Metta’s Opinion

The limits of non-cooperation as a strategy for social change

Civil disobedience is vital, but it is insufficient to transform society. A new science of cooperation illuminates the path ahead.

Vukovar, October 1991. Credit: All rights reserved.

When the Croatian town of Vukovar was taken over by the Serbian Army in 1991 after 90 days of bombing, Alexander Jevtić, a Serb who had made the town his home, found himself in a seemingly impossible position. Once inside the town, Serbian forces set about rounding up Croatian men as young as 16for transport to a secret detention facility, where many would be tortured and killed.  Jevtić was swept up in the expulsion.

However, a guard recognized him and instructed him to look for any other Serbians who should be spared from execution. “Pick wisely,” he told Jevtic.

Jevtić understood that he was taking a potentially fatal risk, but nevertheless he began to call out Croatian men he knew by Serbian names, tapping them on the foot so that they would realize what he was doing. He finished “only when no more bodies could fit into the area designated for ‘Serbs,’” according to journalist Eyal Press, whose book Beautiful Souls recounts this story in more depth.

Although Jevtić disobeyed his orders, he was faithful to something that was anchored deep inside himself, namely a reservoir of moral courage that expressed itself through acts of solidarity with others.

His actions provide an inspiring example of the human capacity for nonviolent resistance, a force little understood but much needed to address the multiple crises that are weighing on the world today. What can be learned more broadly from cases like this?

The application of basic human stubbornness – the capacity to refuse or withhold obedience when faced by a pressing moral choice – is the most widely-researched topic in the field of nonviolence, from explorations ofproven methods of civil resistance to the stories of people who have said ‘no’ to taxes or conscription, torture or betrayal.

As Hannah Arendt concluded when trying to understand the horrors of the 20th century, the bureaucratic pressure to ‘just follow orders’ can be extremely compelling, regardless of the human consequences. Against this background, it makes sense to emphasize non-cooperation with such demands as the key to transformation.

But non-cooperation clearly has its limits in terms of creating social change. As Gene Sharp points out, people’s capacity for this form of action is embedded in human nature, but it is insufficient to achieve the long-term goals of peace and social justice.

We have learned how to topple dictators, but not how to replace dysfunctional political systems so that tyranny does not return. We know how to launch new social movements like Occupy and those of the Arab Spring, but not how to sustain their gains by transforming society at large.

So what provides the missing link between individual acts of moral courage on the one hand, and mutual cooperation to change the systems of society on the other?

The answer is to recognize and activate our sense of shared humanity as a continuous and conscious choice.

Understandings of cooperation are becoming more sophisticated thanks to recent advances in research. Innate aggression theorists have tried to popularize the false belief that people are intrinsically competitive. Taken to the extreme, it’s a belief that supports the misconception that war is inevitable. But a growing number of studies demonstrate the opposite conclusion. Anthropologist Douglas Fry, for example, has brought together scientists from various fields to examine aggression and human nature. “From archeology, nomadic forager studies, primatology, and evolutionary theory,” he concludes that “in humans, war is recent, not ancient, and war is a capacity, not an evolved adaptation. In short, war was rare to nonexistent under the conditions in which our species evolved but obviously more prevalent in more recent times.”

As Elinor Ostrom and others have shown, the ‘survival of the fittest’ is not just bad science, it’s completely inadequate as a guide to human behavior and societal evolution – which is just as well, since the world is facing a series of global crises that require large-scale, cooperative responses.

The new science of cooperation developed by Fry, Ostrom and their colleagues doesn’t write aggression or competition out of the human story, but it brings in cooperation as a vital counterweight. Indeed, some research suggests that human beings are best understood as “super-cooperators”whose entire existence is an expression of caring and concern – from our first experiences in families to the behavior of those who risk their lives for strangers. Researchers at UCLA have discovered that “tend and befriend”behavior, which defuses tension by actively seeking out connections and common ground, is just as significant as “fight or flight.” As Jevtić showed, not every human being defaults to the latter instinct when under stress.

