The Traditions of Nonviolence

by Dorothy Ann Cole

The Traditions of Nonviolence

~ Dorothy Ann Cole, MEd, DD

Did you know that Gandhi learned about Nonviolence from the works of David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both early American writers?  These gentlemen laid the ground work in writing about civil disobedience; “civil” being the operative word. To take civil action in protest to oppression is fundamentally an American tradition and value. While we have had our violent protests, there is a distinction between being the oppressor which does not serve the People and protesting the oppression.  Here are some examples.

Redlining mortgages was a practice to prevent neighborhoods or communities from getting mortgages, because they were financially “risky”, when in reality they were too “colorful” or on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. The system created an oppressive, and often racist system, which is often the case. Now we see it in the number of foreclosures going on. Although the banks and holders of the loans often do not and cannot produce the original paperwork, they have created a system fraught with covert fraudulent practices.  A recent ruling in Kansas City has changed this; so all the states are now demanding that the banks stop the foreclosures. Glass ceilings are another form of systemic sexism by restricting access for women to higher paid jobs in business and government.  In South Africa, during Apartheid period, the blacks recognized the system’s oppression when they saw a neighbor dragged from his home by the police.

According to Walter Wink, they would say, “Ah, the system is here.” It was that awareness of the system as the source of the oppression that fueled the overthrow of Apartheid. Instead of seeing the whites as the enemy, the strategy was to invite them to see the systemic oppression. Then they were asked if they were embarrassed or ashamed of how the system was operating in their country? Rosa Parks, in refusing to sit in the back of the bus, also in her own way, asked a similar question of our society. Can you have compassion for an older woman, who is too tired to walk to the back of the bus, regardless of the color of her skin? Imagine what the skin color of Jesus was, in what we now call the Middle East.  Would he too have been regimented to the back of the bus?

“Turn the other cheek” is how the Bible teaches nonviolence –but most of us have lost the historical context of this teaching. Walter Wink explains that in a scenario of a Master controlling his Slave by slapping the Slave’s face, the Master would use his right hand. At a time of no silverware and toilet paper, the right hand was strictly used for putting food into one’s mouth, and the left hand was used for personal hygiene. When the master hits the slave’s cheek, it is the slave’s left cheek. By turning the other cheek, the slave dis-empowers the master because there is no way that the master will hit the slave in the mouth and nose, contaminating the master’s own right hand which he uses to put food into his mouth. It stops the master’s violence, just like protesters who lay down in front of bull dozers to stop destruction of the environment or the grandmothers who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, China.

So sit-ins, protest rallies, letter-writing campaigns, silent vigils, chaining oneself to trees, and even “streaking” are forms of civil disobedience. Protesting without violence is a “civilized” way to bring change. The recent Occupied Movement which spread to over 88 countries is another example of nonviolence or civil disobedience. Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the Mirror” asks us all to look in the mirror and see if we need to change. Understanding that nonviolence is an American tradition, rooted in our individualism, we may take solace in knowing that nonviolence may even be patriotic.

With war every decade since the 1930’s, I wonder if we as a nation need to take stock that our war-mongering has led us away from the foundations on which our country was founded – values of peace, harmony and a perfect union.   That we have allowed the systemic oppressor to overtake our lives and liberties, and it is time for us to look in the mirror and change.

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson