The title proposed by the editors of this magazine for the present article expresses very well the essence of what I plan to say. It allows me to go straight to the heart of non-violence, to it’s innermost heart, as I believe it was and is intimately lived by its various witnesses in the religions of the world. Let us begin by mentioning that I do not use the term “witness” in the sense of “leader.” I believe that in this case both expressions are correct. I myself have, from time to time, used the latter word in order to refer to the best-known exponents of non-violence. The word “leader” expresses the social and also the political role that many of these exceptional people have in the past or are now fulfilling in the tortured history of mankind. But I believe that the word “witness” better demonstrates its more intimate experience.
The Religious Origins of Non-Violence
Non-violence is a movement that is sufficiently widespread and rich that one cannot easily commit the error of making facile generalizations about it. There are notable theoretical differences in the diverse analyses that many who feel that they belong to this movement make, which is why the title of this section is valid only if we don’t read into it more than it is saying. That non-violence arose in the area of religious experience does not mean that only religious people can practice it and let themselves be guided by it. I do not intend to entangle myself in debates on the supposed doctrines, or lack thereof, of non-violence. In the first place, well-intentioned debates, if they try to avoid the religious component or if they try to universalize non-violence, usually end up being extremely academic, denying obvious facts, such as that the life and non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi were deeply rooted in spirituality and prayer. In the second place, this title is only valid if we understand the religious phenomenon in the sense in which I will later explain it. And finally, if we see that I am limited to speaking of the “fathers” and most well-known examples of non-violence, and not of the many brave theorists or activists who followed them.
I believe that if anything is common to these heroes of non-violence, it is their certainty of knowing themselves to be not charismatic leaders, but instead small witness-instruments of “Something” that completely transcends them, calls to them, empowers them and sustains them. They feel themselves at one with the people, as one among many, as lowly among the lowly. It is difficult to find a common language with which we can refer to religious experiences as different as those of Christianity (a theism that calls out to Abba, Papa, the Absolute) or Zen Buddhism (a mystical theology that invites debate even among experts as to whether or not it can properly be called a religion). Neither is this the place to embark upon a debate that seeks to find this minimal common denominator in the many religious phenomena, if that were possible, unless all these questions bear a direct relationship to the goal of this article.
There is only room to point out that this linguistic difficulty has its roots in the impossibility of understanding, describing, or even speaking, other than in approximations, of the Absolute to which all religions refer. There are, however, some common signs that allows us to recognize that we are in the presence of an authentic religious experience, even in the absence of an explicit faith in a personal God. “I have never seen God, nor do I know him . . . But even though I have not seen him, I feel a power, mysterious and ineffable, which penetrates everything that exists” said Gandhi himself. Something that should not seem foreign to Christians if we remember verse 12 of the fourth chapter of the first Letter of Saint John: “No one has ever seen God.” Some of the common signs that we encounter in all the witnesses to non-violence, no matter what their religion, are these: A particular way of being and perceiving reality, a way filled with wonder and compassion; a capacity to be touched intimately by everything that exists, by the smallest creature or by the greatest realities like generosity, suffering or beauty; an inspiration that comes more from intuition than the capacity for rational thinking; a conviction in the strength of the power of the spirit; a greater preoccupation with the interior voice than with a more measurable and immediate efficacy; a capacity for generous acceptance of the limits of a situation, such as human failure or death; a sustained hopefulness and courage . . .
The relationship between the practitioners of non-violence and religion, mentioned in the title of this article, is not accidental. All of them are profoundly religious people. Thus we have an important, fundamental way to approach the rich and complex reality of non-violence: it is a reality that is, above all, religious, even if this answer introduces us to a universe that obliges us to travel beyond logic and the ordinary language with which we define things. For that reason we will have to limit ourselves to a type of negative theology or theodicy of non-violence. Theology, because to speak of non-violence is to speak of the very essence of reality: truth, love and beauty, attributes that since time immemorial theologians have awarded to God. “The most noble name for God is Truth,” said Gandhi. Negative, because this profound root of existence is in itself ineffable.
