The choice for global nonviolence is sharper than ever

In the midst of the enormous suffering and upheaval that the pandemic is wreaking everywhere, a global course correction is beckoning.
(Pexels/Alexas Fotos)

The COVID-19 tsunami is leaving in its wake death and widening circles of destruction. But it is also making a dramatically obvious point: violence doesn’t help. 

Violence — which individuals and whole societies chronically reach for in the hopes of defending themselves, solving their problems or resolving their conflicts — makes no sense in coping with this dangerous reality. Violence will not flatten the curve of infection or heal those who have tested positive. If anything, violent policies and behavior — attacking the sick or restricting their access to treatment, or exploding into rage — will only worsen an already bad situation.

Instead, people everywhere are increasingly unleashing the power and spirit of nonviolent engagement: compassion, courage, resilience, sacrifice and concerted action for the common good. In the midst of the terror of this moment, these facets of active nonviolence are spreading everywhere as we mobilize to prevent transmission, treat the sick, console the dying, comfort survivors, and learn vital lessons from the awful toll that this cataclysm is taking. It is starkly apparent that these and many other nonviolent efforts, not violent reactions, are critical to getting through this crisis — and will be every bit as important as sheltering in place or washing our hands.

Toward a global shift

With many previous natural disasters, we have often witnessed a surge of goodness, connection and solidarity, as strangers have reached out to one another to ease their pain and suffering. What’s different with this pandemic is that it is touching virtually every person on the planet. The universality of this urgent predicament is challenging us, as never before, to extend the circle of care to the ends of the earth. 

It is also awakening us to the possibility of a long-term global shift.

The seeds of active nonviolence that are being planted in this dire time — by the courageous actions of countless health professionals; by those providing mutual aid for those plunged into financial desperation or going without food and shelter; by the millions who are maintaining physical distancing; and by all those responding in any helpful way to the suffering caused by this omnipresent threat — could give rise to something even more powerful. After all, if violence doesn’t work in responding to this emergency — and organized love, empathy, and care are the most practical and effective solutions — it just makes sense to carry on eschewing violence and pursuing nonviolent options once the pandemic passes.

What if we went on to apply this global nonviolent response to COVID-19 to all the other emergencies bearing down on us?

What if, in the wake of this crisis, we really got the lesson that violence is not only traumatic and destructive, it’s ineffective and counter-productive? What if we finally saw that we are trapped in a worldwide culture of violence and that we’re called to the hard work of resisting and dismantling it, and building one where everyone counts? What if we got in our bones that it is nonviolent actions, but also a nonviolent mindset, that help us engage, transform and heal our conflicts and solve our problems? What if we were able to ground our lives — and our world — in nonviolent strategies to improve our relationships, prevent conflicts, heal trauma, resist injustice, and build more just, peaceful and sustainable cities, nations and societies? 

If it takes an emergency to reject violence and to ramp up our nonviolent approaches, what if we went on to apply this global nonviolent response to COVID-19 to all the other emergencies bearing down on us? What if we pooled our people-power to systematically tackle climate change, eradicate poverty, feed a hungry planet, end racial injustice and dismantle gender inequity with the transforming, nonviolent power of empathy, resistance, creativity and constructive action?

What if we realized that we are at an historic crossroad?

At the crossroads

As part of his model for social change entitled the Movement Action Plan, the late Bill Moyer highlighted the importance of what he termed a “trigger event,” which he defined as “a shocking incident that dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the general public in a new and vivid way … [it] instills a profound sense of moral outrage in the general populace … [it] is also a trumpet’s call to action.” 

Drawing on this idea, author and nonviolent activist Bob Aldridge sees COVID-19 as a “trigger event,” which, like previous ones, could either lead to an increase in systemic violence and injustice — doubling down on our global culture of violence — or prompt a shift for breathtaking change. 

“These events can be used by the power-holder to justify new policy; as 9/11 triggered the ‘War on Terror.’ Or, they can trigger social action. The arrest of Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery bus boycott,” Aldridge writes. “Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March Satyagraha was enhanced by the shock from the Great Depression, which distracted Britain’s attention and motivated Indians to be self-sufficient. It was the ‘trigger event’ for the Salt March Satyagraha.”

This dramatic shift hinges on our being willing to join an emergent, global movement for change rooted in the vision, principles, and methods of active nonviolence.

The current pandemic is a trigger event throwing in sharp relief the structural injustices of the current system (including the lack of universal health care worldwide; the widening gap between the rich and the poor; skyrocketing environmental destruction; growing political corruption; and massive budgets for war) but also a new resolve for a world that works for everyone. 

This moment could be used by power-holders (Moyer’s term for policy-makers) to increase authoritarianism, surveillance, military systems, and stripping of civil and human rights. Or it could mobilize a global movement for a more humane and ecologically sustainable planet, with even the emergence of swift impacts as the world collaborates in rising up for deep structural healing and transformation.

Aldridge’s is convinced that we are on the threshold of the latter — but this dramatic shift hinges on our being willing to join an emergent, global movement for change rooted in the vision, principles and methods of active nonviolence. 

Mobilizing nonviolence, a force for goodness

Bob Aldridge’s conviction is rooted in a conversion to the power and possibility of nonviolence he experienced almost half a century ago. 

After World War II, Aldridge became an engineer and worked for Lockheed, a military aerospace corporation, where he worked on the design of five generations of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. He was the design team leader for the D-5 missile deployed on the Trident submarine. 

But the Catholic Aldridge was challenged by his daughter on moral, religious and humanitarian grounds. As peace studies scholar Tom Hastings writes, she “challenged him to really think about what he was doing. It took years, but he eventually made the major personal decision to leave a lucrative life and devote himself to researching the war system and offering his findings to those who might be able to use them.” Over the decades since then, Aldridge has written a series of books exposing the political and moral risk of the weapons he worked on, and other aspects of war and peace. At the same time, he has been a strong proponent of, and participant in, nonviolent action.

In the midst of the enormous suffering and upheaval that the pandemic is wreaking everywhere, a global course correction is beckoning.

Aldridge’s sense that we are standing at an historic crossroads is grounded in the research he did for his most recent book “The Goodness Field: A Guidebook for Proactive Nonviolence.” In this text, Aldridge sweeps away the stereotypes of nonviolence that see it as weak and limited. Nonviolence, on the contrary, is a force for goodness that pervades the entire universe, he declares. “Nonviolence is the only way to overcome evil,” Aldridge writes, an assertion backed by the series of compelling representative cases in his book. This goodness force — in the scientific sense of the four fundamental forces of nature — “is guiding evolution to make the Universe good for living,” a conclusion that Aldridge, ever the engineer, works out using scientific data and logical deduction. His analysis reveals the universality of nonviolence and how its power is available to all of us.

But Aldridge doesn’t stop there. He calls us to take the “goodness field” seriously and join in building a “Global Constructive Program” and a “Global Satyagraha Movement” (borrowing Gandhi’s neologism, satyagraha, meaning “truth-force” or “soul-force”) to respond to our smothering and destructive culture of violence and injustice with risky and determined nonviolent resistance. 

In the midst of the enormous suffering and upheaval that the pandemic is wreaking everywhere, a global course correction is beckoning.

The choice for global nonviolence is sharper than ever.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.