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Cindy Sheehan, and the Season for Nonviolence

“I now believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Martin Luther King Jr, in Strength to Love, 1963

Coincidence brought the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers to invite Cindy Sheehan to address Minnesota-area peace advocates on January 30, and then, two months later, to learn about and strongly endorse the 10th annual international Season for Nonviolence. The Season begins on January 30, the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (1948), and ends on April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr (1968).

The two ideas came from separate individuals, at separate times.

I can think of no better coincidence than Cindy speaking here on the very day the Season for Nonviolence begins. In the ultimate (and tragic) irony, Cindy’s son, Casey, was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004, which is the last day of the Season, and the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jrs death in Memphis..

Some basics, first:

Cindy Sheehans official website is Gold Star Families for Peace, http://www.gsfp.org.

The website which is the informal clearing house for the Season for Nonviolence is http://www.agnt.org, click on Season for Nonviolence.

We will publicize local events and offerings on the MAP calendar at www.mapm.org.

Gandhi and King and Nonviolence? Even with heroes the issue of nonviolence is sometimes complex and one’s thinking evolves.

Who better to speak on the topic than MLK himself?

MLK spoke eloquently of the quandary in an early book of his which I recently (and coincidentally) dusted off and reread.

I first came across the book, Strength to Love, in the living room of an African-American man in Americus GA in about 1994. It was a book of sermons given by King during his ministry to 1963. I believe the book remains available today, and is well worth purchase.

My hosts edition of the book was the one printed immediately after MLK’s assassination in 1968. The book was originally published in June, 1963, when King was 34 years old, just a few months before the famous “I have a dream speech” on the Mall in Washington, August 28, 1963. www.holidays.net/mlk/speech.htm.

The last chapter of the book, entitled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, is a departure from the other 16, in that it is Kings personal narrative on his journey to embracing non-violence.

Following is Dr. King’s early writing on Gandhi and Nonviolence


From Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr © 1963 , Chapter 17:

“Then [in the early 1950s] I was introduced to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. As I read his works I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. At that time, however, I acquired only an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, and I had no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation.

When I went to Montgomery, Alabama, as a pastor in 1954, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. After I had lived in the community about a year, the bus boycott began. The Negro people of Montgomery, exhausted by the humiliating experiences that they had constantly faced on the buses, expressed in a massive act of noncooperation their determination to be free. They came to see that it was ultimately more honorable to walk the streets in dignity than to ride the buses in humiliation. At the beginning of the protest, the people called on me to serve as their spokesman. In accepting this responsibility, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.

The experience in Montgomery did more to clarify my thinking in regard to the question of nonviolence than all of the books that I had read. As the days unfolded, I became more and more convinced of the power of nonviolence. Nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many issues I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now resolved within the sphere of practical action.

My privilege of traveling to India had a great impact on me personally, for it was invigorating to see firsthand the amazing results of a nonviolent struggle to achieve independence. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India, and a mutual friendship, based on complete equality, existed between the Indian and British people within the Commonwealth.

I would not wish to give the impression that nonviolence will accomplish miracles overnight. Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts or purged of their prejudiced and irrational feelings. When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged at first react with bitterness and resistance. Even when the demands are couched in nonviolent terms, the initial response is substantially the same. I am sure that many of our white brothers in Montgomery and throughout the South are still bitter toward the Negro leaders, even though these leaders have sought to follow a way of love and nonviolence. But the nonviolent approach does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it so stirs the conscience of the opponent that reconciliation becomes a reality.

III

More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But I now believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

I am no doctrinaire pacifist, but I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism which finds the pacifist position as the less evil in the circumstances. I do not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian nonpacifist confronts, but I am convinced that the church cannot be silent while mankind faces the threat of nuclear annihilation. If the church is true to her mission, she must call for an end to the arms race….”

From Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr © Harper and Row, 1963.

(For Dr. Kings view of the war of his time, Vietnam, see this address from April 16, 1967: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html)

THREE POSTNOTES to today’s reader:

1. Dr. King, in the segment quoted above, talks about “an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

The Negroes in Birmingham in 1955, and African-Americans generally, were those ‘oppressed’ to which he referred. I think it would be an easy transition for King to talk about todays U.S. insanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on and on and on, and apply his words squarely to the U.S. military men and women sent to those killing fields, even those who seem to willingly go ‘in the service of their country’, not fully understanding the real reasons, or what might be ahead for them. Doubtless there were slaves who did not wish freedom, because of fears of the unknown…the same dynamic in general applies to those in service.

2. There is discussion, and indeed there is sometimes perceptible tension, within the Peace community (and others) about not only strategy and tactics, but vocabulary as well. Is being Anti-War the same as being Pro-Peace? Can “against” and “for” be synonyms? Where does nonviolence end, or does it have no boundary – either you’re not violent or you are? Can a non-violent approach embrace feelings or expressions of anger? Is there a purity test for an activist? A pacifist? Do we give grades from A to F for performance? Do you always have to be Minnesota-nice? Does any of this even matter?

Even within MAPs 68 organizations there is ample evidence of this sometimes (and useful) tension.

A good succinct description of this tension comes from a January 16, 2007, speech by Bill Moyers to the National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/01/16/159222 when he said, about Media reform, but in effect to all of us in any part of the Peace and Justice movement, that “all too often, the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are erected, jealousies mount, and the cause all of us believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what once was a clear and compelling vision.”

Moyers words, in my opinion, could be said similarly to any activist community and represent a problem about which we need constantly to be aware and in conversation about..

3. Finally, among King’s words, above, he says “[a]t the beginning of the [bus boycott] protest, the people called on me to serve as their spokesman.”

In that single sentence resides, in my opinion, one of the major quandaries of any movement, at any time in history, no less so our own.

We wait for somebody else to do the leading, to inspire, to sacrifice, for us, or for the cause. Leading can be and often is a most ‘sticky wicket’, and we know this. For Gandhi and for King, the reward for leadership was death by assassination, martyrdom while advancing a noble cause.

Cindy Sheehan is greeted, with very good reason, as a hero in today’s peace movement. But we owe it to her, and to our society and to ourselves, to more actively become co-leaders in this urgent task of finding a better way than bombs, bullets, death and destruction…in the cause of Peace and Justice.

Cindy Sheehan’s program January 30 is has been titled “1 Person can make a difference”.

That “1 person” is each one of us, in any of a multitude of ways.

The ball is in OUR court.

Dick Bernard, president

MAP

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 19, 2007 5:24 PM.

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