Expanding the Concept and Practice of Nonviolence

David Hartsough discovered the following essay in his files and suggested to me that it should be published. It is a decade old, written by my husband Mike Yarrow before he died almost five years ago. It impresses–and depresses–me to see how relevant it is.

I will attempt a summary of this essay: Friends who would like to expand the practice of nonviolence have a clear challenge. We need to overcome our fear and despair, which are now far greater than a decade ago. We need to examine our lives, media, and culture for seeds of empire. We need to challenge empire in many creative ways. And we need to envision and practice building the beloved community, starting with everyday actions, such as conversing with our fellow bus riders. Our shrunken practice of nonviolence could blossom into joyful power for change.

Ruth Yarrow, February 11, 2019

First, let me confess to an itch about the term “nonviolence”–because it connotes a passive absence of violence rather than an affirmative presence of an alternative force for change, which Gandhi called, "a force more powerful." I like Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement, ". . . true nonviolence is more than the absence of violence. It is the persistent and determined application of peaceable power to offenses against the community."

This is not just semantics! Much of the nonviolence training with which I am aware involves role-playing and other exercises to deescalate conflict situations–thus, nonviolence. I am not saying that this is not valuable work, just that it conveys a constrained sense of peaceable power. Furthermore, I know people who are intent on being nonviolent by trying to expunge violent thoughts and deeds from their lives, often by retreating from situations which might provoke violent reactions. Gandhi or King or the Quaker Abolitionist John Woolman certainly worked on their own inner seeds of violence, but instead of shrinking from violent situations, they waded in to the troubled waters.

Another itch about the way we talk about nonviolence is that we love to tell war stories. As a teenager, struggling with my response to the draft, I read Courage in Both Hands, a collection of stories about unarmed people confronting very violent situations, such as unarmed soldiers encountering the enemy in a trench. I also heard many hair-raising accounts from the civil rights movement and the nonviolent resistance to Hitler. I urge us to be cautious about these stories. I think they tend to be disempowering to well-intentioned people who cannot imagine themselves in those positions. And they take our attention away from important everyday nonviolent acts.

The truth is that people characteristically experience a transformation while struggling nonviolently for a cause, which allows them to do things they would not have imagined doing. So let's tone down the war stories.

So, how should nonviolence be expanded from the shrunken, passive state it finds itself in? What challenges do we face if we intend to be practitioners of peaceable power for a sustainable, just and peaceable future?

First, for many of us, we need to overcome our fear and despair. Despair and discouragement are luxuries we cannot indulge. Our government is fear-mongering to keep us in line. The public has responded by supporting wars, militarism, torture, Guantanamo, and government spying on us and, until recently, has ignored the real dangers of environment catastrophe, widespread desperate poverty, etc. As Mark Kurlansky put it, "People motivated by fear do not act well." We need to buck up, rather than give in to the threats.

We can think of courage as the emotional labor needed to manage our fears. That is, courage is simply the everyday work of managing our fears. We all practice courage every day when we confront things we would rather avoid. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. Do the thing, which you think you cannot do." Once people overcome their fears they get a rush of energy and a wonderful sense of freedom. Can you taste it?

Howard Zinn has words of encouragement for the disheartened, "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

Fortunately from the perspective of bringing down the empire, it is confronting multiple crises which can be fulcrums for change. Crises can weaken the powerful, cause many to question the system, unite the desperate, and lead to a more positive future . . . or crises can frighten people into accepting fascism. Nonviolent practitioners need to strategize about how to work with the incoming crises.

Second, we need to look at the world in which we are immersed with fresh eyes. We become habituated to the status quo. Woolman tested his own life to see the ways that it supported slavery. We need to test our lives for the seeds of empire, oppression, and environmental destruction. We need to ask ourselves: Is our chocolate made by child slaves? Do our clothes have the blood of young Latin, Asian, or African women on them? What is our carbon footprint? What is the carbon footprint of our candidate’s policies?

We are protected from the brutality of our empire. We are told that the U.S. military surge in Iraq is decreasing violence there–and not that bombing has been increase threefold and that the occupation has created an unmitigated human catastrophe. We are protected from the impacts of war–no draft, no tax cuts, no rationing. Our culture schools us in the dangerous myth of redemptive violence; it is taught in our history books and every day on TV. In reality, Christianity was adopted and adapted from a religion of liberation to become the religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman-Empire variety of Christianity is used with few modifications by our empire today. Luckily, we still have spokespeople for Liberation Christianity, like Martin Luther King, Jr., who said "We are called to speak for the weak, the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls 'enemy;' for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."

We need to examine our culture for what Gandhi viewed as the seven traits that are most spiritually perilous to humanity:

  • Wealth without Work

  • Pleasure without Conscience

  • Science without Humanity

  • Knowledge without Character

  • Politics without Principle

  • Commerce without Morality

  • Worship without Sacrifice

We need to scrutinize talk of “national interest” to identify whose interest is in fact being promoted. People are already working hard to peel back layers of misinformation and misdirection. We need to develop communication strategies to getting their understandings to a wider audience.

