Can Peace be Taught? by Greg Moses

Moses, Greg, “A Review of Robert L Holmes and Barry L. Gan, Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, 2nd Ed.(Long Grove, Ill: Waveland Press, 2005),” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26 (Spring – Summer 2006)

In this much expanded second edition, new co-editor Barry L. Gan joins Robert L. Holmes to produce a collection of 51 readings arranged into six parts. Following is a survey of the first three parts.

I.

Part one, on ‘origins’ is divided into three subparts: Eastern Religions, Abrahamic Religions, and Secular Sources. This part begins with a review of the ethics of Jainism, “the oldest philosophy based on nonviolence.”

For I.C. Sharma, author of “The Ethics of Jainism”, nonviolence is often born from experience with “suffering and death”; and so it was with Jainism’s great reformer, Mahavira, who sought “abrubt renunciation and the strictest possible ascetic life” as a way to break away from the human cycle of misery. Not only abstinence from violence, but from lying, stealing, sex, and possession—such were the strict codes of Jainist liberation.

If the renunciations were strictly followed, the ascetic could aspire to Moksa, a state of “infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite power, and infinite bliss.” For this discipline to work, selfishness must give way to self-realization in which “service and self-sacrifice” would be means for perfecting being. Nonviolence, therefore, would be pursued relentlessly in thought, word, and deed.

In the second reading, these elegant yet rigorous ethical principles are taken up by Lao Tzu and applied to less ascetic pursuits, such as the management of the state. “He who delights in the slaughter of men will not succeed in the empire,” warned the sage in his verses on “Armies”. For Lao Tzu, victory in war is most properly celebrated at funerals (No. 31).

Deep love, frugality, humility; a wise contentment with small things; and attention to our own strange habits rather than to faults of others—these are the counsels of the legendary author of the TaoDeChing. But why would he encourage such things if they were already the norm? Behind the peace he bids with verse, we hear background commotions from his time and ours.

From the Buddha, reading number three brings excerpts from the Dhammapada on violence, justice, and the Brahmin. A brief introduction explains the law of karma, where every little thing tends in one direction or another and “little by little” every small thing we think, say, or do may begin to trace a path of great reversal. Of the Brahmin, says Buddha: “He neither kills nor helps others to kill”.

Gandhi’s beloved Bhagavad-Gita receives brief treatment in reading four. “It is pre-eminently a description of the duel that goes on in our own hearts,” said Gandhi about the long dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. In the end, suggests Doris Hunter, the ethical lesson of the text is deontological: we must perform our duty, because that is the only control we know.

Turning to the Middle East, the second subpart revisits nonviolence in the great traditions of the Abrahamic religions whose one God–Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah—initiated a remarkable worldly career by adopting a native-born son of Iraq.

Reuven Kimelman glosses nonviolence in the Talmud, where ancient records of Palestinian Rabbis quote Rabbi Simeon ben Abba’s take on what in Christendom goes by the name of the ‘Old Law’: “Not only he who returns evil for good, but even he who returns evil for evil, ‘evil will not depart from his house’”–which leaves no room but to do good, period.

As a practical illustration for ordinary affairs, this same source teaches that even if you see your enemy frustrated by a sitting donkey, you are obliged to help pick up “the ass of one who hates you.” Thus spake Rabbi Alexandri.

Writes Kimelman, “the Midrash offers a two-point program for reconciliation. First, control your urge to hate. Second, act in such a manner that your enemy will become your friend.” In further sections of the reading, Kimelman reviews killing and self-suffering in more detail, with reference also to modern-day sources such as Richard B. Gregg’s concept of nonviolence as “moral jiu-jitsu” and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s, concept of “cosmic companionship.”

How did early Christianity conquer the Roman Empire? In reading number six, Lawrence S. Apsey reminds us that nonviolence was the way. “During this period, Christians refused to serve in the army; and there is no direct evidence that they ever used force against the bloodthirsty persecutors to which they were subjected.” Apparently, these early Christians lived in close encounter with the example set by the founder of the sect when he was faced with the onslaught of empire close up.

