This chapter in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence discusses the contributions of U.S. author Henry David Thoreau to the nonviolence movement. Jumping to the end of the chapter, Chernus points out that, ironically, while people tend to count Thoreau among the heroes of nonviolence, Thoreau “never actually embraced the principle of nonviolence” (54). He supported violent revolutionary acts such as John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Neither did Thoreau have confidence in the efforts of social justice activists. Thoreau saw social justice activists, at least those working to change policy and institutions, as wasting their time – he thought it was more important to change “individual souls” rather than social institutions: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” (52). He urged reformers to look within themselves and change themselves rather than trying to change others.
Still it seems he recognized that these individuals were the building blocks of society and societal institutions and that “one man expressing his own opinion amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society” (53). What Thoreau found to be of utmost interest and importance was waking each individual to follow their conscience — even when this means breaking unjust laws.
His philosophy of commitment to conscience led to his own short stay (one night) in jail for refusing to pay taxes which supported the U.S. war against Mexico and also a government (the U.S.) that supported slavery. This experience led to his writing his infamous “Civil Disobedience” which in turn influenced Mohandas Gandhi and countless nonviolence activists. This contribution to nonviolence theory is why Thoreau is still exalted as a nonviolence theorist.
Thoreau’s way of thinking moves beyond the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that any government was better than no government. Hobbes believed that because people were innately selfish and brutish, that we must transfer our right to self-rule (and even violence) to the state. Hobbes believed the government is a necessary evil. To Hobbes, there is no such thing as an unjust law because right and wrong is determined by the law.
Thoreau on the other hand, sees justice as our primary loyalty, not laws. He foresaw a day when this adherence to conscience by masses of individuals would lead to the obsolescence of the state — what Thoreau called a “glorious State.” Rather than looking to the state for guidance and punishment, each would look to themselves and their own good conscience for what is morally right. The state would wither and become unnecessary. Chernus calls this Thoreau’s “political ideal” of “enlightened anarchy” (51).
Chernus, Ira. 2004. “Henry David Thoreau.” 45-55 in American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
A new movie about Cesar Chavez premiers March 28. Cesar was ahead of his time, but the time is now! Like Cesar, we can all stand up for those ignored and abused by a system bent on profit over conscience. He spoke out for poor working people, farmed animals, and our struggling planet. And he was one of the very first to show us that by simply living our lives consistently following our shared values of kindness, justice, and compassion (by consuming consciously), we can build a fair society. It’s in our hands.
Nonviolence United explains Nonviolence as connection; whereas violence is disconnection. This is fundamental to what is taught by the heroes of Nonviolence.
Mohandas Gandhi taught a continual search for the truth – to connect while eliminating disconnection (lies — even lies we tell ourselves, propaganda, personal disconnection of choices and their effects).
Cesar Chavez taught us that when we buy consciously and live our lives consistently with our values we can build a fair society – connection of our choices and their effects can build a society reflective of those values; disconnection builds a schizophrenic society that doesn’t reflect, respect or uphold our values.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us of “interbeing”- that everyone and everything is connected; how even a piece of paper holds the soil, the tree, the sky, the clouds and the rain that gave birth to it.
And Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us of how the disconnection from how we waste our resources on hate, militarism and materialism rather than on uplifting humanity is limiting our true potential.
You’ll also hear from the masters of Nonviolence their call for love. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “Love is the essence (the core, the heart) of Nonviolence.” But what is love? How can we love our enemies when they cause us so much pain?
Love in the tradition of Nonviolence doesn’t mean acceptance of an opponent. It doesn’t even mean you have to like your opponent. Love means connecting to the potential of your opponent. Love means seeing yourself in your opponent.
Imagine yourself as your opponent. We each may remember a time when we were not who we are now. We believed different things; we acted in different ways. If you sat down and had a conversation with your past self about issues now important to you, you might not even like that person. If your past self was in front of you today, you might even see that person as an opponent.
