Wednesday, March 23, 2011

thoughts in my head: can nonviolence exist without violence?

Allow to me begin by thanking all of my new readers/followers for checking out this blog! I know my last post generated a lot of attention from various people (a special thanks to my friend Mary Day Saou whose photography blog you should definitely check out by clicking here!) and consequently, you’re here! So thanks!

 Since my last post I’ve been toiling away on a paper for the aforementioned Religion 238 class. We were asked to critique and explore an ancient text’s approach to violence/non-violence, for which I selected two passages from the Gospel of Matthew from the Christian Testament[1].  While wrestling with a thesis, it occurred to me that the very word nonviolence itself assumes its existence is contingent on violence. The more I thought on this, the more qualms I had with the very word itself; for me, nonviolence is far more pervasive and powerful than violence- so how could this be justified in a word which prefix and composition suggested the very opposite? And then, BAM, I had a thesis. So I’m going to share a chunk of my first draft here:

It would be easy to say that nonviolence is merely the absence of violence, which, considering the prefix of the word nonviolence itself suggests as much, seems to be a logical conclusion. I contend this statement, but in order to explain, we must first define the parameters and meaning of violence itself. Violence is any idea or action that is rooted in hatred; it can be psychological or physical, internal or external. Violence comes from within the individual and therefore can exist within only one person. Since all humanity is capable of violence it exists in all of us, which enables enormous acts of violence like the war in the Gaza Strip to occur.

Nonviolence, conversely, is an idea or action that comes from Love. This Love is powerful, transcendent, and most crucially it cannot exist in the vacuum of one soul. Love comes from the divine, explored in the Christian faith through the embodiment of God in Jesus Christ, and therefore by its very nature must exist between two souls: that of the divine and of the human. Love, like hate, has capacity in every soul and therefore can transform populations and people, toppling governments and creating unity. Love, unlike hatred, however, does this through the method of nonviolence and active resistance that honors and respects the integrity and precious gift that every human being is. Yet Love and hate are not inverses of each other; they are eternally held in tension with one another, for each emotion contains the same amount of power and capacity for change. Each requires the same vested amount of time and energy to commit fully to the depth of the feeling, leaving apathy as the inverse of both Love and hate.

Furthermore, because Love and hate are held in tension with one another we have the ability to dually love and hate, as though there were a magnetic weight strung on a string between two poles, each pulling the magnet towards themselves. We have the choice within this tension, the choice to either act upon Love or to act upon our own bitterness and hatred. What we choose defines who we are and the entire course of our subsequent lives. The Christian texts call upon us to be perfect and to choose Love, just as Christ chose Love for humanity. This command to act and work in the here and now validates our actions here on earth as profoundly consequential. We are, therefore, compelled to choose wisely.

Nonviolence, which ultimately is a path of Love, is not a passive act but rather a way of life that demands of its followers courage, vigilance, and endurance. To live into what Mahatma Gandhi referred to as our ahimsa means we must undergo the path less trod for the rest of our living days…

There is another five pages where I explore the duality of Love and hate, so if you want to read more say so in the comments and I’d be happy to share (once I finish editing, of course!).

While writing, I was still pondering Rachel Corrie and her tragic, complex death. Rachel herself was practicing Gandhian nonviolence tactics, but emails with her mother revealed her fundamental doubts about resisting without retaliation:

“I thought a lot about what you said on the phone about Palestinian violence not helping the situation. Sixty thousand workers from Rafah worked in Israel two years ago. Now only 600 can go to Israel for jobs … The count of homes destroyed in Rafah since the beginning of this intifada is up around 600, by and large people with no connection to the resistance but who happen to live along the border. I think it is maybe official now that Rafah is the poorest place in the world … What is left for people? Tell me if you can think of anything. I can't.
If any of us had our lives and welfare completely strangled, lived with children in a shrinking place where we knew, because of previous experience, that soldiers and tanks and bulldozers could come for us at any moment and destroy all the greenhouses that we had been cultivating for however long, and did this while some of us were beaten and held captive with 149 other people for several hours - do you think we might try to use somewhat violent means to protect whatever fragments remained? I think about this especially when I see orchards and greenhouses and fruit trees destroyed - just years of care and cultivation. I think about you and how long it takes to make things grow and what a labour of love it is. I really think, in a similar situation, most people would defend themselves as best they could. I think Uncle Craig would. I think probably Grandma would. I think I would.” (February 27, 2003)

Clearly, Rachel had legitimate reasons to fundamentally question her actions as useful or justified. But while she had these doubts, her death was ultimately an act of nonviolence and Love for the people whose home was about to be destroyed. In the same Von Klemperer article about Dietrich Bonhoeffer(The Terrible Alternative: Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century), Von Klemperer explains that while the situation Bonhoeffer was in was extreme, his actions were also dire. It’s back to that extremity of choice idea: are martyrs so compelling because they are so extreme? In the same email to her mother, Rachel explained that she did not think she was an extremist any longer:

“Anyway, I'm rambling. Just want to write to my Mom and tell her that I'm witnessing this chronic, insidious genocide and I'm really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don't think it's an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world. This is not at all what the people here asked for when they came into this world. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me. This is not what I meant when I looked at Capital Lake and said: "This is the wide world and I'm coming to it." I did not mean that I was coming into a world where I could live a comfortable life and possibly, with no effort at all, exist in complete unawareness of my participation in genocide. More big explosions somewhere in the distance outside.”

Rachel, unlike Bonhoeffer, was not planning an assassination as a means of ending the “chronic genocide.” But the odds she faced and the dire situation the people of the Gaza Strip were/are in is horrific. While writing to her mother there were explosions going off! I think she is completely justified in her absolute belief that the whole world needs to focus on stopping genocide.

But where?

I’ve been reading a great deal on Libya lately.  The horrific rape of a country and people is overwhelming. Where does it stop? 

I think it’s too late for nonviolent resistance in Libya. Does that mean I don’t believe in the power of nonviolence/Love/Christ/universal ahimsa? Is all that thesis-thinking proved false in the midst of a war with a tyrant like Qaddafi?

Or is it merely too late- too many wrong decisions, too many violent acts turning in on themselves creating an imploding reality bent on destruction because the voices of active, nonviolent resistance were not listened to? What then?
current jam: "flume" bon iver
best thing in my life right now: bon iver and my mom.
days until departure: 74

[1] Matthew 5: 38-48 and 10: 16-34


  1. Explore the idea of shalom as a word that means peace in a way that is bigger than the lack of violence. It is also the addition of abundance, joy, harmony, etc.

  2. thanks for the link, chica! I love that you're talking about holding things in tension. I also love that you describe nonviolence as an act of courage-- I would wholeheartedly agree.
    you pose some beautiful and heavy questions at the end there... i think i will go and ponder awhile.