These findings are especially important for the practice of large-scale nonviolent activism, which may seem like the natural territory for such cooperation. But as Jack Duvall, President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict  told me recently, these skills are often in short supply, partly because non-cooperation has been the dominant strategy: “By now we should realize that there are other critical dimensions in nonviolent struggles which affect the resilience and strength of movements, apart from specific tactical actions.”

Take Occupy, for example. When I interviewed activists from Occupy Oakland in 2013, many said that things got tough not when facing a common enemy, but when facing a common ally, as in each other.

The other reason is that the modus operandi of most contemporary systems is to keep people from working together, especially around the things that really matter, like giving birth to a person-centered economy. Divide and rule has been stealthily injected into the culture of society by corporate media, for example, constantly pushing people towards separation and away from caring for each other. So while cooperation may be woven into our DNA, it still has to be cultivated consciously, and used, but how? It’s here that some deeper lessons can be learned from Jevtić’s heroics about different forms of power.

Kenneth Boulding, a well-known economist and peace researcher, divides power into three different categories: the power of threat or coercion (‘give me what I want, or else’); the power of exchange (‘give me what I want, and I’ll give you something else that you want too’); and “integrative power” of the kind that Jevtić deployed when he risked his life for others. Integrative power says simply and courageously, “I’ll do what I think is right,” and it will bring us closer by reinforcing what we hold in common at the deepest level. It’s the same principle as ubuntu in Southern Africa, “I am because you are,” “I affirm my humanity through other human beings.”

Jevtić refused to cooperate with the Serbian army’s attempts to dehumanize other people. To that extent he reaffirmed his own humanity, but he also showed how a deep connection to the same humanity in others can make it possible to co-operate across the lines of difference, whether in extremis or in the regular activities of social movements like Occupy when they begin to fracture.

Integrative power shows how acts of nonviolence can encourage the same response in others by helping them to connect with their own reservoirs of moral courage, so that they can sustain their efforts over time. It’s this creative force that can be translated into concrete political actions that go beyond civil disobedience, to underpin the practice of “pre-figurative politics:” creating new economic and political systems around a different image of what is possible, and who we really are.

“Things undreamt of are ever becoming seen” said Mahatma Gandhi, “the impossible is ever becoming possible. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”

As Alexander Jevtić showed in Vukovar, deep cooperation with one another and with what’s most real inside ourselves is one of those impossible discoveries.


Published on Transformation @ on February 17, 2014

Occupy Evolution! (on the Meaning of Life Seminar)

 Nonviolence and the Meaning of Life Seminar


On Saturday, February 22, 2014, a small group assembled in the Metta Center’s office in Petaluma to support us as we created video for Michael Nagler’s “Nonviolence and the Meaning of Life” Seminar (soon to be available on the web in our Self-Study section, as well as integrated into our Certificate in Nonviolence Studies). Michael taught this course for over 15 years as a Sophomore Seminar at UC Berkeley and it was one of his favorite courses. We are happy that we can share it with a new audience!

Here are some highlights of our discussion, shared by the group (Patti, Jill, Tal, Robin, Lukas, Peijman, Maja, Mica, Cecilia, Fatima, Stephanie and Fancy [the dog]…and Michael):

We began by reading Yeats’ poem here

and then went into the following discussion….

There is a demonstrable need for meaning in life. Evidence shows that lack of meaning is correlated even with fatal heart conditions; it can be seen as a root cause for various forms of violence, including the physical and psychological suffering in our world.

We discovered that there are “three faces of meaning:” real meaning, pseud0-meaning and partial meaning. There is nothing wrong with partial meanings, but if you are too attached to them, they can keep you from evolving into meaning, and likely to become pseudo-meanings. An example of a pseudo-meaning is satisfaction from bonding among soldiers in war, along with the sense of ‘service’ to a higher cause. You can tell that they are pseudo-meanings because of their strict limitations, such as needing to have an enemy in order to have service, bonding and sacrifice. In other words, something is not a real meaning if it comes at the expense of another or is any way a form of violence.

To deny that our life has purpose is to deny our connection with the planet, since we see that all life is purpose-driven.

