The Power of Active Non-Violence
Everybody feels anger at one moment or another. Whether it be after the thousandth time that your husband left the toilet seat up, or the time that you were on your bike and the car beside you cut you off, or when you hear of billionaires avoiding their fair share of taxes, you could feel anger welling up inside you. In those moments of anger, what do you do? We will come back to that a little later.
It is very common to want to combat violence with violence. Our movies are full of that kind of justice. The bad guys perpetrate atrocities and the good guys use violence to punish them; and everybody applauds and nods their heads in acquiescence. After hearing that the American authorities were separating migrant children from their parents, who did not want to give Trump a good old fashion beating?
We must seriously ask ourselves this question: What happens when we correct an injustice with violence? Yes, to beat up Trump would give us a certain satisfaction. But, in the end, by doing so, have we really changed anything? Trump’s heart is as hard as ever and we’ve just hardened our own. And as soon as he gets the opportunity, I can guarantee you that Trump would give us an even stronger beating.
Therefore, if we are looking for a lasting change, it is better to use the weapon of non-violence. I invite you to listen to Erica Chenoweth’s Ted Talk on the use of non-violence to effect political change. Briefly, Erica is a professor at the University of Colorado. She believed that to effect political change, you had to use violence. As examples, she would cite the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. Somebody then challenged her to prove that violence was more effective than non-violence in order to effect political change. She accepted this challenge.
She did an extensive study on all violent and non-violent campaigns to topple a government or for the liberation of a territory from 1900 to 2006. There were hundreds of cases. The data was quite revealing. The non-violent campaigns had succeeded twice as often than the violent ones. And within the last 50 years, there is a gradual increase of successful non-violent campaigns.
What’s more, the successful non-violent campaigns have a greater chance of longevity; in other words, a government that was instilled by non-violent means, had a much better chance of lasting a long time and to put in place democratic institutions.
Why is it so? It seems the answer resides in the power of the people. In a non-violent campaign, everybody can participate: from the youngest to the oldest, male and female, disabled or not, city or rural dweller, etc. But in a violent campaign, it is mostly young men who participate. The data demonstrated that non-violent campaigns were in general 4 times larger in terms of participants.
Let’s come back to anger. All those people who participated in those non-violent and violent campaigns were angry against something or someone. It is anger that pushes us to act. Let’s take the example of the cyclist that gets cut off. It’s the fifth time this month that he gets cut off and he’s had enough. He can decide to do nothing and allow his anger to foment, possibly turning into rage. He can decide to catch up to the car driver at the next red light and tell him off (road rage). He can decide to join a group of cyclists who advocate for better conditions for themselves. Clearly, the best solution is the last one, but it is also the most demanding.
Let’s transpose this anger that we feel to when there is a breach of human rights. There have always been people who suffer injustices. We merely have to look at the lives of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and others to see how these people succeeded in channelling their anger against the great injustices on their people and the non-violent campaigns that transformed their societies.
The impact of non-violent resistance
Why do the Gandhis, the Kings, and the Romeros of this world choose the way of non-violence? And why do the Castros, the Robespierres and the Stalines choose the way of violence? I believe that the people who choose the way of non-violence have succeeded in cultivating an inner peace. They have succeeded in choosing to love their enemy, to also see him as a child of God. They have succeeded in understanding, as Jesus, that those who perpetrate atrocities “do not really know what they do for they do not understand the love of God”.
As mentioned before, one of the important factors of non-violent campaigns is the fact that they are much more inclusive than violent ones. Many more people participate in non-violent campaigns. But another important factor is the impact of non-violent strategies on the oppressors. The fact of not returning the violence to someone who is violent against us, cannot help but disarm the other. And if we go further, to choose to love the other who harms us, is to want him to transform his heart.
Let’s examine more closely Jesus’ words when he says, “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the other one”. We must place that sentence in its proper socio-political context. In Jesus’ time, the use of the left hand was unclean. Therefore, to strike someone, you had to use your right hand. To strike someone on the right cheek, you had to use the back of your hand. In Jesus’ time, a master could thus strike his slave, a man could thus strike his wife, etc. if he found his “inferior” had acted improperly. But you did not strike your equal with the back of your hand. The inferior person’s normal reaction when struck by the back of the hand was simply to accept it.
But Jesus, by saying to “offer the other cheek” is not an invitation to get struck again. It is an act of non-violent resistance. Why? In Jesus’ time, a superior struck an inferior only with the back of his hand. Therefore, to be able to strike his inferior who offered his left cheek, the superior would have to use his left hand. And to do so would mean to admit that he was committing an unclean act. So, Jesus’ profound message is to invite people to resist injustice and violence by non-violent means and not to accept them passively.
The story that comes to my mind is the one of Rosa Parks, a Black American woman, who, in 1956, refused to cede her bus seat to a White passenger. The White people on the bus were surely indignant, particularly the person who had asked her to cede her seat. But the White people, maybe much later on, may have started to ask themselves questions about their white privilege and the injustice perpetrated against Blacks.
I have worked on behalf of refugees since 1994. I have met many people who have been subjected to injustices. I would like to tell you now about one family who tried to resist non-violently to an injustice it suffered.
In the ‘90s, a young female teen-ager from Mexico was raped by a man who was in the upper echelons of the judiciary in one of the Mexican states. During the months that ensued the rape, she did not share it with her mother or any other family member because she was ashamed. Her behaviour had significantly changed; she was depressed, had lost her taste for life. Her mother finally discovered what had happened. However, not long afterwards, the girl committed suicide.
The mother started to use all the legal means at her disposal to obtain justice. But the system was corrupt. She, and other members of her family, started to receive threats. The mother started a campaign to gain justice for her daughter. She mobilized thousands of people to participate in peaceful demonstrations. But the threats persisted to the point that she and her family members were forced to find refuge in Canada.
Even though she was not successful, it does not mean that her campaign was a failure. In mobilizing so many people, she raised awareness within the population about corruption in the upper echelons of governmental authorities in Mexico and the importance of non-violent acts. In doing so, she has possibly started to pave the way for a more just system in the future. It was only 17 years after the Indian salt march, initiated by Gandhi, that India gained its independence from the British Empire.
What’s important to remember here is that when we fight for justice and peace, there will be consequences. If we do it violently, as mentioned beforehand, we become as our oppressor. But if we do it non-violently, we risk not only building a more democratic society, but we also risk changing many hearts, including those of our enemies.
Yes, there will always be a chance that we will get hurt, even killed, when we resist injustice. But when that resistance is done with love, there will be seeds that will be planted in many hearts. Think of somebody who was assassinated because of his fight for love, justice and peace. How many people were inspired afterwards?
So, when people fight for just causes who must take refuge here in Canada, we have a responsibility to welcome them. In Canada, we do not have a brutal regime that kills its opponents. We are a welcoming land. We have an obligation to protect people who flee oppressive regimes. That is our part. And hopefully, we will learn some lessons by being around refugees and accompanying them in their journeys; lessons that speak of love, non-violent resistance and of different peoples living together in harmony.