October 31, 2006

Good Company II: The Family Tree of Modern Non-Violence

In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison, along with a man named Adin Ballou (1803-1890) and numerous others, signed his name to a statement of peaceful non-resistance which began:

We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury . . .

I'm more than a little sympathetic with that statement, certainly. However, the group went on to repudiate as unlawful, immoral and unchristian all wars for any reason whatsoever, all preparations for war, all armies and weapons, all prosecution of criminals and acts of self-defense. And then they declared themselves removed from all official positions related to human governments for the duration of their lives (governments are enablers of violence, you see). "Radical" and "extreme" seem to fall short as descriptors of the stance they took.

Adin Ballou lived that life, too. He wasn't messing around. In 1842, Ballou and others purchased some land in Massachusetts and founded the town of "Hopedale" (which still exists to this day). The town existed on principles of absolute equality and peace, and during its peak years (early 1850s), about 230 people lived there. The venture more or less folded in 1856 when the primary stockholders pulled their support and invested in a factory instead. Ballou, however, continued to live in Hopedale for the rest of his life, publishing books about abolition and non-violence.

His most important work on the subject is Christian Non-Resistance (1846). In it, he explains what Christian non-resistance is, examines scripture that he believes supports it, answers common arguments (both against the concept and against his interpretation of the scripture involved), and argues that non-resistance is more conducive to self-preservation. Ballou's view is particularly significant as being the first to advance a pacifist position on rather naturalistic rather than strictly religious grounds. In any case, you've probably never heard of Adin Ballou. I hadn't.

But I had heard of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Of course, I hadn't heard that he was a major figure in the history of pacifism and non-violence, just that he was responsible for those two famous paperweights (long valued for their shelf-filling capacity) Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Well, Tolstoy had a bit of a crisis of faith at age 50, but it was after his literary peak so I suppose it isn't considered important in my discipline.

A few years after this, in 1884, Tolstoy decided to share. He wrote a little book called What I Believe. Naturally this work was immediately supressed in Russia (although Tolstoy notes that an astounding number of Russians wrote widely-circulated refutations of it, which was quite interesting considering that no one was supposed to acknowledge that it existed). In any case, it found an appreciative audience almost everywhere else, especially in America. Before long, Tolstoy began to receive a flood of correspondence, particularly from Quakers, responding to his pacifist leanings.

Before long, Tolstoy discovered Adin Ballou and corresponded with him until the latter's death in 1890. Three years later, Tolstoy came out with a 500-page treatment of the subject of non-violence and the Church: The Kingdom of God is Within You. He meant it to be the definitive argument in favor of a position which he observed had existed for many centuries. However, he had also bitterly observed the response to those who had come before him:

The work of [William Lloyd] Garrison in his foundation of the Society of Non-resistants and his Declaration, even more than my correspondence with the Quakers, convinced me of the fact that the departure of the ruling form of Christianity from the law of Christ on non-resistance by force is an error that has long been observed and pointed out, and that men have labored, and are still laboring, to correct. Ballou's work confirmed me still more in this view. But the fate of Garrison, still more that of Ballou, in being completely unrecognized in spite of fifty years of obstinate and persistent work in the same direction, confirmed me in the idea that there exists a kind of tacit but steadfast conspiracy of silence about all such efforts.

Tolstoy was shocked and outraged to find (as I, too, have noticed in my turn) that all of the noise that he and others like him were making about this idea was conveniently ignored by almost everyone. It is no wonder that this is the case, certainly, for there can be only two responses. One sees few blanket justifications of war by Christians floating around, and when we do we know what they're worth. But neither do Christians seem comfortable embracing a position that is so potentially scary and (*gasp*) discomforting as this. So, it remains largely ignored. Such was the fate of the men who influenced Tolstoy, and such was the fate of Tolstoy's own book on the subject. Not only had I never heard of the book, but, as I mentioned, I didn't even know he was a pacifist.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was living in South Africa when he first encountered The Kingdom of God is Within You. Of it he later said, "Its reading cured me of my skepticism and made me a firm believer in ahimsa [nonviolence]." Gandhi corresponded regularly with Tolstoy, beginning in 1909, and continuing until Tolstoy's death in November of 1910. Gandhi considered Tolstoy to be the greatest apostle of non-violence of the age, which is interesting since many people would apply that same title to Gandhi himself.

Gandhi's most significant contribution to the ideas he picked up from Tolstoy was to change the focus from non-resistance to non-violent resistance. I haven't been very good at maintaining a consistent differentiation between these two ideas thus far, so let me clarify. While Tolstoy and Ballou believed in almost total non-resistance whether violent or not (extreme passivity, I'd call it), Gandhi believed in the power of non-violence to both resist and transform. Ballou and Tolstoy sought to remove themselves from society and effect slow change through individual conversion to their ideas and through non-cooperation with "the system." Gandhi saw, I believe, something much closer to the route Christ himself takes (if we're really paying attention).

Certainly, Jesus was not a passive non-resistant. In particular I would point to the most important act of his life: his death. If Christ's crucifixion does not represent the ultimate resistance of evil, then I'm not certain what it does represent. And through it he accomplished more than every violent act in human history combined, from the murder of Abel to the people who died in Iraq today. It is a powerful testament to force of a non-violent approach, if not one that many people may feel can be applied to their own lives. Under what circumstance would the results of a violent approach be more positive than the results of a non-violent approach to the same situation.

Gandhi, of course, dropped many pearls of wisdom during his long life, here are a few:

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?"

"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."

"Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was introduced to Gandhi's teachings on non-violence at a time when he had "despaired of the power of love in solving social problems." He immediately began to read everything he could about the man:

As I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency . . . The 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy and the 'love-your-enemies' philosophy' were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

We are all familiar with the results of his efforts. I find it fascinating that principles and ideas explored by abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou helped to yield many of the objectives they worked and hoped for after more than 100 years had passed and their ideas had traveled around the globe, arriving back in America precisely when they were needed. The observation is neither here nor there with respect to what I have to say, but I thought it was worth noting.

Indulge me again with your comments and questions. I am stating a belief that non-violence (but not non-resistance) is not only a defensible and highly effective approach to life, but also an important part of being a Christian. Tell me what you think, that we may all develop our ideas further.

Posted by Jared at October 31, 2006 11:59 PM | TrackBack