Evolution has reached a qualitative stage such that to further fulfill itself it does not require changes of the body; it must, and will now unfold in the domain of consciousness. As Cecilia said, “we have reached our highest physical form and it is time to go deeper,” and Stephanie added, “it’s time to endow that human form with dignity.” (#dignity)

We explored the concepts of dharma (purpose), yuga-dharma (purpose of an age), sva-dharma (individual’s purpose), and nimisa dharma (purpose of the moment), which is to divide dharma up into its manifestations in social space and time. Ahimsa paramo dharma (nonviolence is the highest dharma), was explored as a guidepost for all the sub-dharmas.

We see compassion as deeper than emotion, what we might call a “spiritual force,” and when you are in that state and want to act, you have to find nonviolence because it’s the only way to put that state into action without violating it.

By turning toward our suffering and looking at our own obstacles, we can identify the greater needs in our communities. From there, we can begin to develop more humane and compassionate structures which are aligned with the inherent purpose of nature.

Nonviolence, we said, is often inconvenient. And currently a culture of convenience creates suffering and obstructs further evolution toward the realization of life’s meaning. Sadly, we admitted, the greatest convenience at this time is often to deny the suffering around us, including our own. In order to create a more nonviolent world, we can work to make the right choice become the convenient choice. You can evaluate a culture by how much it inhibits or facilitates people discovering the meaning of life, from finding their sva-dharma as individuals within the yuga-dharma of the age and, in turn, the ultimate dharma of all life (ahimsa).

Peijman thought to add some questions to raise in discussion with others on this topic:

  • Do you ever shut-down when having a thought that leads to connection, and then do you ever self-censor to get back in line with the dominant paradigm?

Jill added, with much feeling:

  • The problems seem so big, and we can seem so small, how can we avoid demoralization?  Michael proposed: numbers don’t matter that much in the world of consciousness; also, remember “work” vs. work: that we do not always see the results of our actions.  We can have the faith that a special power resides in discovering our contribution.

We began to end the discussion by reading this Rumi poem, but it is of course, an on-going matter. Final thoughts…love–not merely an emotion– is one way of seeing the ultimate reality acting through all things and people.  That is, to the extent that we don’t let our private self obstruct it.

Lots of food for thought!

Here are the three videos of this seminar.

The “Hope” Blog: February 6, 2014

The “hope” blog is a monthly overview of what emerged at our monthly hope tank discussion. Enjoy! 

Members in discussion: Mica, Peijman, Jill, Stephanie and Michael.

We were able to start hope tank on a positive note, working on a “love letter” to the NSA for Rivera Sun’s radio program. We wanted to start this letter off by finding common ground by grounding the letter in the principle that “every person deserves dignity and respect.” While we listed all of the things that were “wrong” about what the NSA is doing, we recognized that their existence is born, or at least reinforced, by our own mistrust of one another. To this end, in order to challenge the NSA’s current methodology we maintained that we would both build a culture of trust while also resisting nonviolently out of love. The love letter ended on a very humorous note–namely, that we did not need to tell them who was writing it, because they already knew. . .

Screen shot 2014-02-06 at 12.18.09 PM


We also worked out a new segment for Peace Paradigm Radio that we are calling the “‘Yeah, but…’ segment.” In this segment, we will address common questions about and challenges to nonviolence. Some of these questions include:

  • Is nonviolence passivity or “just being nice” to people?
  • Is there ever a time when violence is better than nonviolence?
  • How do you “use” nonviolence?

and more. . .

In this discussion, Stephanie formulated a new principle at Metta, the “Tuff Principle.” This principle expands upon Gandhi’s “madman with the sword” principle where if someone is threatening to slaughter people in a village with a sword, you might need to kill that person to prevent greater violence. It is founded on the notion that if the choice is between violence and cowardice, then it is better to choose violence. However, the Tuff Principle draws from the experience of Antionette Tuff who chose a third way between violence and passivity when the modern “madman with a sword,” i.e. a drugged young man with a gun threatening a school, was talked out of his violent act with nonviolent courage. The Tuff Principle maintains that there is always a third way between cowardice and violence, and we can always imagine some kind of nonviolent response in any situation if we are willing to see it.

-The Tuff Principle-


Moreover, we discussed how a stark choice between violence and cowardice in the real world is extremely rare. When you think about such a situation, you immediately forget the inner environment, and the nonviolent person can be trained never to forget the inner environment.

