Nonviolent resistance has been around since Jesus stood up to the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and probably before. Today, books are written about it and workshops designed to teach it. Some scholars insist that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violent resistance; others refute this. I doubt nonviolent resistance is as magical as we like to think, yet I know of no better way to orchestrate change without betraying our own values and becoming as angry, bitter, and oppressive as the regimes we stand against.
Yet how do we refrain from lashing out with weapons?
Cutting Ourselves Off from Our Emotions
One way is to hide our emotions and bide our time. If we’ve been abused and oppressed, we probably know how to do that. We’ve figured out how to keep a blank face, numb our fear and rage, and respond with humble obedience. In private, we may console ourselves by ridiculing those who disempowered us. Over time, we may figure out how to send secret messages through folk tales and songs or deviously create disasters that mess up the perpetrator’s life. Assuming we haven’t bonded with our abuser, we look for opportunities to flee. This is the power of the powerless, and it requires a lot of self control.
The potential for violence still exists. If we think we can get away with it, we are likely to unleash our rage against our perpetrator, whether an individual or a regime. The problem with this aggressive approach, however, is that if we prevail and rise to power ourselves, we are likely to get caught up trying to dominate and control those we have learned to hate. We become the abuser.
Being Compassionate with Our Emotions
How do we keep our own pain from turning into aggression? We learn to resist our fear, anger, and bitterness not with numbness and disdain, but with recognition, acceptance, and compassion for ourselves. Instead of believing every thought that arises in our mind, thus becoming slaves to our beliefs and emotions, we learn to observe the thoughts and feelings that ebb and flow within our being. Instead of judging and condemning ourselves and others, we develop an interested and gentle watcher who begins to see our prejudices and pettiness for what they are, as stories we tell ourselves so we don’t have to own our pain. Then, we learn to be gentle with the part of us that is so wounded it just wants to lash out.
Imagine lusting after power so intensely you are willing to hurt others to achieve it. Perhaps you haven’t imprisoned or killed or even hit anyone. Yet have you never tried to force a child, partner, or animal to do what you tell them? Have you never badgered, or manipulated, or punished? If so, you are a better person than I. The anger and anxiety that arises when I feel ignored eats at me unless I tend to those feelings, soothe them with compassionate understanding. When we are caught up in fear, addiction, and loneliness, we lose our capacity to observe. Then we are at risk of betraying our beliefs and values.
Yet those who rise to power by embracing evil and cruelty do this all the time. In an effort to avoid pain, they learn to feel nothing. They may think this gives them control over their feelings. In reality, it makes them a slave to their emotions.
The Wisdom of Emotions
Emotions provide information and wisdom. They tell us when we are being mistreated and when we are safe. They help us understand ourselves and others. Emotions guide us toward the good and the beautiful, warning us when we are about to betray ourselves.
When we are numb, however, we do not receive the wisdom of our emotions. In our confusion, we lose our values and our capacity for honest relationship. We lose sight of the goals that align us with who we really are.
Yet we do not feel happy or content. We become haunted by something missing. Perhaps we feel empty, lonely, or insecure. The specifics vary from person to person. Yet something we do not consciously recognize drives us to seek fulfillment outside ourselves. Not realizing how bereft we are, we try to fill the hole inside us with glitz and glamour. We lust after riches, romantic partners, gold, and power.
This is enslavement. Unable to observe our thoughts and feelings, our emotions make decisions for us without our realizing it. We become like puppets, controlled by our fears. Unable to admit or accept our feelings, especially the vulnerable ones, with our hearts deadened by years of unexamined pain, we not only lose the capacity to feel what is inside us, but we no longer understand the feelings of others. We lack empathy. Then we can insult others to their faces without noticing the pangs of remorse that fester in our souls. We can abuse, bully, even torture others without caring. High on the fantasy of our power and success, we have no idea how others feel. We also have no idea how we feel, nor do we realize what we have become.
Perhaps we are not oppressors or perpetrators. We may be victims; we may be fortunate to be neither. Yet even so, if our hearts are numb and cold, we are also slaves, no matter how free in body. Therefore, if we are to resist the wrong actions of others, we must first resist the walling off of our own hearts. We must learn to notice our feelings, our sensations, our thoughts. We must listen to and learn from them. In the process, we will learn to love our emotions and ourselves. Otherwise, our resistance, though it may start off peaceful and righteous, will become violent, and our leadership will be corrupt.
Getting Lost in Greed
Do not fool yourself into thinking you are immune because you are good. We all risk getting lost in lust and greed. Those of us in positions of power and authority are even more vulnerable. Be wary of authority. Use power against others even more warily.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run for political office; seek management or executive positions in education, business, or other fields; make speeches, write, sing, or clasp arms with neighbors and stand strong. All these forms of resistance matter and are necessary. But be watchful for the stirrings of self-righteousness and lust.
Especially when we have been bullied or abused, power feels good. We like bringing down our enemies. That’s why we love adventure stories and trickster tales where the weak becomes strong and the strong becomes weak. Listening to such tales satisfies us, giving our brains a little rush of dopamine.
This isn’t wrong in and of itself. If we didn’t enjoy the struggle on some level, we wouldn’t bother resisting, especially to help others. The problem comes when we dare not admit we are fallible. We don’t want to see the racism or classism, the anger or pettiness, in ourselves. We like to think we are better than “they” are.
Do not disparage your passion for justice, but be cautious. Causes and enthusiasms are not always right.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Imperfection
These ruminations come as we near the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work and life, but that doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that the Civil Rights Movement he worked for was wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that corruption existed within the movement, nor would it surprise me to be told that the leaders didn’t always agree. Yet our country’s Civil Rights Movement, along with the movements for Indian independence led by Gandhi and the Velvet Revolution that restored democracy to Czechoslovakia, remains a model of nonviolent resistance.
