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Justice and Peace Studies Program
University of St. Thomas

JPST 250: Introduction to Justice and Peace Studies

Textbook: Don't Just Stand There--Do Something!

Chapter Thirteen:
Active Nonviolence

Contents of This Chapter

Key Terms and People
Nature of Political Power
Some Elements of Power
Why Might People Cooperate with Power?
Why Might People Withdraw Cooperation?
The Circle of Praxis
Three Categories of Nonviolent Action
Why Nonviolent?
What If Opponents are Violent?
Moral or Political Ju-Jitsu
What About Hitler?
What Constitutes Success?
Does Everyone Have to Agree?
Tactic or Way of Life?
Satyagraha of the Weak or of the Strong?
What If We are Wrong?
Some Practitioners and Proponents of Active Nonviolence

Active Nonviolence: Jesus' Third Way
(Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer)


Key Terms and People

 <<Be prepared to describe, identify, or explain the terms and names below.>>

moral or political ju-jitsu

<<Be prepared to identify and explain the significance of the following persons.>>

Jane Addams
Mubarak Awad
Adin Ballou
Vinoba Bhave
Dorothy Day
Catherine de Hueck Doherty
Danilo Dolci
Mohandas ("Mahatma")Gandhi
Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Martin Luther King
Muriel Lester
A. J. Muste
Gene Sharp
Marjorie Sykes
Henry David Thoreau
Count Leo von Tolstoy
Lanza del Vasto


<<What is "active nonviolence"?>>

"Active Nonviolence is an exercise of power for social and political change that courageously refuses to support evil but also refuses to cause harm to its opponents. The power exercised is spiritual, moral and persuasive."1


<<How does active nonviolence work?>>

People often complain that their opponents "don't understand anything but violence." That complaint says more about the speakers than it does about their opponents--the speakers don't understand anything but violence. The fact is, when one has been struck by a speeding truck, one doesn't need to know what hit him to be affected. Targets of nonviolent power experience that power when their supporters withdraw support, their police don't arrest people, their soldiers don't attack their enemies, and banks won't cash their checks.

What would lead their supporters to act in these ways? Perhaps they are shaken to see their leaders attacking people who are causing no harm. When the Russian Tsar, whom most Russians considered to be their "father," ordered his troops to fire on unarmed, peaceful protestors, the crowds were shocked. Such people lose their enthusiasm for their leaders, become inefficient in their cooperation, and are easily available to follow other leaders who may arise.

Nature of Political Power

<<What is the nature of political power?
How does that fact support the practice of active nonviolence?>>

Political Power Depends on Cooperation

The leading 20th century academic theorist of nonviolent action, Gene Sharp, points out that political leaders depend on others to exercise power. When those others withdraw their cooperation, the leader's power dissolves. Hitler was a powerful political leader, but when his generals refused to follow his orders to burn Paris to the ground, there wasn't much he could do about it.

The most powerful leaders depend on thousands of others. An Ojibwa chief in 1850 would have depended on perhaps a few hundred members of his tribe; the President of the United States depends on members of his cabinet, members of congress, staff, secretaries, police, judges, juries, jailors, soldiers and their officers, drivers, pilots, manufacturers of tanks, planes, and weapons, cooks, cleaners, reporters,
columnists, television anchors, and so forth. When many of these people began to doubt the wisdom of President Johnson's war in Vietnam, soldiers fought half-heartedly, reporters wrote critical articles, citizens demonstrated in the streets, and the President's power was weakened.

Some Elements of Power2

Here are some of the elements that a political leader depends on:. Note that they all require cooperation by others.

Authority. The leader's staff and supporters need to agree to support him or her. They are more likely to do so if the leader's position seems to be legitimate. Those governed must also consent to be led, at least grudgingly.

Human Resources. These are the many people who work in support of the leader: staff, police, army, legislators, judges.

Skills and Knowledge. Leadership can erode quickly if staff, police, army, legislators, judges and others are incompetent. 

Intangibles. Habits and attitudes of supporters and followers--psychology, common ideologies. Americans tend to agree that capitalism is a good system; Soviet citizens began to doubt that communism was.

Material Resources. Land, natural resources like oil and iron, money, economic systems like banks and stock markets, communications media, roads, airports, seaports, transportation vehicles.

Sanctions. Laws and their enforcement; military defense. Are police and soldiers willing to support the leader? (When not, there can be a coup d'etat.) Are they efficient? Are appropriate weapons available (nukes, armored humvees)? Is the rest of the population cooperative--i.e., willing to stay out of the way? (In the Philippines, citizens massed in between the contesting army forces.) Enforcement is easiest when most people comply.

Political power is weakened when people make their own decisions, act inefficiently, or refuse to cooperate.

Why Might People Cooperate With Power?

<<Why might people cooperate with power--even with oppression?>>3

1. Habit. It never occurs to many people that they could withdraw cooperation--except in certain "safe" areas like speed limits on highways.

2. Fear of punishment. Most people are well aware of police, courts, and prisons. In more oppressive situations, they are aware of torture and death squads.

3. Feel moral obligation. For example, people might not believe that the situation is oppressive; they might think the people being oppressed are dangers to society and need to be suppressed; they might believe that the government's actions are for the common good of society, that they are God's will, that the laws or commands are legitimate, or reasonable, or have always been accepted.

4. Have something to gain personally. Many German academics in the mid 1930s gained valuable advancement when Jewish scholars lost their positions; white male southern landholders in the US in the 1830s enjoyed leisure, thanks to slave laws.

