Hope or Terror? 20 Years On

TWENTY YEARS AGO I wrote the pamphlet, Hope or Terror, to point out the strange coincidence that on the same date almost a century earlier, Gandhi had launched Satyagraha at the Empire Jewish Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa: September 11, 1906.  I called them “signposts for two paths that can be taken by the human race,” violence or nonviolence.  

We know what path the world seems to have chosen.  Yet on the day before he died, Martin Luther King warned a packed church audience in Memphis that the only real choice is “nonviolence or nonexistence.”  And that only becomes clearer with the march of events from then to now.

There are hopeful signs, I’m glad to report.  Amid the endless march of war the United States has undertaken since 1945, there’s been a steady global rise of nonviolence — not just as a tool for national liberation, as Gandhi used it, but in seemingly inexhaustible applications to human betterment at every level, from the individual to global.

It’s amazing to me how nonviolence carries with it a solution for every problem violence throws across our path. What is terrorism, after all? An acute sense of separateness from others, leading to alienation from the universe and indeed from oneself.  A cry of despair from a heart of helplessness.  

Yet there is nothing more empowering that can happen to a human being than to discover the seed of nonviolence hidden with us.  As I have found in my limited experience, this discovery, inspiring enough in itself, also makes it unmistakable that what we’re discovering is not our private possession: it’s the human inheritance. We draw closer to others, on a deep level, even as we’re discovering this tool for saying no to their hurtful behavior without negating their humanity.  

On the contrary, when we “offer satyagraha,” as Gandhi put it, we are offering the erstwhile opponent a way to stop hurting us (which means to avoid their own moral injury, however little they may be aware of it at first) and break down their alienation: in a word, to rediscover their own dignity in the process.  In fact, the word they used for ‘nonviolence’ when the Philippine people rose up to expel the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the famous “People Power Revolution” was alay dangal, “offering dignity.”

Violence hurts both ways, the perpetrator as well as the victim. Nonviolence also operates in both directions, but with the opposite effect: to heal and reconcile, to elevate humanity to that extent every time we use it.

Of course, how to use it isn’t so simple.  A lot of subtlety builds around that core simplicity, and a lot of struggle.  But one that’s worth it. Supremely worth it — not just for ourselves, but for our world, our planet, our future. 

Love and hope, 

A couple of notes:

In December I am working with World Beyond War to host a weekly study circle of my book, The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature. The study circle will provide an in-depth exploration of nonviolence, how we can cultivate it, and then apply it to solve the deepest crises facing us today. You can find the registration information here. 

If you would like to receive a lot of ten print copies of our pamphlet Hope or Terror, please write to the Metta Team and we can send them your way. 

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