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Solving Conflicts through Nonviolence

 Nonviolence seems like a harmless idea rooted in compassionate and peaceful interests. Why is it then that practitioners of nonviolence are often seen as enemies of the state?
Mark Kurlansky’s book  Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea illuminates that dark corner where economic, religious and state power often collude to perpetuate violence and marginalize activists for peace. It also delivers context to our struggle and hope for our prevailing.

Nonviolence is cheaper

Violence between combatants is disturbing and wasteful enough, but when statistics show that civilians are increasingly the majority of the casualties of war (In World War I, 20% of the casualties were civilian. In WWII, 67% were civilian. In 21st century warfare, such as Iraq, the casualties may be as high as 90%), there is more impetus to eschew violence. Many believe that violence is inevitable, however, - hard wired into human behavior. Kurlansky posits that the source of violence is not human nature, but a lack of imagination. He asserts that, "War’s inevitability does not rest on natural law, but on individuals incapable of conceiving of another path."

Nonviolence has worked

The Nazis are often cited as an example of an enemy against whom non-violence would have been futile. This book contends that in fact, more Jews were saved by non-violence than by violence. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were saved by individuals who risked the lives of their entire family to hide a Jew or a Jewish family. Moreover, the governments of Denmark and Bulgaria, a German ally, saved thousands by refusing to cooperate in anti- Semitic measures.

Etienne de la Boetie asked in a 1548 essay on dictators, "What could the dictator do to you if you did not connive with them who plunders you?" Gandhi said, "No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill". History shows that this became the successful strategy of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in their resistance to Soviet Union dictatorship.

Nonviolence has been bad mouthed

The presumption that political conflicts must necessarily be resolved through warfare wasn’t always the case. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was known to have said, "If the distant peoples do not submit, then build up culture and character and so win them." In his The Analects was the idea that the military is essential to government, but less important than other functions. The current US Department of Defense including the VA requires 57% of the federal budget. How did we arrive at the point where endless war dominates our lives, where national treasure is squandered while civilian support systems wither away? Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea traces this evolution.

The ideology of warfare that has been repeatedly invoked for the past thousand years of Western history grew out of Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s thesis of "just war" in the fifth century. He believed that if a pious man believed in a just cause and truly loved his enemies, it was permissible to go to war and to kill the enemies he loved because he was doing it in a high-minded way. Pope Urban II developed a propaganda campaign to launch the first Crusade at the end of the eleventh century based on this ideology. Pope Urban’s speech became a textbook model for rallying the troops. It contained all the traditional lies by which people are convinced to kill and be killed. The enemy is evil, and we have God on our side. Those who did not support the war should be and would be singled out as immoral. President Obama invoked the concept of "just war" to rationalize his "surge" in Afghanistan.

Neither Kurlansky nor I believe that religions necessarily promote war. Most religions shun warfare and hold nonviolence as the only moral route toward political change. However, religion and its language have often been co-opted by the violent people who have been governing societies. Once a state takes over a religion, the religion loses its nonviolent teachings. The state imagines it is impotent without a military, because it cannot conceive of power without force.

Nonviolence requires more courage than violence

Peter Chelcicky in fifteenth century Prague was one of the first to see that the cause of perpetual war lies not in the nature of man, but in the nature of power. He believed that to establish a world living in peace would require the abandonment of power politics. He saw war as a conspiracy in which the poor were duped into fighting to defend the privileges of the rich. He was even opposed to universities promoting a militaristic, wealth-hoarding society. His thoughts still resonate today.

America’s Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by the 17th century Oxford scholar Thomas Hobbes who believed that man had a selfish nature and that continued warfare was his natural state. He also believed in man’s acquisitive nature and that until contracts to the contrary were established, he had the right to take what he wanted (and that we did in earnest - starting with Indian lands, continuing with Spanish, Mexican, Philippine, Iraqi, etc.).

William Penn and his Quaker allies who controlled the Pennsylvania Assembly denied the state its Hobbesian rights to war, colonial expansion and slavery. Quaker control of the colony lasted only 74 years, until 1756, when they were voted out of office. The central problem was that the pacifist state was part of a larger colonial system that vehemently rejected nonviolence.

According to Kurlansky, it is always easier to promote war than peace, easier to end the peace than end the war, because peace is fragile and war is durable. Once the shots are fired, those who oppose the war are simply branded as traitors.

We March children's book recommended by Teach Peace NowNonviolence Requires courage

While it is perfectly feasible to convince a people faced with brutal repression to rise up in a suicidal attack on their oppressor, it is almost impossible to convince them to meet deadly violence with non-violent resistance. Alexander McKeown, VP Amer. Fed. of Hosiery Workers, in 1937 is quoted, "The fact of the matter is that non-violence is a tactic that requires perhaps a higher type of courage and devotion than is called for in ordinary physical combat." Only if the non-violent side has the discipline to avoid slipping into violence does it win.

Book Review by Tim Wolcott

It is precisely when things become really difficult, urgent and critical, that we should think and act with nonviolence.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

More on nonviolence

Center on Nonviolence and Social Justice

Martin Luther King Philosophy of Nonviolence

Meta Center for Nonviolence

Waging Nonviolence

Unarmed Civilian Protection


Do you believe nonviolence is an effective way to address violence?

We welcome your thoughts and comments. 

Teach Peace Now
Teach Peace Now
We offer books, activities, lesson plans, and ideas that teachers, parents, and students can use to promote values, attitudes and behaviors which encourage non-violent resolution of conflict, respect for human rights, democracy, intercultural understanding and tolerance.

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