This morning we honor the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been 94 years old today, were it not for the untimely taking of his life, a contemporary of many of you here who perhaps were followers of his in the goal of civil rights and beloved community. When I think of Dr. King, one of the first things I think of is nonviolent civil disobedience or nonviolent direct action.
Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government (or any other authority). By some definitions, civil disobedience has to be nonviolent to be called "civil";. Hence, civil disobedience is sometimes equated with peaceful protests or nonviolent resistance, the latter being the term that Gandhi chose to characterize the concept. I found it interesting that the term itself is attributed to Henry David Thoreau who wrote on the subject in the mid-1800’s.
It was this form of resistance that Gandhi promoted in India as a means to win independence from British rule, but it began during his time in South Africa. Gandhi was trained as a lawyer and went there to represent a client. He was met by much discrimination and abuse as a person of color and worked for the plight of the Indian community in South Africa, seeking through nonviolent means to free them from oppression. When he eventually returned to India, he continued to employ these methods there.
Howard Thurman, who was a spiritual advisor to Dr. King, visited Gandhi in 1935 and returned to share his thought that the unadulterated message of nonviolence would perhaps be delivered to the world through the civil rights movement here in the US. 1 King himself visited India in 1959 returning “more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity." His understanding of nonviolence was deepened during that time and his decision to employ it more fully had become solidified.
About a year ago I wanted to explore the idea of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi. My initial understanding was fairly narrow, focused on the practice of resistance and civil disobedience. I picked up a daily meditation book that contained 365 quotes from Gandhi and a brief reflection on each by Michael N. Nagler, the Founder and Stephanie N. Van Hook, the Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. 1 What ensued is perhaps akin to the deepening that King underwent upon exposure! I have been touched at my core by this broadening of scope and come today to share just briefly of this in the time we have.
Ahimsa is the ancient Sanskrit term that translates as a model of ‘nonviolence,’ which unfortunately tends toward the negative when rendered in English. What the word really stands for is ‘love in action’ or ‘the force unleashed when harm is eradicated.’ But it is the term that Gandhi employed for the practice. It is a force that ‘relies upon the ultimate good in every human being, affirming humanity for all, even those whose behaviors need to be changed.’ This nonviolence weaves its way into all forms of relationships – those between individuals and those among systems and institutions and the people over which they hold power. It is,
therefore, the basis for Beloved Community. For Gandhi it showed up in politics, economics, and religion. Showed up in the areas of service and consumption and morality. Most notably it called for inner work, for compassion, love, and a life of choosing to live with a different mindset than what our culture professes and its penchant for consumerism.
At its core is this idea of dignity. Gandhi wrote in 1931 that “Happiness means an enlightened realization of human dignity and a craving for human liberty which prizes itself above mere selfish satisfaction,” indicating that one would gladly sacrifice such satsifaction for the cause. Drawing from the Upanishads, the sacred Hindu texts of his tradition, he challenges us to offer dignity as a means to happiness and freedom as opposed to our consumerist tendencies. It is this dignity that undergirds the rest of his approach. For Gandhi, the act of embarrassing an opponent would be seen as violent because it is an affront to their dignity. Gandhi was a strong proponent of doing away with caste systems that reduced certain segments of the population to less than human in nature believing that India would never be free from outside oppression until it dealt with its internal prejudices. A love that is shared only with those who please us, does not employ the truth of love. He calls us away from transactional love to an open practice that can be cultivated to include even those who hate us or whom we distrust. In our adherence to nonviolence – love in action – we develop a capacity for selfless love.
For Gandhi, such love begins at the individual level, but quickly expands to include community, nation, and world, a ripple effect, if you will. He offers localism as a starting point. Aside from its inherent complexities and inconveniences – just try to make purchases of things made only in the US or within 100 miles of home – but it is something to strive for. A commitment to it is also a commitment to ending the exploitation of people and planet, to think about what we truly need. He said that, “Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.”
