VOICES OF NONVIOLENCE
Throughout history there have been several people whose words and actions have helped advance the practice, understanding, and appreciation for the power of nonviolence. I have highlighted a few below in sharing some of their writings and speeches.
These works can be used in schools and incorporated into lesson plans for a range of subject matters. In history and social studies classes the actions of these individuals and the movements of which they were a part can bring to light examples of how nonviolent action has spurred significant social change. In language or public speaking classes, the words can be translated, analyzed, and applied to current issues. In math classes, word problems can be based on conflicts and struggles of which these individuals were a part. In short, these nonviolent voices, among others, allow educators to base learning, exercises, and context around nonviolent action.
Dr. Martin Luther King – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.”
Mohandas Gandhi – My Faith in Nonviolence
“The law of love will work, just as the law of gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not. Just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the law of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work greater wonders. For the force of nonviolence is infinitely more wonderful and subtle than the material forces of nature, like, for instance, electricity.”
Barbara Deming – Revolutionary Nonviolence
“…The challenge to those who believe in nonviolent struggle is to learn to be aggressive enough. Nonviolence has for too long been connected in people’s minds with the notion of passivity. I would substitute another word here – and rename “aggression” “self-assertion.”
“May those who say that they believe in nonviolence learn to challenge more boldly those institutions of violence that constrict and cripple our humanity (Deming).”
Gene Sharp – The Technique of Nonviolent Action
“The term nonviolent action refers to those methods of protest, noncooperation, and intervention in which the actionists, without employing physical violence, refuse to do certain things which they are expected, or required, to do; or do certain things which they are not expected, or are forbidden, to do. In a particular case there can of course be a combination of acts of omission and acts of commission.”
Dr. Mary Elizabeth King – Nonviolent Struggle in Africa: Essentials of Knowledge and Teaching
“Nonviolent action can work under myriad circumstances to realize major, positive social change with the possibility to transform conflicts and nations or to interrupt a cycle of vengeful violence. Nonviolent methods may be used preemptively and also to prevent severely disruptive strife. Knowledge of civil resistance can be a prime constituent of managing conflicts. With widening application of the technique, an evolution of thinking and practices is under way toward notions of waging conflict constructively, signifying the normality of human conflict and the expectation that it can knowledgably be fought without violence, often with positive results for all parties.”
Leymah Gbowee – 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
“It [The Nobel Peace Prize Award] has come at a time when in many societies where women used to be the silent victims and objects of men’s powers, women are throwing down the walls of repressive traditions with the invincible power of non-violence. Women are using their broken bodies from hunger, poverty, desperation and destitution to stare down the barrel of the gun. This prize has come at a time when ordinary mothers are no longer begging for peace, but demanding peace, justice, equality and inclusion in political decision-making.”
Dolores Huerta – Interview on PBS News Hour
“When we started organizing the farm workers people would say, ‘how are you going to organize the workers? You know, they don’t speak English, they are not citizens. They don’t have any money.” But we would say to the workers, ‘you have power.’ And they would say, ‘what kind of power do we have?’ It is in your person and you together with other people, the workers, you can make the difference. But you have to remember that nobody is going to do it for you. If you don’t get out there and try to solve your own problems it’s never going to change. And that same message applies to everyone. Every one of our segments of society that are trying to make positive change and fighting for social justice, this is what we have to do: come together, organize, push back, take that direct action and then we can make the world a better place.”
Reflection Question: Choose one of the nonviolent voices above and read their essay/speech/article/interview. Choose one quote from that work that resonates with you by either reinforcing and crystallizing something you already belief or helping you develop a new perspective. Share that quote with us in the comment section and how it resonates with you.
“It proved very practical to act on the assumption that not all among them need be labeled permanently ‘enemy.’ Those engaged in nonviolent battle simply act on this assumption in the boldest degree.” – Barbara Deming, On Revolution and Equilibrium
This idea presented by Barbara Deming in On Revolution and Equilibrium is for me one of the most beautiful aspects of nonviolence as it is expressed during conflict. I’ve written on this blog before about how much the practice of forgiveness means to me personally, and how much a value it generally. Although Deming doesn’t use the word “forgiveness,” it’s at the base of what is required if one is to accept an evolving definition of the “enemy.” Nonviolence hopes to change the enemy into the equal – to do so is certainly not easy, and some individuals find it impossible. But if we engage in nonviolent conflict with the small knowledge in the back of our minds that our eventual success will one day be dependent upon this change, I do believe nonviolent movements will gain valuable momentum.
“When people know you are trying to help them and are sincere they respond.”
Sincerity is one of the most powerful forces that we have. I loved this quote because it resonates with the power of authenticity and relationships as more powerful than ideologies and shared backgrounds. Even more, I love that she says help them, which assumes that those not being oppressed are acting as allies or standing in solidarity. Fundamentally, this is the only way in which oppressed individuals can become liberated.
“My daily experience, as of those who are working with me, is that every problem lends itself to solution if we are determined to make the law of truth and nonviolence the law of life. For truth and nonviolence are, to me: faces of the same coin.” — Mohandas Gandhi
I feel like this quote represents how I try to approach life, though I’ve never been able to articulate it like this before. My core being is motivated to always come to solutions that try to satisfy every side in some way, therefore keeping trying to keep the peace. I believe compromise helps pave the way for a nonviolent solution achieved with some benefit to every side of a conflict. By trying to come to the bottom line of a problem, explore the truths of a situation, and work out a solution in a civilized and cooperative way, then in the end life can only be that much better. Though in many ways Gandhi wasn’t looking for compromise but abolition of a dictatorship, I feel this quote still represents the same basic principles.
