Wielding Truth and Nonviolence in the Fight of Our Lives

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Sixty-seven years after Gandhi’s assassination, we find ourselves in a world still direly in need of his influence. Half the members of the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate have proudly declared that they don’t believe human activity is causing climate change. The wealthiest 80 people worldwide – all billionaires – now have as much material wealth as the poorest 350 million. The triumph of ideology over reason and greed over compassion is frightening.
While I have never owned a television set, I perforce watch snatches of commercial television in the locker room of my health club; enough to horrify any civilized person. Recently I saw something about the film “American Sniper”. The film is extremely violent, full of lies (see this article) designed to glorify cowardly violence and dehumanization, making both seem “patriotic.” It has grossed $300 million. Sparing you further details, it would not be too much to say that this country is steadily descending into barbarism – and no country that did that has ever survived.
Many generations feel that they are up against the critical battle between good and evil, but this is different. For the first time in the history of life on earth one species – us – has the capability to make the planet uninhabitable and we don’t have the wisdom, or even the common sense, to refrain from doing it.
We are up against the fight of our lives.
In this fight, as Naomi Klein said recently, “we can’t beat them at their own game.” That is clear. But it’s equally clear that we don’t have to. Of course, by no stretch of the imagination could we hope to outspend or overcome by force the people propelling this march to destruction. Even one Koch brother could buy and sell the entire peace movement a thousand times over. But our natural weapons, so to call them, are far superior. If we learn to use them, in the words of Gandhi in Attenborough’s film, “we cannot lose. We cannot.”
Our weapons are truth and nonviolence. What I want to share here is something we may have overlooked about how to use them.
Recently Francis Fukuyama, who wrote The Future of History, pointed out that the left has failed to create “a plausible progressive counternarrative” to the prevailing conservatism. Postmodernism, feminism, etc., just don’t cut it, he pointed out. In the same vein Simon Johnson and James Kwak, economists speaking at MIT in April, 2012, said the Republicans have a “coherent, well-articulated” position on revenues: that society would be better if government, and thus taxes, would simply shrink. By contrast, in recent decades Democrats have never been able to settle on a coherent message about the need for greater taxes.
This is an absolutely critical failure. “Without a vision, the people perish.” The fact that the conservative (so-called) narrative is dead wrong matters not a bit if there is no alternative. Some would have us believe that there simply is no coherent progressive narrative: we’re just on the wrong side of reality. But the fact is that the underlying, and usually only implicit foundation story of our civilization is dead wrong, and does not admit of progressive reasoning, or progressive values. A pair of contrasting examples will clarify what I mean.
Back in the mid seventies when I brought out my first book on nonviolence, America Without Violence, that title caught the eye of a death row inmate in Florida, Ted Bundy. Back then serial killers were rare and I had heard of him and his horrific career. He wrote to me and we had a brief correspondence that was ended, of course, by his execution. Shortly before he died I asked him, ‘Ted, you have nothing but time on your hands in there; what do you do with it?’ ‘Oh, I watch murder movies on TV,’ he answered.
What must a person be thinking to let a man stir up the tortures in his already tortured mind? Well, they must think that a human being is only a body: a separate, material object doomed to compete with all others for ever-scarcer resources in an essentially meaningless universe. In other words they must think exactly what the mass media tell them to think; they must be unconsciously accepting the prevailing paradigm, sometimes called nowadays the “old story” that’s been with us since the industrial revolution. They must think, though they may not articulate it in so many words, that what happens in Ted Bundy’s mind – or anyone else’s – simply doesn’t matter.
It is not thus with the nonviolent. In the course of his speech called “The Other America” that he gave at Stanford on April 14, 1967 (the day before he flew to New York for the famous Riverside Church sermon against the war in Vietnam) Martin Luther King referred to the “millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.” We are body, mind, and spirit. King did not think it necessary to articulate this, it was implicit for him (and most of his audience) just as a the old, very different story was and still is implicit for the vast majority who accept violence, like the people in charge of death row at Raiford prison.
