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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).

Active Non-violence
Edited extracts from an address given by Niall O’Brien, SSC to the Meath Peace Group in May 2003 (Introduced by Julitta Clancy)

Background: In May 2003, just a year before his death after a long struggle with cancer, the Irish Columban missionary, Fr. Niall O’Brien, was invited to address a public talk of the Meath Peace Group held in Dalgan Park, Navan, entitled ‘Active Non-Violence: Out-flanking the Just War Theory’. After first outlining his experiences among communities struggling for justice in the Philippines, he went on to discuss and explain his understanding of ‘Active Non-Violence’ as a way of life and his own difficulties with the Just War Theory.

Below are some extracts from his talk.

What active non-violence is not: ‘Active non-violence gets a bad press because people confuse it with other things. But I want to say what it is not: Active non-violence is not passivism. It’s not avoiding conflict or confrontation - you do have to confront. Evil must be resisted. It’s how we resist it. It is not neutrality.

‘You do take sides in non-violence. But you really need sharp and clear political analysis, and I think we run away from that sometimes. It is not cowardice. It is not a magic wand. It is not a fire engine that you call in to put out the fire: non-violence is long years of preparation and discipline and thought and careful planning.

Presuppositions: ‘There are certain presuppositions connected with non-violence: The first one, and the most important one, is that power does not flow from the barrel of a gun. Power flows from consent and therefore the name of the game is getting people to withdraw consent. You target the people on whose consent this particular thing depends and they have to be targeted.

The next presupposition of non-violence is that actually most violence - not all, but most violence - is caused by injustice, and every time we work to remove injustice, we are pre-empting the violence that results.

There is a saying: ‘You lose your moral right to speak on peace if you have not previously spoken on injustice.’ That’s why it is so important for the churches to speak, to be heard on justice.

Another presupposition to remember is that the real causes of injustice are usually hidden. The need for social and structural analysis is very important. Religious people - and I include myself there - can sometime run away from that important action of finding out why, what is the cause, what is going on here?

The last presupposition is that people are basically good. I’m asking for an act of faith on this one because there are people who believe people are basically bad. But I feel those of us involved in a non-violent struggle believe, I believe, that people are basically good and that there is a possibility that a person can change. It’s why we’re against the death penalty ultimately I think. …I’ve had many beautiful experiences in my own life.

I remember being asked to review a book in some university in the island of Negros, and sitting up on the front bench was a big plantation owner and he was also a big business entrepreneur and we’d had several clashes with him over the previous thirty years. I felt very embarrassed because I was really giving a strong talk, and more or less giving out about a lot of things as I understood he would have stood for. …. When he came up and shook my hand I didn’t put any store by it. But then he called me aside and he said the following: “I am 77 years of age now, and as you can see I’m using a walking stick and I don’t need any more hassle in my life. But I have 200 hectares of sugar and 2,000 mango trees. Now let’s say each mango tree produces 100 mangoes (it produces a lot more) and even if you were to sell them for so much a mango how much would that be?”

So he’d make a calculation. “That’s a very big income … now I’m going to hand it over to the people” he said. “But I know if I go the route of handing it to the government, they’ll make a mess of it.” And I utterly agree with him. “So I have to do it bit by bit” he said, and he explained to me exactly how he would do it, very intelligently, step by step you see.

It could be misunderstood that he was still trying to get money from them but that wasn’t the case, he really knew that it would be wrong to throw the whole farm at them and walk away. He had to stay with them for maybe 10 years if he could. That sort of thing happened over the years, took me quite by surprise.

So I believe that people - deep within people - there is a goodness and I think that we [must] keep that. If we ever lose that, I don’t think we could ever be in the whole struggle for non-violence.’ Reconciliation the ultimate aim: “This work for justice is basic, but it must be done in such a way as to sow the seed of reconciliation. So while we’re working for justice, if we raise our voice too high and become too strident and too bitter and too marvellous well we can never achieve reconciliation. The ultimate aim is reconciliation: it’s not to beat that person, it’s to be reconciled. So we really do have to lower our voice and make sure that what we say now will not in its own way prevent reconciliation in the future.