5. Identify psychologically with the ruler or the government. Political party affiliation can have this effect. So can attachment to popular media commentators. Leaders try to "wrap themselves in the flag"--to give the impression that their policies are for the good of the nation, so that all patriotic citizens should support them.

6. Don't care about that area. Few people have the time and energy to pay attention to all the important issues. They tend to concentrate on those that affect them personally. Leaders often encourage distractions like sports or media stars to keep people from paying too close attention.

7. Have no self-confidence. Few people feel confident enough to confront powerful leaders and movements.    

Why Might People Withdraw Cooperation?

Active nonviolence takes effort and involves risk. People are unlikely to take the effort or risk unless they think something is unfair or unjust. Someone--usually a small group--has to recognize and point out the injustice effectively. They also have to believe that something effective can be done about it, at a cost that people are willing to pay.

The circle of praxis described by liberation theologians is a process for clarifying the suspicion of injustice.

The Circle of Praxis

<<Lost and explain the four steps of the "circle of praxis.">>

1. Insertion puts one into the experience where injustice is suspected. For example, one might live with poor, disadvantaged, and oppressed people and share their frustrations. Isolating oneself from the suffering of others makes action foir justice unlikely.

2. social analysis (a descriptive analysis) clarifies the reality of the situation and its causes. One makes use of academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, economics, psychology, political science, history, and cultural studies. One studies who exercises power and in whose interest they exercise it, what laws and institutions support that exercise of power, and how things came to be that way. When powerful people make and successfully enforce decisions that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else, we are in a situation of oppression.

3. theological reflection (a normative analysis) shows how things could and should be. This analysis judges what is good or bad, just or unjust, desirable or undesirable about the current situation. It also explores other possible situations and judges them as well, comparing the desirability of alternative situations.

4. pastoral or action plan shows how to move from the present unsatisfactory situation described in (2) toward the more just situation described in (3). Plans are most successful when they are quite concrete, telling who should do what, when, where, and how.

If the injustice is deep, those who profit from it will usually resist the pastoral or action plan and attack the campaigners. At that point, the hidden violence which was present in the injustice will become visible in the resistance to these changes and attacks on those who promote them.

Three Categories of Nonviolent Action

<<What Kinds of Nonviolent Action Can Be Taken to Reduce or Eliminate Injustice?>>

Most of us use nonviolent action frequently to promote our interests, although we may not have thought of it in those terms. We protest things we dislike, try to persuade people to help us, refuse to cooperate with activities that we object to, and sometimes get in the way of or interfere with situations we consider to be unjust. For this chapter, we are most interested in its use to promote justice, although attention to other uses as well  may help to clarify how frequently we use it.

There are three main categories of nonviolent action. The most common is protest and persuasion.

Protest and Persuasion

In an attempt to persuade leaders and decision makers, individuals or small groups  may seek to meet with their boss (for a promotion. a raise, or better working conditions), teacher (for a better grade or to extend a deadline), or legislator (to promote or discourage a bill). We may talk with the appropriate peson by telephone, write a letter, or send an email. The world wide web has made email appeals a lot easier--lobby groups may provide sample messages and send them to our legislators or executives over our name.

When a situation affects a large number of people, we are familiar with mass protest marches and assemblies: crowds gathered in front of a courthouse, federal building, or downtown. Annual gatherings at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC: formerly the School of the Americas) protest its training of counter-revolutionary soldiers and police who have a history of human rights violations. Worldwide, massive demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 set a record for total numbers of people demonstrating. Massive demonstrations after fraudulent elections in several Eastern European countries led the oppressive or fraudulent governments to collapse.

But positive results are not guaranteed. The U.S. did invade Iraq despite the demonstrations. These failures lead many people to discount nonviolent action as ineffective. But there are still two other categories to consider.

Noncooperation (social, political, economic)

In noncooperation, we choose not to do something that we are normally expected to do, and which others depend on to achieve their (unjust) objective. The most common examples are strikes and boycotts: workers refuse to work, for example, loading weapons onto ships, or they refuse to work for inadequate wagesor in unsafe working conditions until the company negotiates with their union; consumers refuse to purchase Nestle products because the company markets infant formula to third-world poor women by giving them free samples for the first month, which they will then need to purchase after their natural breast milk dries up. (In this case, women frequently prepared or diluted the expensive formula with unsafe water, leading their infants to die.) Another example is young people refusing to serve as soldiers. In the United States, with a volunteer army, that refusal raises the cost of recruitment. In countries like Israel, with universal draft, such refusal can lead to prisont terms. The willingness of young people to accept these sufferings increases the strength of their witness.

When injustice is profitable enough or leaders are determined enough, they may well press ahead despite such noncooperation, although if it grows widespread enough it can leave them with too little support (too few soldiers) to maintain their policies. In Berlin in the 1920s, German office workers defeated a coup by taking their typewriters home from the office and staying home; bank tellers refused to cash the coup-leader's check because it "didn't have an authorized signature," and newly appointed government leaders refused to serve the coup. As a result, the coup collapsed.
There is also one more category to consider.

