Pacifism And Power

A Conversation Between Two Canadian Pacifists, Leonard Desroches and Ursula Franklin

By Leonard Desroches and Ursula Franklin | 2000-10-01 12:00:00

LEONARD DESROCHES: In our community I don't think we've had a thorough conversation about nonviolence much beyond nonviolence as a tactic. Most people see nonviolence as a good thing, but it's relegated to being a morally good way to act. My concern about that limited conversation is that nonviolence is not understood as "the other force." How do we bring about justice? For me that question presents us with a choice between two forces. Nonviolence is the "other" force.

There is one force that is quite obvious; we face it every minute of the day. It could be symbolized by the gun or by verbal abuse. We understand that force; I acknowledge how real it is. We believe in it more than we believe in the force of nonviolence. As a culture, we rarely live in the realm of faith (in the general sense, not just in the religious sense) so I don't think we believe in the power of nonviolence as literally as we believe in the destructive force of such things as a nuclear submarine or a cruise missile. Even religious people don't believe that nonviolence is a force. I've checked this out often in workshops and retreats that I have given. It's not surprising that Gandhi wanted to invent other terms for it, such as "satyagraha"; Martin Luther King used the word "soul force." That is the topic of the conversation that I want to have.

URSULA FRANKLIN: I agree with you that one looks at nonviolence as a response to power. The counterforce, in the Newtonian sense (you have force and every force gets a counterforce) that we are accustomed to in terms of power is always opposite power. But pacifism is the limit of a response to power. It is not just the opposite power. And that awareness has arisen in the faith community, because they knew their powers are other than the powers of the world. The awareness has come through many disadvantaged people, such as women, who not only knew that they had no power but knew that in many cases the application of force or power is pointless. If you have a kid crying at three o'clock in the morning, reading the riot act really doesn't do much for the family. And so those who have to deal with love know there are experiences that do not rely on power. Kenneth Boulding's last book was The Faces of Power. He defined power as the ability to push people around to do something that they would not do of their own free will.

Gandhi brought a cooperative aspect to nonviolence. It let people see that, of their own free will, they could do cooperative, non-force, collaborative things. That is what women do, what native people do, what you do in your garden. You don't shout at your carrots; you water them. And in a discourse, it is limiting to think in terms of counterforce. It is the means that count as criteria in matters of nonviolence and pacifism. Our question is not, "What should we do?" but rather, "How should we do it?". As A. J. Muste said, there's no way to peace - peace is the way.

However, that means that prescriptions for nonviolence are far more difficult than prescriptions for violence. If you want to train the military, you do maneuvers and you hit them. There's really not much else to do. But anyone who has ever been part of a nonviolence training knows that you can't get a prescription. What you get is awareness, and then a decision comes contextually - from the feelings, trainings, weakness, contributions, resistances around you. That's not a prescription. If one lives in a technological society where everything is a matter of prescription, there is a resistance to letting people use their judgment about means to allow creative solutions, such as saying, "This is what I do when the boss goes ballistic. It's not by the book but I know the guy." Or, "When my kid says 'I'm not feeling well enough to go to school,' I don't call the army. I say, 'Where does it hurt?' and then I talk to him about the bullies on the way to school."

You can't prescribe those insights. They come from an openness. But we live in a world that is prescriptive and totally reliant on economic or military force. So how can we get it across that one does not have to look for counterforce? One has to look for a situational understanding. And that's tough.

What makes it less tough, I think, is the empirical evidence all around us that counterforce doesn't work. At this stage in my life I am ashamed to say how long I lived under the assumption that there really are two kinds of people. There are the "good people" with principles who think about human rights and moral issues but they are pretty dumb about the world. And then there are hard-nosed realists, who really know what the world is all about. They make the hard choices and "bite the bullet" and leave us with the mess we have.

It had not occurred to me that the world is in a mess because of the hard nosed realists. The "good people" (whom one couldn't trust because they are soft and think of human rights and of little children or old ladies) in fact have contributed little to the mess. That mess is evidence that the hard-nosed guys don't know what they are doing. They believe in Newtonian force-counterforce stuff and they haven't a clue about living organisms, about emotion, or about the evolution of community. The discourse that we wish has to begin by clearly understanding that we face a mess that is caused by a wrong model of society and humanity. Though we have assumed that the "good people" have nothing to say, the fact is that the hard-nosed realists have nothing to say. Let us acknowledge the failure of method. It's not that we want to substitute one jerk with another one - a gentleman jerk, say, with a lady jerk. A method itself fails when it does not take into account this fundamental truth - that cooperation (nonviolence) not only might work; it works in ninety percent of the cases.

So we'd better give up the Newtonian model and analyze the mess we have. Nonviolence works by choosing among various means. There exist a vast variety of acceptable, appropriate means. The errors have arisen from regarding the world as a huge industrial production site. Not everything can be planned. Besides, it doesn't matter so much what we do. It matters how we do it.

And when we establish agreements on means, the first phase will be to agree as to which means are unacceptable. Can we agree that killing people is unacceptable? It is possible to kill by weapons, or by despair, or by hunger. If we define it as unacceptable to kill people, then we say no to all of those means of killing. Talking that out might be a great help.

