Note: This essay was written as an assignment for a college class. The initial intro paragraph has been retained, since I can’t see how to properly introduce the essay otherwise.
For the Core section on Citizenship and Service, Valparaiso University has assigned many books that focus on resistance -- specifically nonviolent resistance. The Valparaiso Core Reader includes many excerpts from the writings of Gandhi. Two of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essays -- “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and chapter VI, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, from Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story -- have also been required reading. The last selection was Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Each of these works portrays nonviolence as the best form of resistance and far superior to violent resistance. I believe that, although nonviolent resistance was essential in each of the cases that these writings have focused on, violent resistance is much more useful in many other cases.
Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolence to successfully free India from British rule. He called his ideas Satyagraha, meaning intensely active yet non-violent resistance. He believed that nonviolent resistance focused on the power of the spirit, while violent resistance focused on the power of the sword. From this belief, and the belief that the spirit is stronger than the sword, Gandhi came to a conclusion: “I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.” (Mukherjee 1993, p.98)
Martin Luther King, Jr., used nonviolent resistance to reconcile his religious beliefs with his passion for social justice, and it enabled him to make great advances within the United States toward racial equality. Over his lifetime, he had read books written by Rauschenbusch, Marx, Temple, Nietzsche and others. None could completely explain how King’s religious and civic duties should coincide until he discovered the works of Gandhi. Years later, he wrote:
The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. (King 1986, p.97)
André Trocmé, the central figure in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, was the Protestant minister of Le Chambon in southern France. He believed that Christ set an example for humans to live by which included a standard of nonviolence toward any human being. When Germany conquered France in World War II, Trocmé advocated that the town of Le Chambon demonstrate a quiet resistance to the puppet Vichy government. This resistance soon focused on the aiding and harboring of Jewish refugees from all over Europe who were attempting to hide from the SS and Gestapo. Philip Hallie records, “In his sermons, especially during the Occupation, he dwelt as much upon practical, worldly plans for resistance and decency as he did upon the life and words of Jesus.” (Hallie 1994, p.162)
Each of these men used nonviolent resistance to successfully change the world. Each believed that nonviolence was the best, or perhaps the only, way to successfully resist. However, it seems to me that for nonviolence to succeed there must be specific conditions. These conditions were fulfilled in each of the cases of these men; nonviolence would have failed had the situation been otherwise.
The first condition necessary for successful nonviolent resistance is time. Another way to describe this condition is that the status quo is solid -- the situation is initially stable, so immediate action gains little. In each of the cases above, the resistance had months in which to plan, and years in which to resist. The oppressed Indians had been under British rule for over a century. The African-Americans in the time of King had been in the same situation for 30 years. The town of Le Chambon put together no true resistance until the Germans had set up a stable Vichy government. Nonviolence is useless if there is no time, or very little time, available in which to execute resistance.
One example addressed in class was what the United States, and its citizens, should do if the country were being invaded. Because there is very little time available in which to head off an invasion, nonviolent resistance would not result in freedom for Americans. The invading force would establish a system of oppression; many Americans would be immediately enslaved or killed, and nonviolent resistance could do nothing to stop it.
The second condition necessary is for the oppressors to have some kind of conscience. The officials and representatives of Great Britain in India were not harsh rulers. Similarly, within America what the government was initially advocating was that racial problems be allowed to heal with time. Within Le Chambon, most of the officials that Trocmé encountered were French, and were somewhat ashamed of what they were being forced to do by the Germans. If the oppressors did not have a conscience, none of these resistances would have succeeded for long.
What would occur if, instead of defending itself with its armed forces when Germany attempted a Blitzkrieg, Great Britain had laid down its weapons but refused to obey Hitler? Germany would most likely have taken over Great Britain and subjected it to the same oppression as Northern France. Most Jews living in the United Kingdom would have been forcibly deported and killed -- those that the general population did not hide in time. Without the military resistance of Great Britain, Germany may actually have won World War II and founded the “thousand-year Third Reich” that Hitler envisioned. I believe that nonviolent resistance would have failed in this situation, because Hitler and his Gestapo lacked anything that we would call a conscience.
Another necessary condition is that the resisters must be willing to take any offense or punishment given to them because of their resistance, however painful that punishment may be. Gandhi touched on this when he stated, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood” (King 1986, p.103). If every member of the nonviolent resisting group is not prepared in this manner, then the group has a weak link, and it would be better for the group to either drop those who cannot follow this condition, or change tactics.
A very large problem for the town of Le Chambon would have occurred if a townsperson admitted that he or she was not strong enough to take extensive punishment for what the town was doing. This would form doubt; people would wonder whether they could continue to trust this person, or whether the person would tell all if threatened. The town would eventually have to exclude this person from the resistant actions, attempt to strengthen the person, or find another way to continue.
The last condition necessary for nonviolent resistance to succeed is that the cause for which the resistant group is fighting must be ethical. This condition is harder to correctly explain or describe than the others, but each of the examples given within the required reading had this. It was right for the Indians to resist for freedom, and for the African-Americans to resist for equality, and for Le Chambon to resist in order to protect Jews.
Imagine what would happen if a group of students at Valparaiso University decided that they would nonviolently resist the idea that the University should hire minorities. They would hold ‘sit-outs’ in front of Kretzmann Hall during all hours of the day and night. This group of students may have had a solid status quo, an ‘oppressor’ with a conscience, and the willingness to suffer anything for their cause. They are definitely not going to be successful, however, because their cause is not ethical.
When these four conditions -- time (or status quo), oppressor’s conscience, willingness to suffer, and ethicality -- are fulfilled, nonviolent resistance will succeed. If these four conditions do not exist within a situation, a group must either cause these conditions to exist, resist in another manner, or give up the cause. On the other hand, if the conditions are met then violent resistance risks more in the long run than nonviolent resistance.
Hallie, Philip. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986.
Mukherjee, Rudrangshu, ed. The Penguin Gandhi Reader. Penguin Books, 1993.