Intervention (psychological, physical, social, economic, political)

With intervention, we choose to do something we are not expected to do--something which "gets in the way" of what promoters of unjust policies are trying to accomplish. In the late 1930s. auto workers in Detroit not only refused to assemble cars, they sat down in the factory among the machines so that no one else could assemble them either. These were the so-called "sit down strikes." In the Philippine Islands, when Ferdinand Marcos fraudulently claimed victory in an election with Corazon Aquino and part of Marcos' army revolted by supporting Aquino, Philippinos nonviolently gathered in between the army forces loyal to Marcos and those loyal to Aquino, making it difficult for either side to attack the other. (One participent whom I interviewed in 1998 said, "we were scared to death. We were all praying our rosaries. But we felt we had to--it was an historic moment.") Russians did the same when a coup attempted to seize power from Boris Yeltsin in Moscow shortly after the fall of communism. So-called "third-party nonviolent intervention" has become a frequent tactic when progressive leaders are threatened by death squads: groups like Witness for Peace, Peace and Brigades International have sent North Americans to accompany Latin American activists; the Nonviolent Peace Force has done the same in Sri Lanka; and Christian Peacemaker Teams, the International Solidarity Movement, and others in Palestine.

Why Nonviolent?

<<Why is it important that a campaign of active nonviolence remain nonviolent?>>

People with little understanding of active nonviolence often think they can improve its effectiveness by adding a little violence, to scare the opponent. But in fact, the addition of "a little violence" weakens the effectiveness of nonviolence. Oppressors are used to violent resistance: they are prepared to counter it. But nonviolence gains its power from the effect it has on a wider public--they reduce or withdraw their cooperation because they see the contrast between the violence of the oppressor and the nonviolence of the resister. That contrast helps them to understand where justice stands. "A little violence" on the part of the resisters--while understandable--confuses the judgment and provides oppressors with an excuse to "crack down" on "terrorists." Soldiers or police will easily perusade themselves that they are only defending themselves. Bystanders may be tempted to agree. On the other hand, when the activists can maintain nonviolence and also maintain their resistance despite attacks, the more the oppressor uses violence, the more the oppressor loses public support and respect,  and the weaker the oppressor becomes. Even soldiers and police begin to question what they are doing. A sort of moral ju-jitsu sets in, to the advantage of the activists. So the activists' motto should be: "Don't let the opponent incite us to violence." Activists must not only maintain nonviolence, they must do so visibly and publicly under provocation so that outsiders can clearly see the contrast with their oppressors.

Israel seems to have understood this in its occupation of Palestinian lands. Whenever Palestinians show signs of mounting a serious nonviolent campaign, Israel initiates an attack to provoke a violent Palestinian response which is used to justify continuing Israeli violence. 

The contrast between the oppressors' violence and the activists' nonviolence affects various groups as follows:

Why Active?

<<Why is this kind of nonviolence identified as active?
Does active nonviolence avoid provoking its opponent?>>

Many people equate nonviolence with inaction, or at least expect it to be non-provocative. But active nonviolence is normally used in a situation of institutional injustice. As long as oppressed people go along with the unjust and repressive laws, or resist only in ineffective ways, their oppressors "leave them alone." But when they challenge those laws effeectively, even if nonviolently, their oppressors respond with violence: attacks, arrests, beatings, imprisonment, torture. This response shows that the unjust situation has been held in place all along by threatened violence.

In order to show the hidden violence, activists will deliberately select provocative actions that their oppressors cannot safely ignore. If their actions seem harmless, their oppressors can pay no attention and the actions will have no effect. The most famous example was Gandhi marching to the sea and boiling sea water to make salt. The British occupiers of India supported themselves by holding a monopoly on the production of salt and taxing its sale. In a hot country like India, salt is essential to life, even for the poorest of the poor. Gandhi's action highlighted the injustice of Indians paying for their own oppression by losing the right to produce their own salt. If the British ignored Gandhi, Indians would circumvent the tax. If they arrested Gandhi, as they did, the people would revolt and the injustice of the situation would be highlighted.

I heard another example in 1988 in Chile in resistance to the government of Augusto Pinochet. Members of a group called Sebastian Acevedo Movement Against Torture gathered outside buildings where torture was being carried out and unfurled signs reading "people are being tortured here." They carefully calculated how long it would take police to arrive so that they could melt away before the police could get there. In other cases, they deliberately stayed and let the police beat them up in the sight of rush-hour traffic. Bystanders came to respect the courage of the demonstrators, and concluded that the government must have something to hide.

What If Opponents are Violent?

<<If the opponent responds with violent repression against the activists,
does that mean that the nonviolence has failed?>>

As already noted, repression should be expected. That repression is not the end of the campaign, but its beginning--it is bringing into the open the hidden threatened violence that has maintained injustice through fear. Violence by the oppressors is the sign that the activists are threatening his power. Leaders may be attacked, arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed. Often they are made to "disappear" so that their family and friends cannot find out what has happened to them. If the activist community refuses to be intimidated and continues the resistance despite threats of pain and death, a kind of moral or political "ju-jitsu" begins to operate, as mentioned above.

Moral or Political Ju-Jitsu

<<Explain moral or political ju-jitsu>>

In martial arts such as ju-jitsu, judo, karate, and aikido, combatants can throw an opponent off-balance by stepping aside at the critical moment and letting the opponent's punch pass by, even grabbing the opponent's arm and adding to the energy of the punch--which is at that point into thin air. The harder the opponent punches, the more he or she is thrown off balance. In similar fashion, moral or political ju-jitsu deprives the attacker of the expected response and leaves him or her exposed as an unjust attacker against an opponent who threatens no harm. Observers note the moral difference between the two sides and realize that the oppressor is unjustified. These observers may be third parties, or even the very soldiers or police that the oppressor depends on to maintain the injustice. In Palestine-Israel, for example, the organization "Combatants for Peace" is made up of Palestinians and Israelis who formerly engaged in violence against each other but now have laid aside their weapons and cooperate for peace. Israeli members refuse to obey orders to serve in the occupied territories--many of them are serving sentences in prison.

When significant numbers of soldiers, police, politicians, journalists, editors, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, and others on whom the oppressive government depends for support begin to have second thoughts, to act inefficiently, or quietly to obstruct the oppressor's policies, the power of the oppressor dissolves.

What About Hitler?

<<Gandhi used satyagraha effectively against Great Britain, a civilized country.
But would it work against really vicious governments like Nazi Germany or Communist governments?>>

Critics frequently object that active nonviolence can be effective when dealing with civilized opponents like Great Britain or the United States, but are convinced that it would be ineffective in the face of more brutal opponents like Nazi Germany or Soviet communism. They ask, "Do you really expect someone like Hitler to change his mind?" This comment shows that they don't understand how active nonviolence works. One doesn't start by changing Hitler's mind, but rather by changing the mind of some of the people that Hitler depends on to carry out his programs. Hitler alone could never have murdered 6 million Jews, along with other millions of Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and other "undesirables."

In fact, historical examples show that persistent and courageous activists have restrained or overcome governments even as oppressive as the Nazi government of Germany or the communist government of the Soviet Union. But such power depends on activists overcoming their fear of pain and death--confronting
great injustice requires great courage. Oppressors believe that most communities are not up to the challenge. Sometimes they find out that they are wrong.

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action (vol. II), Gene Sharp gives historical examples of 198 different types of nonviolent action, some involving successful actions against Hitler's "final solution" or against communist oppression. The examples from the Nazi era had real though limited success; those from communism eventually destroyed the oppressive system itself. 

Note that--historically--violent resistance also has limited success. At least  one side of every violent dispute loses.

Early in the Second World War, Germany occupied Norway and installed a Norwegian Nazi, Vidkung Quisling, as puppet ruler. Quisling set up a new organization of teachers to promote fascist education. He received personally signed letters from ten thousand of the twelve thousand Norwegian teachers rejecting the new organization and Quisling's project. Quisling closed schools: the teachers held classes in homes. Quisling arrested a thousand teachers: those not arrested demanded to know why they had been left behind. Quisling shipped the detained teachers North by rail: school children gathered at the stations to cheer the defiant teachers, and those left behind still resisted. Quisling raged, "You teachers have destroyed everything for me." Within eight months, all the teachers were released.

Meanwhile, Quisling set up cooperative athletic games to build relations between Norwegian athletes and German occupiers. The Norwegians failed to show up. Later, after the Germans had gone home, the Norwegians somehow arrived to hold their games.

Later in the war, in 1943 in Berlin, the very center of Nazi power, Jewish husbands of Gentile wives were arrested. 6000 of the wives investigated, discovered where there husbands were being held, and gathered outside to protest--just down the street from Gestapo headquarters! Police chased them away: they reassembled. Finally, the husbands were released. Some of them then fled successfully, others were quietly re-arrested one at a time in a way to cause less attention. Perhaps a more persistent resistance could have maintained the success.

Imagine the effect if Christians had insisted on being detained along with their Jewish neighbors! You can't run a country without citizens.

Critics point out that it was Allied armies that eventually destroyed the Nazi government. But that is not the case with the Soviet Union. That government was transformed by nonviolent action in Eastern Europe and Russia. The final, triumphant acts were preceded by smaller nonviolent campaigns that set the stage and helped to educate citizens to their power. For example, when Stalin died, there were strikes in Soviet slave labor camps, most notably one at Vorkuta involving 30,000 prisoners. The strikes were costly: some of the leaders were shot and strikers did not actually take over the prison, but prison leaders did significantly improve their conditions afterward.

In 1968, President Dubcek of Czechoslovakia prmoted "socialism with a human face." Concerned where the changes might lead, Russia assembled a half million troops from Eastern European communist nations and invaded to reverse the programs. They thought they could replace Dubcek within a few days with someone more "cooperative." Dubcek instructed the Czech army and police not to resist the invasion, but also instructed Czech citizens not to cooperate with the invaders--they were to follow directions from the legitimate government. The Czech population was unusually well prepared for such resistance, since one of their popular novels, The Good Soldier Schweik (or Švejk), described clever, covert resistance to Austrian rule at the time of the First World War. Schweik, the soldier, is either very stupid or very clever--his superiors can't decide which. He volunteers enthusiastically for every task and then screws it up handsomely. Very apologetic, he proceeds to make it worse. With this background, Czechs "helped" the Russians bring in a trainload of electronic equipment to counter the underground radios that were directing Czech resistance. Somehow the train of perhaps a dozen cars broke up into five sections, it seemed to take forever to repair, electric trolly lines fell down and got all tangled up in the train, multiple freight trains got switched ahead of the train, snarling up the freight yards, and the train kept getting mysteriously switched onto the wrong tracks, getting lost. Meanwhile, thanks to the radio broadcasts, Czechs spent the night before massive arrests taking down street signs in Prague and piling them in large heaps so that the invaders couldn't find addresses of their prey. Czech citizens kept asking invading troops why they had come. They had been told that the Czechs had asked for their help--these challenges confused them. "A few days" stretched out to eight months--invaders had not provided supplies for such a long occupation. While the occupiers did eventually install a more pliant president, they failed to attain many of their goals.