Third, we need to explore ways to challenge the thrall of the empire. We need to stand by its nonviolent opponents, in the way that British Friends welcomed and supported Gandhi. We need to support the millions of refugees of the empire. We need to confront the oil companies and merchants of death, which are the winners in the empire. We need to cut into their profits and glittering images. We need to find ways to reduce the supply of money, personnel, and political support for the empire and its wars. We can hold fundraisers for About Face: Veterans Against the War and help them expand their organizing among active-duty military. We need to interrogate candidates about the empire and find ways to cut down on the taxes we pay for it.

We need to open the space to talk about our empire and its effects at home and abroad. We need to interrogate “charity” as salve to conscience, which doesn't challenge the system of inequality and violence. We need to facilitate cooperation among single-issue groups and educate them about how, through the prism of empire, our issues can be seen as connected. And we need to work on a long-term strategy for replacing the empire by seeking out the vulnerable spots and working to transform them. This strategy must involve overcoming divisions along class, race, religion, and other lines, which keep us small and ineffective. Perhaps taking inspiration from the student-organized "No Sweat" campaign, we need to use our power as consumers to win over moneyed allies.

Fourth, we need to follow the lead of the environmental movement and the sharing economy. We need to envision, talk about, and practice the peaceable, sustainable future. It is hard to keep telling people what they must give up. We need to describe and embody the abundant life, rather than the affluent life; the beloved sharing community, rather that the isolated, competitive, and suspicious marketplace. Supportive community reduces loneliness and the impulse to buy things to fill the void of relationships. Sharing reduces the need for buying and selling. We need to experiment with right relationships with people here and people over there. We will discover that community cannot be built by meetings alone. It needs to include joyful celebrations of the community and of the magnificence of its members.

My wife Ruth and I puzzle over why so few Friends are involved in attempts to end war, or why so few are challenging the racial and class injustice of the prison system or the educational system. As a Friend in our meeting observed a couple of years ago, "It is almost as if a war in our name and with our money isn't happening." We can all point to the noble efforts of a few Friends–and to sporadic collective efforts–but those hardly match up to the challenges we face.

I get really excited when I think about how effective we could be, and what fun and fellowship we could have in the process, if we really got involved. Our meetings are chuck-a-block full of talented and caring people. Think what would happen if we unleashed that potential. It gives me goose bumps. I will conclude with two more ideas that might help us unleash that potential.

Fifth, a “theory of violence” has implications for practitioners of nonviolence. To identify the full potential of nonviolence, it is instructive to look at the dynamics of violence. Doctor James Gilligan, former head psychiatrist for the Massachusetts Prison System, has developed a helpful theory of violence. He found that extremely violent people have extremely negative–or absent–self-images, which makes them hypersensitive to shaming. While it is common for shaming to provoke anger and violence in people, this is especially true for people who lack self-esteem.

Gilligan notes that the U.S. has ten times the rates of violence of Western Europe and concludes that violence is a policy choice. The U.S. has structural arrangements that, Gilligan argues, mass-produce degradation and shame. The policy choices of extreme income inequality and racism generate shame in a culture asserting that we all are equal. Another is arranging to keep unemployment high enough to keep down inflation, in a culture that bases self worth on one's work. Similarly, our education system uses shame as a key motivator. If our country made different policy choices, we could reduce our rate of violence by 90%. Wouldn't that be an incredible feat of nonviolence?

The implications of Gilligan's theory for the practice of nonviolence are profound. They suggest the need to broaden our conception of nonviolence to include opposition to public policies of shaming and to promote confidence-building alternatives.

In terms of immediate intervention, we need to raise children to have a robust and positive sense of self–and not only our own children. We can teach children to stand up for others who are being bullied and scorned. When I told a group of high school students about Gilligan’s work, they immediately talked about befriending socially isolated students in their schools. Luckily, some schools are really trying to affirm all their students.

On the other end of the age spectrum, my 95-year-old mom says positive things to discouraged people in her assisted living institution, as she shuffles her walker down the long halls. She would never self-identify as a nonviolent warrior, but you can see the powerful impact she has on the people she meets.

When I was riding a bus recently in Seattle, a short older man got on fuming, and he cussed out the black woman bus driver for being late. She was firm and calm and asked him not to yell at her. He came down the aisle muttering that she was rude to him. I commented gently to him that I thought he was the one who had been rude. He sat down in front of me. My seatmate thanked me for speaking up and, aware of the angry man in front of us, we had a quiet discussion about how little control bus drivers have over their schedules. I said, "I know it is frustrating to be late; in fact, I am also late to an appointment."

