Nonviolent Austin

By Jim Crosby // Also posted at Austin360.com
Jim is currently working to organize the
Nonviolent Cities Project in Austin, Texas

On July 12th I was driving somewhere in Austin, listening to NPR on KUT.  That's when I first heard that the Army Futures Command was coming to Austin.  I thought, "That's pretty weird."  Maybe it wasn't Willie at the Armadillo weird, or hippies at UT (and skinnydipping in Hippie Hollow!) weird, or even blue island in red state weird -- but weird in its own way.

Two days later, Saturday morning, I was on my way to Ossining, NY, for a six-day conference.  I bought the American-Statesman in the airport and saw the announcement on the front page -- Austin had been chosen as the home of the Army Futures Command.  The idea was to keep the U.S. Army competitive by teaming up with UT and the tech industry here.  When I got to the Maryknoll mother house in Ossining, I showed the article to Father John Dear, the leader for the week.  With one glance at the headline, he said, "Well, Jim, you've got to resist."

A bit of context:  John is, as far as I can tell, the most active practitioner of Gandhian-Kingian nonviolence in the U.S. today.  A Catholic priest and former Jesuit, he travels the country and the world spreading the word of satyagraha, the approach to social change Gandhi experimented with for forty years in South Africa and India in the early 20th century.  Translated "truth force" or "soul force," satyagraha seeks to point out injustice, to protest in ways that bring out the best in all parties, to win enemies as friends, to take on undeserved suffering so that others don't have to, and to usher in what MLK would come to call the "beloved community" of justice and compassion. 

For 25 years I've been teaching four sections a year of 17- and 18-year-olds in a class where, among other things, we watch the film, Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley.  I've seen it over a hundred times.  I went to the Ossining workshop to contemplate how to take a more active role as a peacemaker.  The Army coming to Austin sharpened my questions.  Weren't there more compassionate and effective ways to pursue peace in the world?  I was enthused when John Dear said he too has seen the Gandhi film over a hundred times, and that the group would watch it on our last night together.  The one hundred first (or second) time, in that setting, was the best yet.

The conference was called "Following Jesus on the Path of Nonviolence."  Like his mentors including Dorothy Day, MLK, and especially Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests and brothers who actively opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam in the late 1960s, John has for over thirty years employed a Gandhian lens in his study of Jesus.  Gandhi, a Hindu, brought together the Bhagavad Gita, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Koran in his daily devotions.  He was a campaigner for India's independence but also a practitioner of interfaith dialogue.  His great disappointment in the weeks leading up to his assassination (by a reactionary fellow Hindu), was that in gaining her independence from Great Britain, India lost her unity, splitting into Pakistan and India along Muslim-Hindu lines.  Gandhi felt he had failed.

Later successes of nonviolent social change in South Africa, the Philippines, and Poland prove that Gandhi was not a failure, though.  In the U.S., we hark back to the Civil Rights Movement as a time when, using satyagraha, we moved closer to being the nation we aspire to be, the one promised in the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Inspired by John and my week in Ossining, I came home and, with friends, started Nonviolent Austin.  You can find us on Facebook.  Our book club begins in November with Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step.  We aim to be a home for education and action in Central Texas, enabling soul force to take the place of physical force.

Mid-term elections are here.  Beyond them, we know we still have much work to do to build democracy and move past the legislative gridlock of recent years.  Satyagraha offers needed promise and hope for grappling with pressing issues: climate change; white supremacist racism; patriarchy; and the lack of funding for health, education, housing, employment, and global development while we spend freely on weaponry and dominance.

For five years, John Dear has worked with Franciscan group Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service to promote a nationwide movement called Campaign Nonviolence, designed to "build a culture of peace."  Their website has information on the annual Peace Day gathering in DC with events all over the country the week leading up to it; a nonviolence pledge; and ideas for "turning your community into a Nonviolent City."

That would be Nonviolent Austin, weird in a really good way.

Jim Crosby is an Episcopal Third Order Franciscan (TSSF) and serves as Theology Teacher and Lay Chaplain at St. Stephen's Episcopal School.