Soldiers of the occupying army, recruited from other East European countries and Russia, went home with a good education in active nonviolence, which they were able to put to good use a decade or two later. In 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk, Poland, formed the independent labor union Solidarinosc [Solidarity] that challenged communist leadership. The communist leadership initially gave in to the union's demands. Then, in 1981, it arrested thousands and outlawed the union. Yet, by 1989, Solidarity re-surfaced and gained political control, initiating the collapsing house of cards that ended Soviet control of Eastern Europe and, eventually, of Russia itself.4

As Solidarity reappeared, so did Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia.

The initial gains of these examples may have been modest, but the final results were world-shaking. Note that the initial moves were mostly improvised on the spot with little or no advanced planning. The case of the Philippine resistance to Marcos mentioned above shows the value of careful preparation. Cardinal Sin of the Philippine Catholic Church invited the Goss-Mayers of Holland to lead workshops across the island on active nonviolence. They spent a year leading such training sessions before the crisis broke out. Once it did break out, they met daily with Cardinal Sin to plan responses for likely situations that might arise. They anticipated a split in the army, and agreed to call on civilians to crowd between the opposing forces to prevent the two sides from attacking. This shows how much more effective active nonviolence can be when it is carefully planned. Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States also show the value of careful planning.

These are just a few of the examples showing how even extremely repressive governments can be successfully confronted if campaigners are courageous enough. Of course, citizens may not be courageous enough. But the same limitation applies to armed conflict. One of the factors leading the United States to lose in Vietnam was a conviction that American goals were immoral. Another was lack of commitment on the part of Americans, illustrated by the fact that President Johnson was unwilling to raise taxes to support the war or call for other significant sacrifices on the part of U.S. society.

What Constitutes Success?

Gene Sharp describes four possible ways that a nonviolent campaign can succeed.

<<What are the four possible ways a nonviolent campaign can succeed?>>

Conversion. The most permanent and satisfying result is for oppressors to realize and admit that their policies were wrong, and change them. This is also the most difficult to achieve, although it is often the long-term effect. In the short term, a more likely result is

Accommodation. Opponents still believe they are right, but the nonviolent actions have so changed the situation that what they could gain by maintaining their convictions and policies is not worth the cost. White business people in the southern U.S. mostly accommodated to the civil rights movement at first, because they were losing too much business. After some years, many of them looked back on their previous beliefs and realized that they had been wrong.

Coercion. A few opponents hold out to the end in the face of overwhelming popular resistance. Noncooperation and intervention of others eventually forces them to cede, even though they do everything they can to maintain their policies and convictions. Business people go bankrupt, politicians lose elections, professors lose students. If things get bad enough, there can even be

Disintegration. The Soviet Union disintegrated, as did the communist governments of Eastern Europe. Elites may then accommodate to the new situation, claiming to have been converted, as did many of the political leaders of the Soviet empire. Nonviolent activists need to watch carefully, lest new institutions simply reproduce past injustices in a new format.

Does Everyone Have to Agree?

<<What do we do with agents provocateurs?>>

We mentioned above that it is usually a small group at first that both identifies the injustice and believes that something can be done about it. Active nonviolence requires that many more people come to agree with those judgments, so that they will withdraw support from oppressors and give support to new leadership. But this consensus and solidarity does not have to be total. The majority of citizens are uncommitted to change at first, even if they are suffering, because they have not yet gained confidence that something can be done. As the campaign proceeds, the uncommitted gain more confidence, some who have been benefiting from the injustice begin to have second thoughts, and support for the holdouts begins to erode. Initial successes build more confidence, and the movement gains strength. Fearlessness of leaders who persist despite repression gains the respect of others.

Oppressors seek collaborators to infiltrate the movement. Typically, these infiltrators try to incite campaigners to violence in order to give the oppressors a plausible excuse for repression. Such collaborators are called agents provocateurs--a French term. As the movement becomes aware of them, activists need to counter them with a clear, consistent commitment to nonviolence, dealing with them in the same open, nonviolent way that it deals with the opposition leaders themselves. Honesty and openness make it difficult for collaborators to divide the movement as they would like to. 

Note that active nonviolence is not always used against a government. It may be used to defend a legitimate government against invasion or pressure from outside. In other cases, it may be used to confront the current government in favor of more just policies. Note that it is easier to defend a legitimate, well-supported government against an invader, or a legitimate, clearly just campaign against a repressive government, than to defend an illegitimate, hated government or campaign. This is true both of armed defense and of active nonviolence, but active nonviolence is particularly dependent on convincing people that its cause is just. 

Tactic or Way of Life?

<<Explain the difference between active nonviolence as a tactic and as a way of life.>>

Leaders of active nonviolent campaigns like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi often urge their followers to make nonviolence a way of life: to use it consistently in all circumstances and across all contexts: personal, interpersonal, and governmental. Although they insist that nonviolence is more effective than violence, they believe that it should be adopted whether it seems likely to achieve particular desired results or not. After all, even violence doesn't work all the time, and often it makes things worse. Even when violence succeeds, the side effects it produces can corrupt that victory. In the end, we all seek to live peacefully together, so showing respect for each other along the way is most likely to produce a long-term peace.

In contrast, Gene Sharp argues that such a position limits the number of people likely to commit themselves to a nonviolent campaign. He presents active nonviolence as one of several possible tactics, a sanction especially appropriate for the 20th-21st century nuclear stalemate where violence would be so disastrous. Show people a different way to fight, he argues, and perhaps we can avoid a nuclear holocaust. We should not insist that people commit themselves to nonviolence in all conceivable circumstances, but we should show them that it is highly to be preferred in this particular situation.

