Nonviolence as a Way of Life

University Essays
Lesson 1 Reading 1

By Robert McGlasson

Most of us are familiar with the idea of nonviolence. It has been a powerful method for bringing about political and social change in movements led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this country, and by Gandhi in India.

In this article I would like to discuss another, more inclusive view of nonviolence, which treats nonviolence not only as a political method, but as a way of life. Under this broader view, nonviolence is an active belief in the force of Love and Truth which is God’s Spirit in each of us. It requires a prayerful disarming of and noncooperation with all forms and manifestations of humiliation, violence and hatred.

Such a view of nonviolence immediately shifts our focus from the political arena, where we are most accustomed to thinking in terms of nonviolence, to our daily lives and relationships with our family, our closest friends, our coworkers, as well as those whom we perceive to be our opponents.

And most importantly, at the outset we are faced with the violence within ourselves. The process of disarmament and noncooperation must begin with a laying down of the psychological weapons that we stockpile in our own hearts; otherwise, to act out of anger, jealousy, defensiveness, ill-will, hatred, or violence is to cooperate from the very start with those forces which we would seek to overcome and change in our political activities.

Nonviolence and Self-examination
A first principle of nonviolence as a way of life, therefore, is that we begin by examining and seeking to change our own hearts and actions. The first step, and one that must be taken each day, is a turning inward, a perusal of the soul to discover and lay open both the seeds and the wounds of violence deep within our own hearts.

When we subject our hearts to careful and honest scrutiny, we begin to see the petty violence that is legion within us—our bitterness against our family and friends; our resentment toward persons who have wronged us; our defensiveness toward those with whom we feel threatened or unworthy; our judgmentalness toward people who are different from us or who have different points of view; and our hatred for the very persons whose hearts we hope to change in the name of “nonviolence.”

We are faced at once with the recognition that we are connected to all of humanity; not just the part of humanity that is love and unity, but also the part that is hate and separation. We see that the lies told by the politician or the lawyer are rooted in the same dishonesty and deception that we practice in our own lives; that the racial prejudices harbored by our suspicious neighbors are our own prejudices; that the violence on the streets of our cities, or within our families is our own hostility and violence; that the hatred, division, and death that is perpetrated by our churches and our governments is the same violence and hatred and ill-will that we plant, cultivate, and harvest each day in our own hearts, oftentimes toward those whom we love and care for the most. In short, even a quick look inside helps us to appreciate our direct participation in and cooperation with the very forces we would hope to change.

As a lawyer defending prisoners who are subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, especially those on death row throughout the South, I can attest to my own participation in many types of violence. At times my hatred for those who would seek to execute my clients is at least as intense as the hatred and anger that motivates their support for the death penalty.

And all of us are familiar with the “us against them” mentality that is pervasive in the “nonviolent” peace and justice movement. Who among us has not experienced the petty squabbling, territorialism, and ego conflicts in their work with groups committed to nonviolence.

When we take this first step in a nonviolent way of life we are confronted with the inescapable reality of our own complicity in violence. It is just at this point, however, that the seeds of nonviolence are planted within us. It is precisely when we acknowledge publicly the painful reality of our own contempt and ill-will that nonviolence as a way of life begins.

For at this crucial level of self-awareness, we start to understand that we are connected to those whom we perceive to be the worst among us and toward whom we are most contemptuous. Our own hearts begin to change from hatred and misunderstanding to love and knowing compassion. The separateness starts to wither, and the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity grows, right in our own hearts and bodies. This change is by definition the beginning of nonviolence as a way of life.

Recognizing our own violence is one thing (and for most of us with monstrous egos this is no menial task), but getting rid of it is another. We in the advantaged world who have all the resources that we need for building up a life of luxury have few if any resources for learning how to tear down the walls that separate us and the violence that consumes us.

Nonviolence in Response to Violence
Although nonviolence deals as much with our relationship to our friends as it does with our relationship to our opponents, nonviolence meets its most demanding test in response to hatred and violence. Nevertheless, if nonviolence is God’s will for us, then we must learn to accept suffering at the hands of those who do violence to us and to our brothers and sisters. This is a third principle of nonviolence: the necessity of gladly and humbly accepting the insults, arrests, and perhaps worse, inflicted on us by those whose hearts we want so badly to change.

Such a response is required under the first principle of nonviolence. If nonviolence means noncooperation with all forms of violence, then to meet violence with more violence would violate this first principle.

Also, a nonviolent response is the only one that will work a lasting change in our opponents’ hearts. Voluntarily taking on the suffering inflicted upon us by our opponents is the means by which we can change the hatred in them to love. That is, the officials and persons who are putting us into jails, or hurling insults at our lifestyles and values, or depriving our brothers and sisters of necessary food, clothing, shelter, and even life will lay down their ill-will and become recruits for justice, peace, and sharing when they come to see the injustice of their ways through our joyful acceptance of the suffering they bring upon us.

