Nonviolence: A Brief History

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:  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
          Press, 2011)
     Ramin Jahanbegloo, ‘Introduction to
          Nonviolence’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
     Gene Sharp, ‘Waging Nonviolent Struggle’
          (Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005)

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Nonviolence: A Brief History

  1. Thomas Samuel says:

    Hi Dr. Harper,
    Thank you for sharing this excellent article on the history of nonviolence ( “Ahimsa”) principle , it’s origin in the citadels of major world religions and through the teachings of Jesus from the” Sermon on the Mount”. It is very significant that you alluded to the thread and connection of those nonviolent principles that captured the hearts and lives of three great men of diverse cultural, religious and national backgrounds of the 20th century. How nice It was to,witness their role in bringing about the Independence and liberation from the enslaving forces that subjugated and treated other people as sub human beings in two continents in the last century, both in India and here in the USA. India wone it’s Independence from the British rule in 1947 and the people of African descendants received their civil rights restored in the USA in the late 1960’s. Thanks to Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr who lived out and practiced those Principles of nonviolence that brought about the changes. We Methodists can be so proud of Dr. E Stanley Jones, that great Methodist Missionary Statesman whom you mentioned and whose friendship, dialogue and personal Interaction that played a part in Mr. Gandhi embracing all of the Beatitudes as the guiding principles of his life and especially advocating Ahimsa ( non- violence) as his lifestyle. You wrote how ESJ and his writings on Ghandi influenced King and the nonviolent principles he embraced. I think ,that the 21st century Methodists could use a course on ESJ and his influence on the two great world leaders, Ghandi and King. But ESJ would never take credit for himself, and he would emphatically state that it is Christ and Christ alone who,deserves the credit for his life and actions as a great Missionary,Statesman of the 20th Century.
    It is quite ironic that the three persons; Jesus, Gandhi and King who,espoused Ahimsa, the nonviolence lifestyle ultimately suffered brutal and violent deaths by the hands of those who,perpetrated hatred, violence and evil.
    I am struggling with the question of how we can live out the principles of Peace and nonviolence in today’s world filled with Human atrocities, killings, violence and terrorism ( ISIS, Syria, Iraque, Afganistan, our streets and neighborhoods) as a follower and disciple of Christ when the first instinct is to strike back , retaliate and bring about retribution.
    Tom Samuel.

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