Monday, November 03, 2008


We just watched the movie "Gandhi" last night. I was not of a movie-viewing age when it came out in 1982, and although I think I saw portions of it in high school I never watched the whole thing. It's LONG, though! We watched about an hour of it on Saturday night (then hung out with some friends), then watched about a full-length movie's worth of it last night. It is excellent, though, and I learned stuff about Gandhi I didn't know before (although, of course, it's the Hollywood version, so although I assume they didn't add too much that wasn't there, I don't trust it completely).

A couple things struck me (well, more than that, but I'll comment on a couple or three here). One: he said that he and his followers were in control of the situation, because they were on the side of truth and justice, and eventually people would recognize that and have to give in to their demands for human rights. It might take a while, but he was certain it would happen eventually. He also wanted to do things in a way that once Great Britain turned over rule to India, they would still remain on friendly terms. I think this is so great. I mean, do we expect Iraq to be on friendly terms with us after we finally leave their country? Well, yes--we do expect this. But it's not a realistic expectation. They know we are only there for selfish gain at this point: we are only there to try to set up a government that will be friendly to us, and to save face so it looks like we didn't lose a war. These are two good reasons for Iraqis to continue not cooperating with the US army. But to fight for freedom nonviolently reminds us all of our humanity--and our inhumanity. Hopefully when we fight nonviolently we make people aware of injustice, and hopefully most people then choose to change their ways and act justly. In this way, we create bonds of truth and justice between us rather than creating more violence and hatred.

Another thing: what can we do like this today? I know it works much better when someone who is part of the situation can rise up and be a leader. How do we find and encourage leaders like that in groups that are having similar struggles? Can one make oneself into such a leader, or is it just a special kind of person who has this kind of presence that makes people love him (or her)? I love the work of CPT, and they intentionally try to work with grassroots movements and to encourage nonviolent action that is already happening. They teach people nonviolent strategies. But they cannot fix the problems because they're outsiders. Outsiders played a significant role in Gandhi's work, witnessing and reporting what was going on as well as taking part in actions. But they couldn't have led the movement, and I think Gandhi was right in sending his British priest friend away so they could prove Indians could do the work themselves. But where does that leave us? If we're not part of a group that is being systematically persecuted, how can we help?

One more thing: there were major setbacks and "battles" (if you can call one-sided violence a battle) where people got hurt and died. Once there was a peaceful gathering for people to hear Gandhi speak. People had been warned against assembling together and the British army opened fire on a crowd of thousands of men, women and children. There was no escape because they were in an enclosed area. Over 1,000 people were killed.

The thing that got Great Britain to finally concede defeat was when Gandhi organized his people to nonviolently enter the British salt factory. Soldiers were there to prohibit their entry (these were indigenous soldiers, if the movie can be trusted). The soldiers blocked the gate, 6 men wide. When Gandhi's followers approached the gate they were beaten, six at a time, and their bodies dragged out of the way by the women. This went on and on. Hundreds or thousands of weaponless men were brutally beaten for trying to enter a factory. This kind of inhumane treatment forced Great Britain to recognize their unjust dealings with the Indian people, because it got press all over the world and because it was just so starkly obvious. Perhaps a less "civilized" nation than Great Britain would have continued persecuting Gandhi's followers for longer, but eventually I think they would have had to give up.

Then there were Gandhi's hunger strikes. He had to do these because of the refusal of many of his followers to use nonviolent means at all times. He refused to eat for weeks until he was so close to death that all his followers of different factions came together and pledged to use nonviolence so that he would not die. First of all, this takes an extraordinary person: if I decided to go on a hunger strike until my country took all American weapons out of Iraq or something, I would die because no one would care. But he had such power in just his person--power not based on hierarchy or control or tradition, but on the truth for which all knew he stood--that people were willing to lay down their weapons to save his life. How do we encourage and embody that kind of power? He not only practiced nonviolent action on the British, but on his own followers, to help them see justice and truth and live by it. But the fact that he had to do these hunger strikes shows us something important about such movements: they're going to run into internal problems as well as external, and just because one gets rid of the external enemy doesn't mean all enemies are gone.

It seems like right now, it's easy for us American peace church members to talk about peace and to do a few active things for peace, but we're not willing to really give our all for it. (I include myself here!) We're practical: what good does it get for us to be beat up or killed? Can't we do much more good if we're alive and well?

In some ways this is true, but in other ways, how else do we expect to get our point across? Here is where a criticism of nonviolence comes in: some say nonviolent actions depend on violence just as much as violent action. They depend on their antagonists resisting them violently, so in some ways they provoke violence. This is not completely true, because obviously if people would recognize their unjust ways and react by changing laws and practices to reflect true justice, there would be no need for violence. Unfortunately, this doesn't usually happen so easily. In order for people to be unable to delude themselves any longer into believing in their own moral high ground, they have to be given indisputable proof of the injustice of their policies. This happens generally through violence happening against those who most obviously do not deserve it, e.g. unarmed civilians who intentionally get in the way of injustice.

