Pacifists and Terrorists
(Originally posted on October 13, 2006)
Many thoughts have been rumbling in my brain…..Let’s talk about civil disobedience and terrorism. I met someone this summer, a grown man, who had never even considered the idea that being willing to die and being willing to kill are not necessarily the same thing. He wouldn’t know the difference between a pacifist and a terrorist.
The provocative claim I want to make is that at some deep level, the suicide bomber and the practitioner of civil disobedience — I’m thinking here of our old friends Mahatma “Great Soul” Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and those who are influenced by them — have, I would suggest, several commonalities and one major difference.
- Both act from a deep religious conviction, or from an ideological commitment that arises from an overarching religious view of the world.
- Both are convinced that they are doing something for a cause much greater than themselves.
- Both are willing to go outside the law to achieve their goals.
- Both are radically committed to taking responsibility for their own actions.
- Both have made up their mind that their actions are taken on behalf of the oppressed.
- Both are familiar with the religious concept of martyrdom. Both are willing to die.
- Both believe history is on their side.
Now for the difference.
- The practitioner of civil disobedience has made a decision to renounce violent action as a means to a good end.
In that one thing, the terrorist has more in common with the authorities than he does with the practitioner of civil disobedience. The terrorist and the government authorities he opposes are agreed that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems.
Because they challenge that very idea, the practitioners of civil disobedience are a greater potential threat to oppressive governments than a bomber could ever be.
It’s just that to really practice civil disobedience, a huge level of clear-headed commitment, courage, and integrity is required. Such people are, seemingly, all too rare.
Martin Luther King, Jr. applied what he learned from the New Testament to the social conflicts of mid-twentieth century America, and instructed enough people in nonviolent methods of confrontation that a great social revolution brought about change, without recourse to the kind of violence that some, who also wanted change, were convinced was going to be necessary to make it happen. Indeed, King explicitly repudiated violent methods and trained people in the methodologies of nonviolent civil disobedience. Building on a similar vision, the bloodbath everyone expected to see with the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa didn’t happen, because leaders arose who learned and applied the same lessons. Reconciliation, a word rooted in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ himself, entered the global political vocabulary at that time.
What I’m saying is this: Nonviolent confrontation works to bring about large-scale transformation in modern societies. It worked in Poland with the Solidarity movement. It worked when Gandhi led an independence movement in India. It worked to bring about enormous social change in the United States and in Africa.
Of course, when the authorities meet up with a leader who engages in nonviolent confrontation and teaches others to do the same, that leader often finds that several things occur. Think about this with regard to, say, Gandhi, King, and Nelson Mandela.
- First the leader is opposed, denounced, spied on, inveighed against, sometimes imprisoned, and the people he trains in nonviolent methods are often confronted violently. There are casualties. People die. Often as not, at some point the dead include the outspoken leader.
- Second, the movement is found to succeed, and eventually gains some advocates among those who wield power. Transformational change occurs. The advocate of nonviolent confrontation is now treated with respect, though perhaps posthumously.
- Third, some among those who have followed this leader begin to move among the powerful. This is a dangerous time, because they are now tempted to forget some of what they have learned and begin to use the methods (including legitimated violence) that tend to be available to those in power.
- Fourthly, the population at large is encouraged to do two things at once: continue to neglect the actual teachings of the leader, while also admiring said leader’s character.
- Finally, an officially sanctioned personality cult emerges as a substitute for the study and practice of the leader’s ideas and methods. His ways are forgotten, and instead, let’s say, his birthday is made an official holiday.
Time passes. Oppression and violence again begin to portray themselves as the only real and practical way to solve problems in the world. The leadership vacuum begins to be filled by those who combine violent ways with unwavering faith. Things get worse, unless and until someone remembers, and a new leader takes courage and begins to practice the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
And that new leader, like his predecessors, will be denounced by those who would prefer, instead of studying and following those teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, to promote instead a cult of personality, satisfied that he too is sufficiently honored by making his birthday an official holiday.