After surveying the wealth of ideas about nonviolence in U.S. history, it would seem audacious to make any definitive summary statement or draw any definite conclusions. This Conclusion will only highlight a few of the most important trends in the past and raise a few questions to ponder for the future.

Through the end of the 19th century, the nonviolence tradition was motivated largely by issues of individual identity and authority. The tradition focused on the question, "What kind of person do I want to be?" It recognized that this question is always linked to another: "What authority, if any, will I accept as binding upon me?" In the 20th century, the tradition continued to ask and answer these questions. But it enlarged its scope by putting increasing focus on the question, "What kind of society do we want to live in?" So it had to ask the inevitable corollary to that question: "How can I help to create the kind of society I want to live in?" Although the concern for individual identity and action was never lost, it was increasingly framed within a larger concern for group identity and action. Problems of individual morality were subsumed, more and more, in problems of social and economic institutions. The quest for personal spiritual growth was subsumed, more and more, into the quest for a society of genuine liberty and justice for all.

In the 20th century, nonviolence came to be seen as the single path to both personal and societal ideals, and as the bridge that could link the two. Despite their many differences, all the major theorists of the 20th century agreed on some fundamental concepts that created this bridge. They generally started with the premise that all humanity (and, for many, all of cosmic reality) is interconnected. Everyone influences everyone else. Therefore, no one has the right to exercise authority over another against the other’s will. Everyone has a right, and a responsibility, to make free choices. Only by exercising that right responsibly can an individual find his or her greatest fulfillment. Responsible freedom means respecting and promoting the freedom of all others; it means working for justice. It also means an attitude of universal love. Only a loving society can be just; only a just society can express love. No individual can attain the ideals of freedom, justice, and love unless society is built upon, or at least moving toward, those ideals as shared values. Society will move toward those ideals only when they are realized in the lives of individuals. Society and the individual are interwoven. By the end of the 20th century, these principles were generally accepted by nearly all groups, and most individuals, committed to nonviolent social change.

The growing focus on societal concerns in the 20th century was connected to another momentous development: a growing focus on the results of nonviolent action. Through the late 19th century, nonviolence movements were still very much influenced by their roots in Christian nonresistance. Even when they organized for change, they concentrated on maintaining personal purity by avoiding violent resistance to evil. As the 20th century went on, there was more and more desire to create a just society. Nonviolence could more readily be seen as a means to that end, rather than an end in itself that guarantees spiritual purity. Nonviolence was promoted as the best way to create, in the present, the kind of society people wanted for the future. This opened up the possibility that nonviolence could be used as a tool for coercion, rather than a way to avoid any taint of coercive motives.

Many people now assume that nonviolence must meet the pragmatic test: Will it work? Will it create the social changes we want? If these questions seem so obviously the right ones to ask, that is testimony to the shift toward a focus on results. There is now a growing literature (inspired largely by the work of Gene Sharp) arguing for the efficacy of nonviolence. Though it offers theoretical arguments, it looks largely to the many examples in history of successful nonviolence. These examples can certainly offer encouragement. Nonviolent methods have indeed produced huge changes in some places and times. The U.S. civil rights movement and the independence struggle in India are only the best known of many dozens that could be cited. Anyone who lived through the end of the cold war era remembers how stunning it was to see governments in the Soviet Union and throughout eastern Europe brought down by popular uprisings. This was a change of world-historical proportions, a change that few at the time had ever expected to see. And it all happened with scarcely a shot fired. Other movements around the world have followed a similar pattern.

Before one hastens to judge by the pragmatic test, though, it may be worth noting the danger in this test. For every case in which nonviolence worked, it is easy to point to any number of cases in which it did not work. If people adopt the way of nonviolence because they believe that it will accomplish their goals, it is surely possible, and maybe probable, that they will be disappointed. Then they are likely to abandon their nonviolent stance. This kind of argument from history, though it may strengthen commitment to nonviolence in the short run, may end up weakening it in the long run.

Activists who have worked nonviolently for social change for many years often say that they do not judge the value of their work primarily by the results. They certainly try to achieve the best outcome they can. They do pay attention to results. However, they do not necessarily expect any results. They do what they do mainly because they think it is the right thing to do. They value the activism as an end in itself. In that sense, their efforts can never fail. That is why they do not "burn out." They can sustain their commitment and activities for so long precisely because they are not motivated primarily by results.


