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Words on Faith: Reflecting on the Season for Nonviolence

By Rev. Toni Fish

Published in Frederick News Post on March 2, 2019ca

Sitting in a window seat at 35,000 ft, the earth below, with its seashore, its rivers, its towns and cities, looks peaceful and in harmony.  The little cotton ball clouds float gently in the space between the airplane and the ground. The bank of clouds on the horizon reminds me of the snow-covered ground I left behind in Maryland.  As I gaze through the small square opening onto that “other” world, my heart beat slows; my mind stills; and my soul recognizes its deep longing for peace, for a state of being and doing that recognizes and honors the divine oneness of all things.  And I ask myself, “where is that longing when I’m not gliding at 35,000 ft? Is it really absent from my soul? Or have I just trained myself to ignore it?”

We are now half way through the Season for Nonviolence, a season that began on January 30th, the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and ends on April 4th, the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This 64-day season was co-founded in 1998 by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and Association for Global New Thought as an educational, media and grassroots campaign devoted to demonstrating the healing and transformative power of nonviolence in our lives and in our communities.  Spiritually guided citizen leaders in 900 cities in 67 countries have participated since the campaign began in 1998.

In years past, here in Frederick, many of us have participated in the Season as a community, with a variety of movies, speakers, and discussion events throughout the 64 days.  More recently, the participation has been more an individual congregational affair, if anything at all.  And in all of these variations, it seems that we began by asking two sets of questions: the first, “What is violence and where do we learn about it?”  and the second, “What is nonviolence and where do we learn about it?”  Usually, the responses to the first questions were numerous and varied; the responses to the second set of questions were far fewer and much less specific.  While those of us participating in the sessions may have sensed that there is another way to move through conflict, it is difficult to envision and describe how that might present itself because we do not have the cultural vision, the internal paradigm, or the vocabulary to do so.  In choosing Gandhi and King, the co-founders of the Season for Nonviolence have given us amazing examples from whom we may find the “what” and “how.”

Both men have shared in their writings and speeches that a major building block for their vision of nonviolence was the teachings of Jesus, particularly those lessons found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5: 38-42: 
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[c] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

In these verses, we find a phrase that has served as a source of confusion about the meaning of nonviolence that has developed over the years: “do not resist an evil person.”  For many today, the definition of nonviolence has become almost solely non-resistance and passivity, with little emphasis on “standing firm in resistance, in love rather than violence.” 

In his book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Walter Wink gives an insightful take on this:  “The traditional [Christian] interpretation of "do not resist an evildoer" has been nonresistance to evil—an odd conclusion, given the fact that on every occasion Jesus himself resisted evil with every fiber of his being. The fifth-century theologian Augustine agreed that the gospel teaches nonresistance, and therefore declared that a Christian must not attempt self-defense.

Wink goes on to say “….But the gospel does not teach nonresistance to evil. Jesus counsels resistance, but without violence. The Greek word translated "resist" in Matt. 5:39 is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti).  What translators have over-looked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then they would ‘take a stand,’ that is, fight.….In short, antistenai means more here than simply to "resist" evil. It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection….Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent."

Regarding this same scripture, Gandhi wrote in An Autobiography OR The Story of My Experiments with Truth that "…. Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart." He understood that Jesus’ words in Matthew meant that we are not to return evil for evil, that our response to evil should be good. He also understood that responding to the evil with goodness is a challenge always. In the teaching of Jesus to love your enemy, Gandhi found the Indian tradition ahimsa - nonviolence, nonretaliation and nonresistance.

Gandhi wrote in What Jesus Means to Me, “Your noncooperation with your opponent is violent when you give a blow for a blow and is ineffective in the long run. Your noncooperation is nonviolent when you give your opponent all in the place of just what he needs. You have disarmed him once for all by your apparent cooperation, which in effect is complete noncooperation.”

 Dr. King wrote in an article, My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, published on September 1, 1958 in Fellowship:

“My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

All three of these men – Jesus, Gandhi, and King - knew that the path they had chosen was not an easy one.  They understood that if they practiced it correctly, had sufficient “press,” and “stood firm” against a powerful force, violence, even death, would probably show up on their doorstep.  And yet they persisted.

Now, after reading all of this, you might ask what does all this have to do with my soul’s deep longing for peace?  Sitting at 35,000 ft, again, staring out that small square opening on the journey home, I ask myself that same question.  In answer to that question, I find only more questions.  Do I have the understanding of ahimsa, of “love your enemy” sufficient within my being to stand firm against the Pharisees and Pilate with love in my heart? Could I walk through the crowd unprotected, with love and peace in my heart? Could I walk out onto that balcony in Memphis, with love and peace in my heart? Do I believe that Love can conquer all?  I hope so.  I affirm that it is so, for it is from that knowing, present down where I know how to grow fingernails, that soul peace is born.  May it be so.  Amen.