The Sufis tell a story of the Holy One who said to his disciples,
“What’s better, do you think? Is it contemplation, or is it action?”
They said, “Why, Holy One, it’s action, of course. What good is contemplation in a suffering world?”
And the Holy One said, “Ah, yes, but what good is action that proceeds from an unenlightened heart?”
The root of violence is the illusion of separation—from God, from being one with oneself and everything else, and from Being Itself. When we don’t know how to consciously live from a state of union (which is called love), we resort to violence, scapegoating and fighting anything that is not like us or that we cannot control. The three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) teach that one Creator formed all things. Thus, there is a radical unity at the heart of the universe’s pluriformity, resolving any conflict between diversity and the shared Divine DNA found in creation. This theo-logic allows us to see the hidden wholeness in all things and to confidently assert that everything belongs. The distinction between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane, exists only as a mental construct. Perhaps you are asking, is it a naïve blanket statement to say ‘Everything is sacred. Everything belongs?’ What about evil? What about Hitler, nuclear bombings, ISIS, Westboro Baptists, and the United States’ epidemic of mass shooters? Emphatically, we can and should name evil as evil. Although, we must first name the underlying goodness and coherence of reality, along with our own imperfection, we will attack evil with methods and self-righteousness that will only deepen the problem. This is Nonviolence 101.
Nonviolence is to be an artist of your humanity. To bring the best of you, not just by solving problems but also by living, by experiencing, by practicing. It’s about your humanity is my [instrument] and I have to be able to bring you to that place. One of the core principles of nonviolence—this core worldview of nonviolence—is the unwavering faith in humanity and in the goodness of people, no matter how much harm someone may have committed, that the possibility of transformation and the possibility of resilience is there. —Ali Abu Awwad
When Jesus said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence. Jesus was a model for living in union. Gandhi embraced the teachings and the lifestyle of Jesus and took the Gospel seriously as well as his own Hindu texts. He believed our core identity is union with God and that the fruit of this union is nonviolence. As he wrote: “Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being. If love or nonviolence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces. Belief in nonviolence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love. If one does not practice nonviolence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken.”
Love is understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all, which seeks nothing in return. Love is the Divine operating in the human heart.
—Martin Luther King Jr. (paraphrased)
Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others were persecuted or killed because they challenged the myth of scapegoating. If we don’t own our own evil, we will always project it elsewhere and attack it there. Only people who recognize their own evil, or at least their complicity in evil, stop this unconscious scapegoating pattern. Their experience of radical union with God makes it possible for them to own their own shadow, their own capacity for evil, and not need to hate it in other people. Fully conscious people do not scapegoat; unconscious people do almost nothing else.
The shadow includes all those things about ourselves that we don’t want to see, are not yet ready to see, and don’t want others to see. The shadow is the denied, repressed, rejected parts of our own self which are nonetheless true; the bad and the good. Shadow work helps us fully accept the paradox of our flawed humanity by seeing those parts for what they are. Your shadow self is not your evil self, it is simply your denied, repressed, and rejected self.
Nonviolence implies a kind of bravery far different from violence.
— Thomas Merton
Our minds see evil as black and white (dualistically) and that the only solution is to eliminate evil. Nonviolence, on the other hand, comes from a courageous awareness that I am also the enemy and my response is part of the whole moral equation. I cannot destroy the other without destroying myself. I must embrace my enemy just as much as I must welcome my own shadow. Both acts take real and lasting courage. We seek not to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win their friendship and understanding. Our every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill that have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate; dismantle all forms of violence and oppression.
If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it.
Mahatma Gandhi coined a new term, satyagraha, because passive resistance didn’t capture his mission. Satyagraha combines the Sanskrit word sat—that which is, being, or truth—with graha—holding firm to or remaining steadfast in. It is often translated as truth force or soul force. To create peaceful change, we must begin by remembering who we are in God. Gandhi believed the core of our being is union with God. From this awareness, nonviolence must flow naturally and consistently.
Nonviolence clearly begins with personal nonviolence. Most of us have bouts of immense self-doubt, fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, and even at times, self-hatred. Yet, we yearn for a daily intention that begins: Create in me a clean heart; Blessed are the pure in heart. The heart is an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. The heart is for divine perception. It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with Being Itself. Deep calls unto deep. As we are liberated from those immense bouts, our presence automatically liberates others. If the heart is awake and clear, it can directly receive, radiate, and reflect this unmanifest divine Reality. So, working to clean your own heart is holy work. It doesn’t just help you; it helps the world.
The Bhagavad Gita, India’s best-known scripture, which is set on a battlefield. Gandhi explains that this battlefield represents the human heart. In the verses being recited, a warrior prince named Arjuna, who represents you and me, asks Sri Krishna, the Lord within, how one can recognize a person who is aware of God every moment of his life. And Sri Krishna replies: They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Not agitated by grief or hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are not elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers.
Most activists love Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. And it is clear that many of them have only an intellectual appreciation. However, activists are called to participate in the much deeper mystery where actions can become pure, clear, and firm. They must be grounded in an authentic spirituality so they can continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than anger, vengeance, ideology, oppositional energy, or willpower pressing against willpower.
Authentic spirituality is always first about you—about allowing your own heart and mind to be changed. It’s about getting your own who right. Who is it that is doing the perceiving? Is it your illusory, separate, false self; or is it your True Self, who you are in God?
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Before you speak of peace, you must first have it in your heart.