In the 20th century, the trend toward more concern with social change and pragmatic results was linked to yet another change, perhaps the most significant of all. Nonviolence in the United States was gradually breaking free of its roots in Christianity. By the end of the 20th century, although the movement was still hugely influenced by Christian faith and tradition, it also encompassed large numbers of people who adhered to some other religious faith or to none at all. This raises a question that may be, in theoretical terms, the most challenging question for the nonviolence movement in years to come: How will it respond to its increasingly ecumenical and secular character? Can it find a theory and language that can bring people together, allowing them to find common ground and embrace all points of view in their thinking and speaking?

The variety of religions has not posed a great problem, and very possibly it never will. Nonviolence is inherently tolerant; it attracts people who are and want to be tolerant. There is usually an easy acceptance of people of other faiths, as long as all share the same commitments to social change, spiritual values, and nonviolence. The question of secular nonviolence—without any religious basis at all—may prove more problematic. So far, that problem has also been held in check by good will and commitment to specific shared goals. In the long run, though, the movement may have to decide whether it can make theoretical room for a large component of people with no religious faith at all.

Intellectually, the crucial problem is to find a compelling basis for principled nonviolence that does not require any kind of religious, spiritual, or transcendent reality as its first premise. Thus far, Barbara Deming has provided perhaps the best example of a secular theory of nonviolence. Her premise is that every person deserves maximum freedom simply because he or she is human. This begs the question: Why does every person have the right to make free choices and exercise free will? Most nonviolence thinkers find an answer by invoking some spiritual reality that is eternal, unchangeable, and therefore unchallengeable. But Deming can rely only on the human mind for an answer. She can offer only rational arguments, in the tradition of the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, who trusted reason to provide all truth.

The Enlightenment thinkers took this stand because they thought it was a way to bring people together. They saw the many ways in which differences of religion could divide people and set them against each other. They also saw that religion seemed to be slowly but steadily losing its influence. Some other basis for truth was needed if people were going to learn to get along and to believe in the possibility of knowing the truth at all. Logical reasoning seemed to be the best foundation for truth and community. It is the same for everyone, at least in theory: wherever you go, two plus two equals four. So it should provide an indisputable basis for truth.

Because it is the same for everyone, reason also offers a more likely basis for overcoming human conflicts. Reason offers a language that all can share; it opens up channels of communication that religious foundations may cut off. Therefore, it is the best basis for tolerance, to avoid the kind of fanaticism that religion can breed. Reason also provides the broadest possible foundation for the nonviolence movement, opening it up to the largest number of people. It can appeal to those who are primarily interested in pragmatic results as well as those who support nonviolence on principle. A purely rational theory like Deming's offers all these advantages.

It is noteworthy, though, that Deming did not argue logically for the primary value of individual freedom. Like most secular nonviolence adherents, she drew heavily on the Enlightenment tradition yet did not explicitly acknowledge it. Rather, like most with a secular stance, she took the inherent value, freedom, and rights of every person as an unquestioned starting point—a primary article of faith, held just as firmly, and with just as little proof, as any religious belief. Just as God is sacred in Christianity simply because He is God, the individual human being is sacred in secular nonviolence just because he or she is a human being. The secular stance can be, and most often is, just as much a leap of faith as the religious.

However, the nonviolence tradition can offer powerful logical arguments for a commitment to individual freedom and dignity. If reason is the ultimate source and test of truth, then everyone has equal access to the truth. No one can claim a special knowledge of truth based on their particular religion. Therefore, everyone should be free to explore the truth for themselves and act upon the truth as they see it. No person should be allowed to coerce another. This premise of individual freedom lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, particularly its more radical movements such as Anabaptism, a main source of all modern nonviolence movements. To install reason in the place of any transcendent reality is merely to move that tradition a step further in the same direction of radical individual freedom.

This link between reason and freedom has been spelled out most clearly in the anarchist tradition. Anarchists also see, however, that individual freedom is only meaningful—perhaps only possible—in a community where each person respects the freedom of all others. The insight that we are all interconnected needs no religious basis. It is readily obvious to anyone who thinks reasonably about the nature of human existence. Ironically, it was a devoutly religious man—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who made the most influential, and perhaps the most convincing, secular arguments for the link between individual freedom and community.

