to the past, that is the extent that we are held in a prison. A deed or word issued against us by our enemy, when held by us, continues to inflict pain in our lives. The oppressor may even be dead, yet he continues to inflict this pain in our lives through our memories. We must learn to forgive. Forgiveness is not forgetting or ignoring the past conflicts and actions. Forgiveness is removing these deeds as things that need to be redressed, revenged, or paid for. Forgiveness is a canceling of the debt and is for our own well being, not the opponent's. We must be able to let go of the past for a relationship to change for the better, for a reconciliation to occur.

Forgiveness is removing these deeds as things that need to be redressed, revenged, or paid for.

The most important force working within us is the belief in the bankruptcy of violence. We must recognize in our deepest being that violence always leads to more violence. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said this best: "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." When we take this belief to heart, violence is no longer an option for those wishing to help the world.

In many ways the Gandhian experiment in India failed. Gandhi and many of his followers were true non-violent warriors, believing from the depths of their beings the truth of satyagraha. But the masses just believed in Gandhi; when he was gone the movement died and violence returned. The battle was won, but the war lost. Gandhi during his long campaign for India's freedom, even when victory was at hand, called off the movement when violence crept into it. To him the movement was much more important than the goal. This is the attitude we must have, and the attitude we must teach. Non-violence is a love of truth, a creed, and a commitment to stand for truth, to resist violence and injustice no matter the cost or the results.

Non-violence works in a number of different ways with many different tools. Boycotts can cause financial suffering to the oppressor, creating a change in policy just to stop it. The Alabama bus boycott is a good example. Civil disobedience (CD), the act of breaking a law non-violently and suffering the consequences for that action, can embarrass the authorities into changing a particular law. Or if the number of CD incidents is high or the size of the demonstration is great, then the authorities may give in simply because of the hassle of dealing with the disruption or for fear of other repercussions. This is what happened at Seabrook, N.H. There was such a large demonstration against the opening of the nuclear power plant that the authorities were clueless on how to deal with it. There has not been another nuclear power plant built since.

The real power of non-violence and CD is its ability through suffering to change people's hearts. This is what was done in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. Here only the oppressed can wield the weapon of non-violence. It was through witnessing the suffering of the African Americans and the violence against them that our hearts were changed. The willingness to suffer and die, without defense, rather than accept an injustice is the real power of non-violence. We can see it in Serbia, we can feel the power tugging at our hearts, and it is real. The Serbs under Milosevic are certainly not non-violent; we abhor their deeds. But when they stand on the last remaining bridge over the Danube, with no defense, a part of us is behind them.

The willingness to suffer and die, without defense, rather than accept an injustice is the real power of non-violence.

Gandhi tells us that for non-violence to work, we must not have hatred in our heart against the opponent. The issue must be true and substantial. And we must be prepared to suffer till the end. He also tells us, "I believe that a state can be administered on a non-violent basis if the vast majority of the people are non-violent." Clearly the United States does not have a majority of non-violent people. So a political agenda for a domestic policy must focus not on non-violent administration, but on eliminating the root causes of violence in our society and mitigating that violence. We must teach non-violence and move our society in that direction.

We find violence everywhere in our society, but most of it can be traced back to poverty. Elimination of poverty should be our primary domestic objective. Every person wishing to work should be guaranteed a meaningful job at a livable wage. We also need to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. To accomplish anything meaningful, though, we must first reduce the ability of the corporations and the powerful elite to control our government.

We must recognize that controlling crime by prisons and the death penalty is the same absurd logic as bombing for peace. Drug addicts need help, not prison. We need to be creative with our alternative sentencing. We need to reduce the number of weapons on our streets and we need to bring our police forces closer to the communities they are protecting. When the police become part of the community the "us" and "them" become "we."

Elimination of poverty should be our primary domestic objective.

We have a major ethnic relation problem in this country. I do not say "race" problem because there is only one race in the human family. For a true reconciliation to take hold we must teach non-violence, tolerance, and conflict resolution to our children at all levels in our schools. We must also begin to teach the truth. Our history books and all other texts must reflect the truth from all sides of our various struggles. Reconciliation cannot occur until the truth is told and accepted. This is not an apology for past wrongs; it is an acceptance that those events did happen and a commitment to go forward from there. This truthfulness is also needed on the international scene for reconciliation to occur between countries.

On an international front the agenda is similar but much simpler. The hard work is to transform our individual societies, and each country and each society must do that for itself. The United States needs to give each country the space and time needed to resolve its own conflicts.

Before the United States can have a meaningful foreign policy we need to decide what we stand for and what are our principles. These should be written down similar to the Greens' "Ten Key Values." Then as a country we need to apply these values to international issues and be consistent with them.

We need to reduce both the power of transnational corporations and of those countries such as ours that can dominate the international arena. The United Nations should play a more important role in international affairs, with the Security Council being disbanded. We need to pay our UN dues. Our foreign policy goal should be to help other countries transform their societies into peaceful entities, recognizing that poverty is the greatest violence. Our military budget must be greatly reduced for our good and that of the world. All arms trading must be halted.

"Non-violent defense neither knows nor accepts defeat at any stage. Therefore a nation or a group which has made non-violence its final policy cannot be subjected to slavery even by the atomic bomb," Gandhi said. As long as we continue to fight injustice with non-violence we have not been defeated; only when we return to violence have we lost. Again from Gandhi, "The virtues of mercy, non-violence, love and truth in any man can be truly tested only when they are pitted against ruthlessness, violence, hate and untruth."

Are we strong enough?

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