We will have to limit ourselves for the moment to saying what the doctrine and the movement of non-violence are not: They are not a reality that is reducible only to the level of the socio-political arena, they are “something more.” Explicitly religious motivations are not indispensable, but these motivations need to have “something more” than “material” efficacy at any price. The changes that are produced on this structural level are only visible results, results that would not be possible if non-violence did not have a powerful and hidden source that not only sustains but also nurtures it, in all the ample richness of its expression. This is the paradox of its essence, totally sacred and at the same time appearing to be completely profane. The paradox in which spirit incarnates itself and is effective, but in a different manner. The paradox of being in the world but not of the world. The paradox in which Gandhi moved when he protested against “obedience to a superior” and, at the same time, claimed responsibility for the success of his non-violent struggle. “Non-violence is my creed, the sustenance of my life. But I have never proposed it as a creed for India . . . I have proposed it to the Congress Party as a political method destined to resolve political problems . . . It has worked in the past, it permitted us to pass through the many stages leading to independence. . .”
We must approach this universe of non-violence with all the respect and reverence of which we are capable. Bare our feet, disrobe our mind and our heart until we reach the tenderness and compassion born in the depths of our innermost heart. For like Moses in front of the bramble bush of Horeb, to approach non-violence is to draw near to the most sacred realities: the suffering of the world (from the smallest creature to the most oppressed peoples), a stubborn perseverance when listening to the still voice that echoes at the core of our lives, the grandeur of daily fidelity to truth and justice, a wonder in the presence of the Light and the unnamable Presence that transfigure reality and sustain our courage and our hope, the joy of liberation . . . To draw near to Gandhi or to Martin Luther King is to approach beings alive in God (Mt. 22, 23), capable of hearing the cry of our pain, as they did so many times in the past. It is to approach God, who is a God of the living and the dead. It is to approach the Spirit that moved them and that continues to act in our lives. That is how we discover that, even though all too frequently they assign the responsibility for every kind of conflict to religions, the reality is that original and authentic religious experiences have always been the source of great humanitarian intuitions such as non-violence, have been the creators of true civilization and have put the brakes on barbarism. Conflicts that cannot and should not be avoided are those that happen when defending truth, justice and liberty.
When we speak of non-violence, we are usually referring to the theory and method systemized and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, who converted it into a powerful spiritual and social movement, an instrument capable of reaching objectives, including political ones, as significant as the independence of India. Nevertheless, he himself said: “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.” The concept of a-himsa, was for him not a negative concept but a positive, though difficult to define, reality. It was a kind of “benevolence towards everything that exists” that already appeared in Hinduism and most especially in Jainism in India six centuries before Christ. This Sanskrit term, composed of the negative prefix “a” and the word “himsa”, literally means “non-desire to harm any living thing.” Buddhism, born in the midst of the Hindu religious traditions, inherited this spirit and gave a central place to the concept of the practice of compassion towards everyone and everything. The Evangelist, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, also influenced Gandhi.
But Gandhi goes farther than the attitude of “passive resistance” of the suffragist movement that he discovered in England, or of the “harmlessness” that he knew from his native India, including the compassion which he practices actively with those beings who need it. He feels such an intense “benevolence” towards all who suffer and such internal rebellion in the face of injustice, that he goes one step further. He elaborates a theory and a method that he will apply systematically in the realm that is the origin of so much injustice and suffering, the realm of social, political and economic structure. And in order to take the lead in a battle against the corruption that almost inevitably perverts power, Gandhi feels the necessity of a force that supports and feeds his active ahimsa. He will encounter this powerful force in the Truth, Satya. This is why he laid the foundation of his life and his mission in fidelity not only to ahimsa but also to Satyagraha. This is another Sanskrit term composed of satya and agraha, unyielding persistence.
