The twentieth century left us a double legacy. On the one hand, it was a time of great cruelty and violence; on the other hand, and perhaps from that very crucible of violence, we saw manifestations of a new kind of power--or rather, new uses of an age--old power--that can lead humanity to a far better future. In the years since Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated the power of nonviolence to free India from colonial rule and Martin Luther King Jr. employed it to liberate people of color from some of their oppression in the United States, countless peoples around the world--from Manila to Moscow, Cape Town to Cairo, and in the Occupy movements worldwide--have had varying degrees of success using one or another aspect of nonviolence to loosen the bonds of exploitation and oppression.
The practice of nonviolence touches on something fundamental about human nature, about who we wish to be as individuals or as a people. Gandhi stated simply, "Nonviolence is the law of our species."1 Dr. Vandana Shiva, a renowned leader of rural resistance in India, said in a recent lecture that if we do not adopt nonviolence we risk compromising our humanity. Likewise, Iraqi Kurdish activist Aram Jamal Sabir said that although nonviolence may be harder and may require greater sacrifice than violence, "at least you don't lose your humanity in the process."2
We might contrast this with the appallingly high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide among today's American servicemen and women. As one of them told a documentary filmmaker, "I no longer like who I am. I lost my soul in Iraq." Another told a friend of mine, who was on his way to the Middle East as part of a Christian Peacemaker team, "I am still haunted by the things we did " I would give anything to be able to go back and undo some of the things we did. But I can't. But at least I can thank you with all my heart for doing what you do." Through these words, which are a testimony to human nature, we glimpse both the costs of violating that aspect of our nature and the path toward its redemption.
It is not surprising, therefore, that here and there the significance of nonviolence has begun to be recognized by people looking for a new story of human nature and human destiny, who find themselves searching for a badly needed higher image of humanity. Frankly, our present worldview and the institutions based on that worldview take violence as a norm, and shifting that basis could lead to a leap forward in cultural evolution. It could resolve or show us how to resolve our economic, environmental, personal, and international problems. In short, the full recognition of nonviolence could rewrite the story of human destiny.
However, at this time most people do not understand the dynamics of nonviolence fully, if at all. Few people know its potential or exactly how to use it to liberate themselves and all of us from greed, tyranny, and injustice. Nonviolence may be embedded in our nature, as Gandhi said, but it cannot emerge into our lives and institutions until it is much better understood. Episodes of nonviolence are constantly cropping up, but to use it safely and effectively--and certainly to use it for lasting change--requires knowledge and planning.
Fight, Flight, and the Third Way
Nonviolence seems to be rare, even the exception, and its potential--perhaps even its mere possibility--is rigorously ignored by policy makers. Violence, or deliberate harm to another's person or basic dignity, is so common as to seem ubiquitous, especially when we include, as we should, structural violence--the exploitation or dominance built into a system. But the seeming ubiquity of violence and rarity of nonviolence turns out to have more to do with the way we see the world than with the way the world really is. The way we practiced science until the twentieth century, for instance, tended to emphasize materialism, separateness, and competition, leading to the image of "nature red in tooth and claw." It is only recently that science has undergone a remarkable shift toward a more balanced vision not only of human nature but also of nature and evolution in general. This development has the greatest significance for nonviolence but has yet to make its way into the prevailing worldview.3
Another reason we are not more aware of instances of nonviolence, and the reason it all too often seems ineffectual or to end up with a disappointing sequel, as in Egypt and Syria, is that modern culture does not prepare us very well to understand a positive, nonmaterial force. Indeed, the word nonviolence itself is part of the problem. Non-violence implies that the real something, the default condition, is violence, and that nonviolence is just its absence--in the same way that many people still think of peace as merely the absence of war. They are turning truth on its head, and artificially limiting our options.
If we are unaware of nonviolence, we will tend to believe that our only response to an attack is to give in or to fight back--the fight-or-flight response. From the perspective of nonviolence, this is really no choice at all. Either approach--passively allowing violence to be used against us (or, for that matter, someone else) or reacting in kind--will only serve to increase the violence. Our real choice is not between these two expressions of violence; instead, it's the choice that opens when we don't want to take either approach. Then we want to confront violence with an alternative, with what Andrew Young, citing an old spiritual, called a "way out of no way."4
Nonviolence offers us a viable, natural third way out of the fight-or-flight conundrum. The twentieth-century discoveries of relativity and quantum reality showed us that nothing is as separate as it seems. Similarly, there is now a good deal of evidence that empathy and cooperation are in fact the dominant forces in evolution, that human beings and other primates are equipped with "mirror neurons" that enable us to share what another is feeling, that self-sacrifice can produce intense rewards in the nervous system--and, of course, that nonviolence is an extremely effective tool for social change.5
Natural as nonviolence may be, however, there is no denying that empathy and care for the well-being of someone who's against us do not come easily. It can be quite a struggle, but it's encouraging to remember that this very struggle is the source of nonviolent power. As King put it, "The phrase 'passive resistance' often gives the false impression that this is a sort of 'do-nothing method' in which the resister quietly and passively accepts evil. But nothing is further from the truth. For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong."6
To be angry at injustice and to fear harm are natural human responses. The point is not whether we have the "right" to be frightened or outraged but how we can use that fear or outrage to change a situation most effectively. As a preeminent nonviolence scholar, Gene Sharp, has pointed out, the first thing an oppressed people must do is to overcome the paralyzing fear that has kept them down.7 In Chile, for instance, constitutional means were enough to bring down Augusto Pinochet in 1989 and to end the nation's long nightmare of military rule, but first they had to overcome their fear, which gave them the creative power for action.
No doubt we will have to undergo this personal struggle against our "natural" feelings many times, but it does eventually become a habit. And when we can express our fear or anger as creative energy, the creative power of nonviolence is in our hands. Emotionally, we are neither running away in fear nor attacking in anger; we are resisting in love. In terms of our conscious intention, we are neither looking to "win" nor afraid of losing; our aim is to grow, if possible, even along with those opposing us.