Satyagraha of the Weak or of the Strong?

<<Distinguish the satyagraha of the weak from the satyagraha of the strong.>>

To avoid the impression that active nonviolence was just passive--basically giving up--Gandhi coined the new term satyagraha or "truth-force" to emphasize the power of nonviolence when it is part of activer resistance to injustice. It carries spiritual power to convert opponents. If this is so, practitioners should not be satisfied merely with gaining their own objectives. They should seek their own and their opponents' conversion. This is why activists choose nonviolent tactics even when they have available violent tactics that could achieve their narrow objectives. 

Weak people may choose to use nonviolence because they don't have the capacity to use violence. This is "satyagraha of the weak."

Strong people choose nonviolence even when they could force their way, because they are committed to nonviolence as a way of life. This is "satyagraha of the strong."

What If We are Wrong?

<<How does our awareness that we might be wrong affect our practice of satyagraha?>>

The goal of a nonviolent campaign is not to win a partricular struggle, nor to prove that one is right, but to find the truth and do justice. Gandhi believed that absolute truth exists, but he pointed out that no human being encompasses that absolute truth. No human can be sure that he or she is right. Thus, we must not destroy out opponent who may be carrying part of the truth that we are seeking. Rather we should respect our opponent and invite her to enter into a dialogue with us to bring out the truth more clearly. We are willing to suffer at the hands of our opponent because undeserved suffering has power to touch hearts and break open minds that are closed. Most humans cannot continue attacking others once they can see that these others are neither causing nor threatening to do them harm. Those few who are psychologically incapable of compassion--the psychopaths, estimated to be about 2% of the population--will be more and more isolated as others withdraw their support. Eventually, even they will lose the capacity to harm.

<<What effects does a commitment to nonviolent have on the nonviolent group itself?>>

We pointed out that the practice of nonviolent struggle can transform its opponents. It also has strong positive effects on the group that is making use of it. Sharp points out the following effects (ch 14): The group becomes no longer submissive to oppression. It finds its own power, becomes fearless, increases its self-esteem, gains satisfaction, hope, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor; shows less aggression within the group, develops greater unity and cooperation within the group, and demonstrates a spirit that is contagious.

Some Practitioners and Proponents of Active Nonviolence

Social change in the face of deep injustice requires a willingness to risk suffering and death, whether one uses violence or active non-violence to press for change. Leaders need to call on the deepest sources of energy available to humans--sources which arise from a person's deepest convictions. For many people, these sources are religious. For non-religious people, patriotism or group solidarity may carry similar power, especially protection of one's immediate family and closest friends.

Many nonviolent activists and leaders of the last two centuries have drawn their energy from religious roots. Here are some examples.

In the 19th century

Adin Ballou (U.S., Christian: Baptist, Universalist, Unitarian).  He developed Hopedale, a utopian community, cooperated with William Lloyd Garrison 's campaign against slavery, and wrote the highly influential book Christian Non-Resistance which strongly influenced Thoreau. He corresponded with Tolstoy, who translated his writing into Russian.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862, U. S., Transcendentalist). Noting that the poll tax supported the unjust U.S. war with Mexico which he believed was intended to extend slavery, he refused to pay it. When he was tossed in jail as a result, his friend Emerson asked him, "What are you doing in there?" Thoreau retorted, "What are you doing out there?" Hks famous essay "On Civil Disobedience" was a result. 

Count Leo von Tolstoy (1828-1910, Russia, Christian anarchist).7 Born a nobleman, converted late in life to radical pacifism. Best known for his novel War and Peace, his pacifist and anarchist beliefs are developed in The Kingdom of God is Within You. He thought that governments were incapable of achieving peace, but peace would come when men simply refused to enlist in armies. Numerous Tolstoy Clubs developed in the 1880s to study his ideas. Strongly influenced by Ballou and Thoreau, he himself influenced Jane Addams and Mohandas K. Gandhi. 

Jane Addams (1860-1935, American). Founded Hull House in Chicago to serve immigrants trying to establish themselves in the new world. Surprised by a burglar one night while asleep at Hull House, she asked him what he wanted. He said he was out of work and needed money. She responded that she had no money, but would try to find him a job if he came back the next day. He did, and she did.5

In the 20th century

Mohandas ("Mahatma")Gandhi (1869-1948, India, Hindu). An Indian lawyer trained in London serving a client in South Africa, he began to realize how Indians were being oppressed there when he was thrown out of a first-class compartment and off the train because of the color of his skin. He developed a nonviolent campaign to change the laws and practices. Returning to India, he continued struggling for India's freedom from England and the poor Indian's freedom from oppressive traditions and practices, such as the caste system. His successive campaigns resulted in the British abandoning their colonial control over India. When he tried to bring Hindu and Muslim together and end the riots surrounding the separation of Pakistan from India, he was killed by a Hindu who believed that he was favoring the Muslims.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar ("Badshah") Khan (1890-1988, India (Pathan "Northwest Province"), Moslem). "The Gentle Giant." A tribal leader of the Pathan tribes of northwest India and southeast Afghanistan (roughly the same people we now call "Taliban"), he became a friend and associate of Gandhi. Ghaffar Khan convinced the fierce Pathan warriors to try aggressive nonviolence instead of violence. He organized and trained a nonviolent army of hundreds of thousands of Pathans, the Khudai Khidmitgars ("Servants of God"), infuriating the British who didn't know how to deal with them. After independence, the new rulers of Pakistan were no more interested in promoting local rule than the British had been. Ghaffar Khan spent most of his life in prison. See the article comparing Khudai Khidmitgars with Shanti Sena and the Nonviolent Peaceforce and another comparing Ghaffar Khan to General Akhtar who led the violent Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.