—St. Francis of Assisi
We’re all like localized vibrations of the infinite goodness of God’s presence. So, love is our very nature. Love is our first, middle, and last name. Love is all; not love as sentimentality, but love that is self-forgetful and free of self-interest. All nonviolent action (in every relationship) can be symbolized by two hands: one says, No, you cannot mistreat me, and the other says, I care about you, too. One hand says, I refuse to cooperate with injustice; while the other says, I respect you as a person and will work with you for the common good. Although nonviolence is sometimes misunderstood as weakness or passivity, the combination of these two hands constitutes what Gandhi called, the greatest force on earth.
It is this two-hands approach that is marvelously exemplified in Gandhi’s life and work. He never tried to win anything. He just tried to show love; and that’s what ahimsa—nonviolence—really means. Nonviolence is not just a negative. It means to show love tirelessly, no matter what happens. That’s the meaning of turning the other cheek. Once in a while you have to defend somebody, but it means you’re always willing to suffer first for the cause—that is to say, for communion with your enemies. If you overcome your enemies, you’ve failed. If you make your enemies your partners, God—radical unity—has succeeded.
Justice is what love looks like in public.
— Dr. Cornel West
Nonviolence is restorative justice. While many people admire nonviolence as a method for social change, fewer have done the work of studying and practicing the principles of nonviolence in any serious way. This is not meant as a criticism, but as an observation of our human tendency to agree with things more than participate with them. What has been your experience with nonviolent means of communication, organization, or action?
Both fight people and flight people are subject to hypocrisy, projection, or just plain illusion: We are right; you are wrong. The world is divided into black and white, and we alone know who is good and who is bad. Resurrected people are the ones who found a better way by prayerfully bearing witness against injustice and evil—while also agreeing compassionately to hold their own complicity in that same evil. It is not over there—it is here. It is our problem, not theirs. The question becomes: How can I know the greater truth, work through the anger, and still be a life-giving presence?
The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Just go ahead and live positively; go to the side and do it differently. Don’t waste time with oppositional energy. In the short run, you will have to hold unresolvable tensions. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing. This is third force wisdom. That is the Third Way beyond fight or flight, which in a certain sense includes both. It’s fighting in a new way from a God-centered place within, and fleeing from the quick, egocentric response. Only God can hold such an act together within us.
Nonviolence training has understandably emphasized largely external methods or ways of acting, resisting, and non-participation. While these methods are important and necessary, but we must go even deeper. Unless those methods finally reflect inner attitudes, they will not make a lasting difference. This is essential nonviolence. We all must admit that our secret thoughts are often cruel, attacking, judgmental, and harsh. The ego seems to find its energy precisely by having something to oppose, fix, or change. When the mind can judge something to be inferior, we feel superior. We must recognize our universal addiction: the constant tendency toward negating reality, resisting it, opposing it, and attacking it in our minds.
The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. It begins inside your own heart and mind, because the battleground of human transformation is really, more than any other thing, the struggle within the human consciousness to believe and accept what is true. Thus to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others. —John Lewis, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change
Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives. —Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom
We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit… Without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters. —angel Kyodo Williams
Nonviolence is deeper than mere methods, strategy, and problem-solving. Nonviolence requires solidarity and vulnerability. The work of solidarity is to join and accept others as fully human—in our struggles and gifts alike. We are one, and through solidarity and vulnerability we more clearly identify and name the systems that separate us. We find in ourselves and in the other the true image of God in which we are created and connected.
Solidarity is not about I’m helping you, but a commitment to walking and learning together. Solidarity means unity of feeling and action; mutual support. Solidarity is what is often referred to as the preferential option for the poor or the bias from the margins. Here, the word poor is used in a very specific way—those who are powerless, dismissed, dehumanized, or considered lesser in society. How do we express and develop solidarity? Solidarity begins by becoming aware of our place in society. Inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, here are five steps to bring about the change toward solidarity: (1) have basic compassion for the poor in general, or one poor person, (2) anger at the unjust situation that caused their suffering, (3) idealize some of the virtues of the poor that we ourselves do not have, (4) a deepening recognition of the impact of systemic oppression, and (5) making a choice to walk with the poor and oppressed, to be taught by them, and to love them as equals, each of us bearing the Divine Indwelling Spirit within.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. —Brené Brown
Vulnerability is key to ongoing growth. Healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other—because it means others could sometimes actually wound us. Vulnera comes from the Latin for wound. Thus, to be vulner–able is the ability to be wounded without being diminished, and actually grow. Only if we take this risk do we also allow the opposite possibility: the other might also gift us, free us, and even love us. If we haven’t touched and united with the vulnerable place within us, we’re normally projecting seeming invulnerability outside and judging others for their weakness.
Human strength wants to promote, project, and protect a clear sense of self-identity and autonomy rather than inter-being or interface. We can be someone in whose presence it’s safe to be vulnerable and to be open, and truly courageous and strong and powerful, as Jesus was strong and powerful, in the truest, deepest sense of the word. This, then, seems to be the work of the Spirit: to keep you vulnerable to life and love itself and to resist all that destroys the Life Flow. Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity. When we can live an honestly vulnerable life there will always be a centrifugal force flowing through, out, and beyond us.
Will we choose to continue to affirm a culture of systemic violence—or will we build a culture of active, creative, and liberating nonviolence so that we can not only survive but thrive?
[This document is a compilation of various writings from Ali Abu Awwad, angel Kyodo Williams, Barbara Deming, Brene Brown, Cornel West, Cynthia Bourgeault, Francis of Assisi, John Dear, Joan Chittister, John Lewis, Ken Butigan, Mahatma Gandhi, Marianne Williamson, Martin Luther King. Jr., Richard Rohr, The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible, Thomas Keating, & Thomas Merton. Editor, Robert Ferrell]