In order for this to happen we have to really be willing to commit ourselves and our loved ones to fighting nonviolently in ways that are effective. Some people will be hurt. Some people will be killed. But in the end, we're creating a better world for our children and our enemies' children to live in. So how do we get ourselves to be willing to take this step?

In the army, one has a weapon in one's hands at all times so the risk of death seems much less great. This is how armies convince people to join up. We have the same standpoint as armies in terms of being part of something greater, holding to our values and fighting for those, but we have no "guarantee" of safety. Of course, neither do soldiers. And in fact, who is one more willing to kill generally--the enemy soldier or the civilian doing what they think is right? So one could argue that it is less likely that one would die as a nonviolent activist. But it's still scary, and in some ways counterintuitive, and takes a lot of personal responsibility. It's easy for people to think, "Yeah, that's a good idea," about an army of violent or nonviolent conflict resolvers when it's an abstract concept--when one's own person and own children aren't involved. But when it requires commitment of one's own life or the life of one's children, it is much harder to get on board. And yet, as peace churches, this is what we say we believe.

Do we only believe it in the abstract sense, or are we willing to, en mass, take on the responsibility personally and work for justice through love in truly effective ways?


Barry Clemson said...


Very thoughtful, very wise! Many of us have gone thru just the struggle you describe so well.

I believe that we become more committed one of two ways: One way is that our conscience is shocked, e.g., in 1963 I was stunned and outraged when I discovered for the first time the veritable hell that black people were enduring in the South for trying to vote. I was so outraged there was no room for worry about danger. I just went to help...

The other way is by small steps, usually by studying Jesus or Gandhi or Daniel Berrigan or John Dear or someone like them. Again, in my case, while I went to Mississippi to use nonviolence against Jim Crow, i had in no sense gotten rid of the violence in myself. That has been a continuing struggle that goes on via these small steps even today.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Daddy Hardup said...

This film has often been criticised for being naive and uncritical, too much of a hagiography.

But it certainly brought Gandhi's life and message to a wide audience that needed to hear it, at a time when Cold War nuclear rearmament was at full tilt. Britain had just been to war and defeated Argentina in the South Atlantic, and nostalgia for empire was all the rage in British TV and cinema. The depiction (by a British director) of the massacre by British soldiers at Amritsar was a much needed counterblast to all this.

I went to see the film with a fellow cynical teenager, and we were moved and impressed. Later, much later, I read the Louis Fischer biography on which it's based.

Gandhi is a very challenging figure for Christians. He exemplified Christlike meekness, forgiveness and love of enemies, which certainly helped him to appeal to people of conscience in Britain and other 'Christian' countries.

Yet he remained firmly Hindu, and criticised Christians for their materialism, violence and easy assumptions of superiority over other religions and cultures.

Anonymous said...

In preparing for the John Woolman Memorial lecture many years ago, I was led to title the talk "The Legacy of Woolman, Gandhi, and King." I was and am powerfully influenced by the lives of Gandhi and King. However, I was able to identify more with Woolman. Partially, I suppose, this was because of his being a Friend, but what I found was that Woolman presented a much more "realistic" model, at least for me. One aspect was the tendency for Woolman to address individuals and small groups in a personal manner rather than as a "leader of a movement." His witness was so consistent and evident that others "listened" to him, even though it took some time for even Friends to take the actions he was led to propose. One other major aspect of Woolman's life, as described in his Journal, that spoke volumes to me. I had not realized until I carefully read and analyzed his journal that the time he spent "on the road" was actually relatively short compared to the time he spent "at home." This even included travel time, which was extended since he travelled a good deal by foot refusing to provide a reason for slaves needing to take care of his horse. If we look at the time he spent at home with his family, orchard, school, etc., we find this was where he spent most of his time reenergizing himself and his family.

When I examined the lives of individuals like Jesus, Fox, Gandhi, and King, I found such a gap between what I could envision my being able to do that I was led almost to despair at times. When I examined the life of Woolman, I found my self feeling very inadequate, but somehow his need for "retreat" to family and friends allowed me to strive harder towards a more achievable life style.

This has in some ways given me "comfort" from despair, but at the same time encouraged me to achieve more than I thought I could.

It has also strengthened my belief that "Christ has come to teach his people himself." We are individuals that are taught, learn and respond in different ways, and the strength and power that comes with "that of God in everyone" can be overwhelming in some lives. However, the "still, small voice" that spoke "through the earthquake, wind, and fire" to the prophets can speak through my life, even if I fall far short of what I could, and often should, do. "That which I would not do, I do, and that which I would do, I do not do."

None the less, I feel I must continue to do what I can do, regardless how small or feeble, to respond to the Word/Light/Spirit which has shown so brightly in others, regardless of the name given to I AM. I can only trust that others can respond, not to me or my efforts, but to the Word/Light/Spirit that I so feebly try to represent.

Tom Smith