As for Islam, Wasim Siddiqui argues that the concept of peace derives from “the unity of all existence: inanimate, plant, and animal.” Complete surrender to Allah is thus a kind of declaration of peace will all things, but most especially with that one called self. “Islam promotes peace in society by emphasizing to individuals their roles as recipients of God’s grace and custodians of the earth.” We are each “individual expressions of God created from one Soul.”

For secular classics, the editors present Plato and Thoreau. For Socrates, whose alleged secularism proved to be a fatal charge in his day, “fear of death is pretense of wisdom”; even in the face of evil coming, ‘tis better to suffer evil than to do it; and if we respect the structure of law, we submit ourselves dutifully to verdicts of juries.

“But when friction comes to have its machine,” writes Thoreau, “and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.” To a state more concerned with “commerce and agriculture” than with “humanity” Thoreau says the time comes when we must tend to justice, “cost what it may”.

“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations,” argues Thoreau; “it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.”

Such are the classic texts of the origins of nonviolence, presented from sources in India, Iraq, Jerusalem, Athens, and Concord.

II.

Part Two transports us from Thoreau to three of his great disciples–Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King. As the editors note, these three great philosophers of nonviolence draw upon religious commitments that compel distinctive forms of action.

For Tolstoy, the Christian sensibility is founded upon recognition that life belongs not to the receiver, but to the giver–and who is able to give themselves life? The living individual therefore owes everything to life-giving and does nothing contrary to this simple but all-consuming principle (from which each living thing has emerged).

Tolstoy was Garrisonian in his commitment to “non-resistance to evil” as his references to the Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison attest (although Garrison is not collected here). Should a Christian kill a criminal who is about to kill a child? Indeed, in an effort to save that child, a Christian may sacrifice herself, but in a world ordered by God, nobody should entitle themselves to make judgments about killing.

As Tolstoy sees it, the example of a robber attacking a child has wide appeal, because it is widely appealing to legitimize violence as reflex. “Therefore Christ taught us to disbelieve in any excuse for violence, and (contrary to what had been taught by them of old times) never to use violence.”

From Gandhi, the editors have selected writings on “satyagraha”, a term that originates from a South African naming contest organized in 1908 to seek a suitable replacement for the term “passive resistance”. “The movement in South Africa was not passive but active,” asserts Gandhi. How many times have nonviolent activists had to repeat the claim that what they do counts as activity? How many times have pacifists nevertheless been charged with do-nothingism? After nearly a century has gone by since the 1908 re-branding effort, what is not getting through?

The London-trained lawyer who selected the term satyagraha as most apt to describe the general strategy of his fellow strugglers argues that the moral right to civil disobedience against “certain laws in well-defined circumstances” can arise only out of profound moral allegiance to the laws of society in general. Only a sacred commitment to the laws can produce a sacred obligation to construct them justly.

“Satyagraha is pure soul-force. Truth is the very substance of the soul. That is why this force is called satyagraha. The soul is informed with knowledge. In it burns the flame of love. If someone gives us pain through ignorance, we shall win him through love. ‘Nonviolence is the supreme Dharma’ is the proof of this power of love. Nonviolence is a dormant state. In the waking state, it is love. Ruled by love, the world goes on. In English there is a saying, ‘Might is Right’. Then there is the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Both these ideas are contradictory to the above principle.”

From Joan Bondurant’s 1958 classic, Conquest of Violence (Richard B. Gregg’s earlier book is not excerpted in this collection) we find notes for the 1924-25 campaign in India to allow untouchables the right to walk open roads in front of Hindu temples.

Here the expectations of the nonviolence formula are met by the beatings that Brahmins give untouchables during a protest march, by police arrests, by barricades erected to prevent further access to untouchables, and by negotiations with state authorities that result in the removal of the barricades. But the formula takes a surprising turn when in the absence of barriers the untouchables refuse to take the streets until the Brahmins have been convinced to allow them. The untouchable movement asserts the priority of love over power precisely at the point where power could be exercised prior to love. Satyagraha is something more than another word for passive resistance or civil disobedience.