Finally, we emphasized that nonviolence is a practice, and like a muscle it can be strengthened over time.  Mica added to this thought to end hope tank on another positive note: nonviolence is not just a way to fight something negative but to gain something positive. Our experience tells us it is so.




Looking for Qualified People for Nonviolent Peaceforce

Here is a message that deserves a cheer: a major peace organization is hiring!

About the Nonviolent Peaceforce:


The mission of Nonviolent Peaceforce is to promote, develop and implement unarmed civilian peacekeeping as a tool for reducing violence and protecting civilians in situations of violent conflict.


We envision a world in which large-scale unarmed civilian peacekeeping using proven nonviolent strategies is recognized as a viable alternative in preventing, addressing, and mitigating violent conflicts worldwide. Our primary strategy for achieving this vision is the creation of space to foster dialogue.


We most often respond to invitations by credible local organizations committed to nonviolent solutions. Once invited, we meet key players, including commanders from opposing sides, local police, religious, business, and civil society leaders. We live and work in communities within conflict zones alongside local people.

When violence erupts, civilians under threat often contact us. They know and trust us. We have been living among them. Visibly nonpartisan and unarmed, we arrive in NP uniforms, with NP vehicles, letting our presence be known.

We build the confidence and safety of civilians deeply affected by conflict so they can access available structures and mechanisms for addressing problems and grievances.

Our activities have ranged from entering active conflict zones to remove civilians in the crossfire to providing opposing factions a safe space to negotiate. Other activities include serving as a communication link between warring factions, securing safe temporary housing for civilians displaced by war, providing violence prevention measures during elections and negotiating the return of kidnapped family members.


Here is the message from Tiffany Ornelas de Tool with the job announcements:

Hello friends and colleagues,


We are needing a capacity surge after this most recent conflict for Protection Officers AND the two positions linked here and here.


Please share with your networks and contact me, or have individuals who are interested to contact me.


Please note: South Sudan is not for the faint of heart, but the most rewarding experience I have ever had.


Tiffany Tool (not to be confused with Tiffany Easthom, the Country Director of South Sudan, Nonviolent Peaceforce)

Tiffany Ornelas de Tool

Contact information:

Skype: tiffany.ornelas


Telephone: +1 415-573-9142


Building a Movement of Peace Teams: training coming to a city near you


By Jessica Anderson, the Metta Center for Nonviolence

Note: If you are interested in getting trained the skills and strategies for building a national movement of local peace teams, we have good news. MPT Is going to be going on a nationwide tour to do just that. You can find out more about where they will be at this link, and contact them if you would like to host them in your town.



Note the role of the “third party”: no intervention. We can change this picture.


How do we address violence: not only violence in our communities but violence from those who are supposed to protect community (aka “peace” officers)?

We need people who are trained in creating safe spaces, and the slightest hope that it might be possible to create such spaces—is what drives organizations like Meta Peace Team (MPT, formerly Michigan Peace Team). MPT’s goal is not to take sides, not even really to come up with solutions, but simply to create safe spaces where people might be able to deal with the challenges of conflict without violence.

From its very beginning in the 1980s as Michigan Faith and Resistance, through its years as Michigan Peace Team, MPT has sought to equip peacemakers to use their heads, hearts, and hands—to find their personal centers, to be scholarly activists, and to do something about what they learn and experience. These peacemakers are based out of Lansing, MI, but they have worked beyond the state’s borders almost from the very beginning. To reflect this, the group finally took the step this year of changing its name to Meta Peace Team—chosen because meta calls up ideas of transforming relationships and of going beyond borders that are central to MPT’s vision for its work.

Meta Peace Team is conceptualized as a way to plan, train, and deploy peace teams where invited both domestically and internationally—again not to take sides or to “fix” problems, but to create space for people to come up with their own solutions to conflicts. The teams are made up of people who are trained in violence de-escalation techniques, committed to the internal work of personal centering so as to be able to overcome fear in the midst of violence, and willing to work collaboratively and with consensus processes.

