The Nonviolent Alternative

University Essays: Lesson 15, Reading 1

by Thomas Merton

Nonviolence is not simply a way of proving one’s point and getting what one wants without being involved in behavior that one considers ugly and evil. Nor is it, for that matter, a means which anyone can legitimately make use of according to his fancy for any purpose whatever. To practice nonviolence for a purely selfish or arbitrary end would, in fact, discredit and distort the truth of nonviolent resistance.

Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer evil and even face the threat of death without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest from its considerations. In a very real sense, he who practices nonviolent resistance must commit himself not to the defense of his own interests or even those of a particular group: he must commit himself to the defense of objective truth and right and, above all, of man. His aim is then not simply to “prevail” or to prove that he is right and the adversary wrong, or to make the adversary give in and yield what is demanded of him.

Nor should the nonviolent resister be content to prove to himself that he is virtuous and right, and that his hands and heart are pure even though the adversary’s may be evil and defiled. Still less should he seek for himself the psychological gratification of upsetting the adversary’s conscience and perhaps driving him to an act of bad faith and refusal of the truth. We know that our unconscious motives may, at times, make our nonviolence a form of moral aggression and even a subtle provocation designed (without our awareness) to bring out the evil we hope to find in the adversary, and thus to justify ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of “decent people.” Wherever there is a high moral ideal, there is an attendant risk of pharisaism, and nonviolence is no exception.

The basis of pharisaism is division: on one hand this morally or socially privileged self and the elite to which it belongs. On the other hand, the “others,” the wicked, the unenlightened, whoever they may be, Communists, capitalists, colonialists, traitors, international Jewry, racists, etc.

A test of our sincerity in the practice of nonviolence is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary! If a new truth is made known to us by him or through him, will we accept it? Are we willing to admit that he is not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, cruel, etc.? This is important. If he sees that we are completely incapable of listening to him with an open mind, our nonviolence will have nothing to say to him except that we distrust him and seek to outwit him. Our readiness to see some good in him and to agree with some of his ideas (though tactically this might look like a weakness on our part) actually gives us power: the power of sincerity and of truth. On the other hand, if we are obviously unwilling to accept any truth that we have not first discovered and declared ourselves, we show by that very fact that we are interested not in the truth so much as in “being right.” Since the adversary is presumably interested in being right also, and in proving himself right by what he considers the superior argument of force, we end up where we started. Nonviolence has great power, provided that it really witnesses to truth and not just to self-righteousness.

The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity about our own convictions. We fear that we may be “converted”—or perverted— by a pernicious doctrine. On the other hand, if we are mature and objective in our open-mindedness, we may find that viewing things from a basically different perspective—that of our adversary—we discover our own truth in a new light and are able to understand our own ideal more realistically.

Our willingness to take an alternative approach to a problem will perhaps relax the obsessive fixation of the adversary on his view, which he believes is the only reasonable possibility and which he is determined to impose on everyone else by coercion.

The key to nonviolence is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor and awaken him to personal openness and to dialogue. A nonviolent protest that merely seeks to gain publicity and to show up the oppressor for what he is, without opening his eyes to new values, can be said to be in large part a failure.

At the same time, a nonviolence which does not rise to the level of the personal, and remains confined to the consideration of nature and natural necessity may perhaps make a deal but it cannot really make sense.

Conflict will never be abolished but a new way of solving it can become habitual. Man can then act according to the dignity of that adulthood which he is now said to have reached—and which yet remains, perhaps, to be conclusively proved. One of the ways in which it can, without doubt, be proved is precisely this: man’s ability to settle conflicts by reason and arbitration instead of by slaughter and destruction.

The distinction suggested here, between two types of thought—one oriented to nature and necessity, the other to person and freedom-calls for further study at another time. It seems to be helpful. The “nature-oriented” mind treats other human beings as objects to be manipulated in order to control the course of events and make the future for the whole human species conform to certain rather rigidly determined expectations. “Person-oriented” thinking does not lay down these draconian demands, does not seek so much to control as to respond, and to awaken response. It is not set on determining anyone or anything, and does not insistently demand that persons and events correspond to our own abstract ideal. All it seeks is the openness of free exchange in which reason and love have freedom of action. In such a situation the future will take care of itself.

Nonviolence must be aimed, above all, at the transformation of the present state of the world, and it must, therefore, be free from all occult, unconscious connivance with an unjust use of power. This poses enormous problems for if nonviolence is too political, it becomes drawn into the power struggle and identified with one side or another in that struggle, while, if it is totally apolitical, it runs the risk of being ineffective or, at best, merely symbolic.

Here the human dignity of nonviolence must manifest itself clearly in terms of a freedom and a nobility which are able to resist political manipulation and brute force and show them up as arbitrary, barbarous and irrational. This will not be easy. The temptation to get publicity and quick results by spectacular tricks, or by forms of protest that are merely odd and provocative but whose human meaning is not clear, may defeat this purpose.

The realism of nonviolence must be made evident by humility and self-restraint which clearly show frankness and open-mindedness and invite the adversary to serious and reasonable discussion.

Instead of trying to use the adversary as leverage for one’s own effort to realize an ideal, nonviolence seeks only to enter into a dialogue with him in order to attain, together with him, the common good of man. Nonviolence must be realistic and concrete. Like ordinary political action, it is no more than the “art of the possible.” But precisely the advantage of nonviolence is that it has a more humane notion of what is possible. Where the powerful believe that only power is efficacious, the nonviolent resister is persuaded of the superior efficacy of love, openness, peaceful negotiation and, above all, of truth. For power can guarantee the interests of some men but it can never foster the good of man. Power always protects the good of some at the expense of all the others. Only love can attain and preserve the good of all. Any claim to build the security of all on force is a manifest imposture.

It is here that genuine humility is of the greatest importance.

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-.372.

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