The love centeredness of nonviolence is a virtue stressed in the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a brief account of that movement, Lawrence S. Apsey reminds us that upon returning to the buses of Montgomery, Black citizens were advised to “evidence love and good will at all times.” On the other hand, the love ethic of nonviolence or satyagraha has been distinguished from passive resistance and therefore is not shy about activating confrontation when necessary.

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” writes King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

III.

Part Three of six focuses on Women and Nonviolence, a topic that the editors present as one portion of a crucial systemwide revaluation of women taking place among knowledge professionals of the contemporary academy. The late David Daube, renowned scholar of Hebrew law and scripture, opens this revaluation with a 1972 review of women in the Bible and Greece.

For Daube, the refusal of Hebrew midwives to obey Pharaoh’s genocidal order to kill newborn males (expemplified by the hiding of baby Moses among the bullrushes of Egypt) counts as the oldest act of organized civil disobedience preserved on record. In their resistance to this command of state, Hebrew women appealed to a higher law than Pharaoh’s.

Likewise with Antigone. When she disobeyed the order of King Creon, and buried her brother, Antigone told the King that that he could not contravene the “the immutable, unwritten laws of heaven.” “That both cases involve heroines is not accidental,” writes the law professor, “and if this has hitherto been neglected, it proves only that the male, scholarly world had no eyes for it. Women are largely outside the power structure; indeed, on the whole they belong to the oppressed ones of the earth.”

Margaret Hope Bacon acknowledges that roots of nonviolence and feminism run deep into antiquity, but “the specific social activism” that attaches to these terms only begins in 19th Century New England, with both movements animated by a vortex of abolitionism. The exemplary figure for Bacon is Lucretia Mott, “a small Quaker minister with a mighty spiritual stature” who synthesizes feminism, nonviolence, and abolitionism (Mott’s writing is not collected in these pages).

The Quaker doctrine of an ‘inner light’ within each human had already prepared a philosophical path for women’s equality by the time Lucretia Coffin was born on Nantucket Island. At the age of 18, Lucretia married a fellow schoolteacher and settled into the life of Philadelphia. “Although she was soon busy with a family of six children, she was independent and active, teaching school for some years after she was married, struggling against the increasing conservatism in the Religious Society of Friends, and pushing the movement against the use of the products of slavery, an early form of boycott.”

For Barbara Deming in the 20th Century, the revolutionary practice of nonviolence is a way of staying in control of oneself and one’s movement. “It is my stubborn faith, argues Deming, “that if, as revolutionaries, we will wage battle without violence, we can remain very much more in control—of our own selves, of the responses to us which our adversaries make, of the battle as it proceeds, and of the future we hope will issue from it.”

In the turbulent aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, Deming replies to the arguments of Frantz Fanon and other voices disenchanted with the power of nonviolence. “If people doubt that there is power in nonviolence,” writes Deming, “I am afraid that it is due in part to the fact that those of us who believe in it have yet to find for ourselves an adequate vocabulary. The leaflets we pass out tend to speak too easily about love and truth—and suggest that we hope to move men solely by being loving and truthful.”

For Molly Rush, the symbols of nonviolence would be hammers and blood. Her objective was to disable as many nuclear warheads as possible, and to mark them with blood as a sign of their essential function. As she was escorted away from the General Electric building with her Plowshares Eight companions, she looked back to see: “the dented gold and the scratched black cones, the dribbled blood, all vivid under the bright industrial lighting in the large, blank room.” And she was pleased.

Feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick considers nonviolence in the context of mothering. From one point of view, it appears that a mother’s nonviolence would serve as another mark of her powerlessness against men and their systems of domination. But from another point of view, mothers also exemplify nonviolence in situations where they enjoy obvious power—in relationships with children.

“I can think of no other situation,” writes Ruddick, “in which someone subject to resentments at her social powerlessness, under enormous pressures of time and anger, faces a recalcitrant but helpless combatant with so much restraint. This is the nonviolence of the powerful.”

As selections from the first half of this expanded edition demonstrate, whether peace can be taught or not, humans have produced ample resources for anyone who would learn.

Greg Moses is editor of the CPP Newsletter. He teaches philosophy in Austin, Texas.

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