Mention Non- Violence and you get mixed reactions. There are those who reflect on the legacies of Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr whilst there are those who mistakenly perceive non violence as something fluffy or weak. In the current global narratives, it is attributed to being passive. There needs to be a de-bunking of the concept of non-violence. It is important to start from an understanding of violence.
There needs to be a de-bunking of the concept of non-violence
Violence is a global catastrophe and one of today’s greatest humanitarian challenges. Violence is a health, social, justice, legal, spiritual, economic, cultural, community-development, and human rights problem. People who are vulnerable to certain forms of violence can also fall victim to other forms, and hence be subjected to multiple forms of violence. The narrative of violence is a mechanism of false consciousness that obscures and conceals the real sources of poverty, humiliation and underdevelopment.
Non violence is the counter to this narrative, starting from the inculcation of a set of attitudes, actions, or behaviours intended to persuade the other side to change its opinions, perceptions and actions (Abu-Nimer 2003). It implies an active commitment to social change that would ultimately result in a fair distribution of world resources, a more creative and democratic cooperation between peoples, and a common pursuit of those social, scientific, medical, and political achievements that serve to enhance the human enterprise and prevent warfare” (Smith-Christopher 1998, 10). It implies an awakening of a sense of injustice and moral shame in the supporters of a power structure, showing them that they have more to gain by ending injustice and oppression than by maintaining them. It is about exposing the unjust means of a power structure, the isolation of actions, changing the narrative that can be used for justification. Thus, nonviolence is not passive but requires great strength of character, perseverance and discipline to foster a moral priority encouraging nonviolent resistance and communicating the structural injustices of the day.
Non violence is not passive
Strategic use of non-violence means to resist the power structure though long term social and economic polices. You let the community acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to advance in society and challenge the status quo of the power structure, provoking it in order to expose its unjust means and illegitimacy by seeking to prevent the advancement of the community.
For Ghandi, his concept of non violent resistance meant direct action including boycotts and acts of civil disobedience. His strategic use of non violence resisted the power structure of the day, the British Colonial Power, provoking it to expose the unjust and racist colonial experiment. In exposing this, it allowed the colonized to challenge the power structure and seek independence. There may be those who argue whether this is a good or bad thing and that is another discussion. The legacies of colonialism are still with us today and the journey started by Ghandi in his non violent resistance is as still valid and applicable today as it was 70 odd years ago as we seek to decolonize narratives and attitudes.
The concept of moral priority within Non — Violence is about understanding the righteous cause against injustice that one must challenge the power structures on and be willing to shift or identify a higher priority. No one understood or communicated this hierarchy of moral priorities better than Martin Luther King Jr, who despite losing his supporter base would shift attention from the civil rights movement to economic injustice and the Vietnam war in 1965 because this was the higher priority of the day. Unfortunately this element has been erased from the cultural narrative of his life and legacy.
In his 1963 letter from Birmingham jail in particular, King drew inspiration from the gospel and biblical teachings in order to justify his fight against injustice. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He mentions just and unjust law and offers insight into how not only the church, but other faith leaders and communities should act in the face of injustice. In King’s words, it was about being a thermostat that transforms the morals of society and in this sense he invoked a moral shame at the Vietnam war and the economic injustice associated with it.
In today’s pandemic landscape amidst growing economic disparities and social injustices, nationalistic calls that isolate minorities and where anti racism sentiments are high, what could a non violent resistance look like and why is it important?
First and foremost, the widening gap between people increasing marginalization and vulnerability can not be left to the devices of the economy and the path of corporate profits. The chasm between the rich and the poor, those in power and those who don’t have has to be addressed. We have to address the abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable. This requires a long term resistance to the status quo of the power structures.
This starts with recalibrating our moral compass based on some ethical principles such as compassion (the ability to treat someone as you wish to be treated); stewardship (that we have a spiritual responsibility to take care of all those around us, human and non human, as borrowers of the earth from our grand children); mercy; egalitarian justice that is put into action; and honesty. These have to be the starting point for a non violent rebuilding of our post pandemic societies which has to be more animated by the love of the neighbour; egalitarian justice; an economic system based on cooperation instead of dog-eat-dog competition; political and social responsibility for the needy instead of selfishness; economic relations structured to value people over profits; and a politics that serves instead of abuses the people.
we need to recalibrate our moral compass
This is the starting point for commemorating October 2nd, the International Day of Non-Violence, coinciding with the commemoration of the birthday of Mahatma Ghandi.
Where do we stand during times of challenge and controversy?
How do we rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity?
Abu-Nimer, M Nonviolence and PeaceBuilding in Islamic Theory and Practice, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida (2003).
Smith-Christopher, D.I. Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. Cambridge, MA: The Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (1998: 10).
King, M L (1963), Letter from a Birmingham Jail, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail
Ghandi, M K, Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha), https://www.amazon.com/Non-Violent-Resistance-Satyagraha-M-Gandhi/dp/0486416062