I am not advocating passive submission to evil and oppression, but rather the opposite. Nonviolence does not mean, for example, that women should submit to the violence of men, or blacks to whites, or even children to adults. In fact, this would be passive cooperation rather than active noncooperation with violence. The type of suffering to which we should gladly submit is that inflicted upon us because of our noncooperation. It is suffering inflicted upon us by our enemies because we refuse to cooperate with their violence that will ultimately cause them to see the evil in their ways and change.
Some may differ with the view that nonviolence as a way of life necessarily requires us to take on and be subjected to suffering. I believe it is a necessity for several reasons. First, I think it is clear that we must empty our bodies and our hearts to make room for God’s Spirit. For those of us in the advantaged world who live in a luxury of plenty, we carry much sin and guilt for our advantages and for the oppression we and our forbearers have perpetrated and relied upon to gain it. For most of us who have so much and who have obtained so much through dishonesty, robbery, slavery, and mass slaughter, we have much to rid from our bodies and souls. Suffering, at least in my experience, helps me to empty myself of this baggage and to make room for the forgiving and compassionate Heart of God.

Second, because there are so many people in this world who themselves are born into a life of poverty, hunger, and oppression, nonviolence requires that we take on some of this suffering to connect to these suffering millions. If the world were different, perhaps we would not need to suffer in order to be in community with our sisters and brothers. But as it is, how can we hope to connect with all people in the world, to really see them as family, when we live with such great disparities in daily habits, consumptions, and agendas?

Finally, voluntary suffering brings strength and discipline, characteristics which are absolute requirements for any recruit for the nonviolent life who hopes to face his or her opponents with compassion. Without the fearless strength and discipline born of regular suffering, it would be impossible to face our opponents, who will want to cause us more pain and heartache, with the courage to care rather than the cowardliness of hostility. Just as a warring soldier recruit must be trained to become warlike through practice war-making, so too a person who wishes to face life’s struggles nonviolently must become fearless of suffering through suffering.

Joy, Fulfillment, and Nonviolence
With all this talk about suffering, many might ask whether there is any room for joy and fulfillment in a nonviolent way of life. In fact, my experience and my belief are that such voluntary suffering has as its source the same communion with God and with God’s Spirit as joy, peace, and fulfillment. If by taking on suffering we are truly creating space within our hearts and our lives for God, and if it is true that God’s Spirit grows within us in our suffering, then joy and fulfillment are inevitable.

One of the most profound experiences I have had of the joy in voluntary suffering comes from a death penalty trial in which I was involved over a year ago. The case was being tried in a small town in a rural part of the state of Georgia. Several lawyers in our office had spent literally months preparing to represent our client against the most notorious prosecutor/judge team in this part of the country. We knew from the outset that we were outsiders in this community, both in terms of where we lived and in our views about the right result for this trial.

During the trial we worked around the clock. We took one beating after another from the judge, who was at the beck and call of the prosecutor, and who at one point threatened to put us in jail and have us disbarred for the rigorous way we were defending our client. Even writing about this time brings back the familiar pain in my stomach: the gnawing loneliness, the fear of failure, the confusion of hoping to be able to turn the tide in this case, while knowing that the task was too great.

I remember when the jury returned to the courtroom late Saturday night after its deliberations, and the prosecutor read the verdict, sentencing our client to death. For a while I blocked the pain, as we tried to comfort the mother and family, who had hours before sat weeping on the witness stand telling the jury why their brother, their friend, their son, should not be put to death for a crime he committed when he was just barely 17 years old.

The lawyers from my office then went to the jail to talk with our client about appeals, before heading back to Atlanta. While we stood in the waiting room of that tiny jail, mostly in silence, the pain rose up in me like an uncontrollable flood. As I wept, I reached out to find the solid, warm, comforting bodies of my colleagues, my friends, holding me as I wrenched with grief, and then finally as I grew limp with relief.
In reflecting on this time, I can see how much suffering we took on in that trial. The reverberations of pain still echo deep in my heart. And yet the joy of that moment of eternity in that dirty old jail, the joy of suffering to the point where your body and soul completely collapse in the love and support and forgiveness of your community can only be described as the joy of God’s Spirit.
God was with us in that jail. God was in us, and in between us, filling the emptiness we had created through many long hours and days of suffering. And God is still in that empty space.

Nonviolence is also a commitment to Truth, just as God is the Truth. If Truth is our goal, then we are less likely to harbor violent attitudes toward those with whom we differ most strongly. First, we will be more open to hearing another’s point of view, for we know we do not have a monopoly on the ultimate Truth. Second, when we have prayerfully searched our hearts and minds and come to a deeply held belief in some Truth which another would ridicule or even oppose with violence, we will respond with love and compassion rather than heated passion. We will be able to respond nonviolently only because, in our soulful searching, we have already encountered these forces of violence and hatred. We will be able to see that we are connected to our would-be enemies, even at times, to their delusion, and so we will understand and act out of that understanding with persistence and patient strength.

Finally, because nonviolence means commitment to Truth, and because it requires connecting ourselves to the world, we should not be afraid to open our souls and our lives for public scrutiny. The more private our lives are, the more we are likely to continue to operate in the delusional vacuum of selfhood, cut off from those with whom we share deep in our hearts the closest bond and identity, which is God’s Spirit. Openness to our human family means allowing others to challenge us, to correct us when we are wrong, to forgive us when we mess up, to support us in times of weakness, and to know our thoughts and views and motivations.

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