Engaging Nonviolence

A few months ago I attended some nonviolence training workshops run by Pace e Bene Australia, centred around the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living workbook. These fascinating workshops touched on both the theory and practice of nonviolence, and the format of the sessions ranged from information sessions, to discussion groups, to role-playing and more. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, contacting Pace e Bene is a really good starting point (in my opinion).

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we covered in the sessions, and want to reflect on just a few points here. The sessions (run over three full Saturdays) covered such a broad range of topics that there is really no way that I can summarise it all, but I thought I might just reflect on four principles of nonviolence that have been especially important in my thinking since participating in the workshops.

1) Nonviolence is creative

If you really think about it, violence is never actually a very creative pursuit. Now, I will grant that human beings have come up with a remarkably diverse range of ways to inflict pain and death on one another throughout history, but the central purpose of violence remains (again) remarkably constant. Violence, it seems to me, is usually intended either as punishment, or in order to coerce. Not surprisingly, the results of violence are also (for the third time) remarkably consistent: death, or the desire for revenge (and thus the cycle of violence is perpetuated).

Nonviolence, however, by its very nature, is necessarily creative. If you can’t just point a gun at someone’s head in order for your point to be made, or if you can’t bully someone into submission, then the game is much harder indeed. As such, practitioners of nonviolence need to be extraordinarily creative in order for their point to be heard. When sometimes confronted with serious violence in response to challenging the status quo, practitioners of nonviolence must always think ‘outside the box’ in order for the situation not to descend into the usual violent categories.

Now, this does not mean that nonviolent actions or responses are always necessarily complex. In fact, many times nonviolent responses in history have been based on beautifully simple ideas; well thought-through, but at their core simple concepts. What it does mean, though, is that practitioners of nonviolence must open themselves up to creative possibilities in order to be able to respond to certain situations with great strength yet without violence (which may seem like an oxymoron to some, but certainly is not), and in order to make points in a way that cuts through the white noise of violence.

2) Nonviolence is active

Many times in discussions about violence and nonviolence, the idea of not responding to force with greater force is seen as ‘passive-ism’; i.e. just sitting back and letting the bullies of the world have it their own way. Not only is this seen as weak, it is (rightly) seen as a complete disintegration of the idea of justice.

It is really good, then, that nonviolence is not about being passive.

In fact, nonviolence is extraordinarily active in orientation, with the idea of speaking truth to power and engaging violence head-on with strength and determination but without resorting to meeting violence with yet more violence. Practitioners of nonviolence have many times put themselves directly in harm’s way as they have sought to challenge violent ‘bullies’ (individuals or groups or systems) or to highlight violence that general society doesn’t wish to acknowledge. Nonviolence is an active force that seeks to expose and confront violence of every sort; it is the very antithesis of inaction or the attempt to sweep the problems of violence under the rug of our collective consciousness.

To suggest that nonviolence is equal to being passive is a gross distortion of reality, and this understanding is perpetuated either out of sheer ignorance or as a deliberate attempt to undermine any other option than more violence. Obviously, this just leads us back to the first point, and the lack of imagination in violent actions or responses.

3) Nonviolence doesn’t assume that we have 100% of the truth.

This is a really interesting point. Obviously, when we really think about it, we know that this is true. None of us has all the information on any given point. Unfortunately, however, it seems to be becoming more and more easy (again, see point 1) for individuals and groups to argue their point in a way that, at least pragmatically, suggests that they truly believe that they are 100% correct. It is ridiculously easy from this point, then, to suggest that a particular opponent is essentially a beastly foe who simply cannot be reasoned with and will only ever understand the point if it is punctuated by force.

The problem is, we simply never hold 100% of the truth at any point in time on any given topic. This has been highlighted so many times throughout history that it’s really not funny (think, for just one example, of Iraq and WMDs…).

The antidote to this, then, is for the practitioner of nonviolence to approach all topics with a certain humility. This is a difficult thing to do, and a point that I find personally very challenging : )

But when debate is approached with this sense of humility, the possibilities of finding a nonviolent solution increase exponentially. Think of what it might mean, for just a moment, if Palestinian and Israeli leaders were to meet on the grounds that they genuinely agreed upon the fact that both sides had some real points to make and they each held part of the truth in the situation. The possibilities are truly amazing!

