Radical Peace: The Spiritual Basis of Non-Violent Direct Action

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, March 27, 2011

Of War and Violence

In 1832 the Prussian military general and theorist Carl Von Clausewitz famously described war as the "continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means". In an identical manner, Mao Zedong argued that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" and that "war is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions", that "the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution". This idea of war being something to aspire to is repeated by the reactionary popular novelist of the early 1920s, Ernst Jünger, who argued against the liberal values of freedom, of democracy, of security. Instead Jünger argued that war, the mixing of blood in steel into machinery for killing, was an a mystical experience elevated the individual.

What we are Unitarian-Universalists supposed to think of such claims? The suggestion that war is merely a different way of doing politics, or the highest form of revolution, or the greatest personal experience? In this Church, a memorial to those who dedicated their lives to the cause of peace? With our religion, founded on universal principles of freedom of conscience, expression and the unity of reason? As Hannah Arendt wrote in her influential essay, "On Violence", legitimate political power is only achieved through the approval of those that it effects, whether through reason, reputation or respect. A threat of violence, whether from an individual or through the organisation armed forces of the State, can force servility, or even execute those whom are disagreeable. But it will never be met with the approval of those that it is directed against and it has no lasting foundation. Indeed, the use of violence is the very antithesis of the use of reason. It is not politics by other means, but the very negation of politics. It is not the highest form revolution, but the ultimate tool of reaction. It does not provide a mystical elevation of the individual, but rather lowers one to the most prosaic and brutish.

The causes and cost of war is well known. The most typical motivation is acquisition of wealth, especially natural resources, the latter studied extensively in the last fifteen years and known as the 'resource curse'. Wars are inspired by ideology, inevitably with both sides in a conflict claiming moral superiority over the enemy. As an item of empirical sociology, wars are overwhelmingly fought by young men aged 16 to 30; if such a demographic suffers from a high degree of dislocation and impoverishment then the possibility of war becomes more serious. Northern Africa and the Middle-East has such a 'youth bulge' at the moment; the coming decade will see the effects in sub-Saharan Africa.

We may derive some joy in the fact that since the early 1990s the number and severity of armed conflicts has declined, notwithstanding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or the current popular uprisings in the Middle-East and Northern Africa. Even considering the most violent episode of human history, the Second World War, where some twenty million soldiers and forty million civilians perished through direct military action or associated diseases, the chance of a person dying due to military conflict has been in significant decline. Indeed, according to Professor Lawrence Keely's extensive study, endemic tribal warfare is twenty times more deadly than warfare in the twentieth century.

Radical Peace

We are becoming, albeit slowly, a more peaceful species. There is still debate over whether an absolute opposition to war should be an objective or a principle, or whether one should apply the more pragmatic calculation of a utilitarian "just war" doctrine, where military intervention is minimised to the extent that it reduces overall suffering. Combining this calculus and the principle to reduce suffering a form of non-violent direct action has developed, more or less spontaneously by those who are opposed to that the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to fundamentalists. A documentary book by Professor William Hathaway under the title 'Radical Peace', explores the actions and motivations of these individuals. Hathaway, it must be noted, is a person who was trained and operated as a special forces soldier - a green beret - who has turned to a peace activist.

Hathaway writes of a janitor who has destroys computers at a defence contractor with electrical surges. "I'm sure the lost work and equipment has set back the war effort," he states, "and I'm looking forward to my next surge for peace." A man code-named Trucker burns military vehicles "What I'm doing", he says, "is depriving the military of their tools of violence. I'm decreasing their ability to harm people. Since they refuse to disarm, I'm doing it for them. I'd never set fire to a building because someone might be inside. I even look inside the trucks to make sure no one is sleeping there." A college student relates how she threw a rock through the windows of the local recruiting office after her friend returned from Iraq crippled - and discovered that the sound of breaking glass was very therapeutic.

From the United States, through Europe, into Iraq and Afghanistan, these saboteurs engage in direct action against the institutions that support war and violence. They slash tires, they cut the 'phone and electricity wires into recruiting offices, they paint over their billboards, they steal mail, they put superglue into their door locks. One even recounts how they derailed an arms shipment train, but admitting to taking extra care in targeting the middle of the train to minimise the possibility of anyone being hurt; harming people, according to these individuals, simply replicates the mindset they are trying to replace. Further, these militants acknowledge that their actions aren't a replacement for traditional organising and protest, but rather they are a necessary complement that needs to be expanded. A few individual acts of sabotage won't break the military-industrial complex, but the larger the number the less the ability to wage cavalier wars in foreign lands.

A Spiritual Tradition

There is a spiritual tradition to this policy of non-violent direct action. Four hundred years BCE Socrates argued with Crito, in a most remarkable passage, that one should never do harm to others even if they have been mistreated. Those from a Christian background would be familiar with the sermon on the mount, where Jesus argues that one should "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" and most vividly, "[i]f someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also". The usual interpretation of this passage is that when facing aggression would should expose oneself to even more aggression, rather than retaliating or avoiding it. This provided a foundation for Leo Tolstoy's Christian anarchism and pacifism. But there is also a literal interpretation as well; during the time of Jesus, striking a person of a lower class with the back of the hand was typical to assert dominance. If however, they literally "turned the other cheek" the authority figure would have to use an open-hand strike (as the use of the left-hand would be unclean). In doing so, they would recognising the equality of the person struck. Combining the two interpretations one discovers the fascinating combination of an active, pacifist response to violence that demands equality and challenges the moral authority of the violent.

