The Possibility of a Nonviolent World

What is nonviolent action?

Gene Sharp is a political analyst who has been studying and publishing on the subject of nonviolent movements since 1951.  His studies centered at first on anti-Nazi resistance movements and the writings of Gandhi, but have grown remarkably in the last twenty years.  He has met with and advised political groups worldwide, including Burmese opposition groups on the Thai-Burma border, the Panamanian democrats protesting Noriega in the late 80s and students and opposition leaders in Beijing in 89, and was in Tiananmen Square as the troops first entered.

In his most recent major work, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Sharp defines nonviolent action as “a technique of action by which the population can restrict and sever the sources of power of their rulers or other oppressors and mobilize their own power potential into effective power. He identifies three major forms that nonviolent social action takes: protest and persuasion, noncooperation and intervention.

Forms of nonviolent attempts at protest and persuasion include protest marches, flying forbidden flags, rallies and vigils and distributing leaflets or pamphlets.  Forms of noncooperation include economic boycotts, labor strikes, civil disobedience, strikes by civil servants, noncooperation by police forces, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and non-obedience without direct supervision.  Nonviolent intervention is the final stage of non- violent social change, involving the establishment of alternative institutions, occupation of offices and the creation of parallel governments.

(Astute students of U.S. history will see virtually every one of these highlighted during either the prelude to the Revolutionary War or the Civil Rights movement.)

According to Sharp,

Symbolic protests, though in most situations quite mild, can make it clear that some of the population is opposed to the present regime and can help to undermine its legitimacy.  Social, economic and political noncooperation, when practiced strongly and long enough, can weaken the opponents’ control, wealth, domination and power, and potentially produce paralysis.  The methods of nonviolent intervention, which disrupt the established order by psychological, social, economic, physical, or political methods, can dramatically threaten the opponents’ control.

Sharp also exposes a number of widespead misconceptions about the process of nonviolent action.  Here is a list of major facts about nonviolent action that are often misunderstood.

  1. Nonviolent action has nothing to do with passivity, submissiveness or cowardice.  For any kind of nonviolent action to be effective, these are the first things that must be addressed and overcome.
  2. Nonviolent action can be very powerful and even coercive, but it is an “extremely different phenomenon from violence of all types.”
  3. Nonviolent action is not to be equated with simple persuasion or influence (asking people to be nicer and hoping they play along).  Nonviolent action is a set of techniques that force change involving psychological, social, economic and political power “in the matching of forces in conflict.”
  4. Nonviolent action does not depend on the assumption that people are inherently good.  Planners of nonviolent action will recognize that people have potential for both good and evil, including extremes of cruelty and inhumanity.  The use of nonviolent means, in fact, will be much more sober in granting both tools and responsibilities to individuals.  (See point 8.)
  5. Pacifism is not a prerequisite to use nonviolent action effectively.  In fact, Sharp notes that nonviolent action has more often been successfully practices by people with no commitment to pacifism.  As well, many sorts of pacifism will find nonviolent action unneeded, unwise or unacceptable.  (John Howard Yoder catalogs around 26 different varieties of pacifism in his Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism.)
  6. Success through nonviolent means does not depend on shared standards or principles between the contending sides.  “If the opponents are emotionally unmoved by nonviolent resistance in the face of violent repression, and therefore unwilling to agree to the objectives of the nonviolent struggle group, the resisters may [then] apply coercive nonviolence measures.   Difficult enforcement problems, economic losses and political paralysis do not require the opponents’ agreement to be felt.”
  7. In nonviolent action, there is no assumption that the opponents will refrain from using violence against the nonviolent resisters.  (As recent events in Iran aptly demonstrate.)  Nonviolent struggle, however, is capable and perhaps ideally suited to operate against violence.
  8. There is nothing in nonviolent action to prevent it from being used for both “good” and “bad” causes.  (For instance, if the American South was unwilling to work in desegregated schools, the U.S. Government would have had no ability to “force” their desegregation.)  However, the social consequences of the use of nonviolent means differ considerably from the consequences of using violence for the same ends.
  9. Nonviolent action is not limited to use within open democratic societies which grant voices to opposition.  It is commonly believed but simply untrue that only gentle and restrained governments can be opposed without resorting to violence.  Sharp observes that “nonviolent struggle has been widely used against powerful governments, foreign occupiers, despotic regimes, tyrannical governments, empires, ruthless dictatorships and totalitarian systems.  These difficult nonviolent struggles against violent opponents have sometimes been successful.”
  10. Finally, it is often believed that nonviolent struggle takes a long time to bring results, while violence tends to work quickly.  This is not true.  Many wars and violent struggles have been fought for years, decades or generations without tangible results, and some nonviolent struggles have brought victories incredibly quickly, sometimes within days or weeks of the movement’s beginning.

The abolition of war?

The idea of war being abolished or even de-legitimized sounds ridiculous and naive, to some even evil.  But Stanley Hauerwas, chair for the Duke University ethics department, has noted that as recently as two hundred years ago, not only did slavery exist in the civilized world, but its supporters could cite Catholic theologians like Thomas Aquinas who argued that it was part of the “natural moral order”—slaves were slaves because they were supposed to be.  Those opposed to the practice were considered idealistic and naive.  And yet, today, while slavery still exists in the world, nobody attempts to justify the practice as morally acceptable.

Is it is possible that two hundred years from now we may have made similar progress on the notion of war?  Not that we believe the world could be rid of war, but that war will no longer be seen as a morally progressive thing to do.  It is possible.  The sorts of strategies that Sharp describes in Waging Nonviolent Struggle would then become the de facto methods for social change and protest.

The fact that such strategies exist and have been demonstrated to work (Sharp’s text includes 23 case studies from the 20th century) should give all peace-loving people hope for the possibility of a world without war.  At the same time, the strategies must stand as a challenge to believers who stand in the just-war tradition, as a just war is one that comes only after all alternatives have been pursued.  It turns out that many alternatives are routinely ignored, making it very difficult for an honest just-warrior to support a given war.

The hope of the Christian

Where does this leave the Christian faith?  Substantially unchanged.  The Christian commitment to peace (whether pacifism or just-war restrictions) does not rely on the practical ability of the world to live at peace.  The Christian commitment to peace rests on the fact that war has already been abolished in Christ, though that abolition is still manifesting itself in the world.  And it rests on the commitment of the church to live as though the Kingdom of God is the defining reality of the world.

Still, I suppose a little less violence never hurt anyone.

What do you think?

  • Are the possibilities for totally nonviolent social change?
  • Will we ever see a world where war is actually condemned?
  • What role could a strong international police force play?
  • Some have claimed that the U.S. could have become independent without need for the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812 ever occurring.  Can you imagine that?
  • Do you agree with the statement that “the tyrant has the power to inflict only that which we lack the strength to resist”?

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