They believe that conflict per se can be constructive but that the use of violence to deal with conflict tends to be destructive—and, accordingly, they see the core of their mission as protecting people from violence no matter where that violence comes from or toward whom it is directed. And, they “walk their talk.” They do not take sides, and they don’t invite themselves in to handle just any situation—although they might reach out and make contact with people on the ground to see if help is needed.  As MPT staff member Mary Hanna quips, the teams are not there to quell disturbances but to protect against violence: “Sometimes people think of us as parade marshals – we’re not there to make sure your event goes swimmingly, we’re there to make sure nobody gets hurt.”

I had a chance to speak with Mary a few weeks ago, and she shared her own story of getting involved with MPT. Mary’s exposure to active peace work began during her time as an undergrad student at Michigan State University, where she was fortunate enough to find herself “in the company of prophetic peacemakers”—people who really lived out their convictions and encouraged her to do the same. She began to volunteer with MPT while working first for a community mental health center and then for a peace education center, and finally switched to full-time work with MPT as her involvement with the organization continued to build. Mary’s official job title with MPT is “Operations Manager,” but as she explains it, she does a little (or a lot!) of everything “to make sure that we can keep going as an organization.”

Mary was able to clarify for me some of the mechanics of MPT’s peace team deployment, as the organization follows a unique model of short-term deployments to both domestic and international situations. Domestic deployments, she describes, are typically very short (1-3 days) and often revolve around single events—past examples have included everything from Ku Klux Klan rallies to Gay Pride parades. Participants in domestic teams need to have attended at least eight hours of training with MPT, and larger deployments are often broken up into smaller autonomous teams for increased flexibility. International deployments are longer, ranging from roughly three weeks to about three months. Preparation for these team members is much more intensive and includes regionally specific training, strategy-building and personal/team awareness exercises, and even simulated experiences such as those one might encounter during the deployment. Mary explains that the goal of all this is to send people who are personally centered, able to work together cohesively, and aware of the general dynamics (at the very least) of the situation they’re about to enter – the hope being that such a team could be a help rather than a hindrance to the local community.

I was curious about the three-month upper limit to international deployments, and Mary helpfully points out that the most common site for MPT international deployments has been the West Bank—and that three months is the longest duration for which one can obtain a visa to travel to the West Bank. This deployment length may shift as MPT engages with communities in different parts of the world, but it is likely to remain relatively short in comparison to the international peace team deployments of other organizations. Mary recognizes that this (the shorter duration) poses certain challenges to the way peace teams operate on the ground, but she argues that the more condensed timeframe also lowers some of the barriers to participation in a team and thus allows for broader investment in the concept. She adds that in this context the capacity for continuity, relationship-building, and on-the-ground familiarity comes from peace team members called “anchors” who return to a region repeatedly (and at overlapping times)—allowing MPT to maintain a constant presence in the community over the course of different peace team deployments.

Efforts to scale up this concept of peace teams have brought MPT to the next stage of its journey as a founding member of the Shanti Sena Network of North American peace teams. This network is composed of a variety of organizations across the U.S. and Canada, and it was inspired by Gandhi’s idea of a shanti sena, or ‘peace army.’ Mary explains that “when something big (violent) was happening, we wanted to be able to deploy peace teams as quickly and as effectively as the military deploys their troops and as the police deploys officers.” To do this, the groups need to develop a standardized training and a network to mobilize people in response to violence—to get those trained teams to the places where they are needed, and to do it quickly. They are beginning by coordinating their curricula to include a basic training that all agree is foundational for peace team work, and they hope that this coordination and cooperation in training will also start to build up the networks of relationships that can later be used to mobilize and dispatch trained teams to situations where violence threatens. Over the long haul, they hope to bring Gandhi’s vision of a ‘peace army’ to life in North America.

Note: If you are interested in getting trained the skills and strategies for building a national movement of local peace teams, we have good news. MPT Is going to be going on a nationwide tour to do just that. You can find out more about where they will be at this link, and contact them if you would like to host them in your town.

Peace Paradigm Radio

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 6.04.07 PM


We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.