This can also be combined with the verse from Matthew "they that take the sword shall perish with the sword". Again, the usual interpretation is that those who live by violence will die by violence, although the expression is sometimes used to indicate ironic justice. A less well-known interpretation was one espoused by Origen which recognised the use of the sword as a symbol of conscience and wisdom, a motif that is used throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures. In this two-edged interpretation those who live by the sword of violence may very well become plagued by the sword of their conscience as they come to realise the implications of their actions. We may recall perhaps with some sympathy, the words of Robert A. Lewis, the co-pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, when he wrote in the official log book "My God, what have we done?"

In the Dharmic religions - Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism - there is also a well-known tradition of non-violent activism known as Ahimsa. It is true that the Vedas advocate this primarily for vegetarianism and as a means to escape the the cycle of reincarnation, remembering the fundamental tenet of such religions is reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Despite this violence was accepted for self-defence, criminal law and military activity. In Islam as well, despite popular prejudices to the contrary, the rules of coercive action are very strict. The greatest misinterpretation occurs over the concept of jihad. Traditionally the greater jihad is a moral challenge within oneself, whereas the lesser jihad is the external struggle, especially against injustice. Specifically, only a defensive war is allowed in Islam; the Qur'an says "They were the first to attack you." Further, the book also notes a distinction which, using modern language, we would call the conflict between the ego and the conscience or what is described as naf ammara and nafs lawwama. Non-violent activism is seen as a path to awakens the conscience with the outcome that "he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend."

Non-violence activism as a method in contemporary times begins with the Unitarian Henry David Thoreau. His essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" was motivated by his disgust with slavery and American-Mexican war. In this specific context Thoreau argues that one should not limit oneself to voting for justice, but also to engage in direct action against the body which implements it, in this case, the refusal to pay taxes which funded slavery. His essay was highly influential on Mahatma Gandhi who credited Thoreau as being "the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America" and used his work to develop his own political strategy of satyagraha, or an "insistence on love and truth". It is distinguished from passive resistance, and its success is measured by the conversion, rather than coercion, of the wrong-doer. The theory argues that ends and means are inseparable; "be the change you want to see in the world". The influence of this theory was particularly notable in the U.S. civil rights movement. Rev. Martin Luther King responded approvingly of Gandhi's theory and wrote "As the days unfolded, however, the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom." In 2007 Nelson Mandela, a long admirer of Gandhi said: ""His philosophy contributed in no small measure to bringing about a peaceful transformation in South Africa and in healing the destructive human divisions that had been spawned by the abhorrent practice of apartheid."

An Assessment

It must be realised however that whilst a movement can be inspired by non-violence as an ideal and an objective, there are times when it may not always be possible. From Thoreau to Gandhi to Luther King and Mandela the policy of non-violent resistance seems particularly applicable for nominally democratic regimes, but less so for the more totalitarian and authoritarian. Gandhi's suggestion of non-violent resistance against the Nazis, for example, has come under some criticism. But even this is variable; nominally ruled by the same political philosophy, the two-week velvet or gentle revolution in Czechoslovakia, required but a two-hour general strike and a protest of a million. A month later, the dictatorship of Ceau?escu was overthrown, but only after the loss of a thousand lives as the Securitate fought against the popular uprising. In a more contemporary setting we can compare the relatively easy political transformations through mass protest in Tunisia and Egypt to the bloody events that are now occurring in Libya and Yemen. It would seem from these experiences that whilst non-violent direct action is indeed the first and preferable method of political change, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, it seems probable that in a democracy it will have the greatest chance of success. Dictatorships, it seems, sometimes don't respect the will of the people and under these circumstances, perhaps minimal violence is the most utilitarian option; if a dog is rabid, you cannot reason with it, you must shot it.

This does lead to the issue of standing armies, and whether they are necessary. These are largely a modern phenomenon which are inevitably orientated towards invasion of other countries along with the modern police, which "invade" their own (unarmed) population, in accordance to the laws of the land and the spirit of maintaining the existing order, even if apparently at times the two accords conflict. The alternative to both these state institutions is the armed citizenry. These retains the the defensive characteristics of standing armies, and the prevention of criminal violence but removes the invasive characteristics standing armies. It was not the armed forces of Switzerland that prevented a Nazi invasion of that country, but rather an armed citizenry. This is studied extensively by Stephen Halbook in his book "Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich". Mention must also be made of Costa Rica; in 1948 following a disputed presidential election José Figueres Ferrer led a military coup. This military coup, during its brief rule, nationalised the banks, established a welfare system, established a democratic constitution, gave blacks and women the vote, abolished themselves for a new elected government and abolished the military. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has had no military coups, and has been involved in no wars.

The proportional size of an army and the extent of military trade is therefore the metric that from which we can judge dedication of a country to peace, to non-violent conflict resolution. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in the midst of the cold war, realised this and also the grim calculation of opportunity costs. I conclude with his words:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, March 27, 2011