What Does “Nonviolence” Really Mean?

By Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin is Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund

Nonviolence, as advocated and practiced by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama and many others, is alive and well, and I would argue just as relevant today as in King’s time.

My sense is, nonviolence needs to be better understood, and employed, both as a tactic in the service of social and political change–often described as “nonviolent direct action;” people nonviolently protesting and often risking arrest to call attention to injustice–but also as a guiding philosophy of how we humans need to evolve in order to live with each other and with our fragile environment.

Generally, practitioners of nonviolence agree on a few overarching principles. Respect for those who disagree with you is an important one–there is no “hate” or “enemy” involved, even if we loathe the policies of government officials we are protesting.

Indeed, nonviolent resisters seek not to “defeat” those who disagree with them, but to transform the relationship from adversarial to cooperative in the redress of injustice.

For most nonviolent direct actions, participants come up with a code of conduct to follow in the action, which usually include:

1. Respecting others, including policy-makers, law enforcement personnel and counter-protesters; 2. Refraining from physical or verbal violence; 3. Abstaining from drug or alcohol use or possession; 4. Respecting group decision-making and agreeing on the tactical scenario of the action.

Often, training is involved to help prepare for the action, which can be very helpful in encouraging people to take what, for many, is a big step in their activism. While nonviolent direct actions can be incredibly empowering, they can also be very stressful or even intimidating. There is always uncertainty, the risk of violence by police, and possible loss of freedom if one is arrested and detained. The actor Martin Sheen, who has been arrested over 50 times for non-violent civil resistance acts, admits to getting butterflies in his stomach every time.

Disobedience or Resistance?

Peace Action staffer Eric Swanson is dragged away from the White House gate by Secret Service personnel during the October 5, 2009 protest of the Afghanistan war. Photo courtesy: Jerem Rusnock

A distinction needs to be made between “nonviolent civil disobedience,” in which protesters deliberately violate an unjust law (as in the U.S. Civil Rights and Indian independence movements), and “nonviolent civil resistance”, where protesters are demonstrating against unjust policies, such as the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The point of the latter is to promote a peaceful and just alternative to current policies (not to “get arrested”) and to provoke a response from policy-makers.

Nonviolence, while often associated with pacifism (usually defined as opposition to war or the use of physical force under any circumstance), is not “passive.” It is active resistance to injustice. And it is often utilized as a last resort, after more traditional forms of action and dialogue have been tried, such as lobbying policy-makers or working to support or defeat candidates in elections.

On a Personal Note…

“Deepening my understanding and practice of nonviolence is very important to me, not only in my work as a peace and justice organizer, but also in my personal life. I have both Quaker and Mennonite ancestry, and also family members in the Church of the Brethren. So all three historic protestant peace churches provide strong roots in my family tree. ”

My great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Gardner, was a Quaker abolitionist in Kansas in the mid-1800’s. He was a friend of John Brown, his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and he participated in armed raids into Missouri to help free slaves and other abolitionists. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War in the Kansas 3rd Colored Regiment, as it was called, fighting alongside freed black slaves, and was killed in battle in 1863 at the age of 44. My life is a cakewalk compared to his.

I would dearly love it if in some afterlife I could have the opportunity to debate nonviolence with him, as his faith clearly led him to believe armed struggle was justified in the cause of ending slavery (and I suspect I would have made the same choice at the time).

But of course that is historical speculation, and nonviolence is an important factor in organizing for social justice and peace today.

Last October, I participated in a nonviolent civil resistance action at the White House organized by the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance. We were calling for an end to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

Somewhat surprisingly, our affinity group, which staged a mock “die-in” at the White House gate to symbolize the deaths in Afghanistan, was roughly shoved and dragged away by uniformed Secret Service officers, who did not arrest or detain anyone; they only wanted to clear the sidewalk.

Dealing with such tactical curveballs by law enforcement needs to be considered by resisters. At the time, we decided we had made our point, gotten some media coverage for our cause, and did not want to risk further violence to members of our group by aggressive, heavily armed officers. So we left the scene, after discussion by the group, but have filed an official complaint with the authorities for the rough treatment we experienced.

The physical force used against us by the Secret Service charged with protecting the White House and a widely perceived “peace president” who has in reality escalated the war in Afghanistan and proposed the largest U.S. military budget since World War II, was a bitter but accurate symbol of violence in U.S. society and foreign policy.

Carrying the Nonviolent Torch

Right now, a prominent Palestinian-American, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, is under threat of harassment and possible detention by the Israeli military because of his organizing and advocacy of non-violent struggle against the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. Dr. Qumsiyeh is a former member of the Peace Action Education Fund board of directors.

Members of Peace Action and the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance gather in song at the White House gate. The groups were part of a larger protest of the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan, October 5, 2009. Photo courtesy: Jerem Rusnock

Unfortunately his situation is far from unique among practitioners of nonviolence worldwide, in large part because nonviolence is so effective. If one looks at almost all of the struggles for freedom and social justice from Gandhi’s campaign to liberate India from British colonialism right up until today, nonviolence is almost always a central part of such struggles, and it works far better than violent resistance.

In the U.S., peace and justice activists utilize nonviolence in our advocacy of an end to the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, in calling for the global abolition of nuclear weapons, and in cutting our gargantuan military budget (nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars annually) in order to fund human and environmental needs.

Anything I have to say about nonviolence pales in comparison to Dr. King.

The following quote brings tears to my eyes nearly every time I read it, and it baffles me that anyone could not understand this profound, simple truth:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. 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.”

Kevin Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund and has been a peace and social justice activist for 25 years. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and The Progressive.

Last modified: August 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm
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