Building out of this (to a point that really deserves to be treated on its own, but I kind of wanted to keep it to just four points in this post…), nonviolence seeks to see one’s opponent as more than just the evil they may commit. So many times individuals or groups view the other as wholly evil, and it is very easy to inflict pain or death on the other once they have been dehumanised. However, when the beauty and sacredness of the other is recognised, when they are viewed through the lens of their sharing in the fullness of humanity, it becomes much harder to inflict suffering upon them. At the end of the day, our aim is to overcome evil and injustice, not to defeat people.

Of course, given the propaganda we are fed by our leaders (and I mean ‘we’ here as those on all sides of any given debate or conflict), this is a difficult thing to do. To be constantly reminding oneself of the full humanity of the other is hard work. It takes effort. And that leads me to the last point.

4) Nonviolence is a way of life.

Nonviolence takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of energy to be creative. It takes a lot of energy to be actively exposing and seeking to overcome violence and injustice. It takes a lot of energy to remind oneself that one’s opponent holds some of the truth in any given situation, and to refrain from dehumanising them in order to secure an easy ‘victory’.

Nonviolence takes a lot of effort.

It takes a lot of (often difficult) critical self-reflection.

It takes a lot of personal commitment.

And, it takes a lot of time.

The one thing I have discovered to be abundantly clear is that I really need to work at this whole nonviolence thing. In order for this all to become instinctual (i.e. not instinctively responding with violence in situations of high emotion or when the adrenalin is pumping), it is going to take me a lot of reading and reflection and meditation and effort. As will be clear to those who have been travelling the nonviolent journey for longer than myself, I don’t actually know that much about all of this. I’m very new to it, and I don’t offer these reflections in an attempt to show how knowledgable I am about it all. Rather, I offer these reflections as a way of trying to formalise some of my own thoughts, and as an attempt to create some discussion about these issues that might be helpful to myself and anyone else who wants to enter into the discussion.

I’m not good at this stuff. I find it very easy to respond to aggression with aggression, even though I don’t want to (when I really think about it). But, in the heat of the moment, I find it frustrating to try to think through creative ways of responding without adding more fuel to the fire. I’m a fairly big guy and, to be perfectly honest, it’s quite easy to use physical size to intimidate and get my own way.

Most of all, I’m fairly impatient. This whole nonviolence thing takes a lot of time. I find this both frustrating and beautiful. I live in a society where everything is instant, and so seeking to participate in things that take a lot of time and effort is somewhat daunting. It’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t have an immediate impact.

I’m convinced, though, that the best kind of change happens in very small increments. Change that happens in an instant, it seems to me, is quite often a shallow kind of change that is not deeply enough rooted in society to withstand the challenges that will inevitably come. Most of all, humans take time to change, so rapid change often leaves un-changed humans in charge of new situations and structures that require new ways of thinking.

However, when change happens through many small steps, it can be deep, and powerful, and beautiful. Though some may look at certain events in history where lasting change has occurred and think that it all happened in an instant, it is more likely the case that many small steps were happening behind the scenes for quite some time which set up the possibility of the ‘trigger’ event happening in the first place. Seeing the action of Rosa Parks on that bus in Alabama as the ‘beginning’ of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is a disservice both to Parks herself (and her strong committment to these issue well before this point in time), and to the many, many others over a long period of time who helped create the context for that event to have the meaning it did (and does).

In addition to this, and though it is frustrating to think about, nonviolence can rarely (if ever) overcome decades, or centuries, or millennia of violence in a moment. It takes time. It takes many small steps to move away from the ingrained violence of human history. What is frustrating, though, is that when and if one specific nonviolent action fails to fix all the problems of the world in one moment, nonviolence is often said to be a complete and total failure. If only violence was discredited for every time it fails to bring about lasting peace…

The point is, though, that it does take many small steps to move and individual, and a community, and a nation, and the whole world away from the easy-but-destructive use of violence.

The nonviolent journey is a long-haul, both individually and for communities and nations.

It is sometimes discouraging, but I am filled with hope at the extraordinary, creative, active, humble potential of nonviolence.

I do look forward to discussion on these points : )


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

3 thoughts on “Engaging Nonviolence”

  1. Nonviolence forces us to be creative rather than rely on brute force and use our intellect to its fullest capacities. When we take the road of violent opposition you are playing to the oppressor’s strengths, they undoubtedly have bigger guns and more bullets that we do. Some similar minded people at Voices for Creative Nonviolence…http://vcnv.org.

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