Twenty years ago, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, I wrote the pamphlet, “Hope or Terror” to point out the strange coincidence that — almost a century earlier — on Sept. 11, 1906 Gandhi launched satyagraha, or active nonviolence, at the Empire Jewish Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa. I called these two Sept. 11 events “signposts for two paths that can be taken by the human race,” violence or nonviolence. We know what path the world seems to have chosen. Yet, on the day before he died, Martin Luther King Jr. warned a packed church audience in Memphis that the only real choice is “nonviolence or nonexistence.” And that only becomes clearer with the march of events from then to now.
There are hopeful signs, I’m glad to report. Amid the endless march of war the United States has undertaken since 1945, there’s been a steady global rise of nonviolence — not just as a tool for national liberation, as Gandhi used it, but in seemingly inexhaustible applications to human betterment at every level, from the individual to global.
It’s amazing to me how nonviolence carries with it a solution for every problem violence throws across our path. What is terrorism, after all? An acute sense of separateness from others, leading to alienation from the universe and indeed from oneself. A cry of despair from a heart of helplessness. Yet there is nothing more empowering that can happen to a human being than to discover the seed of nonviolence hidden with us.
As I have found in my limited experience, this discovery, inspiring enough in itself, also makes it unmistakable that what we’re discovering is not our private possession, but rather the human inheritance. We draw closer to others, on a deep level, even as we’re discovering this tool for saying no to their hurtful behavior without negating their humanity. On the contrary, when we “offer satyagraha,” as Gandhi put it, we are offering the erstwhile opponent a way to stop hurting us (which means to avoid their own moral injury, however little they may be aware of it at first) and to break down their alienation. In a word, we’re asking them to rediscover their own dignity. In fact, when the Philippine people rose up to expel the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the famous 1986 “People Power Revolution,” the word they used for “nonviolence” was “alay dangal,” or “offering dignity.”
Violence hurts both ways, the perpetrator as well as the victim. Nonviolence also operates in both directions, but with the opposite effect: to heal and reconcile, to elevate humanity to that extent every time we use it.
Of course, how to use it isn’t so simple. A lot of subtlety builds around that core simplicity, as well as a lot of struggle — but it’s well worth it, not just for ourselves, but for our world, our planet and our future.
Michael Nagler will be working with World Beyond War in December to host a weekly study circle of his book, “The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature.” The study circle will provide an in-depth exploration of nonviolence, how we can cultivate it and then apply it to solve the deepest crises facing us today. Register here.
We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?
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