“The world is not based on the strength of weapons of war but on the strength of Truth and Love. Just as there is a unifying force in the world of matter, thus there is also one between living beings, and this force is Love. The power of truth and love is invincible.” And with this unyielding certainty, Gandhi will transform reality. And he will not do it like someone trying to reach a distant utopia, but as one who will restore the original reality that humans have damaged. That which for the great majority is reality, unjust and unchangeable, is for the prophets and witnesses of non-violence only the reality that we men have constructed, a distortion of true reality. And that which the majority calls a distant utopia, is for the prophets a certainty and a reality that is already mysteriously present. It is not exactly that they see something more, they see the same thing as everyone else, but in a different light. Christians in the light of those Easter meals with their master, Jesus the Resurrected. Hindus and Buddhists in the light of what they call the experience of the true nature of things. A reality that is at the same time Sat (being)-Chit (consciousness)-Ananda (bliss). Satya (truth) comes from “sat” (being). We are, therefore, speaking of truth and at the same time of reality. We are speaking of true being. We are speaking of the real as opposed to the illusory or the apparent. This is also one of the distinctive signs of all the mystics of non-violence, their profound realism.
The Evangelical Sources of Non-Violence
This profound sense of reality combined with an intelligence that is more practical than theoretical makes these witnesses incorruptible defenders of the great mass of people who are the most disinherited and devalued in the face of power, power which always generates a large dose of narcissism, lacking a sense of reality or even cynicism. The empathy of these witnesses with the suffering of the smallest immunizes them against all the lies of power. Two thousand years ago at the eastern edge of the most powerful empire of the time, someone dared to call things by their name: “You know that among the gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt.” (Mk. 10, 42). And in addition: “They are given the title Benefactor.” (Lk. 22, 25). Not long afterwards, in the hills northeast of the little Sea of Galilee, in the fullness of inspiration and enthusiasm, at the beginning of his public mission, he proclaimed those paradoxical Beatitudes to those who believed in another sort of “wretchedness.” According to this pronouncement, which Gandhi found so moving, the supposed “victors,” who do not feel the suffering of the excluded of our world, are in reality the “unfortunates” and he warns them of coming misfortune with the terrible words: “But alas for you . . .” (Lk. 6, 24-26), a prophetic warning and at the same time a powerful Biblical curse. On the contrary the poor, the peaceful, those who weep, the persecuted, will inherit the earth. In the above mentioned Sermon on the Mount there are so many of the essential elements of non-violence that it was one of the most important sources that inspired Gandhi. What better definition of ahimsa than to “be compassionate” or “love thy enemies”?
Since the historical beginnings of Israel, where Jesus was raised, one can discern intuitions that seem to lead to this same source. Why not remember here the many marvelous prophetic Biblical texts? “In the final days . . . .They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war.” (Is. 1, 1-5). Even in a bellicose context, the seeds of non-violence appear. Thus, for example, David to the surprise of his companions in arms, refused to take the life of Saul, who was pursuing him in order to kill him. This generosity on the part of David later produced a profound change in attitude in Saul and brought reconciliation to the kingdom. Across the centuries, the spirit of compassion generates a new logic and energy in people who are deeply convinced of the power of truth, a power which reposes, in the end, in God, Lord of truth and history, who is always just. Jesus, in the last moments of his life, defenseless against Pilate, nevertheless conducts himself with the authority of one who is in control of events. The Gospel of John places this reply to Pilate in the mouth of Jesus: “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above.” (Jn. 19, 10)
His descent in these tragic hours into the deepest tomb of human failure, would appear to give the lie to his intention to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. But a few days later, in the full light of Easter, his disciples begin to understand that their master is now the Lord of history. That moving “shalom” of the resurrected master to his friends is still the definitive triumph of compassion over hate, of peace over war, of life over death, of truth over falsehood, of justice over impunity. What better evidence is there of the force of truth and love, that is to say, of Gandhian satya? This “shalom” is the little grain of mustard that one day will be a powerful tree in which all creatures can nest in peace. It is the Word that creates a new universe. It is a plan for a different human society and a different international community, to whose construction so many followers of Jesus of Nazareth will dedicate their best efforts across the centuries, witnesses of a compassionate non-violence that is intimate, active, imaginative, provocative, immovable in its hopefulness . . .