King also suggested another compelling secular argument for nonviolent social change. The best way to create the kind of world we want to have in the future is to act as if it were here now. As Gandhi put it, we should be the change we want to see in the world. Our lives are self-fulfilling prophecies; each choice we make turns the world in the direction of that choice. If we base our choices on a Niebuhrian premise that all people are inherently selfish, we make the world just a bit more selfish. If we assume that people can base their choices on selfless love, we bring the world just a bit closer to the society of selfless love that King called the beloved community. If we want to live, some day, in the beloved community—a world of genuine freedom, justice, love, mutuality, and nonviolence—we should stake our lives upon those values today. That leap of faith is bound to make anyone who takes it a better person, regardless of the results of their particular actions for social change. Each individual’s improvement, in turn, will make the entire society better. This argument for nonviolence can be compelling even to those who have no religious faith at all.

But there may be disadvantages in a rational foundation for nonviolence, too. Suppose that reason is the only basis for every person's inherent value and freedom. Then freedom, justice, and the worth of every individual are merely ideas in our minds. Where do those ideas come from? The Enlightenment tradition claimed that logical thinking gives us access to ideas that are universally and eternally true. The ideas are there, in some realm of cosmic objective truth, simply waiting to be discovered by clear logical minds. But in the twentieth century, that claim was radically challenged. It came to seem naïve, simplistic, and in many quarters unsupportable. The notion of "objective truth" was besieged by evidence that all thinking is, to some extent, subjective, biased, and always liable to change. In the twenty-first century, it is extremely difficult to maintain a belief in universal, eternal ideas that are self-evident to human reason. This means that any way of life based purely on reason now rests on a shaky foundation.

Religion is, in some ways, a much more firm foundation. That foundation is not illogical or opposed to reason. It can be understood in great logical detail (as many of the nonviolence thinkers have shown). Religion can, and often does, use reason as a buffer against fanaticism. But the deepest roots of religion transcend human reason. They are secured by a claim that they stem from some cosmic force or being. There is no way that logic can challenge this claim, since it is, by definition, beyond all logic. Once the initial claim is accepted as a basic premise, reason can go on to derive any number of other truth claims from that premise. But as long they are logically consistent with the basic premise, they too are immune from any challenge.

The certainty that comes from religion provides a powerful emotional support. Nonviolence needs this support, because it requires a willingness to endure suffering and perhaps even death. It is surely possible to endure suffering and face death for the sake of truths derived purely from human reason. But most people would probably find stronger support in truths that they believe stem from some eternal force or being. Suffering for a religious truth makes a person feel more deeply embedded in the cosmic source of that truth. The cosmic source becomes more fully a part of the person. The suffering takes on cosmic meaning, and the suffering person expands, as it were, to a level of universal being. So does the cause for which the person is suffering. At least that is how it often feels to the religious nonviolent activist. The secular activist has the satisfaction of doing what seems to be indubitably right. But that satisfaction occurs on a more limited, mundane level of existence. With shallower roots, it may more easily be swept away by the threat of suffering and death.

The emotional support that comes from religion goes beyond the feeling of certainty it offers. Religious nonviolence is a tradition that is many centuries old. To be part of it is to be part of something deep and seemingly permanent in human culture, something shared with millions of other people. It has developed many symbolic words, images, and practices that evoke powerful non-rational responses. These can help make religious nonviolence a richly satisfying experience, not only intellectually but emotionally, socially, and even aesthetically. Secular nonviolence has a tradition of its own, rooted in the larger cultural environment of humanism. But it is too young to have developed anything so rich and powerful as the religious tradition offers. Since its roots do not transcend human reason, it may never be able to gain a richness and power equal to religious nonviolence. On the other hand, perhaps it simply has not had enough time.

Of course, there may be no need to choose between reason and religion as foundations for nonviolence. In the lived reality of the nonviolence community, both contribute greatly. The theoretical or potential conflicts between them are rarely evident in practice. There is no reason to assume that those conflicts will eventually intrude on the partnership between religion and reason. Moreover, both have shown their ability to engender love and compassion, which form the most essential foundation of nonviolence. Whether that emotional foundation is framed in religious or secular terms may be a secondary question.