Definition of active non-violence: “And I came up with a definition of non-violence as I have come to understand it: it is a way of life, a life of assertive, pre-emptive, imaginative - I believe in the importance of the imagination, the importance of art and music, anything that will stretch your mind beyond the ridiculous point that it’s fight or flight is the only way we can solve - systemic action .. rooting up injustice and eventually bringing about reconciliation. It is both an art and a discipline.

Reconciliation and forgiveness: “Reconciliation and forgiveness are two totally different things. I can forgive you, you can forgive me, without you even knowing it. But reconciliation demands two people. Forgiveness can be an act: I can say “well I do forgive the Japanese you know”, if I want to, nobody can stop me. Forgiveness is for one, reconciliation is for two. Forgiveness is an act. Reconciliation is a process, it’s a journey. Reconciliation is a journey and that’s the journey we’re on.”

Just War Theory and Active Non-Violence: “If you live by the Just war theory, you’ll be allowed to use violence as a last resort. If violence is a last resort, you’ll always find a way of using it. There comes a moment when you say “well enough is enough”. But if you live by the myth that violence is not a last resort, then you must find another way, you will find other ways.…

Methods of Active Non-Violence: ‘There are thousands of ways. I couldn’t even begin to go into them. …It’s insisting that you are not going to force us to believe that there is only fight and flight and there is nothing in between. That if you don’t, “we bomb them to bits or else they’ll get us”, you know that there is nothing in between. And we say that there is, and I’d say that there is a whole continent, like when they discovered the New World and in that continent there are rivers and waterfalls and wonderful new fruit that we’ve never seen of non-violence. Wonderful possibilities waiting for us to discover once we open our mind that there is this third way.

Examples of active non-violence: Niall O’Brien gave numerous examples of active non-violence including the following: Rosa Parkes: “Right up to the 1960s, in the southern US states, in parts of Alabama, black people could not take a seat in a bus if a white person was standing. And Rosa Parkes was coming home very tired and a young man got in and the bus conductor told her to stand up and give her seat to the young man and she said ‘no’, and the rest is history. You know it just needed Rosa Parkes, that old lady, to say ‘no’ and she went to prison for it. And of course all hell broke loose and in time the laws were changed. She was just this marvellous woman, and that can be seen so often…

Bull Connor: “Bull Connor was the Head of Police in Montgomery in Alabama when a group of black people came to protest on the conditions they were in. … They refused to ride on the buses so the buses would go bankrupt and they gave each other lifts in their cars, and then the white government brought out a law saying they couldn’t give each other lifts, so they walked. And on this occasion they were massed up walking when Bull Connor sent out these huge water cannon - and there’s that marvellous moment where the people refused to step back and Bull Connor was beaten.

Philippines: “I used to sit down with my bosom pals in the Philippines, we’d be talking and they thought I was talking a lot of dreams when I was talking about non-violence. They used to say “you’re wasting your time ….. the British were gentlemen, they would understand non-violence, but we’re talking about Marcos”. In actual fact the Marcos regime changed because the ordinary people stood up, knelt in the streets, prayed and had sandwiches and flowers, and the soldiers refused to fire. It was a classic example of non-violence.

And strangely enough the revolutionaries who I knew and know personally to this day, they so despised all of this as being a sheer waste of time … that they remained in the mountains and kept miles away thanks be to God…”

Extracts from a talk given by Columban missionary Fr Niall O’Brien to the Meath Peace Group on the 21 May 2003. (Meath Peace Group public talk no. 49.

An edited transcript of the talk, compiled by Julitta Clancy, is available in the archives section of the group’s website:

Biographical note: Fr. Niall O’Brien worked for almost 40 years in the Philippines. On arrival, he was struck by the poverty there, particularly when he went to live on a sugar plantation. He worked continuously and tirelessly for the poor and oppressed, and often suffered for it. He was imprisoned in 1983 for 18 months and was later expelled from the Philippines. He returned in 1987 after the Marcos government had fallen.

He was awarded several peace prizes, particularly the U.S.A. Pax Christi award and the Aurora Arabin peace award in the Philippines. At the time of this talk he was Pax Christi chaplain in the Philippines. Fr. Niall spoke and wrote widely on “Active Non-Violence”. Publications include: “Revolution from the Heart”; “Island of Tears, Island of Hope” and “Seeds of Injustice”. He died on 27th April 2004 in Pisa in Italy.

Copyright INNATE 2016