Instruments of Peace
For the followers of non-violence, benevolence towards everything that exists and firm adherence to truth must penetrate to the smallest and most mundane acts, but they do not refuse the challenge of becoming deeply involved, undefended, in the dangerous world of power and its structures and corruption. They try to transform the world according to the principles of non-violence and to follow an authentic path of peace founded on truth and justice. The area which in a strict sense we can call Gandhian non-violence is not exactly that of social welfare, humanitarian aid, cooperation or even that of human rights. It engages with the more profound sources of conflicts, that is to say, the causes which are at the same time human and structural (social, economic and political) of all injustice, deceit, oppression or violation of human rights. The list of Christians who have become followers of non-violence continues to grow: Lanza del Vasto, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Albert John Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Helder Cámara, Hildegard and Jean Gossmayr . . . These disciples of Jesus, deeply rooted in the Gospel, knew how to take from their own treasure not only the ancient jewels but also the new one of non-violence systemized by Gandhi (Mt. 13, 52). In the name of the God who is infinite compassion, these new prophets are a permanent reproach, rebellious and defiant, against all forms, old or new, of exclusion.
They have been able to pass beyond human feelings of impotence when faced with realities that appear to be completely beyond our poor strength and ability. Faced with the great international media farce and widespread genocides almost no one does anything. Who can change the decisions and agendas of the great powers? One day, faced with this dilemma, Gandhi will say: “Our feelings of helplessness in the face of injustice and aggression come from the fact that we have deliberately excluded God from our daily affairs.” This is the surprising sort of audacity that, behind apparent ingenuousness, we encounter in a Francis of Assisi, who often prayed to the Lord to make him an instrument of his peace. Past the condescending smiles of crusaders and ecclesiastics wrapped in their military or dogmatic armor, Francis crossed the field of battle barefoot to try to get the Sultan Melik el-Kamil to listen to him. The Lord doesn’t ask you to succeed, only that you start moving. And that is how you do it. Thanks to Francis and those like him (and not to the kings, armies and religious authorities of Christianity, who caused so many wounds to our Islamic brothers), there are millions of Christians who even today can pray and open themselves in the presence of the resurrected Lord in the Cenacle, on top of Mount Zion, or in Tabgha, on the banks of the Kinneret.
Nevertheless, talking about the limits of non-violence is unavoidable. We know neither the way nor the hour of the Truth. Gandhi, in his last days, had to witness more violence and desolation between his Hindu and Muslim brothers than he could ever have imagined he would see. He was an old man, and his work of pacification village by village was heroic but insufficient. And we Christians admit that the omnipotent Lord, who manifested in Jesus, was betrayed, tortured and crucified by free and autonomous humans. This obliges us to be even more prudent and realistic when what is at stake is not one’s own life but that of a whole people. And above all, it asks us not to propose spiritualist theories, drawing room arguments, or pacifist demonstrations that require, from the safety of our own daily lives, a superhuman renunciation of a just self-defense from peoples who are daily being massacred in the face of complete indifference on the part of the international community. There are too many violent people alive in the world today, but there are also pacifists who are much more orthodox than Gandhi himself, although more compromised, with too much angelical spirituality and too many ingenuous negotiations and reconciliations whose origins lack clarity. There is no room here to analyze the “heterodox” texts of the Mahatma, but some day it will have to be done.
I have limited myself to explaining, first from my own experience, how someone, Gandhi, who cannot easily be considered a theist, lived a life of non-violence, and in the second place, how such a life can be lived from the Christian standpoint. There are rich experiences of non-violence in every religion. All of them may be understood, without forcing the point too much, in the light of the former examples, and also from the point of view of the Hinduism or Jainism that we saw in Gandhi, or the faith in one compassionate God that the Christians share with the other monotheistic religions. Some of these experiences are of great current importance, as in the case of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism or the community of Gush Shalom in Israel, where Israelis and Palestinians meet together. With respect to the past, writing from Spain and having already referred to Judaism, it is only right to remember the fruits of tolerance and dialogue that Islam has offered us in al-Analus, and to mention the great Sufi Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia in 1165, who was an apostle of universal brotherhood. Outside of our country one must mention, among others, many of whom are Sufis and true men of peace, that great defender of non-violence, Basri Hasan al (643-728), one of the founders of Islam, who lived in Basora, as well as Abu-I-Fadl Allami, who lived in India in the second half of the sixteenth century and who taught peace, religious tolerance and love towards all.