But what if you hate or dismiss or even hurt your past self? Would that person have had the opportunity to reach their potential? How might you help them along the path? Think of how much more powerful it would be to recognize the potential for good in your opponent, to foster their potential, and to offer a hand in their reaching that potential. That is love.
Our sentiments exactly. People are catching on. Watch and listen to the clarity of Russell Brand and the absolute confusion of the interviewer who can’t seem to think outside the box in which he’s been placed. We’ve all been placed there and there are rote social institutions to make sure we stay inside that box. Voting is one of the primary issues addressed here. Russell brilliantly (in our humble opinion) explains that voting is a way to keep us passive — we vote and then say “Hooray, *now* my interests are finally being represented… I’ll go back to what I was doing” or “Oh well, maybe next time… I’ll go back to what I was doing.” Or “Well, I voted for the lesser evil, that’s the best I could do… I’ll go back to what I was doing.” Russell hopes that there are options, that there are better ways of doing things. At Nonviolence United, we *know* there are options; we *know* there are better ways of doing things. It all begins with the choices you make every day. Every one of your consumer choices helped build the world we live in today and every choice, from this moment forward will help build the world of tomorrow. Live your values, change the world.
If you haven’t yet taken the time to learn more about or listen to the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, this short interview excerpt offers a perfect opportunity. I found it a most helpful refresher course in the art of compassion.
March 31 marks the birthday of Cesar Chavez, one of the all-time heroes of Nonviolence. Cesar understood the interconnection between human rights, environmental stewardship, and animal protection. He taught us how our consumer choices affect the world around us. And he truly “walked the talk” — making consumer choices connected to his values of kindness, justice, and compassion for other people, for the planet, and for all animals. Ahead of his time? Or, maybe, just in time.
We thought it might be helpful for those of you interested in practicing and advancing Active Nonviolence to offer a synopsis of what, strangely and sadly, is a rare find — a book looking deeply into Cesar Chavez’ genius in understanding and using Nonviolence.
This is not a book “review” but rather a short synopsis for those who can’t find time to read further. For those who can make the time, we highly recommend it.
Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence Orosco, Jose-Antonio. 2008.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Orosco points out that the contributions of Cesar Chavez to Nonviolence theory have been largely ignored or overlooked (as in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence) or have been kept in the shadow of the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adaptations of the Nonviolent strategies of Mohandas Gandhi. With Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence, Orosco places the spotlight on the unique aspects of Chavez’ contributions and the important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other Nonviolence theorists.
Orosco reminds us that Cesar Chavez (who only attended school through the eighth grade) tends not to be recognized in academic circles as an “intellectual” as are Gandhi, King, Richard Gregg, and Gene Sharp, but that this is an unfortunate oversight. He calls Chavez a “community intellectual” – someone who may not come from the world of academia, but nonetheless contributes to an important body of knowledge. Chavez’ knowledge instead comes from real-world experience and on-the-ground testing of his theories. But Chavez was also an accomplished speaker and speech writer. Most of Orosco’s claims of Chavez’ beliefs and strategies come from recorded and written speeches of Chavez during his activism spanning across four decades.
Orosco breaks the primary points of Chavez’ theory of Nonviolence into five distinct chapters:
Chapter one explains Chavez’ strategies for recruiting and activism. He drew from his experiences in the Latino/a culture to create a three-fold strategy that included pilgrimage (as in marching and suffering together to create a community of activists), penitence (evoking Christian beliefs of penitence and his own stress on the importance of reflection on motivations to make them unselfish), and revolution (while Orosco admits Chavez was a reformist working through political channels, he shows that Chavez’ long-term goal was nothing short of transforming the U.S. culture to one of compassion and cooperation).
Chapter two includes a strong and effective rebuttal to claims by some academics (specifically Ward Churchill) and activist theorists (specifically Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon) that Nonviolence bows to the state and remains impotent by ignoring violent means as potentially effective in creating social change. Orosco shows how Chavez claims that that type of thinking is limited in its creativity, ignores the true nature of power (as proposed by Gene Sharp and by Hannah Arendt), and is ultimately reverted to because of an inability to lead people (34). Regarding the nature of power, Chavez makes an interesting point about government in this chapter saying that the type of government really doesn’t matter – the will of the people is where power lies.