Then if we rule out killing people, maybe killing fish is also unacceptable. We might work from the most universally unacceptable means of killing to the point of saying: no killing, period! Such a discourse would offer nonviolence as a people-centered, faith-centered, socially-centered basket of means for responding to power. If force does not expect counterforce, it will modify those who assert force.

LEONARD DESROCHES: That makes sense to me, though you made one point on which I'm not sure we agree. I am not saying that we should see nonviolence as a counterforce, or as a reaction against anything, or as an attempt to gather some kind of nonviolent power that is physically equivalent to violence. But I am saying that nonviolence is literally a force. I do believe now that nonviolence - "soul force," "satyagraha" - is a force of love. When it is applied in a collective response to great evil, it's a force. Look at the village of Le Chambon in France. A man there believed in nonviolence as deeply as Martin Luther King, so he and his wife organized that village to resist the Nazis. They knew they might lose their lives, and that even the whole village might disappear. But they believed in nonviolence, not only tactically but also spiritually. They refused to hate even Nazis. Their resistance was successful because they understood nonviolence as a force for change. They were living a force of love, which they knew was capable of resisting something even as great as Nazism. In the end, 5,000 Christians successfully sheltered 5,000 Jews.

For almost 25 years I have tried to do the work of nonviolence - with myself, first of all, by living it out in my relationships with my neighbors, by resisting militarism, and by taking seriously my North American culture. I am invited to give workshops or trainings. Recently I did a training for people in Christian Peacemaker Teams who go to places of high conflict, such as Chiapas and the Middle East, committed to nonviolence. (Not surprisingly, that is an initiative of the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren - what mainline churches call the "peace churches." I come from a mainline church that has not come to terms with the renunciation of war as an institution.)

As you say, we can reach an agreement that some means are absolutely unacceptable. One clear example in my own life is hatred. I may find myself hating and realize - whoa! - I no longer want to proceed that way. It is a means that I do not allow myself. And I agree with you that we need collectively to come to agreement about a variety of other means - especially about the institution of war. I don't mean about this war or that war, or should we bomb Yugo-slavia, or should we bomb it a little bit or a lot? I'm talking about the institution of war. Imagine ten young men, who sincerely call themselves feminists and who have rearranged their lives to support all women by fund-raising and so on. But just in case they are attacked by women, they have retained the "right" to rape women. It's a bizarre image, isn't it? I believe, speaking for myself, our relation to the institution of war is as bizarre as that. We proclaim clearly that we believe in peace but we hold onto the institution of war.

Deeply religious people don't want wars. In fact, I personally believe that 99 percent of generals don't want war. There is probably a tiny percentage, perhaps one or two percent, who are warmakers. Something has happened to them, producing a real sickness, as in the case of Hitler. But it is most often very religious people who yearn deeply for nonviolence. If you look at their personal lives, they are committed. But sometimes in situations like Yugoslavia, some people believe that we need the institution of war: "What else can we do?" I believe the central thing going on with them is in their not understanding nonviolence literally as a force of love.

URSULA FRANKLIN: When we began, I used Boulding's definition of power: the ability to make people do what they don't want to do. But yes, Boulding would say that you can have other forms of power, such as the power of persuasion, and of collaboration.

When you consider force in physics, you can think of mechanical forces like the billiard balls, and also "fields of force" that move particles around without individually pushing or pulling them. So if you're thinking of nonviolence as a force, you can think of fields of force. It's like the climate and the weather fronts. It's there, even if you play billiards. There may be times when the immediate action of a mechanical force makes you unaware of everything else. But a good billiard player may be aware enough to adjust his movements slightly when playing in a thunderstorm.

Now I want to mention what you said about deeply religious people who want to use force to correct evil. That approach doesn't work. Empirical reality has never shown any evil to be stopped by force. It may have been turned into another evil. But most people want to leave a little back window open instead of renouncing war altogether.

For example, Murray Thomson used to have discussions with Rabbi Gunther Plaut when Murray was collecting signatures on petitions against the bomb. Rabbi Plaut felt he could not sign a total renunciation of nuclear war because Israel might need it.

LEONARD DESROCHES: The word renunciation is crucial. You and I are talking about the same thing - that little window people leave open. Those ten men who say they are feminists but who "retain the right" to rape women, just in case a woman loses her mind and intends to kill them. Until those men really renounce that "right," one cannot call them feminists. I believe there is something amazing and powerful about renunciation. Once we renounce the institution of war, we are forced in a creative way to say: What else?

URSULA FRANKLIN: This happened with slavery. It was decided that some things may not be done - such as owning people. You may try to re-invent slavery, but the society has decided that it is unacceptable. And that opens the opportunity to consider other questions, such as how to treat workers. We still have to deal with all the other problems that remain, but without the option of slavery. Nor the option of bigamy; you may only have one spouse. You may still hire a secretary and have a mistress, but the option of bigamy is out. The option of cannibalism is out. It's so profoundly out that even in the most dire circumstances, people would actually rather die than eat human flesh. There's a revulsion.

