“I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all the oppression and shame … See, hear, and am silent.” (Walt Whitman)
For too many of us, silence is the path of least resistance. Complacency, fear, and doubt about our own ability to make a difference tend to smother our instinctive knowledge that there is something terribly wrong with the world around us. Two new books call upon us to become activists for peace by embracing the ideas of pacifism and nonviolence. The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map collects articles by the eminent Canadian physicist and social activist. Ms. Franklin makes it clear that pacifism ought not to be confused with passivity: “Do not be content to accept things as they are … In the end it is our lives that must speak the truth. What we do and what we refuse to do, from the smallest to the largest decisions, is the truth that we must speak.”
[pullquote]For Ms. Franklin, “militarism,” writ large, permeates not only our state-to-state relations, but also our social and economic systems. All are founded on the idea of winners and losers, on distinctions between “us” and “them,” and on the “implicit assumption that some people matter much less than others.” It is an assumption that is incompatible with the Scriptural injunction to “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We fool ourselves into thinking that we can purchase security for ourselves by making others insecure, but concepts like security, peace, and justice are indivisible: Either they exist for everyone (friends and foes alike), or they exist for no one. For peace is not the mere absence of war; it is the absence of fear and the presence of justice: “It is the daily reality of the Biblical promise of fear not,” writes Ms. Franklin. “That means fear of war, but also fear of economic, political, cultural, or sexual oppression.”
Indeed, a warlike mentality has been transposed from the military realm to the commercial: A society that “glorifies individual gains and profits” is one in which “whatever cannot be merely bought or sold, whatever cannot be expressed in terms of money … stands in the way of the ‘market’ as enemy territory to be occupied, transformed, and conquered.”
Some of Ms. Franklin’s assertions would benefit from reasoned argument. It is all very well to contend, for instance, that “violence is unsuccessful, even for those who have power.” But the powers-that-be obviously see things differently. Models of conflict, fear, and violence doubtless serve the many very badly, but they do (alas) benefit the few! Ms. Ms. Franklin nevertheless makes a persuasive case for putting faith and conscience into action by speaking truth to power, and by refusing to co-operate with practices that neglect or oppress others. She quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer to apt effect: “How can God speak when men and women are silent?”
If you combine the conviction of nonviolence with hands-on activism, you get “one of the rare truly revolutionary ideas,” according to Mark Kurlansky’s Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. Witness the harsh opprobrium it attracts from the state – a reaction seemingly out of all proportion to its number of proponents. When the war-drums sound, citizens are expected to fall into line. Those who do not are branded as disloyal, or even treasonous. Why do those who advocate nonviolence attract such antipathy? Perhaps it is because the very idea of nonviolence is so at odds with accepted wisdom and prevailing practice – most notably, the state’s self-appointed right to use force – that there is not even a distinct word for it in English.
Nonviolence can and does make a difference, though: Gandhi’s movement hastened the end of British colonial rule in India; weekly demonstrations by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo shamed the murderous military regime in Argentina, contributing to its collapse in 1982; and a series of nearly bloodless revolutions precipitated the end of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. In the words of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, “Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as much as we love all other lands. The interests, rights, liberties of American citizens are no more dear to us than are those of the whole human race.” Words to live by. Until more of us do live by them, we will neither see the end of violence and oppression, nor vouchsafe true justice and peace.
A former diplomat who represented Canada in London and Prague, John Arkelian is also a writer, lawyer, international affairs analyst, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
(c) 2007 by John Arkelian.