For those of us who live in the United States, even the large majority who have no personal commitment to nonviolence, studying its ideas may have a special value. The U.S. is, and for the foreseeable future will be, the most powerful nation in the world. Its policies affect the life of every person in the world. All too often, that impact is not for the better. Indeed, all too often it brings some form of overt or covert violence. Simply because our impact and capacity for violence is so great, we who live in the U.S. have a special responsibility to think deeply about the question of violence.

Of course, most Americans feel quite sure that their nation uses violence only in self-defense. Since World War II, at least, our public life has been suffused by, and structured around, a fear of enemies. Whether the purported enemy was fascism, communism, terrorism, or some other threat, the public has been called on to subordinate all other concerns to the overriding demand for national security. Yet the advent of the national security state has not really made the average person feel more secure. On the contrary, it has tended to reinforce the feeling that insecurity and threat now form the permanent condition of our national life. Far from a national security state, we actually live in a national insecurity state.

It may be that the only way to escape this dilemma is a radically new way of understanding relationships among nations, a new way drawn from the old tradition of nonviolence. That tradition is unique because it starts from the premise that we have no enemies, that the very idea of "enemy" is a profound misunderstanding of reality. The world cannot be simply divided into friends and enemies, good guys and bad guys. Everyone in the world is tied together in what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "a single garment of destiny," so that the actions of each affect all others. Harm to one is harm to all; security for one requires security for all. To be sure, we may try to influence others to change some of their behaviors. First, however, we must recognize how we help to create the problems we are trying to solve and the insecurity we are trying to alleviate. We must take a long, hard look at our own behaviors, to see how they may engender and perpetuate the behaviors of others.

If U.S. national security policies are examined from the perspective of nonviolence, it will usually turn out that our own policies play a very large role in creating the very problems that the polices are supposed to solve. Rather than blaming and fighting an enemy, we may make ourselves most secure by correcting our own behaviors. That, in turn, requires us to change our attitudes. Above all, we must change some of our fundamental beliefs: that America is always the "good guy"; that we are beset by enemies who want to harm us without reasons; that our national life must be dedicated to fending off threats and overcoming foes. The nonviolence tradition may be our most valuable resource for finding a new way to think about America’s role in the world, a way that can bring more genuine security, not only for ourselves, but for the whole world. We have a special responsibility to consider the alternative of nonviolence.

We also have a special opportunity to promote that alternative. It is an irony of our history that the nation deploying the most power around the globe has also enshrined one of the greatest teachers of nonviolence as a national hero. Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely revered by millions who have little understanding of the complexities of his idea of nonviolence. Most of those millions might have little sympathy for his idea if they did understand it. Yet the deep respect for Dr. King, and his eminent place in our national memory, afford a strong platform for promoting a sympathetic understanding of nonviolence and moving it to a more central place in our national life.

Dr. King’s thought is especially well suited to play this role because he encompassed so much of the nonviolence tradition in his own thought. He absorbed nearly all the main ideas of the white nonviolence community of the 1920s and 1930s, yet translated them into an idiom rooted in the black community. He recognized his intellectual debt to the historic peace churches and worked actively with them. He was profoundly influenced by Niebuhr as well as Gandhi. He joined Barbara Deming in seeing the links between the civil rights and peace movements. He was one of the first Americans to admire and support Thich Nhat Hanh.

Because his work synthesized so many influences, Dr. King was able to find a middle way between many of the alternatives offered by others’ ideas. He showed how individual spiritual growth and social change are inextricably intertwined; how nonviolence could be both an end in itself and a means to improving society; how we could pursue practical results without letting results be the ultimate test of our actions; how Niebuhr’s views of human nature could be incorporated into nonviolence thought; how coercion can be a legitimate practice of nonviolence; how religious and rational motives for nonviolence can reinforce each other; how religion, reason, and emotion can all work together to produce a life of love and compassion.

Many of the seeming contradictions that appear to be weaknesses in the thought of others became strengths in Dr. King’s thought, because he showed how we can transcend the need to choose between these alternatives. Rather, we can draw upon all the resources of the tradition and bring all points of view together in a mutually strengthening harmony. That is certainly true to the spirit of nonviolence. It may be Martin Luther King, Jr., more than any other nonviolence thinker, who can point the way to a state of genuine national and global security in the future, enriched by the idea of nonviolence.

Notes to Conclusion