An exploration of nonviolence begins in recognizing the longstanding history of it. Today we take a brief look at its practice over time.
Nonviolence can be traced back through literature to the 6th century BC in India, most notably in the writings of Mahavira and the Buddha. In the 5th century BC it is found in China in the writings of Mo Di. Another major expression appears in the 4th century BC in Greece in the writings of Aristophanes and Plato.
In all these writings, the foundational idea is ahimsa– ‘no wounding’–what we today refer to as “doing no harm.” The term ‘nonviolent resistance’ is a newer way to describe this longstanding principle in philosophy and religion to refrain from damaging another through words or deeds. The means advocated for doing no harm have varied over the centuries and also depending on the type of harm being inflicted.
Worth noting in this blog series is that John Wesley made “doing no harm” the first of the General Rules of the United Societies–the precursor to all the denominations which trace their origin to early Methodism. Wesley’s use of “do no harm” was not his invention, but rather the expression of a commitment he saw in his Anglican tradition–itself a child of Roman and Orthodox Christianity, where the same idea can be found.
More recently, Mahatma Gandhi naturally assumed the posture of nonviolence from his Hindu tradition (within which he included Jainism and Buddhism), but he also saw it in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He was particularly influenced by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in general, but particularly in Matthew 5:38-41.
Gandhi’s influence upon Martin Luther King Jr. came through his reading of E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend,’ writing “This is it!” in the margin where Jones was describing Gandhi’s nonviolent principles. King went on later to write his ‘Six Principles’ and ‘Six Steps’, which are still taught at The King Center in Atlanta.
The idea of nonviolent resistance continues to be lived out by people like John Lewis, and by a host of women and men committed to it (e.g. the “Waging Nonviolence” movement: http://www.wagingnonviolence.org). I have also been influenced to explore it through the witness of people like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.
The point today is to show that a commitment to nonviolence is stepping into a stream which has been flowing for thousands of years. It is a legitimate and often effective means of resisting evil and achieving a greater good. And most of all, it is a way to keep the fruit of the Spirit alive in the midst of struggle and suffering.
For Further Reading
Robert Holmes & Barry Gan, ‘Nonviolence in
Theory and Practice,’ 3rd ed (Waveland
Ramin Jahanbegloo, ‘Introduction to
Nonviolence’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
Gene Sharp, ‘Waging Nonviolent Struggle’
(Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005)