My seatmate went on to talk about his collection of top-ten pop songs from 1950 to 1965. He owned them all. I mentioned a couple of titles from my high school years and the sock hops after the basketball games. Suddenly, the angry man in front of us turned around with a broad smile on his face and exclaimed, "Sock hops! I haven't heard that word for years!" The three of us then reminisced, and we all shook hands as I got off. I find the bus is a wonderful place to witness people being good to each other. It is possible to practice nonviolence in effective ways, to assert compassionate relations in a shaming society, without standing in front of tanks.

In a culture where cruel "reality TV" shows and police dramas, mocking humor, and bullying wrestling matches all serve as entertainment, nonviolence may seem totally aberrant and impractical–something out of a Sunday school lesson. But by practicing humane treatment of others, we make dramatic nonviolence more plausible.

At the same time, Gilligan stresses the need for structural change in the conditions that provoke violence. Working for a progressive income tax, high state tax, raised minimum wage, health care for all, public financing of elections, strengthening of unions, alternatives to incarceration, and police accountability for bullying behavior may be more effective nonviolent actions than sitting in at our senator's office, calling for an end to the latest war. People who work for nonviolence are also likely to be working on issues of equality, because both commitments spring from a sense of the preciousness of each individual. But they may not see that their work on equality issues as nonviolent action.

To prepare for a favorable consideration of these egalitarian measures, much work needs to be done. To pass progressive income taxes in our states–with their billionaires and poor people–we will need to write letters to newspapers, organize forums, and start conversations about right relationships with friends–and have those conversations loudly on cell phones on the buses, in elevators, in supermarket check-out lines. This too is nonviolent action.

Sixth, we can plan nonviolent campaigns to oppose the empire. The advisors to the Bush Administration were writing about the American Empire before the 9/11 attacks, but that event provided them with a rationale for aggressive militarism and a disciplining of our democracy. Chalmers Johnson puts it this way, "Americans like to say that the world changed as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would be more accurate to say that the attacks produced a dangerous change in the thinking of some of our leaders, who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, a new Rome, the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concern of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force." And we aren’t just talking about Republicans here. Although Democrats don't use the word "empire," they don't oppose the reality either.

Let's be clear what empire involves. It involves imposing one state's will over others by military, economic, political and ideological force. Although empires vary somewhat in their levels of brutality, they all impose their wills with violent force on subordinate peoples. They also perforce must undermine the democratic institutions of their home states. They are wealth-and-power machines for the elite and are sold as a protection racket for the rest of us–supposedly to protect us from the barbarians. With all the talk of market forces and the peaceful influence of globalization, the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman bluntly explained the need for military domination, ". . . sustainable globalization still requires a stable geopolitical power structure, which simply cannot be maintained without the active involvement of the United States. All the technologies that Silicon Valley is designing to carry digital voices, videos and data around the world, all the trade and financial integration it is promoting through its innovations and all the wealth this is generating, are happening in a world stabilized by a benign superpower, with its capital in Washington, DC. The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonald Douglas, thebuilder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

We are members, voters, and tax payers of a bloody empire, and we are living in a time when devastating crises are barreling down upon us–endless war and militarism so that we can take more than our share of the world's resources, peak oil, diminishing fresh water, spasms of extinctions, deforestation, food riots and people eating dirt, epidemics, a wasteful, mean and violent culture, increasing intolerance, greed as a value, skyrocketing national debt. The danger is that the empire will use military force to attempt to seize a lion's share of the remaining scarce resources and inhabitable land.

Isn't opposing our empire the main task of U.S. adherents of nonviolence? To put it mildly, we have our work cut out for us. We can assume that one clever tactic is not going to undermine the empire. James Lawson, a strategist of the sit-in movement, states, ''When we become serious about resisting violence and injustice, we find that change doesn't just happen by itself. It takes strategizing and planning and discipline. That's how change happens." So how can we get serious about mobilizing peaceable power to oppose the empire?

Mike N. Yarrow was a member of University Friends Meeting, a beloved sociology professor and an organizer for peace and justice. He completed alternative service to the draft by organizing for peace with the American Friends Service Committee. In 1964, he registered voters with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer. He earned a PhD focused on how Appalachian coal miners understood the issues affecting their lives. He and his wife Ruth Morris Yarrow raised their family in Ithaca, New York, where they were active in efforts for a livable wage and ending the use of nuclear weapons. In Seattle, they worked for peace and justice, especially with the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation, where Mike launched the Peace Activist Trainee program that graduated over 90 diverse high school students. Mike was a board member of the Church Council of Greater Seattle; of the pro-soldier, anti-war center, Coffee Strong, in Tacoma; and of the Abe Keller Peace Education Fund. He was loved for his thoughtful activism, warmth, and humor. He died in 2014 at the age of seventy-four.

Published with permission by David Hartsough.