Ira Chernus  


Nonviolence: As American As Cherry Pie.


If you want to be president, you have to talk about values, it seems. Kerry and Bush are busy trying to outdo each other to prove their dedication to the purest, truest, red-white-and-bluest American values. But what values are truly American? One way to judge a person’s values is to watch how they spend their money. Bush has spent his presidency advocating federal spending cuts in every arena except one: the military, especially military hardware. Kerry talks a lot about his concern for working people. But have you heard him call for cutting the military budget, so that working people can get more of the services they so desperately need?

If you judge by budget priorities, the Republicans and the Democrats seem to agree that America’s highest value is being able to kill more people more efficiently than any nation in history. As Jamil Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown, once got famous for saying, violence is as American as cherry pie.

But we Americans own no patent on violence. People, and governments, were doing terrible violence all over the world long before 1776 and all that. They couldn’t do as much violence as we do, because they didn’t have the technology that we have. But even with their limited means, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan and their kind managed to maim and slaughter a lot of people. If they’d had our technology, they would surely have equaled or even surpassed our level of violence.

So what values may be called distinctively American? One surprising answer is: Nonviolence. Gandhi often gets the credit for figuring out how to produce social change and human progress using strictly nonviolent methods. He did indeed perfect that technique. In many ways, though, the modern idea of nonviolence as a political tool deserves to be stamped "Made in America."

It first blossomed among the Abolitionists before the Civil War. Some of them were ready to shed blood in order to end slavery. But some believed that violence was evil, and no good could come from evil. Even slavery, the greatest of evils, would have to be ended by nonviolent means, they said.

One of the most famous nonviolent Abolitionists was Adin Ballou. His writings analyzed the ideas and practices of nonviolence more philosophically than any other writer of the 19th century. Ballou’s argument for nonviolence began with a simple point: everyone must choose either to practice or abstain from violence. "They who will not be obedient to the law of love, shall bow down under the law of physical force." Among those who practice violence, the more violent will always rule over the others; hierarchy is inevitable. Therefore, "if men will not be governed by God, it is their doom to be enslaved by one another." Yet the enslaved will always resist violently. In the way of violence, there can be no end to the violence, nor can there be any real freedom.

When Ballou applied this philosophy to judge his own times, he found that the greatest obstacle to love was government, particularly the government of the United States. He pointed out that violence is woven into the most basic fabric of our government. The Constitution requires preparation for war. The government uses violence to enforce the laws. To participate in government in order to reform it hypocritical, because it means participating in a violent system while professing nonviolence.

Ballou argued that violence is a learned habit, not a necessary part of human nature. He warned his followers not to assume that a nonviolent society could never exist, simply because they had never seen it before. Should Africans deny that ice exists just because they have never seen it? Is it any more logical, he asked, to deny that the moral perfection of nonviolence is possible, just because we have never seen it? No miraculous divine intervention is needed to attain perfection, he insisted. All it takes is for people to act in the present as if the era of perfect peace and nonviolence were already here. If enough people choose to do that, their efforts will produce the perfect peace of the Kingdom of God on earth.

"Let us have the spirit of the millennium, and do the works of the millennium. Then the millennium will have already come," Ballou wrote. He asked, "Ought not each true Christian’s heart be a germ of the millennium? Is not the Kingdom of heaven ‘within’ and ‘among’ men?" Years later the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy titled his most famous book on nonviolence, The Kingdom of God Is Within You. This was no coincidence. After he developed his own idea of Christian nonviolence, Tolstoy was thrilled to discover that Ballou and other Abolitionists had come to similar conclusions many years earlier. In fact, he declared that Ballou was the greatest American writer of the 19th century. When Gandhi was a student in London, he read the works of Tolstoy and through Tolstoy he learned about the ideas of Ballou.

Gandhi also read another Abolitionist, one who has a better claim to be called the greatest American writer of the 19th century: Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau did not argue for strict nonviolence; he was willing to kill in order to free the slaves. His crucial contribution to modern nonviolence was his insight that governments can enforce unjust laws only as long as the people let them. His famous essay "Civil Disobedience" was a plea to disobey immoral laws. That is the only route to true freedom, he argued—and the quickest route to changing the laws, because civil disobedience can "clog the machinery" of the state, if enough people press against it with their whole weight: "Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."

Gandhi’s genius was to put together these two strains of American thought. He saw that the surest way to clog the machinery of the state is to live perfectly nonviolently, as if moral perfection were already here. He put that combination of ideas into practice in South Africa and then in India. By the time of World War I, then, the American idea of nonviolent social change was working its influence in Europe, Africa, and Asia. But it had largely died out here in its homeland, until the war sparked a renewed passion for nonviolent change among a group of young white Protestants, who began studying and publicizing Gandhi’s ideas in this country. But Gandhi had even greater impact in the African-American community, where his words eventually reached the ears of a young Black theology student named King. The rest is well-known history.

Despite the great achievements of the civil rights movement, it is still easy to feel that violence is the overwhelming fact of our life, that violence is everywhere, that there is no end to it. Most Americans remain convinced that eventually violence must be confronted with violence. With all this current interest in American values, it is worth remembering that many Americans have believed in another way of way to stop violence: stop being violent. We usually think of Gandhi and Tolstoy as the great prophets of nonviolence. But Gandhi and Tolstoy were heirs of the tradition of nonviolence that was made in America. Nonviolence is indeed as American as cherry pie.