In a growingly militarized and violent society, the nonviolent response is often conspicuous by its absence in our mass-media; yet, it is the one tool that we have that will rescue our civilization–and planet–from the downward course it is currently spiraling. And because we hear so little about nonviolence, most people have misconceptions about what it is and how to access its power–if they even think that nonviolence is a power at all. This is not a mistake–the “old” systems that are not working have everything to gain from a citizenry who is disunited and responds in kind to violence. Education about nonviolence is thus essential.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or “doing nothing.” It is an extremely active force within us to which we all have access and that we can cultivate as a practice in an effort to counter what has become a culture of violence with its antidote: the seeds of a nonviolent culture. As a power, nonviolence is not a matter of succumbing to threats or profit-seeking–it is what Peace Researcher Kenneth Boulding refers to as “integrative power;” we draw on our courage to be authentic, and in doing so, though we no doubt must face risks, it draws people closer together. It is a higher state of prosperity, some might say.

Another way of thinking of nonviolence is through a term that Gandhi coined, sarvodaya. Sarvodaya means “the uplift” or “fulfillment of all,” and it stands in direct challenge to the widespread notions thanks to the mass-media of utilitarianism, or the greatest good for the greatest number (or in some cases, the greatest good for the wealthiest citizens…). In practice what sarvodaya looks like is a society that seeks out win-win situations when making any decision that affects people, creatures or the planet (which is about every decision we make). Yes, it is possible to find solutions that work for everyone, and it is very hard work–but that’s exactly the kind of work we need to do, and there is nothing passive about it. This shift in paradigms is the basis of a nonviolent culture. It’s not easy and it takes time to not only learn intellectually but to put into practice.

That’s where Peace Paradigm Radio comes in–we work on both angles: the intellectual and practical aspects of nonviolence.  A project of the Metta Center for Nonviolence with the support of KWMR, we explore the power of active nonviolence in a highly educational and enjoyable way. Each show has a segment with Professor Michael Nagler (co-founder of UC Berkeley’s Peace and Conflict Studies Program) on ‘nonviolence in the news’ which not only shares stories of where nonviolence is happening, but analyzes what worked well and why. And Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center Director, talks with guests who are practicing putting the principles of nonviolence into action to inspire others in their struggles for a better world. Each show will vary but these two segments remain consistent. We also regularly host Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers of for a monthly Resistance Report and author of Transition to Peace, Russ Faurbrauc to talk about making the transition to the nonviolent world.

Nonviolence is our future, and just by learning more about it, you can have a transformative effect on the world around you.

This is more than a show; it’s the key to unlock a livable and prosperous future for the coming generations.

Airs every other Friday at 1 pm PST on KWMR Community Radio. You can listen live at or access the show’s archive at this link.


Upcoming shows: February 7, February 21, March 7, March 21 …









My Homage to Martin Luther King Jr.

My Homage to MLK

by Michael N. Nagler

Dr. Martin Luther King

I never knew Martin Luther King, Jr., but I grew up politically in his America. My personal awakening to nonviolence came one day in Greenwich Village when I happened to listen in to a radio broadcast covering a Civil Rights rally going on somewhere down south.  A justifiably angry African American man said to the rally organizer, “They beat us, they hit us: why don’t we use violence back?”  The leader, whoever it was, calmly said, “Because that is not who we are.”  From that moment on I lived with the vague feeling in the back of my mind that not only is nonviolence a key to what I want to be, it’s what we are as human beings, nonviolence is the destiny toward which we have to strive – if the human experiment is to go on on planet Earth.

 It is common knowledge, I think, that King had an unusually deep grasp of nonviolence.  What this means may not be so commonly acknowledged, namely that it lead him into a profound understanding of and optimism about the nature of reality itself.  When he says that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that,” he is pointing out a simple, polar difference between the two forces that determine the quality and direction of our life.  St. Augustine long before him had said repeatedly in his monumental City of God, “there are two loves’ (or basic drives), that lead respectively to two world orders.”  There are times when we fail to see things because they’re too simple. It takes a kind of courage to peer into that stark, underlying simplicity, to grasp that those two forces, with their opposite character and opposite results, really make up the texture of the moral choices facing us every time we address the major issues of our lives, personal or political.  It is the failure to see these two forces as the underlying criterion of our choices, almost without exception, that makes our decisions such a disastrous incompetence.  Why does raining bombs on, say, Afghanistan, not make it a peaceful, democratic country?  Why doesn’t it just eliminate “bad guys” and let “good guys” take over?  How come, as one commander said about our war in Iraq a few years ago, “we are making terrorists faster than we can kill them”?

