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Readings in Nonviolence

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)

This 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.

The legacy of Gandhi
by Tony Kempster

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 nations?

The two 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?

The real 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.

The heritage

Opinions 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.

Supporters 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.

But one 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.)

But crucially, his willingness to live with the poorest in society consuming very little is an example to us all.

It is 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.

Further, as 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.

The vision of a non-violent society

Deeply 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.

His good society includes the following principles:

-           Informed 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.

-           Since 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.

-           Since human beings are spiritual in nature, the society should help them develop their moral and spiritual powers.

-           The society should cherish pluralism.

-           This is a philosophy which directly challenges characteristics of western culture which responsible for the dangerous state of the world today.

Looking into the jaws of death

Humanity 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.

Indeed, we 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”).

Our 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.

The 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 spiritual lives.

Unless the 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.

Such 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

Besides the threats there are also opportunities

Mike Hume, 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.

He 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.)

Hume’s four myths are:

The 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 action.

The promethean 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.

The edenic 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 be protected.

The 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.

Climate 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

Focusing on the long term

Climate 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.

Climate 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.

This 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?”

Having 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.

These 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.

In 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.

For a photo of Tony Kempster taken on the occasion of this lecture, see his Flickr photostream

Copyright INNATE 2016