The Courage of Conviction

University Essays: Lesson 14, Reading 3

by Joan Baez

It is not only the purity of her voice and the power of her songs, but her commitment to human rights, that have won Joan Baez an international following since she first burst upon the scene at the 1959 Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. At the zenith of her popularity in the 1960s, she served as a role model for a generation of students who appreciated her idealism, sincerity and compassion.

The Baez trademarks—long hair, informal dress, and guitar—became a uniform of the young rebel. For the student activists of the period who relied on violence, however, she had no sympathy. Her radicalism was firmly grounded in nonviolence, stemming from her traditional pacifistic beliefs. Over the years, she has experimented with every possible alternative to violence (including serving time in prison for civil disobedience) while lending her voice to the civil rights and the anti-war movements and the causes of American farm workers and prisoners, Cambodian refugees, Latin American desaparecidos, and disarmament. In 1979, she founded Humanitas International to address human-rights violations.

Under its aegis, she continues to travel throughout the world, singing and advocating nonviolence like one of the warriors of the sun, “fighting postwar battles that somehow never got won.”

When my son, Gabriel, was about nine, and we were sitting on the back porch watching the sunset, he asked me if I believed in God. I went on a long spiel about how Quakers say that there is that of God in every man and maybe the best way to translate that is that of “good” —I said it sounds like God — and he said, “But do you believe in God?” So I asked him, “Do you mean the man in the long robe and the white beard?” and he said, “Yeah.” That’s what he understood to be God, and he wanted to know if that is what I understood as well. “No,” I told him, “I don’t believe in that.” And I tried to explain to him that what I do believe in is a force, a spiritual force, something that guides me.

Now this force does permit me to make choices. I can choose whether I’m going to do a wise thing or something really stupid. But at some point, it doesn’t give me a choice. And, occasionally, I reach that point. I don’t think that the events of my life are preordained, but they’re definitely guided. Anyway, I hope they’re guided because I’d have a hell of a time trying to figure it out all by myself.

For me, there is no separation between my spiritual and metaphysical beliefs and my ideological and political beliefs. When I’m trying to decide what direction to take in my life, for example, I go to a Quaker meeting and wait for direction or perhaps it would be better to say “search for direction.” And I do the same thing at home. I’ve taught myself to slow down enough in the mind, because the methodical process of thinking doesn’t get me there. Plotting and planning and thinking have never gotten me anywhere. If I’ve had a good idea, it’s been an inspiration that has come at the end of a great deal of plotting and planning and thinking, but usually the inspiration has had absolutely nothing to do with all the thoughts that I had. Whether it is political action or artistic creation, it must be the same process. It seems to me that of those songs that have been any good, I have not had much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.

I really do think that if we can use the word “God” to describe this source of inspiration, and I’d be happy to, it must be the power of love, it must have something to do with love and caring that wins out over all of our craziness and jumbled thoughts and ill intentions and neurosis and all the rest. If you can care on top of all that stuff or through that stuff, then that is what keeps you engaged in the outside world and not just turned in on yourself and unaware of other people. It has to do with passion for love and life.

What’s more important to me is maintaining a connection between myself and the things that I do to bring about a better world. That seems to be what I was put here for. For instance, at those times that I’ve tried doing music without politics politics meaning my involvement with people and social change the music has lost its glow. I’ve done lots of things in my lifetime, and I know that I am least happy when I am least involved in social action. But when I seem to be on the track that’s really mine, it has been because my activities were closest to pure Gandhian nonviolent action.

I have rarely felt as content, as energized, as satisfied, or as fulfilled personally as when I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Grenada, Mississippi, took the hands of little black kids and walked with them to their school, and confronted the white cops who viewed us hatefully as we tried to make contact with them as feeling, individual human beings.

The attachment to nonviolent action is spiritual—coming out of an old-fashioned Quaker heritage. What people do in a Quaker meeting is sit around as a group listening for the word of God to guide them. Alone, I am nothing. That’s why I can speak immodestly, but with total humility, about my voice, and about some of the things that I’ve done because I consider that when I achieved anything, it was the result of something speaking through me. You could say that I’ve been a conduit, and that, most of the time, whatever I have done, it was not my idea at all; it was something that happened and it has to do with being inspired. That something could be called “God.”

Somebody recently asked me if I had ever had any doubts about how I had lived my life, if I had ever thought to myself, “I’m uncertain about everything that I’ve done before in my life; I don’t know about everything that I’ve believed before in my life.” I had never thought about that before, but when I reflected on it, I realized that I had never had any doubts because I don’t think I ever believed anything. I’ve just done it. I mean I haven’t had a belief system except for a faith in nonviolence. I’ve had faith in it, I’ve done it, and what I have done, I have seen work.

Of course, I have seen places where it was impossible for nonviolent action to “work” because the situation had gone beyond the point where it could work. It hasn’t made me turn against it, because I’m not about to take up armed struggle. It’s just been kind of disheartening, knowing that what we’ve created in this world is a situation in which nonviolence as a social and political tool barely has a chance even to be planted, let alone flower. But if, looking back over the years, I ask myself if I think that I should have done it another way, or if I did the wrong thing, or if maybe I’ve got it all wrong and that human life is not important after all and killing each other is all in the natural order of things, the answer is “no.” I’ve never had that sort of cataclysmic disillusionment. Sometimes I think whales are nicer and kinder and more tolerant and brighter than people, and I might wonder why I didn’t spend any time for the last twenty years trying to save the whales. But I have priorities. Anyway, whales sing better than I do, so I’d probably be jealous.

I wish I belonged to a church. My life would be a whole lot easier if I had the pattern of an organized religion, which I could go through and have faith in and be sure of and something I could pray to with more certainty than I do now. I don’t have enough faith. I wish that, somehow or other, it had been arranged that I had more of a structure to lean on. I mean, even symbols would be nice. It would be easier for me to ground myself. Of all the structures I’ve tried, the Quaker meeting makes the most sense to me. It’s something resembling a structure. And I like what happens there. At a Quaker meeting, you can be and feel whatever you want. But I have had to discipline myself in whatever I’ve done all my life because I have not taken to other people’s disciplines. I guess what I’m saying is that if something could force a discipline on me and I liked it, it would just make life easier —that’s all.

As it is, I have to find the answers on my own. But as long as one keeps searching, the answers come. And to me that search has a great deal to do with nonviolence with the things that are worth caring for: human life and respect for human life. This leads me automatically to the basic and most important rule: Thou shalt not kill. And so you spend your life looking for ways to work out conflict and to put that commandment into practice on a wide and practical scale.


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.

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