The Search For A Nonviolent Future

A Book Review by Mac Lawrence

December 2, 2002


"Every bullet finds its target in a mother's heart."
--Russian Proverb

I had lunch the other day with a friend. When I mentioned Michael Nagler's book, Is There No Other Way? he dismissed nonviolence as a wimpy, impractical, unworkable idea. It's a view that's shared by many, many people. Hopefully, Nagler's book will help change some minds.

As one reviewer, author Bill McKibben, notes: "Nonviolence often seems the tactic of the naïve idealist. As Michael Nagler shows, it may really be the strategy of the shrewd and practical among us, who have to figure out some better way than the carnage of the last century for dealing with our problems. This is a vital book for us as individuals, as communities and nations, maybe even as a species."

One of Nagler's main points is that the concept of nonviolence is often misunderstood. Even Gandhi, whom Nagler uses as an example throughout the book, found it hard to get the idea across to people, including his own followers.

Nagler notes that the word "nonviolence" gives the impression of passive resistance or weakness. It is just the opposite. Nonviolence, he says, is the use of inner, moral power against physical force. It is action without hate, with a respect for diversity, with respect for the "enemy," with compassion, and above all, with uncommon courage-a willingness to absorb punishment or even death in the face of the violence. He quotes Gandhi: "Nonviolence that merely offers civil resistance to the authorities and goes no farther scarcely deserves the name."

Nonviolence is really where the power is, claimed Gandhi. "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by fear of punishment, and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment."

One of the many examples of the power of nonviolence in Nagler's book is the march for voter's rights in Birmingham in 1964. The marchers, converging on the City Hall, were blocked by a solid line of police and firemen. The marchers were ordered to disperse. When they continued to advance, police commissioner Bull Connor shouted "Turn on the water!" But the fireman refused Connor's repeated orders and the marchers went through the line. Nagler's comment: "Political power, we hear, grows out of the barrel of a gun; but in this case the police had all the guns, while the marchers, it would seem, had all the power."

Nonviolence works, Nagler observes, because there is a deep place in every one of us which seeks peace and harmony. It is our natural condition. Even the most violent people often can be reached at a deeper level in the face of nonviolence.

Nagler admits there is no assurance that the use of nonviolence in any situation will immediately resolve that situation, though he cites dozens of examples where it does. But he adds the following assurances: Any use of nonviolence adds to the possibilities of peace; any use of violence reduces the possibilities of peace. Nonviolence is integrative; violence is disintegrative. Anything we do to reduce violence anywhere will do something to reduce violence everywhere.

Nagler emphasizes that it takes training to develop nonviolent responses, noting: "There is nothing unrealistic about the tension between compassion and savagery in the same person, because that is the condition in which we find ourselves. [But] when someone opposite you is upset," he says, "you don't have to be."

Nonviolence not only takes training, Nagler says, but it must become a way of life. This way of life "begins in inner struggle -- specifically, the struggle to keep negative forces such as anger, fear, and greed from having sway over us. It's a struggle that has immense spiritual benefits for the individual and leads to an exhilarating sense of purpose that is very often lacking in modern life."

Gandhi exemplified this struggle and its reward, says Nagler, and he quotes Gandhi: "It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance, but I succeed on almost all occasions to keep my feelings under control. Whatever may be the result, there is always in me conscious struggle for following the law of nonviolence deliberately and ceaselessly. Such a struggle leaves one stronger for it. The more I work at this law, the more I feel the delight in my life, the delight in the scheme of the universe. It gives me a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of the universe that I have no power to describe."

One of the keys for Nagler to achieve the condition of nonviolence is meditation. "'Meditation' may be the only word in the English language with a less-agreed upon meaning than 'nonviolence'; and that may not be a coincidence." To Nagler, meditation is "getting the mind under control. This one-pointed attention is the psychological key to nonviolence." The Dalai Lama refers to meditation as "internal disarmament" which Nagler says "enables us to intervene right where violence starts, at the very roots of hostile thoughts."

Nagler devotes several chapters to the causes of violence and why it is so prevalent today. He points to two causes -- hate and a lack of meaning in life, both of which are fed today by the violence that permeates the media, an educational system which prepares youth for jobs but not for life, the use of words like "target" and "kill" that creep into everyday language, and even scientific reductionism. He has particularly harsh words for the criminal justice system, backing his arguments with the comments of such experts as Ruth Morris, author of the landmark book Penal Abolition, who characterizes our system as "an expensive, unjust, and immoral failure."

How we see life, Nagler says, and how we relate to others (including the environment) are influenced, even determined, by the culture we grow up in. Experiments show that aggression and violent behavior can be taught, he notes, but nonviolent behavior can also be taught. The media plays an important role in the increase in violence by trivializing it. Young people often commit violence without realizing that the results of their actions are real, in contrast to the virtual violence they see on TV, video games, and in the movies.

The structure of the book moves from the individual attaining nonviolence, to the community, to a discussion of peace in the world (which he defines as "not just the absence of war"). Nagler reviews the historical episodes where nonviolence prevailed, noting that in each case it was due to a single person who understood the need for nonviolence and its power.

One of the stories he uses is that of Badshah Khan. A Pashtun Muslim leader, Badshah Khan, inspired by Gandhi's nonviolent campaign for freedom from British colonialism, persuaded tens of thousands of his fellow tribesmen in Afghanistan and parts of neighboring Pakistan to embrace Gandhi's vision. Khan's nonviolent army, called the "Servants of God," swelled to 80,000 volunteers. The British did everything they could to destroy the "Red Shirts" and to provoke them to violence, but to no avail. For a decade and a half, Badshah Khan and his nonviolent Red Shirts played a key role in achieving independence in the region. "Individuals are the ones, not groups," notes Nagler. "For 'soul-force' you need souls."

Will we ever achieve a truly peaceful world? Though Nagler does not lay out a specific plan, he makes clear that there has to be a third alternative to the dilemma we face, which was so clearly stated in the words of a teenager whom Nagler quotes: "Either I don't give in to my rage, which means going crazy...or I give in to it, which means I go to jail." In hailing nonviolence as the third way to respond, Nagler admits: "In the real world, violence does, at least sometimes to be sure, achieve its immediate purpose." But "there's trouble somewhere down the road." One unfortunate outcome of violence is: "Whenever we prepare minds for war we unprepare them for life...a severe hidden cost of the war system -- and, by extension, of all violence.

"Violence is keyed to the lowest image of the human being. Nonviolence is keyed to the most exalted. This is one of the reasons violence drives us apart, while nonviolence appeals directly to the a sense of meaning, while a life of violence confers at best fleeting and shallow satisfactions."

Nagler concludes: A society run by violence "loses vitality, their focus blurs, their priorities start to drift as people lose their sense of what it is they are supposed to do....We need new ideas and fresh energy to break out of the closed circle of discourse surrounding violence....Nonviolence is that kind of energy."


Michael N. Nagler, Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future; Berkeley Hills Books, Berkeley, CA. 2001. $15.00.

Michael N. Nagler is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the founder and chairperson of the University's Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and currently teaches courses in nonviolence and meditation. Nagler is the author of America Without Violence, and coauthor of an English edition of The Upanishads.

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Mac Lawrence is an author and editor for the magazine Timeline, where this review was first published, and contributes from time to time to Swans.

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Published December 2, 2002
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