The simple answer is, you cannot use darkness to drive out darkness, violence to drive out violence.  And the name of the positive and negative drives which makes the most sense for us today, that most helps us to see their nature and what we’re really dealing with, is nonviolence and violence.

Furthermore, King understood, with Gandhi, that of these two forces – let’s call them anger and compassion for the moment – one was more real.  Anger is really a distortion, or perversion, if you will, of compassion, which alone is real.  To say otherwise is actually a heresy called Manichaeism that Christians are supposed to reject though the vast majority of self-identified Christians today still unconsciously hold it, because our modern culture cannot advance to such a bright view of reality or human nature, Christian or not.  But it was a practical reality for King.  He said, when someone challenged him that the movement roused a lot of anger, no, we did not cause outbursts of anger, “we expressed anger under discipline for maximum effect.”  That mature understanding of the dynamics of anger and the nonviolent effect of its containment or re-direction is rare even among activists today.

The roots of violence/nonviolence are harbored in social conditions favoring one or the other long before the former erupts in open conflict. King was well aware of this.  He clearly saw that life is organized along a principle of unity-in-diversity that again seems to elude most of us (I learned it slowly from my spiritual teacher in whom it was second nature even when he was not using the term itself):

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This is a revolutionary statement that would overturn the most basic, unspoken value of modern culture: competition.  We so closely hold competition as the valid organizing principle of life) that we have made it the sacred cow of business, economics, foreign policy, sports – even education.  It is probably an underlying reason for our tremendous fear of communism, which in its primitive form downgrades competition, especially competition for wealth, though its modern forms show little trace of that awareness (was it Galbraith who said that in capitalism it’s man against man, while in communism it’s exactly the other way around?). 

Because I was not at home in King’s Christian vocabulary, and because I was dazzled by the courage of his achievements, it took me a while to discover that Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose official birthday, like my real one, is today (January 20)), was one of the wisest humans that lived among us in the modern world.  Perhaps if he had been allowed to live we would be following his advice to “rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented civilization to a person-oriented civilization.”  And perhaps the best way to honor his legacy would be to begin it now.



Interested more in materials on Dr. King? Check out these talks with Dr. Clay Carson @ the King Institute at Stanford.  


Transforming Anger into Nonviolent Power

Anger is reasonable and justified in the face of abuse and exploitation. What matters is what we do with it.

Members of “Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.” Credit: Clair MacDougall: All rights reserved.

As Leymah Gbowee stood in front of a crowd of women at her church in Monrovia, praying for an end to the civil war that was raging in Liberia, she had no idea of the consequences that were about to unfold.

A specialist in healing from trauma, Gbowee and her allies had spent months visiting mosques, markets and churches in order to mobilize a nascent peace movement. By the late summer of 2002, she had become recognized as the leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which held daily non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from Charles Taylor, the Liberian President at the time.

Eighteen months later, in August 2003, the war was brought to an end. Gbowee’s efforts, along with those of newly-elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were recognized by the award of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. I heard Gbowee speak at an interfaith conference in North Carolina in 2012, where she emphasized that the main challenge she had faced was not apathy. Liberians were already angry.

The real issue was how to keep well-intentioned people from exacerbating an already-cruel situation with more violence. Why? Because the more violence there is, the more abuses there will be against women and other people.  Anger is reasonable and justified in the face of abuse and exploitation, but what really matters is what we do with it. According to Gbowee, anger is neutral. We can choose to use it as a fuel for violence or nonviolence. Liberian women chose the latter, and transformed a civil war into a lasting peace.