Kamaladevi. As a young woman student, she joined Gandhi's movement, helping organize a "peace army" called the Seva Dal. Although the army never grew to the thousands that Gandhi originally envisaged, Kamaladevi organized it in small groups through hundreds of villages all across India. Members were trained to (1) carry on Gandhian satyagraha, (2) carry out community development, and (3) interpose themselves in the middle of conflicts to calm people down.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968, U. S., Christian). Born in Atlanta, doctoral degree from Boston University, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, he became leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Strongly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he developed the nonviolent strategies of the racial movement in the United States. He was jailed, stabbed, and his home was bombed; and in the end he was shot dead when he began to connect race relations with economics and the war in Vietnam. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and ran a training school for nonviolence. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Lanza del Vasto (French, Christian). A disciple of Gandhi who gave him the name Shantidas, del Vasto resisted the French war in Algeria and the French development of nuclear weapons nonviolently. One of his personal experiences of nonviolence in the face of banditry is described in the article "Sample Christian Thought on Justice, Peace, Prosperity, and Security" (Search for "Lanza" for the brief summary, and see Lanza del Vasto, Warriors of Peace: Writings on the Technique of Nonviolence, etc. Michel Random, tr. Jean Sidgwick (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) pp. 35-38 for the full story.)

Vinoba Bhave (Indian, devout Hindu). Gandhi's heir-apparent, Bhave instituted the Gramdam movement which influenced wealthy Indians to donate land and villages to the poor. By the time of his death, tens of thousands of villages and rural acres had been donated in a kind of Hindu "jubilee." He would organize village-wide celebrations at which the donations were solicited. He also decided to revive Gandhi's dream of a nonviolent army, which had been called Seva Dal under Kamaladevi. For that purpose he enlisted an all-woman committee headed by our next example, Marjorie Sykes.

Marjorie Sykes (English, member of Gandhi's ashram at Sevagram). Chosen by Vinoba Bhave to head the revival of Gandhi's nonviolent army called Shanti Sena (recently revived). Originally attempting to train large numbers of young people, Marjorie found it impossible to give them the depth of training they needed in such large groups. She changed the plan so that groups of eight or nine were trained both in nonviolence for reconciliation and in small village agriculture. The pattern thus established has carried over to the Peace Brigades International centered in the United States.

Danilo Dolci (Italian, disillusioned Christian). Famous for resisting Fascism in the late 1930s, and the Mafia in Sicily after the Second World War, Dolci developed a number of innovative techniques including the "reverse strike" in which people do more work than they are supposed to as a demonstration of their independence from repressive authority. In a celebrated trial, Dolci was convicted of repairing a public road, with other peasants whom he organized, against the authority of the local politicians who didn't want their authority challenged by unauthorized work. He has titled one of his books Waste, where the word "waste" refers both to environmental pollution and to human lives wasted by murder. See also the New York Times review of his book Sicilian Lives.

Dorothy Day (U.S., Marxist turned Roman Catholic). From a young Marxist activist journalist, Dorothy was drawn against all her instincts into the Roman Catholic Church by a spiritual force she could not resist. Having had one abortion and then being abandoned by her lover, she insisted on giving birth to her second child although her second lover refused to accept any responsibility for it and, in fact, left her. Moving to Manhattan, she opened a house of hospitality for the homeless. One of her early homeless was a French peasant named Peter Maurin who insisted she should learn more about the social traditions of the Catholic Church and that she should start a penny newspaper. They called their paper the Catholic Worker, hawking it across the street from Marxists ("Read the Daily Worker") by calling out "Read the Catholic Worker Daily"! During the 1950s and 1960s she was jailed several times for refusing to take cover in nuclear air raid drills. She was also active in women's issues, farm issues, union issues, and many more. Today, the Catholic Worker movement has numerous houses throughout the United States.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Russian, Roman Catholic, refugee in the U.S., settled in Canada.) Founded a city center much like Dorothy Day's, but soon moved out into the Canadian rural area to found Madonna House. Combined Russian Christian spirituality with ministry to the poor. Has written extensively on spirituality.

Muriel Lester. (British, upper-class) Founded a settlement house in London similar to Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago. Joined Gandhi in India in the 1920s. Worked with Maude Royden of England to form a nonviolent peace army to stand between the Chinese and the Japanese in the Manchuria of the 1930s. Her intention was for that army to be sponsored by the League of Nations, but the League declined their offer. She engaged in much informal shuttle diplomacy between China and Japan; later in the Middle East. The International Fellowship of Reconciliation was more prepared to endorse her work than the League had been. During World War II her efforts in Latin America landed her in prison.

Gene Sharp (U. S., Christian but promoting a universal active nonviolence). His monumental thesis The Politics of Nonviolent Action and numerous later publications analyze and illustrate the dynamics by which active nonviolence achieves its success. Concentrating on international relations, he argues against armed national defense in favor of educating and training citizens for provocative, active nonviolent defense. Such defense has the following advantages: (1) since one's enemies do not feel threatened by it, it avoids an arms race. (2) The techniques taught extend easily to nonviolent and respectful everyday relationships In contrast, armed resistance and the traumas that it produces increase domestic violence. He founded the Albert Einstein Institute to promote further research on "strategic nonviolence" and disseminate that research especially to those who would be likely to make good use of it.

