‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions welcome)
is the text of the lecture given by Tony Kempster at the Irish School of
Ecumenics (ISE), Belfast on 1st October 2009, co-sponsored by INNATE and ISE.
It was to mark International Day of Nonviolence, the following day.
legacy of Gandhi
was one of the few men in history to fight simultaneously on moral, religious,
political, social and economic fronts. His life and thought have had an
enormous effect both within and outside India, and he continues to be widely revered
as one of the greatest moral and political leaders of the twentieth century.
He was an
inspiration for the leaders of many people’s struggles during the 20th century
and here I ask how relevant his heritage is to the world of the 21st century
facing a perfect storm of threats, many exacerbated by the actions of western
oldest questions in politics – ones with which he must have wrestled
often - are still relevant today: to whom do we owe obligations and with whom
do we feel solidarity. But, they are posed in a stark new way by the
consequence of climate change. Will rich-country citizens really make big
sacrifices to stop Bangladesh from disappearing in 25 years time? Is it even
plausible to expect rich countries to accept that the right to emit a given
quantity of carbon should be shared equally across the world’s population?
problem is not with politicians but with us. Except in wartime, western
democracies are not good at appealing to citizens “better selves” to make sacrifices
for their own futures – it is distance in time more than place that makes
it so hard to respond to climate change.
differ on the importance of Gandhi’s heritage and are reviewed well by Stanley
Wolpert in Gandhi’s passion (2001, Oxford University Press). Critics would say
he was implacably hostile to modernity and blind to its good points. Even the
notion of universal love and indivisible humanity, which he cherished, are
inconceivable outside the interdependent world brought about by modern
civilisation. They would also say that he was basically a man of action and of
his times, not a man of universal importance. And thirdly, some would say that
he was a hindrance to the development of radical political thought by conservative,
puritanical and essentially pacifist ideology.
would counter by saying that he saw through the madness of modernity, offering
an alternative which avoided the self-indulgent individualism and moral
complacency of modern civilisation. But above all there was his success in
developing a uniquely moral method of political change, satyagraha which led to
the greatest anti-colonial struggle in history. Doubts are, of course, raised
about how it would fare against a brutal totalitarian state in a disordered
world but, that is another matter.
could argue that all this is somewhat superficial and misses his real
significance for the 21st century. He sought to live an original vision of
human existence, based on asking the most searching questions about the
traditional ways of thought and life. This led to a vision that was intensely
moralistic and yet remained remarkably free from the utopianism and fanaticism
because he took great care to ensure that it was not pervaded by the spirit of
violence. His vision was more a moral compass. He also made allowance for the
fact that individuals were bound to interpret and articulate the vision in
different ways, and thus avoided dogmatism and fanaticism – encouraged
compromise and accommodation. (As an aside, I wonder what he would say about
the absolute position of some Christian pacifists.)
crucially, his willingness to live with the poorest in society consuming very
little is an example to us all.
here where his relevance for today most strongly lies, because he would
certainly have been opposed to the carbon costly and extravagant lifestyles of
western countries and the way they are being adopted in India and particularly
China as these countries become richer.
one belonging to a despised race in an oppressed country, he grasped the darker
side of modern civilisation with unusual clarity. He saw that contrary to its
self-understanding, modern civilisation was suffused with the spirit of
aggression and violence, that morality was impoverished and shallow, that its
approach to religion was excessively creedal and dogmatic.
of a non-violent society
unhappy with the basic thrust of modern civilisation, Gandhi spent most of his
adult life exploring the alternative. Gandhi saw human beings as the trustees
of the rest of creation, interdependent and four dimensional in nature.
good society includes the following principles:
by the spirit of cosmic piety. Nature should be respected and no demands made
on it that are not required by a life of moderate comfort.
human beings are interdependent, the society should discourage all forms of
exploitation, injustice or inequality, and find ways to institutionalise love,
truthfulness, social service, cooperation and solidarity.
human beings are spiritual in nature, the society should help them develop
their moral and spiritual powers.
society should cherish pluralism.
is a philosophy which directly challenges characteristics of western culture
which responsible for the dangerous state of the world today.
into the jaws of death
faces a perfect storm of threats which it may not survive (discussed in the
previous TAP). I tend to be pessimistic about our future prospects believe that
it may already be too late to avoid the worst depredations of climate change?
If I am right and we do not find the political will to act, there is going to
be an awful lot of suffering in the world.
may be setting ourselves up for despair if we think what is being done is going
to be enough. And we set ourselves up to delude others with false hope if we
tell them that all will be well. I believe we have to be prepared to look into
the jaws of death. This implies a deeper agenda for people of faith and
spirituality to build the reliance to face the future come what may. We have to
continue with our work on climate change, on poverty, on anti-war but to do so
with the spirit of the likes of Jeremiah as Alastair McIntosh said in his talk
at Greenbelt 2009 (GB09-005, “The climate of the times”).
small lives are important but they are not the only thing that is important
– there is also the great pattern of our lives. We live the lives of our
times, lives when we are gathered unto our people (as God put it to Moses).
