July 2, 2016

Friends,

I am writing this evening from Seabeck, WA, where I am attending a conference of the Fellowship of Reconciliation where we are also celebrating the venerable international organization’s 100th anniversary. FOR was initially founded in the fall of 1915 by a German and an Englishman at the outset of WWI as they vowed on a handshake that “no matter what happens, nothing is changed between us" and refused to be enemies. The FOR is best known for its persevering commitment to nonviolence, efforts at reconciliation, and opposition to racism, militarism and war. The Whidbey Island Fellowship of Reconciliation, which we founded on Whidbey in 2010, is a subchapter of the Western Washington FOR, which is a chapter of FORUSA, which is part of the International FOR based in Europe.

The reason I am so committed to FOR is their stalwart commitment to nonviolence. The term “nonviolence,” however, is a tricky one. First of all it is a double negative: not violent. But it is also often used in misleading ways. If it is used to mean, for example, that a “non-violent" action was "not violent“ it could apply to a demonstration by a hate group that simply did not include violence. 

What we want it mean, of course, is that a nonviolent action by a person or a group is motivated by compassion and an effort to express compassion or address an injustice. And even more important, nonviolence is a way of describing a whole way of life that creates, supports and sustains what Martin Luther King, Jr. and others call a “beloved community.” Nonviolence is a commitment grounded in compassion and the courage to risk a tangible cost for standing for justice. Used in this way it is “a force more powerful” than those using violence and oppression and thus a source of great hope for the sustainability and preservation of our planet. 

But nonviolence must be learned and perfected to be effective. Successful nonviolence, whether personal or corporate, is strategic, disciplined, and practiced with perseverance. Gandhi felt that nonviolent practitioners needed to undergo training similar to a soldier, and, indeed, the successful demonstrations, for example, in India, the Philippines, and in the U.S. during the civil rights movement involved considerable preparation, training and strong discipline. 

Although variations in nonviolent resistance have been used throughout the world for centuries, it is only in recent history that active nonviolent practices and techniques have been studied, codified, and taught. Many colleges and universities now have undergraduate and graduate programs specializing in the study of nonviolent social change. The keynote speakers and workshops at our conference this weekend are reporting on the expanded research and acceptance for nonviolent direct action over violent insurrections and revolutions - if, of course, they are strategic and disciplined as noted above. A recent 2011 study of the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth (our keynote speaker) and Maria Stephan, provides data showing that nonviolent civil resistance is surprisingly actually twice as effective for a variety of reasons as violent uprisings in overturning oppressive governments - even deeply entrenched, powerful, cruel ones - thus firmly affirming the legacy of Gandhi, King and all those who developed and expanded the use of nonviolent resistance.

Interestingly, however, nonviolent practice has gone out of vogue in the past couple years. Nonviolence was used so successfully in the Philippines, in Europe and elsewhere in the 1980’s and the following years. But following the initial successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the failure of Egypt, for example, to be able to sustain and build on the success of Tahir Square suggests the vulnerability of nonviolent resistance and  has raised a concern that the risk may no longer be worthwhile. Also, noting the data of the Chenoweth-Stephen research about the success of nonviolent movements, governments have been working hard to understand and  thus become better able to undermine them. One of the researchers reported that some of the most interesting studies about nonviolence are now coming from government agencies, and there was one report that the security forces offered protestors cookies! These reports have led to the quip that the world is engaged in a “nonviolent arms race”-  I suppose, for better or worse! In any case, those of us committed to peace and justice need to continue to develop our various approaches to nonviolent practices.

This I do firmly believe: nonviolence as a way of personal and societal life is a crucial practice if the world is to survive. In my personal life I need to learn to practice variations of nonviolent communication and empathy. And as a species we need to learn the techniques of nonviolently undermining the pillars of oppression and building alternatives. We need to learn to create what is termed a “swarm” in which a society integrates various methods of nonviolent noncooperation and direct action thus creating the opportunity for significant societal shifts toward peace and justice. I truly believe that the “nonviolent arc of justice” bends toward the compassion and beloved community that our collective hearts actually yearn for. 

Blessed be the struggle.

Peace,
Tom