Gandhi put his confidence in an economics of justice, establishing his first experiment in communal living in South Africa, convinced that in sharing what we have we minimize need and reduce injustices between us. He saw economics as having the potential to be an expression of human goodness. Such a system embraces fair wages acknowledging that our wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of all, suggests that competition should be based on skill development as opposed to working for less because we have no other choice, and held the
belief that we hold all we have as a trust therefore nothing would be used or directed toward harming life. We work in service of need. Poverty is dehumanizing. Wealth and possessions become tools for service, not exploitation. There is a violence inherent in class distinctions, so all work is valued and for the good of the whole, in service to humankind.
This all sounds like a tall order and I have only scratched the surface! Nonviolent action is a tactic, while nonviolence itself is a discipline, the spirit behind the action. We can ask if an act was intended to harm or alienate, or if it was done out of fear or failed to take into account the dignity of all involved. This is the inner work of the heart and mind. For Gandhi, the essence of nonviolence is rooted in a belief that all of life is sacred, and so our dealings with all of life should be a reflection of this.
Nonviolence can be seen as a form of health and so for violence to be irradicated, we need to seek its root causes, not dealing with just the surface symptoms – the headlines - asking the why question until we get to the bottom of it! And then move toward removing those things. We can do so by nonviolent means – working first on ourselves and the image of who we are, cultivating radical inclusion, and recreating structures in ways that reflect a more humanizing image.
We hear a lot about mindfulness these days and true mindfulness is about achieving a sense of conscience wherein we listen to the still small voice within. Here, too, we need to tend to the underlying questions about why we are turning to the practice. An example would be the idea of bringing the practice into low-income schools and exploring first whether we are trying to help students to not be violent without asking why students might be uncomfortable within the current school system. Is it the students or the systems we are seeking to change? Gandhi was no saint, even though he was given the title ‘Mahatma’ and was admittedly on the journey of a lifetime. Nonviolence is not a once and done prospect and a nonviolent result in one instance is not the end of the road. Achievements so attained can only be maintained through an ongoing process. It is about cultivating an approach to life that first changes us, which changes our interactions and thus makes changes in the next of an ever-widening set of concentric circles. The ancient sutras from the 2 nd century BCE say that, “In the presence of one in whom nonviolence is established, hostility drops away.” 2 When we choose the course of nonviolence we are choosing Beloved Community. Nonviolence is not passivity. It is an active pursuit of an ideal – a perfect ahimsa – where all are free and possessed of a sufficient nonviolent discipline to look deeply within themselves while looking outward at the world in which they wish to live.
So much of this rings true within our own tradition. I hear our Principles echoing in the readings – the inherent worth and dignity of all beings most pervasively, but the call for justice, equity and compassion, an understanding of the global nature of our world and its interdependence, a pervasive sense of peace and freedom being sought after. Gandhi asks us to take these precepts to heart, to engage with them fully. By that I mean really taking the time to delve into the deeper meaning underlying each. How many ways in the course of a day are we faced with the question of how to respond with dignity? What if we took that one question alone as our charge for the next month? At each turn, in each interaction, how can I afford dignity to another, acknowledge the dignity I believe inherent to their being? It will be easy some of the time, but the challenge comes when it is not so easy! That is where we are truly choosing nonviolence – love in action.
The work of Gandhi and that of Martin Luther King, Jr. are far from complete – may never be complete. They were willing to talk about the “untalkable” as Richard Rohr from the Center for Action and Contemplation puts it. We honor their existence and their struggle when we take up their cause and carry it for as far as we are blessed to go in this life. We won’t always get it right. They didn’t either, but they didn’t let that stop them from reaching in and reaching out with love. May it be so for us today and every day.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, January 15, 2023
1 “Nonviolence Daily: 365 Days of Inspiration from Gandhi” Michael N. Nagler and Stephanie N. Van Hook, The
Metta Center for Nonviolence, person Power Press, 2019.
2 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, III.35.