A. J. Muste (1885-1968, U. S.). Born in Holland, he moved to the U. S. at age 6. A Dutch reformed minister with a degree from Union Theological Seminary, New York, he led a textile strike in Lowell MA and headed a labor college. He helped to develop the sit-down strike as a union tactic. Strongly influenced by Gandhi, chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) for many years, active with the War Resisters' League (WRS), chair of the Committee for Non Violent Action (CNVA), he refused to pay war taxes and was a leader in the movement against the Vietnam War. When he was 81 years old in 1967, he met with Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam and died a couple of weeks later.

Mubarak Awad (Israel/Palestinian, Greek Christian). He has adapted Gandhi's techniques to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli dispossession and occupation of Arab territories. The Israeli government showed it fear of his effectiveness in 1989 by canceling his visa on technical grounds (which they do not enforce against Jews), despite his having been born in Israel and holding U.S. citizenship. He Founded the Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem (1986) and, since his expulsion,  Nonviolence International (1989) registered in Washington, D.C., Thailand, Russia, and Palestine with affiliates and resource centers in Aceh, Indonesia; Bangladesh; Jerusalem; Bangkok; Moscow; and Washington, D.C.

Active Nonviolence: Jesus' Third Way
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer--May 1994

The persistence of evil and the pervasiveness of violence serve to legitimate violence and make it difficult for Christians and others to take non-violence seriously, including the non-violence of Jesus. T.V. shows and movies, nightly news programs and daily living surround us with images of violence. From battered women, crime, urban riots, and Bosnia we are nearly overwhelmed with violence.

In most instances the solution to the problem of pervasive evil and violence is projected to be the exercise of more creative, and often times more lethal, forms of violence. Violence saves, or in the words of New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, we believe in "the myth of redemptive violence."

<<Watch several Saturday morning cartoons. In what ways is the message of redemptive violence conveyed to children?>>

According to Wink, in his provocative book, Engaging the Powers, violence and not Christianity is the real religion of America. The myth of redemptive violence "undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy" (p. 13).

Wink says that "one of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?" The answer, he says, involves taking the non-violence of Jesus seriously.Wink describes the traditional responses to danger and evil as flight or fight.

Flight = submission; passivity; withdrawal; surrender.

Fight = armed revolt; violent rebellion; direct retaliation; revenge.

Wink says Jesus offers a third alternative or way: creative, active non-violence.

<<Read Matthew 5:38-42. You might also want to read pp. 175-182 in Engaging the Powers>>

Drawing out the wisdom and tactics of Jesus as described in the Matthew text (turn the other cheek, give your cloak, walk an extra mile) Wink shows how Jesus' Third Way empowers oppressed people to take the initiative and respond with dignity to a situation of oppression, to put the oppressor in an awkward position while offering the possibility of repentance and transformation.

Wink summarizes Jesus' Third Way as follows (pp. 186-87):

* Seize the moral initiative
* Find a creative alternative to violence
* Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
* Meet force with ridicule or humor
* Break the cycle of humiliation
* Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
* Expose the injustice of the system
* Take control of the power dynamic
* Shame the oppressor into repentance
* Stand your ground
* Make the powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
* Recognize your own power
* Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
* Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
* Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
* Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
* Die to the fear of the old order and its rules
* Seek the oppressor's transformation 

Wink notes that in the Matthew passage we see Jesus as a tactician of non-violence and that these tactics need to be adapted to our own time. However, Jesus' commitment to non-violence goes beyond tactics. It is reflected in his death on a cross. Jesus was committed to non-violent resistance because non-violence reflects and reveals the character of God.

Before dismissing the non-violence of Jesus as somehow utopian we would do well to remember that Jesus also lived during very violent times. Rome routinely crucified those it considered agitators and it sent in its legions to destroy entire cities when necessary; some Jewish groups assassinated Jews who collaborated with Rome and eventually there was an armed rebellion against Rome led by the Zealots. There were also many Jews waiting for a violent coming of God, a messiah that would come and throw out the hated Romans, cleanse the temple, and re-establish Israel as an independent nation ruled by a Davidic-type king. In other words, Jesus' nonviolence was as strikingly counter-cultural in his time as active non-violence is in our own.

<<Why do you think the non-violence of Jesus is often not taken seriously?

What are some examples from recent history of people and movements who have rooted commitments to non-violence in the example of Jesus?

Choose a recent or current situation where violence is/was pervasive--Bosnia, Iraq, U.S. urban crisis. What might a strategy of non-violent action look like based on Jesus' third way?>>


1. Smith, David Whitten and Elizabeth Geraldine Burr, Understanding World Religions: A Road Map for Justice and Peace (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) p. 277.

2. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter-Sargent Publishers, ) vol. 1 pp. 10-12.

3. (Sharp I pp 16-23)

4. For an account of the Solidarity movement by a scholar who, as a student, was involved in the movement, see "Solidarity and Nonviolent Political Struggle in Poland" by W. J. Korab-Karpowicz.

5. Dorothy T. Samuel, Safe Passage on City Streets (Liberty Literary Works, 1991) pp. 12-14.

For more information, contact:
Rev. David W. Smith
University of St. Thomas
Mail 4137
2115 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105-1096
(651) 962-5325

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Last modification date 1/26/2009.