5 things you didn't know about nonviolence

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Mark Kurlansky's book, Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea, and discussed the biggest argument typically used against nonviolence as an ideology: that it never would have worked against Hitler. (Hint: It actually probably could have!)

Over the Martin Luther King weekend, our bloviating piss-receptacle of a President-elect attacked the man who is probably our greatest living practitioner of nonviolent resistance, John Lewis. Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which did the grassroots organizing work that eventually led to the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South.

In his attack, Trump said Lewis was "All talk, talk, talk, no action or results. Sad!" This is a common attack on nonviolent activists -- the idea is that, because they're not beating or killing a problem into submission, they're somehow ineffectual. So it's maybe worth it for us to take a moment to briefly review our world's legacy of nonviolent activism.

1. Early Christianity was one of the very first nonviolent movements.

The Roman Empire was pretty tolerant of religions, as far as repressive empires go. Their basic attitude was that hey, believe what you want, so long as you don't fuck with us. Any Christian will know, though, that the Romans hated the Christians. Crucified them all the time. The reason behind this is simple: Early Christians were political AF.

One of Jesus's primary teachings was nonviolence. He once famously said, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." One long-term, more pacifist interpretation of this has been, "Accept the blows life rains down on you." There's another, infinitely more badass explanation, though. Biblical scholar Walter Wink explains:

"You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus' day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other's right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus' audience: "If anyone strikes you." These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, "Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek." (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it's like telling a joke twice; if it didn't work the first time, it simply won't work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling's equality.

This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the cheek, then, the "inferior" is saying: "I'm a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won't take it anymore.""



Early Christians, then, were forbidden from violence, but not from resistance. And one of the things they did to resist was to convert. And among those they converted were the Roman legions. Roman legions who were now Christians were also forbidden from violence, and could not fight. So the Roman Empire (correctly) saw Christianity as a direct threat to its ability to subdue the masses. Christians weren't put to death for their religion -- they were put to death for their politics.

The Romans only eventually brought the Christians to heel by becoming Christian themselves. Once the Christians were in power, well -- then they decided violence wasn't so bad after all. Power tends to do that.

2. Gandhi preferred violence to pacifism.

Gandhi was intensely political -- he believed that nonviolence (what he called satyagraha) was the best way to fight the British Empire. But he also supported the British in WWI, believing they would be more likely to listen to the Indians if they were seen as Allies. He also believed that if you had to choose between being passive to injustice, or acting out in violence against it, that violence was preferable. Kurlansky writes:

Gandhi was first and foremost a political activist, and he had utter contempt for nonactive pacifism... he regarded such a passive stance as cowardly, calling inaction "rank cowardice and unmanly," and said he would rather see someone incapable of nonviolence resist violently than not resist at all. "Violence is any day preferable to impotence," he wrote. "There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent."

(If you think it's weird that Gandhi is comparing activism to having a penis, then you should maybe research some of his bizarre attitudes on women and sex. Holy shit, the man was a Freudian nightmare.)

Similarly, MLK, Jr. initially thought violence was more likely to result in change than nonviolent resistance. He didn’t change his mind until he became close with nonviolent labor union and civil rights activist A.J. Muste.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered a radical in his time.

Today, Martin Luther King is about as close as you get to an American Saint. But in his day, he was viewed much in the same way that Black Lives Matter activists and protestors like Colin Kaepernick are now — he was seen as “un-American,” and as a rabble-rouser. Indeed, he expressed his frustration with “white moderates” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This radical depiction of him runs counter to the modern tendency to neuter him or paint him as conservative. Towards the end of his life, King believed that defeating racism and poverty wasn’t possible with changing the capitalist system. It’s popular today to try and chastise activists with the specter of a saintly Martin Luther King, who wouldn’t have caused waves. Hell, even this weekend, prominent moron Rob Schneider tweeted the following:

(Just to compare their records: In 1965, John Lewis marched with King at Selma. In 1992, Rob Schneider chased a 10-year-old out of the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel, leaving him to fend for himself while being stalked by criminals and street-people.)

This is common, though — by making a saint out of otherwise radical figures, you’re able to strip them of some of their political edge and assimilate them into the mainstream. The same has been done for Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela. Remember — your heroes were political, and usually were pretty radical. Don’t believe any Deuce Bigalow who says otherwise.

4. The Cold War was ended by nonviolent activism — not by Ronald Reagan.

We in the US like to say that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War by taking a hard line against the Soviet Union. He didn’t. Americans had been taking a hard line against the Soviets for decades, and Ronald Reagan shouting at a wall changed very little.

What really ended the USSR was a decades-long nonviolent resistance movement in the Soviet Bloc countries like the Czech Republic and Poland. These dissidents would hold protests or demonstrations, the Soviets would respond violently, and then they’d lose more and more public support. The names of these activists are well-known: Lech WalesaVaclav HavelAleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and literally thousands more.

It’s important to remember this: Nuclear catastrophe between the world’s two superpowers has ALREADY been prevented by a scrappy band of artists, activists, writers, and labor unionists. When the USSR fell, Reagan took the credit. He doesn’t deserve much of it. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a little to do with pressures coming from the outside, but had much more to do with the pressures from within.

5. Apartheid was brought down through nonviolence.

When the fight against apartheid stalled in the late 50s, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, created an ANC military wing, saying, “As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”

Mandela famously ended up in prison in 1964, and the crackdown on anti-apartheid activists got even more brutal. It was in the 1970’s that nonviolence got a second wind, in part through the personality of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu preached nonviolent resistance, but was also a staunch supporter of economic and cultural boycotts.

Now, the ANC mostly recognizes that it was the nonviolent tactics — specifically the sanctions and boycotts — that made the difference, and not the violence. When Mandela was released, he (along with Tutu, the last apartheid leader de Klerk, and the ANC) kept the transition from apartheid from becoming a bloodbath by emphasizing peace, truth, and reconciliation.


Nonviolence is a creative force. Violence is dumb and brutal — it is at best a blunt weapon that creates a lot of collateral damage. But nonviolence is creative and ever-changing, and draws less on the meaner side of our nature, and more on our ability to outthink our opponents. In the Trump era, our best defense is our creativity and our intelligence. Lord knows he doesn’t have much of either.

Take heart — life in Soviet Russia, Apartheid South Africa, the Roman Empire, and the 1960’s South was far worse than what we’re facing. There’s already peaceful roadmap to winning these struggles, and we can pull out of this.

Featured photo by CyberMagik.