The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 2, Reading 7
by Colman McCarthy
In a memorable, joyous ceremony last week at Crosslands, Pennsylvania, the government of India bestowed its highest civilian honor on Horace Alexander, a 95-year-old British philosopher and peacemaker who was a friend, student, and biographer of Gandhi. Alexander, a Quaker and a conscientious objector in World War I, first involved himself in Indian affairs in 1926, when he spent a week with Gandhi at the Mahatma’s ashram in Sabarmati.
His most recent involvement was a 1983 preface to the second edition of “Gandhi Through Western Eyes,” Alexander’s 1969 classic book in which the Gandhian way-the nonviolent, courageous way-is explained as the world’s only rational option for peace.
The Indian government’s honoring of Alexander – he received the “Decorated Lotus” award -comes late in this lovely man’s long and inspiring life. But the honor breaks into the news when a pause from violence is desperately needed.
India itself in past weeks has seen a bloody revival of Sikh-Hindu hatred in the Punjab. In the United States, the Reagan administration has sent 400 Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Saudi Arabia. This latest arms shipment ensures’ that America’s role as the world’s leading weapons dealer will continue. In 1983, according to the Congressional Research Service, our share of the global arms market rose from 32 percent ‘to 39 percent. The Soviet Union’s declined from 26 percent to 16 percent.
Crosslands, Pennsylvania. 30 miles west of Philadelphia, is a Quaker retirement community. Horace Alexander has lived there for the past six years with his American wife. Except for a slight hearing problem, his health is fine and his wit is sharp. Over the phone the other afternoon he said, “I never expected to live to this age-it’s ridiculous!” On such current events as the shipment of missiles to Saudi Arabia, he sighed: “I think we’re very good at wasting our money. We must change our whole attitude.”
Alexander’s memories of Gandhi are sharp. The two men were faithful letter-writers to each other. Their correspondence supplemented Alexander’s regular visits to Gandhi from the 1920s to the 1940s. A photograph of the two peacemakers shows them crossing a field together near Gandhi’s ashram. Alexander. tall and angular, is wearing a suit and tie and holds with his left hand a pair of bird-watching binoculars looped over his neck. Gandhi, barefoot and dressed in a white loincloth, carries a walking stick.
The two appear to be locked in conversation. It is easy to imagine them doing what only true friends can do for each other: disagreeing with gentleness. Alexander wrote of Gandhi that “to gain his respect it was essential that you should show yourself to be at some point sharply critical of him.”
During World War II Alexander traveled to India as a staff member of the Friends (Quaker) Ambulance Unit. In 1943 he visited Gandhi during one of Gandhi’s prison fasts. The two shared a high moment in Calcutta on Independence Day in 1947. “I remained in India for some years after Gandhi’s death.” Alexander recalled, “and at one time considered making my home there. But I concluded that I really belonged in the West and that my job in old, age must be to help In interpreting India or at least Gandhi’s India to Western people.”
Few callings could be higher. Or more difficult. Schools in India offer no systematic teaching of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and organized resistance. Honored, yes; studied, no. It is the same in the United States with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life was turned around by the reading of Gandhi.
In the epilogue to “Gandhi Through Western Eyes,” Alexander describes Gandhi as a varicolored thinker. He was a conservative whose beliefs were “held together by a tradition of family interdependence and of village self-government. “He was a liberal who saw his adversaries not as enemies to be defeated but as possible friends to be persuaded: “I am a born cooperator,” Gandhi said repeatedly. He was a radical: “Unless the world accepts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.”
Horace Alexander is also a conservative-liberal-radical. At 95, and deservedly honored, he has seen and heard it all. Nothing, though, has come into his mind that has made as much sense as the teaching from his Quaker parents and Gandhi that the peaceable kingdom is eminently possible.
From the Washington Post, June 9, 1984
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372