The lineage of non-violent protest can be traced from John Lewis to Martin Luther King Jr., to Gandhi and Jesus. Though a Hindu, Gandhi developed, at least in part, his stance on non-violence by studying the life of Jesus and the New Testament. Gandhi on Non-Violence by Thomas Merton summarizes Gandhi’s two-volume work, Non-Violence in Peace and War.
Like Jesus and the poor of his era, Gandhi identified himself fully with the Indian people, the starving masses and especially the “untouchables.” For him the public realm was not secular, it was sacred. His interior life was not private. His spiritual life spilled into public life and, in the end, influenced the entire world. “A society whose politics are habitually violent, inarticulate, and unreasonable is a subpolitical and therefore subhuman society.” [Thomas Merton, 8] Recently, the troops sent to dominate protestors in Portland were violent and completely inarticulate. They held no signs or made speeches. They even hid their identity. They held no higher moral ground. They simply beat and gassed citizens. None of their actions helped to make a more perfect union.
If we spend some quiet time thinking about what we saw in Portland, we can conclude that protesters proved their point. Police brutality is widespread, especially against people of color. “The first job of an activist is to bring the real situation to light even if he has to suffer and die in order that injustice be unmasked and appear for what it really is.” [Merton, 10] The protesters were protesting police brutality only to be gassed and beaten as the targets of police/troop brutality. Point clearly made.
Recall the “Umbrella Man” with a hammer and skids of bricks dropped off on street corners. Non-violent protesters give no cause for police or troops to act violently, Umbrella Man had a hammer and smashed windows as he walked. Someone provided bricks to throw. These actors were against peaceful protest, their destruction providing an excuse for police violence. Were the protesters violent or was it “law enforcement?” The headlines summarized the truth—Troops withdraw. Peaceful protests resume.
Protesters must realize that to destroy an oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression. Violence isn’t transformational. “The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed.” [Merton, 14] “The only true way to “overcome” an enemy is to help him become other than an enemy.” [Merton, 15]
A barrier to non-violence is the reality of nuclear and automatic weapons. We have come to accept this reality as irreversible (It is reversible!) and our stance implies that we are no longer sane. In order to become an activist, one must “…return to his or her ‘right mind’ in order that society itself may be sane.” [Merton, 16] Peace isn’t possible unless individuals return to their right minds from oppression, denial, hate, naiveté or violence.
Non-violence must be practiced from an orientation of love and humility. Without love, forgiveness and graciousness are impossible. Without humility, we will become hypocritical, ignoring our own sins and weaknesses while taking issue with the sins and weaknesses of the “enemy.” Loving and humble individuals can transform society. “(Non-violence) It is a way of transforming relationships so as to bring about a peaceful transfer of power, effected freely and without compulsion by all concerned, because all have come to recognize it as right.” [Merton, 23]
A biography of Gandhi (1869-1948) brought further understanding for me about his life journey. He embraced the patriarchal system in which men held the power almost exclusively. In his early adult life, he was opinionated, judgmental and cruel, especially toward his wife. He must have been really hard to live with. Reading between the lines, my best guess is that his wife always responded with her “right mind,” choosing peace, unity and love over marital spats. Her responses showed him an alternative way to be. His own transformation taught him what was possible with the human spirit and how the love displayed by Jesus and his wife could heal and free individuals and their society.
Next time we’ll talk about what Gandhi actually said in regard to non-violence.