Like the rest of us, Martin Luther King, Jr. was imperfect. Some try to discredit him by calling him a “beast” who could not restrain his sexual urges, a communist, and a plagiarist,  though this is highly sensationalized or outright lying. We do know that King did not properly cite some of the quotations in his doctoral thesis, but we do not know why, so we have no reason to assume it was anything other than an oversight. Even if it was, this does not make meaningless his gifts for leadership and oratory, nor does it change his dedication to the power of love.
Nonviolence and Love
King showed passion, determination, courage, wisdom, and self-reflection. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, he explains that any nonviolent movement must take four steps: the “collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” 
Although he doesn’t say directly what “self-purification” meant to him, King notes that before the Birmingham demonstration, the protesters engaged in workshops on nonviolence, and they asked themselves whether they could face jail time or “accept blows without retaliating.”  Putting yourself in danger when you expect to fight back is one thing. To do so when you have pledged not to is something else entirely. You cannot do this if you are a slave to your emotions.
To wage a battle of nonviolence, we need to know ourselves, to understand our suffering, longings, hopes, and fears. We must dream of freedom for everyone, not just ourselves. Nonviolence requires dignity, self-assurance, self-compassion, and empathy for others.
It also requires faith, a belief in something greater than the individual human. Nonviolence, writes King in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, “is passive physically but strongly active spiritually.” 
Part of this spiritual strength lies in the capacity to love. King explains that nonviolent resistance isn’t about beating or humiliating our enemies. It is about developing partnerships, negotiating agreements, and seeking friendships.
“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love,” King writes. 
In Nonviolence Really the Answer?
But is nonviolence the answer today?
A few weeks ago, I bought a Street Roots from a vendor who told me things were too terrible in this country, it was too late, a violent uprising was the only thing that would create change.
Not knowing the future, I cannot say he is wrong. Certainly, not every nonviolent movement succeeds. Sharon Erickson Nepstad describes two unsuccessful efforts in her essay “How Regimes Counter Resistance Movements: The Cases of Panama and Kenya.” In spite of a massive and well-organized citizen resistance movement in Panama, it wasn’t until the United States sent troupes into the area that Noriega was defeated.  In Kenya, the dictator Daniel arap Moi successfully held onto his power despite nonviolent opposition, finally choosing to retire from government office in 2002. 
Nepstad’s point in analyzing these two situations, however, is not to prove that nonviolence fails. Rather, it is to identify strategies that have been used against protesters and figure out tactics to counteract them.
The Power of Nonviolence
Erica Chenoweth champions nonviolent resistance. Along with her colleague, Maria Stephan, she collected data on 323 resistance movements, both violent and nonviolent. What they discovered surprised Chenoweth. Although only 53% of the nonviolent movements were successful, and 20% of them completely failed, violent uprisings succeeded a mere 23% of the time and failed completely 60% of the time. 
Obviously, no form of resistance is not always successful, if by success we mean that an oppressive regime falls and a benevolent democracy is installed. Even then, how long before the new government shows signs of corruption? Just as no individual is perfect, so no group or institution is, either. Our experience in the United States today shows that it’s not just Iran, Kenya, Germany, or some other country that is vulnerable to despots. We are, as well. Yet if we rise up violently in some confused effort to right wrongs, I fear the result will be worse than what we have now, perhaps much worse. True change only comes when we can resist the urge for revenge. Only nonviolence resists such urges.
Those who rise to power through evil do so because they are slaves to their own emptiness and insecurity, to their longing for fulfillment and craving for satisfaction. They have shut down and shut off the wisdom of their emotions. We must not make the same mistake.
Instead, to resist the evil that festers in this world, we must first resist the enslavement of our own hearts. We must learn to notice our feelings and embrace them. Whether we feel sadness, tenderness, and happiness or rage, loneliness, and bitterness, we are only experiencing emotions. Feelings come and go, without our conscious choice, but we don’t have to act on them. We can simply notice them and let them go.
How do we do this? Perhaps the first step is to look for the hurt child beneath our anger and the wounded teenager behind our fear. Then we can hold our emotions gently, feel compassion for ourselves. In this way, the underlying hurt can heal, and our emotions can ease.
So absolutely, resist. But be watchful. Power feels good, especially when you have been bullied or abused, and all of us have the potential to get lost in that dopamine rush when we come out on top. Fortunately, we are not in this alone. We have one another. Together, we can heal, love, and resist with compassion, courage, and nonviolence.
In faith and fondness,
- See, for example, http://www.martinlutherking.org/, a site that calls David Duke a “civil rights activist.”
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Birmingham, AL, April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, p.2, http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf, accessed January 13, 2018.
- Ibid p. 3.
- King, Marin Luther, Jr., Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. Quote from Resource Center for Nonviolent Resistance, “Principles of Nonviolent Resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr.,” http://rcnv.org/resources/principles-nonviolence-martin-luther-king-jr/, accessed January 12, 2018.
- Nepstad, Sharon Erickson, “How Regimes Counter Resistance Movements: The Cases of Panama and Kenya,” Kurt Schock, ed, Civil Resistance: Comparative Perspectives on Nonviolent Struggle, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015; pp. 121-144, 129.
- Ibid 133.
- Statistics found at Kenrick, Douglas T., “Violent Versus Nonviolent Revolutions: Which Way Wins?,” Psychology Today, April 7, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-murder-and-the-meaning-life/201404/violent-versus-nonviolent-revolutions-which-way-wins, accessed January 13, 2018.