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Billy King


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Nonviolence: An Introduction
3. Nonviolence: The moral and spiritual basis

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'Nonviolence' can be chosen 'because it works'; it can be the pragmatic adoption of particular tactics - tactics which people feel are the most appropriate in particular circumstances, whether that be Eastern Europe in 1989 or indeed Serbia in 2000, the Philippines in 1986 in overthrowing the Marcos regime, or Northern Ireland today. The possibilities in a particular situation, including the fear of military repression or unleashing counterviolence, can be factors in the pragmatic adoption of 'non-violence' or 'nonviolence'. Usually there is some kind of moral choice involved - even for those who in other circumstances would choose violence if they felt it had a chance of succeeding.

But nonviolence is also a moral, philosophical and spiritual basis - or part of such a basis. It may come from complete respect for human life. It can come from religious faith - Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu etc. (see below on 'The golden rule'). It can be an imperative part of such a faith. Or it can be a development of such a belief in relation to the times we live in.

The Golden Rule
Different religions all state one fundamental principle - that we should treat others as would wish to be treated - this is sometimes referred to as 'the golden rule'. Here are statements from just some major religions:

  • "The nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self". Zoroastrianism; Dadistan-i-Dinik.
  • "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire law, all the rest is commentary." Judaism; The Talmud.
  • "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." Islam; Hadith
  • "This is the sum of duty; do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain." Hinduism; The Mahabharata
  • "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Christianity; The Gospel of Matthew.
  • "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself." Buddhism; Udana-Varqa.

Christian Nonviolence
Christian nonviolence comes mainly from an understanding of the life and message of Jesus, and the experience of the early church which was nonviolent for the first couple of centuries. Gandhi said "The only people of earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians." The Christian concept of love is surely incompatible with death and killing. Christian nonviolence is an imperative grounded in faith and in the example of the early Christian community. Today the journey of discovery continues as to what this means for Christians.

Humanist, Secularist Nonviolence
Many of those who take a humanist, secularist approach also believe in nonviolence. Developing trust and respect is seen as a key aspect of making the world a better place, free from superstitions and ancient enmities which tie people to fear and violence. Nonviolence can be as much a key part of humanist thinking as any religious or spiritual approach. Sometimes, again, people seek to divide people with labels when what is needed is all people of good will to struggle together in making for a better future.

Breaking into Cycles of Violence
It would be naive to imagine that nonviolence has an answer for every problem. But it would be even more naive to advocate violence in the same way. Nonviolence seeks to break into and undermine the cycles of bitterness, hatred and violence which have so characterised our world in the last century and show no sign of abating in the post-Cold War world of the 21st century. New situations have spilt over into violence, as in the former Yugoslavia and various countries in Africa; other situations are in the difficult stage of transition from institutionalised violence, as in South Africa after democracy where racial and economic problems remain as a legacy from the past.

Building Our Own Base
It is up to us all to build our own spiritual and moral base. For some this is part of a belief in a personal God. For others it may be a belief in the power of good, of life, of truth and particular political ideologies. We all need positive beliefs to sustain and nurture us and to direct our actions; nonviolence can be such a code and commitment itself or it can be part of a wide variety of religious, philosophical, moral and spiritual belief systems. It can be part of yours!

At the start we used both 'non-violence' and 'nonviolence'. These obviously sound the same when spoken. We use a hyphen when writing the word to indicate that which is simply not violent, and 'nonviolence' without a hyphen to indicate a positive, active commitment to work for peace and justice without using violence. Our language can sometimes be inadequate to the task of conveying what we mean. In Latin America, for example, because 'nonviolence' may not translate positively, another term used for the same concept is 'relentless persistence'. It's up to us to develop the terms and concepts which we feel happy with.

Helping Us
No one said being nonviolent is the easiest thing in the world. But neither is it the hardest. How and what we believe predetermines to a considerable extent what we do, how we react, when confronted with difficulties. Belief and training in nonviolence as a moral or spiritual basis to our lives can help us to deal with difficult situations in a way which can help to harness the power of good which exists, and create the best prospect for just and lasting solutions to the many problems which we face locally, nationally and internationally.

Nonviolence is a powerful way of relating to the world. But it is also a just and beautiful way - a way compatible with the best of the world's religious and moral systems. We are all brothers and sisters; perhaps nonviolence can help to deal with the family squabbles we get up to. But it can help us to remember that no one is an enemy, no one is a thing, no one is a nonentity. In the words of Tertullian, "If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies....whom have we to hate?"

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:

  1. How does your faith, spiritual or moral position influence how you see nonviolence?
  2. Do you feel violence can be justified in certain circumstances?
  3. What do you feel you know about the nonviolent tradition within your faith or moral tradition?
  4. Why do you think people ignore the nonviolent implications within their faith or moral traditions?

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