Nonviolent Action

The history of the last 100 years has shown the viability of nonviolent action as an alternative to armed conflict in a variety of situations, including

  • Gaining freedom from a foreign power.
  • Liberating oppressed minorities.
  • Overthrowing an authoritarian regime.

Successes include the Gandhi-led campaign of nonviolent resistance that freed India from British rule; the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s; replacement of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s when the Soviet Union no longer offered protection; overthrow of President Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; end of apartheid in South Africa; termination of dictatorships in South America. Many of these cases displayed “people power” through assembling large numbers of people in peaceful gatherings.

But there have also been failures, such as when the Chinese government massacred protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And only partial successes, such as the Arab Spring that occurred in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years.

Methods

There are many ways beyond large rallies to carry out nonviolent activities. In The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973) Gene Sharp identified 198 methods. Broad categories include:

  • protest and persuasion to send a message,
  • social, economic, and political noncooperation, and
  • nonviolent intervention, such as with sit-ins, nonviolent obstruction, overloading the judicial system with mass civil disobedience.

Political noncooperation rests on the idea that because the powers of government are ultimately derived from the governed, the people can bring about change by withdrawing their consent in various ways.

Nonviolent action can occur not only in dealing with oppressive governments but also in responding to invading forces through nonviolent civilian-based defense. Invaders might physically occupy a country, but they cannot ultimately conquer and effectively govern in face of widespread resistance and noncooperation.

We should recognize, though, that nonviolent actions can lead to physical harm, imprisonment, and sometimes death for practitioners. This requires training for participants, discipline, and willingness to suffer for the cause. In religious terms it is a matter of instilling love for enemy and willingness to forgive no matter what happens to you.