Power and the New Nonviolence -- Harry Boyte and Marie-Louise Ström

Harry Boyte and Marie-Louise Ström

“You will rebuild the ancient ruins…You will be called the repairer of the breach” Isaiah 58:12

Millions believe our political system is dysfunctional. “We the people” are divided. The New Nonviolence rebuilds civic life while deepening power, our capacity to act.

What are the roots of the New Nonviolence?

The New Nonviolence has ancient roots in diverse religions – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and others. It is also woven into the warp and woof of US, Native American, and immigrant histories. Nonviolence as a method of large scale change was first developed by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, who called it “soul force,” Satyagraha, in contrast to violence. Nonviolence was taken up by the Indian Independence movement from Great Britain. The movement’s “soul force” inspired leaders like Bayard Rustin, Septima Clark, and Martin Luther King in the American civil rights (“freedom”) movement. Since then nonviolence has been used by other movements including the United Farm Workers movement in California, the “Velvet Revolution” which overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia, “Mass Action for Peace” by Christian and Muslim women in Liberia which ended a civil war, the “Arab Spring,” and others.

What is the New Nonviolence?

Past nonviolent movements struggled against oppression. Such struggle is necessary. But the New Nonviolence also emphasizes repairing the social fabric and reclaiming joint responsibility for the civic life of our democracy as a source of power itself. Even tactical approaches to struggle against oppression (e.g. capacities to adopt proven tactics like the cross-partisan approach of Results, the anti-poverty lobby -- see Tina Rosenberg, “Lessons in What Works,” New York Times January 31, 2017) needs soul force, a new mindset refusing to demonize “the other,” in our bitterly divided world.

· The New Nonviolence is struggle. In addition to tactics, it includes spiritual, moral, and psychological disciplines.

· The New Nonviolence seeks to understand opponents, both individuals and groups, not defeat or humiliate them.

· The New Nonviolence “hates the sin but loves the sinner,” recognizing that we all can be saints or sinners.

· The New Nonviolence is based on impartial love for enemies and friends alike, concern for others’ potential.

· The New Nonviolence holds that we begin with self-change – not trying to get others to change. This “calls up resources of strength and courage [people] did not know they had,” as Martin Luther King put it.

The New Nonviolence also stresses rebuilding civic life.

Repairers of the breach

The New Nonviolence enriches concepts that build civic life--the public culture of places--including everyday politics, civic empowerment, and public work.

· Everyday politics. Everyday politics is politics centered on citizens, not politicians. It highlights the fact that democracy is a way of life we all build, far more than elections. It involves working with people who are very different, including opponents. The New Nonviolence emphasizes understanding opponents, not humiliating them.

· Civic agency: Civic agency is the capacity to take effective action across lines of difference. It depends on skills like building public relationships, learning to tell one’s “public narrative,” conducting one on one relational meetings, and “mapping power” around issues. The New Nonviolence infuses practices of such civic skills with moral purpose. It calls up resources of strength and courage.

· Public Work: Public work involves a mix of people (“a” public) who work on shared tasks (“for” public purposes) “in” public. Public life, the setting for public work, is different than private life. We work with those who are radically different, whom we may even dislike. Nonviolence calls us to engage in struggle for change, not remain passive.

Practices of the new nonviolence

Nonviolent movements develop everyday practices. “If you want to work through nonviolence you have to proceed with small things,” said Gandhi. In Montgomery’s civil rights movement, domestic workers walking to work rather than taking segregated buses became a symbol. A driver offered an elderly woman a ride. She refused. “I’m not walking for myself,” she explained “I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.” In our divided society, where do we start?

Form a study group: Become familiar with nonviolent philosophy, tactics, and civic life (e.g. see Nonviolent methods at Einstein Institute; Civic Studies at Tisch College; Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College)

Unusual meet-up: Meet with someone you disagree with. Don’t judge what is wrong with their views. What’s their story? What can you learn from it? Is there common ground?

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