Non-Violence Faced with Growing Globalization and a Serious Current Crisis
From my point of view the current international conflict, although acute, is a symptom of a much more serious and chronic disjunction. With the perspective granted by the passage of four months since the fateful day of 9/11, we have to admit that our political and economic leaders, and many in our comfortable societies, especially in the United States, have not wanted to ask themselves seriously: Why are some human beings ready to accept the very real risk of loss of life in a small open boat or a hermetically sealed container in exchange for the possibility of finding work here that is in so many cases demeaning? Why have others, Palestinians, Saudis, Algerians . . . opted for the “fighting death” of a horrifying suicide?
The politico-economic system, which is more globalized with each passing day, is rendered illegitimate by a multitude of pitfalls which cause an immeasurable ocean of misery, sickness, ignorance and suffering. Today the lives of the 5,000,000 Hutus and other Bantus who have disappeared in Rwanda and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) since mid 1994, done away with by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the great protegée of the United Nations and the powerful lobbies which have succeeded in controlling the valuable mineral deposits of Kivu, are worth nothing. Nor are the lives of the 500,000 children killed by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iraq, of whose sacrifice the American ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said: “We think the price is worth it.” Just as in the past the lives of those who, like Jesus of Nazareth, did not enjoy the privileges of the citizens of the Roman Empire, were worth nothing. But the death of the 3,000 victims of the Twin Towers has mobilized the entire “international community” almost without exception. To speak of the right of self-defense, separating it from the wider context of the relationship of cause and effect and former as well as current responsibility is to create a false debate with no solution, since it is a fallacy to deny these relationships and responsibilities.
Exclusion has always generated and will continue to generate every kind of violent reaction and has caused the fall of empires. Many of the terrorists behind the 9/11 attack come from countries such as Saudi Arabia or Algeria in which the absence of democracy is sustained by the support of the powerful democracies. Or from Palestine, which isn’t even a country. Our great leaders, with more or less “domesticated” internal democracies and societies that ignore everything that doesn’t directly affect their security and well-being, again and again impose their will on the rest of the world in a way that has nothing to do with democracy. The chasm between the rich and poor countries is accelerating enormously and the principal responsibility for this lies precisely with the great democratic powers, who have almost never supported the civil societies of these poor countries and which have often boycotted their incipient democracies. The lobbies that rig the global economies are increasingly becoming a force that is not only autonomous but superior to national governments, capable of using them for their own ends once the formalities of elections are over. And what are we to make of the fact that a genocide with 5,000,000 victims doesn’t even exist in the media? It is worth noting the perfection and sophistication of the methods by which they succeed in imposing the so-called “official version,” dedicating thousands of full-time super-experts to it. With each passing day the heavy machinery of propaganda, finance, diplomacy and the military that the lobbies are all too frequently capable of setting in motion, are behind the decisions of the so-called “international community.”
This new empire, more global than any former one, more diffuse, without a center of power, which frequently doesn’t even need to use force, appears to be invincible. However, the words of the Mahatma continue to resonate with and animate all those who are not resigned when faced with injustice: “When I despair, I remember that all throughout history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fail. Think of it. Always.”
And Jesus continues to invite us, his disciples, to create the Kingdom of God, teaching us the path to victory over every kind of slavery: “The truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8, 32) I believe that this is the great challenge for all of the organizations that work in the field of social justice, peace and human rights: to build well-informed societies, societies that are conscious that in this global village we are all interdependent (for better or worse), societies dedicated to demanding a more just and mutually responsible world from their governments. We need to create in our fellow citizens a consciousness that understands that it is more important to deny a vote to unsupportive politicians and accomplices to genocide than donate millions of dollars or euros every year out of sympathy. Therefore our small cultural foundation tries to contribute by provoking a change in consciousness and in the paradigms of our society not so much through writing and declarations as through metaphoric gestures of evangelical spirituality, fraternal solidarity, active non-violence, unimpeachable reporting and denunciation and reverent respect for our sister-mother earth.
Juan Carrero Saralegui, President of the Fundació S’Olivar, 01 January 2002