Chapter three included Chavez’ reasoning behind the fruitlessness (and dangers) of property destruction, mostly because it contradicts the end goal of Chavez – a just society.
Chapter four speaks to the claims that machismo equals violence. Chavez says that just the opposite is true – that giving one’s life to others is more powerful than taking lives. He supports feminist theory and the idea that power and the means for maintaining power should be available to all not just those with physical or political might. Orosco reminds us of the important roles of influential women in the lives of not only Chavez, but of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King.
Finally, chapter five contrasts the use of time by King and Chavez. King used “crisis time” to evoke change and to motivate activists, the public, and politicians. Chavez resisted this tactic and instead set his strategy on moving toward a new social paradigm of collaboration. This required everyday citizens to maintain a “daily commitment” to Nonviolence and to the strategies that would lead toward a more just society – not simply a crisis-motivated piece of legislation. Orosco reminds us that King moved toward this strategic use of time and moral commitment after 1966 when he began to focus on the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign.
The presidential election is being held today in the U.S. Every 4 years voters pour their hearts and souls into one politician. They spend countless hours telling the world why their candidate is the best. Sometimes it’s a vote just to make sure the other candidate doesn’t get into office. Still it’s a vote. We wave our signs, tweet, and post to “get out and vote” because “every vote matters.”
So, which is it? Does your vote matter or doesn’t it. Are you hoping your vote today will somehow relieve you of your civic responsibility to vote every day?
Many people who are convinced that their vote every 4 years matters then go on to vote against their own values every day. They stand for environmental protection, kindness to animals, and human rights then go on to purchase chemical-laden foods, animal products, and items made using slave labor. They demand a stop to oil exploration, nuclear power, and “mountain top removal” for coal, yet they flip a switch at home or hop into their gas-powered cars or jet around the world as if their vote doesn’t doesn’t really matter.
Every Dollar Is A Vote!
Each of our choices in the past built the world we live in today. And each of our choices from this moment forward will build the world of tomorrow.
Our individual choices are VOTES! You are voting for and actively building the future… with each and every choice, and especially with each and every purchase. In the U.S. where the government and politicians are owned by corporations, your vote was cast long ago. There’s a reason why a corporate-owned warmonger will win the election — we put the candidates in place. We are then purposefully distracted by the idea that we now have a “choice” between candidates. Your choice was made long ago.
Your consumer choices act as the conscience of business. Businesses have grown so disconnected that they often only respond to money, not to moral principles. They no longer hear our pleas for kindness and ethics. If profits increase even though a company is spewing toxic fumes, enslaving people, or hurting animals, the company “believes” it is doing something right.
It’s not that these businesses are bad; they don’t know right from wrong — they are simply growing in the direction of YOUR votes. If your values and words which plead for humanity are drowned out by the clamor of your coins, you‘re saying to unthinking businesses, “Yes, keep doing what you’re doing… and do it in my name!”
In a corporatocracy (an economic and political system controlled by corporations or corporate interests), we must realize that government “representatives” represent the interests of their puppeteers *not* of the people. BUT, the people (each of us!) are the ones putting the puppeteers into place. We have control over our individual choices; our choices determine how the world runs, what forests get cut down, who lives and who dies. You have that kind of power. It’s an enormous responsibility, we know. But you’re already making those choices, you just might not be thinking that your vote matters.
Every dollar you spend or choose not to spend is a vote. You voted yesterday. You’ll vote today — maybe hundreds of times. Will you vote for a world that respects human rights, protects the environment, and has compassion for animals? Or will you make choices that build a world you really don’t believe in?
You help build a world reflective of our shared values of justice, kindness, and compassion only when your everyday choices are aligned with those values.