I think we have reached a point now where as long these contrasting stories remain implicit, we are lost. The prevailing story is catastrophic: “We live by story,” as evolutionist David Loye said, “and the story we live by is driving our species to extinction.” But this story is repugnant to common sense, counter to any sense we still have of who we are, and massively out of sync with both modern science and the timeless traditions of wisdom humanity has inherited. It will not survive exposure to a better alternative.
A graphic diagram of the Metta Center's Roadmap.
For this reason we have put New Story Creation into the scheme we developed at the Metta Center called Roadmap, a framework designed to help the “Movement of Movements” coalesce from the innumerable people and projects doing excellent work around the world, mostly in isolation. Informed as it is, we hope, by a very Gandhian spirit Roadmap takes us from personal empowerment to creating constructive alternatives to nonviolent resistance where that’s still needed. Personal empowerment, the foundation of it all, is where we get the old story out of our heads and the new story in. How? For starters, avoid the commercial mass media as much as possible, and fill that vacuum by learning everything you can about nonviolence.
How many of us are aware, for example, of the dramatic developments in the field of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP), based on Gandhi’s brainchild of a Shanti Sena or peace army of trained volunteers who would offer their services for protection and services such as rumor abatement and monitoring, in the extreme case of interpositioning themselves between conflicting parties? Until the recent studies by my colleague Randy Janzen of the Mir Centre for Peace at Selkirk College, I, for one, did not know that there were no less than 50 organizations between 1990-2014 that were offering this kind of intervention, in 35 regions. Twenty-two are operating as we speak, including the ambitious Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) that recently received a grant from the EU (nothing from the U.S., of course) to spend the next three years working in 45 locations in – believe it or not – Syria. Last month, on December 15to be exact, a resolution was passed by over 100 member nations of the UN containing a reference to “the initiatives of civil society… to enhance the physical safety of vulnerable populations under threat of violence and to promote peaceful settlement of disputes.” This was the first time a reference was made to UCP in a resolution of that august body. Over the next three months NP will also be training 150 people for work in five areas of South Sudan – one of the most intense conflicts in this intensely conflicted world.
A Catholic-based group called Operazione Colomba (Operation Dove), that I had the privilege of observing first hand in Rome and Palestine, is working in the lawless region of Northern Albania to help people break the cycle of blood-feuds, partly by being themselves committed “not to use violence and to respect human life” in all circumstances. And in the homeland of the Shanti Sena, Rajiv Vora of the Delhi-based Swarajpeeth is doing incredible work in Jammu and Kashmir, which could help to wind down one of the most dangerous confrontations in the world, between the nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. The secret of his effectiveness, for example among disaffected, radicalized youth who are a major factor here and elsewhere in India (and urban America, indeed) is a kind of rehumanization: “It is clear … that someone needed to go to them with goodwill, patience, compassion and consistency; selflessly and with unprejudiced mind.”
I mention all this here because it’s under the radar, and it’s under the radar because it doesn’t resonate with the prevailing image of the human being as separate, material, and locked into competition if not outright combat with others. It can only be explained if you are aware that a human being is a non-physical being deeply interconnected with others and the planet as a whole.
The core of this awareness, or new story, was summarized beautifully by a sage of modern India who visited the West, and particularly the United States in the 1950s on a mission — which apparently worked — to stave off the threat of World War Three (“man” here means of course the human being):

On the physical plane man is but an animal. On the intellectual plane he is a rational being. On the moral plane he is a power for good. On the spiritual plane he is a radiant being full of divine light, love, and bliss. Humanity’s ascent from one plane to another is its natural movement.

To assimilate this message, whether in these words or others of like import, and use it with confidence whenever we get the chance, will help powerfully to change the story and bring the full power of truth and nonviolence into our hands.

Michael Nagler is President and co-founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. He is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, a student of Sri Eknath Easwaran, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, and author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, Our Spiritual Crisis, and the HNonviolence Handbook. This article was adapted from a Season of Nonviolence talk that he gave in Sonoma County.