What happens to us in the big picture of things is just a small part of the
gradual evolution, entering into full community with one another, with the
earth and with God. I believe that Gandhi understood this well and that it
informed his philosophy and gave him strength particularly when he used his
body as a weapon on hunger strike.
spiritual response to coming chaos is clearly to engage fully with the close up
but also in our hearts to stand back and take a God’s eye view of what is
happening in the fullness of time, and be prepared for what might come to pass.
Let us hope that we will see sense and prevent the collapse of civilisation.
But if they are right and politically we are not able to take the necessary
action, we must be prepared and rekindle the inner life and recover what it
means to be truly human.
It is also
important to reconnect our children and grandchildren to the elements of
creation – air, earth, fire and water, and encourage them to live
change takes place in our hearts, we cannot put it on the politicians or even
the corporations to make the change, because when we look into the political
mirror, it is our own faces as the voters and consumers that we shall
uncomfortably see reflected back.
a view underlines the fact that climate change is not just a scientific issue.
The notion is also a cultural and psychological phenomenon active across the
full range of human endeavours. It is circulating anxiously in the worlds of
domestic politics and international diplomacy, and with mobilising force in
business, law, academia, development, welfare, religion, ethics, art and
celebrity. Herein are the opportunities for change
threats there are also opportunities
argues that instead of placing ourselves in a ‘fight’ against climate change,
we should use it positively to reconsider how we live (In Why we disagree about
climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity, 2009
Cambridge University Press). How could we use the idea of climate change to
support various projects, and how – paradoxically – we could use it
to make the world a better place.
suggests we rethink the problem of climate change in terms of four enduring
myths – that is myths in an anthropological sense – stories that
embody deeper assumptions about the world around us. (And this also provides an
interesting view of Gandhian philosophy.)
four myths are:
apocalyptic myth which talks about climate in the language of fear and disaster
and reveals our endemic worry about the future, but also acts as a call to
myth which talks about climate as something we must control, revealing our
desire for dominance and mastery over nature but also that we lack the wisdom
and humility to exercise it.
myth which talks about the climate change using the language of lament and
nostalgia, revealing our desire to return to a simpler, more innocent era. In
this myth, climate is cast as a part of a fragile natural world that needs to
themisian myth, named after the Greek goddess of natural law and order, talks
about climate using the language of justice and equity. Climate change becomes
an idea around which calls for environmental justice are announced, revealing
the human urge to right wrongs.
change also teaches us to rethink what we really want for ourselves and
humanity. The four mythical ways of thinking about the human condition are both
comforting and disturbing. They suggest that even were we to know precisely
what we wanted – wealth, communal harmony, social justice or mere
survival – we are limited in our abilities to deliver these goals.
Gandhian philosophy relates entirely to the third and fourth. The first two are
redundant because action is inspired by respect for nature not the fear of
apocalypse and there is no drive to control
on the long term
change demands that we focus on the long-term implications of our short-term
choices and recognise the global reach of our actions. This applies equally to
war and associated matters.
change allows us to examine our projects more closely and more honestly than we
used to, whether they be projects of trade, community building, poverty
reduction, demographic management, social and psychological health, personal
well-being and individual rights or self-determination.
means asking both “what is the impact of this project on the climate?” and also
“how does the reality of climate change alter how we can achieve this goal?”
established that climate change is as much an idea as a physical phenomenon, we
can deploy it in a positive and creative way. It can stimulate new thinking
about technology. It can inspire new artistic creations. It can also provoke
new ethical and theological thinking. It can arouse new interest in how science
and culture interrelate. It can galvanise new social movements to explore new
ways of living in urban and rural settings. It can touch each one of us as we
reflect on the goals and values that matter to us.
thoughts can also lead to a certain optimism. What most people believe and what
actually happens in the aftermath of a disaster are two different things. The
movies, the media, and the authorities have too often insisted that we are
chaotic, selfish species and ought to fear each other. Yet in the wake of
almost every major disaster a wave of altruistic and brave improvisation saves
lives, forms communities and shapes the survivors’ experiences.
her recent book, Rebecca Solnit even argues that the most startling thing about
disasters is not merely that so many people rise to the occasion, but they do
so with joy (A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise
in disaster, 2009 Viking). That joy reveals an ordinary unmet yearning for
community, purposefulness, and meaningful work that disaster often provides.
These spontaneous acts, emotions, and communities suggest that many of the
utopian ideals of the past century are not only possible, but latent in
everyday life. Solnit’s book points to a new vision of what society could become
– one that is less authoritarian and fearful, more collaborative and
local. Indeed, Gandhian.