LEONARD DESROCHES: Again, religious people especially talk about their revulsion against war. But that's why I am so taken by the notion of renunciation. It's beyond revulsion. Most good people are revolted by war, but that has nothing to do with renouncing war. I may be revolted by war, but that is not the spiritual work of renunciation.

URSULA FRANKLIN: Yes, and think of vegetarianism, for example. You can begin having less meat in your diet, you can give money to print vegetarian cookbooks, and so on. But in the end, the question is: Do you eat steak? The moment you say no, your cooking changes. Your habits of going out change. And it works - you live.

We may not pay enough attention to the private act of renunciation, but government, technology, and commerce make it more difficult for individuals to make their own moral decisions and live by them. Some things you could privately renounce - even slave-owning. The success of the anti-slavery movement occurred in large part because it could be done one by one. One plantation after the other. People could see that it worked; they weren't going to rack and ruin. And one vegetarian invites somebody else to be a vegetarian, one by one. But war is national and global; individual renunciation is difficult because you can't act it out.

PEACE: I want to ask something different. When the Dalai Lama is asked why people aren't pacifists he says, "The problem is, they don't want to lose. If you really are committed to nonviolence, you have to be willing to lose."

URSULA FRANKLIN: But if you are committed to violence, you usuallylose! That's the reality. Violence doesn't work.

LEONARD DESROCHES: In Vietnam, 50,000 American boys were killed. (You can hardly call them men because they were young boys.) Did it "work"? What about the equal number -50,000 - who committed suicide during the Vietnam War or right after it? It's almost the same exact number as those killed. To talk about war "working" shows the pathology that the institution of war for so many centuries has poisoned us with. How can anyone even claim to know what the force of love or nonviolence can or can't do, when for centuries war was the only institution we've ever turned to? In my church community there was a far more radical wisdom in the first three centuries - a much clearer understanding of power. A child needs power to walk. I like what you said, Ursula, about fields of force that are beyond the mechanical application of force. And that is what I'm trying to get at. The early church understood power in two ways. One was the inner force or power that we all have - to love or to hate. That God-given inner force you see in Jesus. The other one was socially sanctioned power. Some people have that and some people don't. Some people are bishops or principals of schools; some people don't have socially sanctioned power. But the Nuremburg Trials, in a technical, legalistic way, stated that we all have responsibility because we all have the power in us to say yes or no to good or evil. We have at least that power. And that's a great power!

URSULA FRANKLIN: Yes. But if you do a reality check you say collectively, we have seen quite substantial gatherings of these powers totally unable to go against that force-counterforce. Think of the women in New York City, those huge gatherings of people who say, "We want things to be done differently."

LEONARD DESROCHES: But I would not agree that that represents the full development of that force we call "nonviolence," because that's a gathering. It is an impressive gathering. But as a culture, I don't think we literally believe in it. We do believe in this other force - that it can destroy. And, by the way, that's all it can do. It can't plant, it can't grow, it can't heal.

There's one cultural taboo that I would like to mention: the love of enemy. That's one conversation we just don't want to have. But, to quote Martin Luther King, "far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love our enemies is an absolute necessity for our survival." I think we're not confronting that. I know it's a big problem in the left, what you do with your enemy. That is the heart of the matter in a spiritual sense. The response of the Nazis to their enemies is the reason why Goebbels, the propagandist for the Nazi government said, "even if we lose [the war] we will win the hearts of our enemies." And that happened. We continued to believe in what the Nazis believed in - the institution of war. We are still using it. And NATO perfected it in the bombing of Yugoslavia.

URSULA FRANKLIN: The notion of "enemy" really comes out of the threat system. Historically, there may be insiders and outsiders, but an "enemy" comes out of feeling a threat. Kenneth Boulding wrote a lot on this. What do you do with your enemy? The people in South Africa on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have dealt with it. You can't keep your enemy in power - somebody who has killed once. You cannot give them a position in which they can kill again. If we confront the institution of war, the practitioners of war will have to be kept from practice, but so will many other people who practice something that is socially unacceptable.

LEONARD DESROCHES: You spoke of South Africa. I'm glad that in South Africa the word "reconciliation" was used so publicly. The final aim of the force of destruction is victory. But the goal of the force of love (nonviolence) is reconciliation. Nonviolence is far more difficult than a violent victory. After centuries of turning to the institution of war and its weapons, we don't know how to use the powerful tools of the force of love, whose final aim is reconciliation, not victory over others. Even though I have tried to practice it for decades, I cannot easily love my enemies.

URSULA FRANKLIN: You cannot generically love your enemy without knowing the specifics. There are some things you cannot do in general terms. If your neighbors make a lot of noise next door to you, it will require a very different response than if you have different neighbors. Particular experiences count. You cannot have a prescription for having a talk with someone you only vaguely know.

We have to emphasize that violence doesn't work. And we cannot afford to keep on doing things that do not work.

Leonard Desroches is a resource person for the practice and spirituality of nonviolence, a War Resister, and a writer. Len's wage-earning trade is dry-walling. Ursula M. Franklin is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and a member of the Society of Friends.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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