I chose the following quote from “My Faith in Nonviolence” by Gandhi: “It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of nonviolence. In
daily life it has to be a course of discipline though one may not like it, like, for instance, the life of a soldier.” This quote illuminates a new perspective on nonviolence for me. I naturally think of nonviolence as inaction because the word often connotes the idea of pacifism. However, this and other quotes in Gandhi’s passage compare nonviolence to religion in that it requires discipline and faith to maintain.
Barbara Deming: “It is not possible to act at all and to remain pure; and that is not what I want, when I commit myself to the nonviolent discipline.”
I love this. Nonviolence isn’t meek. It isn’t easy or weak or passive or for the “pure.” It is hard and it is messy and the people that participate in civil resistance aren’t saints. Deming expresses the truth about nonviolence, not what people usually think about it.
That being said, I also love Richard’s quote! Injustice committed against one is an injustice for all.
” Nonviolence has for too long been connected in people’s minds with the notion of passivity. I would substitute another word here – and rename “aggression” “self-assertion.”- Barbara Deming
I think that it’s important to remember that non-violence resistance is not simply letting things happen or turning the other cheek but finding ways to stand up for what you believe in a powerful way in order to get results, make people think, and make things happen. It is aggression of a non-violent manner and a willingness to stand up for something you believe in and be angry without being violent. Being angry and demanding change is aggressive but doesn’t need to be violent.
“Our educational backgrounds, travel experiences, faiths, and social classes did not matter. We had a common agenda.” -Leymah Gbowee
This quote really resonated with me because I’ve experienced this mentality in multiple situations of which I’ve been a part. The women and girls that I had the privilege of working with in Guinea experienced many social injustices and many of them fought for equality through education. I watched women with stronger educational backgrounds educate those who wanted to learn basic math skills to gain more independence in running a small business. I saw Muslim and Christian women work together for the opportunity for their daughters to be in school. As a woman teaching in a very male dominated field, I often dealt with harassment and very strong opinions from my male colleagues; I was constantly blown away by Guinean women’s ability to deal with this injustices and persevere in fighting for equality when I was tired of it after such a short time.
I’ve seen a different side of this idea and another aspect of reframing history in my current school. I work with a range of families; some of my students are homeless, some are living in poverty in a more stable situation, some are coming from a range of lower to upper middle class backgrounds. The common agenda is always advocating for your child to the best of your ability, regardless of circumstance. I’ve seen, I hope to continue to see, these differences not matter in the grand scheme of trying to initiate change.
“We spoke truth to power when everyone else was being diplomatic” -Leymah Gbowee
I think so often people connect nonviolence to inaction. This quotation from Gbowee really spoke to me. Leymah and her sisters’ struggle against violence was not characterized by inaction. She and her fellow nonviolent leaders were able to utilize their bodies, their voices, and their leverage as women to help end the violent conflict in Liberia. She also uses her speech to cross political/diplomatic bounds to try and unite women all over the globe to promote peace and continue their nonviolent struggles.
Gene Sharp – “Nonviolent action has a long history but because historians have often been more concerned with other matters, much information has undoubtedly been lost.”
We have read and posted quite a lot about re-framing history and Sharp really hits the nail on the head in terms of why it is so absent from our older histories. The practice of history is nothing new and neither is the practice of non-violence. He cites actions by the plebeians in Rome in the 5th Century BCE as a time of non-violence that was not labeled as such at the time.
I think it is dangerous to read twenty- and twenty-first century concepts into ancient history, but I also think it is essential to embrace the humanity of individuals in history and recognize that what they may not have called non-violence most-likely came from the same place within themselves that we find non-violence today.
“Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong” – Gandhi, My Faith in Nonviolence
This quote stood out to me because of the irony of the statement – the juxtaposition of “weapon” with “nonviolence.” It resonated with me because it speaks to the strength of one who chooses nonviolent action. So often nonviolence is associated with passivity, and this quote blows that notion out of the way by declaring that nonviolence is a weapon of the strong. It evokes a sense of passion, courage, resilience, and bravery to describe nonviolence. The quote differentiates nonviolence not as apathy of the weak, but as a strategy for the strong.
“we were the conscience of the ones who had lost their consciences in their quest for power and political positions” – Leymah Gbowee
I chose this quote initially because I’m attracted the idea of a quest and what puts each of us on our individual quests. In sitting with the quote for a few minutes and considering is gravity, I also choose it because it suggests that is is never too late for people to change. Gbowee claims that the women she galvanized believed it was possible to remind the avaricious leaders of her country that there was another, better path for them to return to and that they would not turn back until it was recognized. This is powerful. It is a nearly impossible thing to return someone to their former innocence, and Gbowee demonstrates that they tried to do this through their own moral fortitude and resilience.
It was a pleasure reading each of these seven authors. The quote I choose is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham jail:
” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country”
This quote resonates with me at several different levels. At the most basic level, it validates a career in development and poverty alleviation. It says that there is something moral, noble and correct in recognizing the “inescapable network of mutuality”. International aid, despite all of its many flaws, at its core says “We are our brothers keeper”, and whether it is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) or other grandiose plan, recognizes that what affects one poor person in some far off remote country, affects us all indirectly.
Development agencies and development practitioners ( including staff of international NGOs and volunteer groups like the Peace Corp) are often chastised as outside agitators especially when they challenge elites and their group/class. King says “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their priveledges voluntarily”. The “outside agitator moniker is never used by those being assisted and supported.
At the highest level, Dr. King calls us all to arms and reflects the best of the American dream, democracy, and justice. – anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country”