Gbowee’s insights are rooted in a long tradition of successful nonviolent resistance that runs through the course of history, but whose teachings are often ignored. At a special session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta in September 1920, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi maintained that even non-cooperation with the established order requires nonviolent discipline:

“I have learnt through bitter experience,” he said, that “the one supreme lesson is to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”

The women of the Liberian peace movement transformed their anger into nonviolent power in situations of brutality that I pray I will never experience: mutilations, murder and rapes of children and other family members in front of their eyes. These women had more reason than most other people to turn to violence, but they did not, giving the lie to those who say that violence is necessary under such circumstances. This lesson is confirmed by the experiences of many other activists who have refused to react violently even under extreme pressure, but it is often forgotten or dismissed.

“Non-violence, being natural, is not noted in history” wrote Gandhi in his classic text Hind Swaraj. Modern civilization does not give us the tools to see the subtler effects of violence and nonviolence. This problem is compounded by the fact that many of those who use nonviolence to good effect live under the radar screen of history because they are marginalized. Many systems of privilege condition us to write off the experiences of those who are not considered to be experts, like women who are working at the grassroots level or success stories from the global South. And even when such stories arerecognized, they are often interpreted as arguments for the necessity of violence. The end of Apartheid in South Africa is an oft-quoted example.

The victory of the African National Congress is rightly celebrated, but it succeeded in dislodging one system of violence in South Africa and not violence itself.  Structural violence that feeds through into direct violence - like poverty, inequality and exploitation – remains largely unaffected. Apartheid means “apartness,” and that’s what all forms of violence do, by pulling people apart. The balance between armed struggle and nonviolence as forces that led to the overthrow of Apartheid has been debated for more than twenty years. Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5th, internalized this debate in his embrace of both strategies simultaneously.

For every celebration of armed confrontation there are many more nonviolent victories in the “anti-apartheid” struggles of today. The story of Budrus, in the West Bank, is one. By remaining committed to nonviolence and launching a “women’s contingent” to join the struggle, Palestinian activist Ayed Morrar and his fifteen-year old daughter Iltezam were able to unite members of both Fatah and Hamas in a successful attempt to protect their village from destruction by Israel’s “Separation Barrier.”

To those who say that nonviolence is admirable but ineffective, Erica Chenoweth, the author of the ground-breaking book Why Civil Resistance Works, says “think again.”  The growing research base on nonviolent resistance and a burgeoning literature on the effects of violence provide a platform for making more informed judgments about these strategies. When nonviolence is taken seriously, its successes can be systematized and strengthened.

In South Sudan, for example, the world’s newest country, people are not only learning from the experience of the Liberian women’s movement, but taking it one step further by institutionalizing nonviolent ways of dealing with the country’s conflict-ridden transition to independence. A variety of local and international groups are collaborating to reduce the potential for violent conflict by training unarmed civilian peacekeepers to create local peace teams.

One of the key actors in these endeavors is the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which through its civilian protection monitoring role is helping different parties to achieve sustainable peace agreements between, for example, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine Government in the Philippines. They have also supported mothers in demanding the safe return of their abducted children in Sri Lanka;  accompanied and protected human rights defenders Guatemala; and are currently beginning a new project in Myanmar.

Unarmed peacekeeping is a good fit for the world’s newest country because it is one of the latest innovations in conflict transformation. It uses state-of-the-art knowledge about resolving conflict without the threat or use of weapons, and trains people in a variety of skills and tactics. They include “nonviolent accompaniment” and “protective presence,” in which peacekeepers live and work alongside people who are threatened; “conflict mapping”, mediation, and direct “interposing” - the act of literally getting in between conflicting parties to deter them from using violence against each other.

The experience of those who use these techniques suggests that courage is not the willingness to kill; it’s the willingness to risk ourselves for the greater good, and that is arguably something that everyone can do when we convert our anger into fuel for nonviolent struggle. We have been conditioned to think that such attitudes are naïve by the continuous hum of violence that surrounds us – its proximity and acceptability in daily life. But maybe that noise is also drowning out the voices of those who could show us that nonviolence really works?

Nonviolence is not passivity – it is immensely active and challenging. But practicing nonviolence enables us to see more deeply into the heart of the problems that face us all, and it helps us to escalate our nonviolent efforts in ways that are more informed, sophisticated and courageous. To echo Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”



Written for Transformation at –posted on December 9, 2013.