There are two truths about practicing nonviolence that even many proponents of nonviolence often do not understand. The first is that while we may hope for world solutions by using the methods of nonviolence, the basis for being nonviolent has to be spiritually derived if such solutions are to be achieved. The second is that the beauty of nonviolence lies not in its success rate in changing one’s enemies or achieving world solutions, but rather in granting purpose, meaning and integrity to the lives of those who practice it.
Many reject nonviolence when applying it to terrorists and those hellbent on violence. It may have worked for Gandhi against British rule, it is argued, but it will never work against racists and extremists who have no conscience and would gladly wipe out all who refuse to use violence against them. Had we not taken up war against Hitler and the Nazis, they contend, we would not be free people today.
This, of course, is highly speculative. We didn’t try nonviolent resistance with the Nazis, so we really don’t know how that would have turned out. But even if all evidence supported the contention that they would have wiped us all out, enslaved us or otherwise took away our freedoms, is this sufficient reason to reject nonviolence?
Even if it is agreed that nonviolence is not “effective” against Nazis or any other terrorists, the goal of nonviolence is not conquering, subduing or ridding us of enemies, but rather affirming and enacting the only way by which mutual respect, shalom, justice and love can have any hope of being fostered.
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Violence in response to violence only breeds more violence. This we know, as history has repeated itself. We don’t know if nonviolence will work against Nazis and terrorists. It hasn’t been tried. No country has had the courage or the virtue to disarm itself in the face of violence, but has rather used the tactics of its enemies to justify using the same tactics.
Maybe it wouldn’t work, or maybe it would. We know violence doesn’t work. It would be wonderful if nonviolence would work if any nation had the character to follow Christ, Buddha or other sages of nonviolence. But the point is not being victorious over one’s enemies, but of showing humanity, nobility of spirit and character whether we live or die.
The real blessing of nonviolence is not its pragmatic effectiveness in overcoming the opposition, but rather the spiritual significance of overcoming the vileness of violence within oneself. Better to live and die for the sake of love, peace, justice and nonviolence than to have injured or killed one’s enemies by living by their opposites.
The one who believes in nonviolence until threatened with violence has no integrity of conviction and faithfulness to one’s principles. But those like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were willing to practice what they preached even when confronted by death at the hands of their enemies are the one’s we revere because they did not abandon character due to fears of what might happen to them or their followers.
They recognized that nonviolence is humanity’s only hope, and that it is better to die trusting in a greater vision of our humanity and the moral arc of the universe than to cynically live being convinced that such visions are illusory.
I’d rather live with the illusion that there is inherent goodness within us all and that even the most hateful and violent persons have the potential to be transformed toward love and peacefulness than to be alive in body but dead in spirit by assuming the worst about humanity. Evil is real, that is for sure. But evil doesn’t win within our own hearts and souls until we concede that it is stronger than the goodness within us all.
Bret S. Myers is the interim pastor at Faith United Church of Christ in State College.