Pledging our lives
Thirty-five years ago this month I found myself at a crossroads. Do I plow on with graduate studies and a quiet life – or do I plunge wholeheartedly into the activism that I had been experimenting with for a couple of years? This was not an academic debate. It was an existential call. In the end, I found myself saying “yes” to that call by taking a pledge for nonviolent action, and then inviting many others to do so as well.
The US war against the people of Central America was ratcheting up, and – though this was not what I had planned for my life – I made a commitment to join the struggle to end the policies that were daily putting the people of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at risk. I spent the next decade working with people across North America and the region to foster peace as we built and deepened a movement for nonviolent change.
The part of the Central America peace movement I worked in took this commitment seriously. We spread a “pledge of resistance” that people could take, voicing their opposition to this war but, even more importantly , committing themselves to take action, including nonviolent civil disobedience.
Recently, author Mark Engler wrote a story in The Nation highlighting elements of the Pledge of Resistance – and asking if there are lessons we can draw on today as we face the violence of war, racism, sexism, poverty, environmental destruction, and attacks on immigrants, many of whom come from the lands that were under attack in the 1980s and that are suffering the consequences of those military and economic policies and their current manifestations in real time.
In light of that question, I offer some reflections that are excerpted from a piece I wrote several years ago in Waging Nonviolence:
A pledge, in its deepest sense, is a solemn promise or agreement to do or not do something. Our lives and our history are woven together by such promises. A pledge obligates us to action or to taking a particular approach or direction. It is a way of saying to ourselves and to the world: “This is serious. This important. In fact, this is so important to me that I will commit myself to this matter and make good on my agreement. I will deliver.
Public pledges have played an important role in organizing campaigns and movements. Gandhi, for example, at numerous moments invited his cohorts to make a pledge to undertake action. Rooted in a tradition of religious vows, he regarded such pledges as sacred commitments and urged people to think very carefully about making such a promise.
As John B. Severance explains in his book Gandhi: Great Soul, when the South African government proposed the Asiatic Registration Bill that would require all Indians and Chinese persons in the Transvaal to be fingerprinted and to carry a registration certificate, organizers asked the assembled to pledge their refusal. But Gandhi cautioned them about such a pledge. “Gandhi rose to remind the audience that a pledge was serious business. It was easy to make in the excitement of the moment but was everyone ready to accept the risks of jail, beatings and perhaps death? ‘Everyone must search only his [sic] own heart,’ said Gandhi, ‘and if the inner voice assures him he has the requisite strength…then only should he pledge himself.’ After he finished, the entire multitude rose and swore to disobey the law even if it meant going to jail.”
Once back in India, Gandhi consciously used a pledge in a labor dispute over the wages of mill workers. In addition to counseling the workers to remain nonviolent and disciplined, he asked them to take a pledge that they not return to work until an adequate increase was established. The pledge became a key aspect of the campaign, as Judith Margaret Brown explains in Gandhi, Prisoner of Hope: “Daily the pledge was repeated at the evening meeting, and processions through the city carried banners exhorting workers to keep the pledge. When the owners offered terms lower than those stipulated in the pledge, the workers’ refusal to work became a genuine strike.”
Moreover, Gandhi organized a pledge of nonviolent action to resist the hated anti-sedition Rowlatt Bills that proposed to continue martial law in India after World War I.
There are many examples of pledges being used to organize nonviolent action. A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, written and signed by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, William Sloane Coffin, Mitchell Goodman, and Michael Ferber, was a commitment by the signers to support draft resisters during the Vietnam War and a call for general resistance to the war.
I have been involved in two pledge campaigns: The Pledge of Resistance and the Declaration of Peace.
Seeking to end US wars in Central America in the 1980s, 100,000 people took a pledge to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience or other forms of nonviolent witness. Between 1984 and 1990, thousands of US citizens were arrested for nonviolent action as part of the Pledge. The scholar Christian Smith has documented the effectiveness of this campaign in his book, Resisting Reagan: The US Central America Peace Movement. Since then, a number of “pledges of resistance” have been organized—including one focused on the US war in Iraq and another one concentrating on climate change.
The Declaration of Peace was a campaign in which thousands of people committed themselves to take action backing a declaration calling on the US to create a comprehensive plan to end the US war in Iraq. It organized a series of events across the nation from September 21-29, 2006, which contributed to making the Congressional elections six weeks later a referendum on the war. The DOP campaign continued for the next few years.
Pledges can be effective vehicles for organizing and mobilization. At the same time, their power is rooted in the commitment of each pledge signer to withdraw consent from injustice and violence and to support nonviolent options. Such personal commitment is needed now more than ever. As this crucial season of broadening action unfolds, each of us is being asked: What will I commit to in order to build a more just and peaceful world?
What pledge will we write, sign, and deliver on?