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Searching for the Soul of Nonviolence: icon v. reality

25 May 2010 3 Comments

- by Patricia Smith Melton
Founder, Peace X Peace
Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women

Nonviolence: maintaining love at your core, remembering to breathe, employing courage against injustice, inspiring consensus, confronting those who want your property or your voice with only the weapon of your truth, offering the flower to the muzzle. Principles of peacebuilding? Principles of getting from A to Z through daily life? Possible at all?

I was beginning to think nonviolence is over-glorified, over-simplified, and over-cleansed in the public imagination. Right-out sterilized. All nonviolent people cannot be uber-humans, peaceful at their center 24/7. Don’t tell me Mandela didn’t have a bad night or two.

I’m in the middle of a divorce and I’ve thought about these things. I even started finding honesty disheveled. Is there an absolute honesty? My personal honesty can feel like a tattered rag doll I’ve held onto out of habit and stubbornness, even as I would go down fighting for her.

Through it all, I continued to believe that when you put honesty and nonviolent action together, truth gains power—that it emerges like old wisdoms. Then a friend, bless her, shared the explicit word for it, satyagraha, Gandhi’s “truth force.”

Needing to understand this alchemy, I tracked down Ambassador Pascal Alan Nazareth, Managing Trustee of the Sarvodaya International Trust, author of the book Gandhi’s Outstanding Leadership and foremost expert on Gandhi. Prior to retiring in 1994, Alan represented India as High Commissioner or Ambassador to a number of nations, including several in Africa and Latin America plus Egypt.

The morning before he left for a summer at the base of the Himalayas, Alan told me: All of us have a divine spark, even the most wicked of us, and the spark can always be ignited. When the oppressor sees the oppressed, even sees him with a smile when taking blows, he feels shame. Then the oppressed gains moral ground.

Ambassador Nazareth

He went on: Nonviolent leaders are strategists. Gandhi inspired people by igniting their divine spark, yes, but, make no mistake, he was a militant and superb strategist. You must think out how to confront the evil-doer without hating him or hurting him, find ways to hold up the truth to him, show him you will oppose him with all your strength and spirit and you are not afraid even to lose your life.

This is the point where I started thinking: Jujitsu, tossing the violent energy (in any form) of the “enemy” over your shoulder while you remain standing. Though, of course, getting attacked takes committed courage, and perhaps you don’t remain standing. Was I, too, romanticizing nonviolence?

Alan continued: The first single person, like Rosa Parks, has immense courage and takes a stand at great cost to herself. Then as more people join, fewer people are afraid. And the world begins to see the struggle and the moral right.

I asked the ambassador about the emerging citizens’ nonviolence movements in Israel and Palestine, including the Combatants for Peace that unites former Israeli military and former Palestinian “rebels” who have vowed never to use violence again, Israeli rabbis who are saying their state’s actions aren’t true to authentic Judaism, and the citizens’ victory in the West Bank village of Budrus, where after a year of nonviolent protest by Palestinians joined by Jewish activists the Israeli courts ruled that the separation barrier (the Wall) could not be built way inside the West Bank through the village of Budrus, its olive groves, and its cemetery.

Ambassador Nazareth:  Israel is the saddest place on earth. It is known as the Holy Land and has such unholy things happening there. To Alan there is no benefit in violence on either side ever, not rockets, not suicide bombers, not military actions. What is important is that the total struggle is nonviolent, that the oppressor and the world see the moral issues alongside the courage and oppression so that the size of the movement towards justice and truth grows until change occurs. There could even be, he says, a miracle.

He cited the changes in the late 20th century through nonviolent movements in Ireland, the Philippines, South Africa, and Eastern European nations, ending conflicts and deposing dictators. At a cost, he says, of approximately 5000 deaths total as compared with the 100 million or more deaths by violent conflict throughout the world during the 20th century.

That is, Gandhi and successful leaders of nonviolent movements are militants who have vowed not to hate or hurt their oppressors in order to achieve justice, and who strategize in line with truth and the moral high road. And they have courage. And they inspire. No one said they didn’t have sweaty palms or dark moments. They are out to win.

Nonviolence, the expert told me, is both a private and a spiritual struggle, within your family, your little world, your district and state.

That is, nonviolence is a human struggle with all the messiness, uncertainty, questioning, reversals, and fear—and glory—that most of the rest of life has in it. This is a truth I recognize as an old wisdom.

May the (nonviolent) force be with you!

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3 Comments to “Searching for the Soul of Nonviolence: icon v. reality”
  1. Brigitte Pichot says:

    This essay resonated deeply in me, and it reminded me of what Sharon Salzberg wrote, in her book “the Power of Kindness. p35:”

    “We might not behave in a terrible fashion in any given moment, but we all know what is is like to look right through someone, as though they were not important. We all know what it is like to deny the vitality of someone’s vulnerable, complex, mutable life once we have him or her nicely pigeonholed as the “other.”… As long as there is that insidious sense of self and other creating “two,” and we can objectify that “other” for our own ends, there will be war in our hearts, in our families, in our neighborhoods, throughout the world. Just as cruelty can ravage lives and trample hope, kindness can be the quality we choose to steer our lives by.”

  2. Jo Wharton says:


    Thank you for this wonderful essay. You always inspire me and help me focus on what’s really important. Many blessings.

  3. Mares Hirchert says:

    I like the vitality of: “may the (nonviolent) force be with you!” It is a struggle and requires the spirit! I like thinking of it as “being in the game, not on the sidelines.”

    Peace building can be messy but I’de rather be building than tearing down at the end of a weapon/bulldozer.

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