Nonviolence, An Overview

There are lots of ways to deal with conflict, and I think we will forever be learning new ways to transform it. One thing to consider is nonviolence. Can/does it work? Perhaps. After studying the thoughts and history of King, Gandhi, and Khan in one of my peace studies classes at Naropa University (Nonviolence in and through History) I have some preliminary thoughts. I find myself more and more convinced that nonviolence it a very viable and powerful form of action and resistance, especially for long term goals. Here are some preliminary thoughts on nonviolence and what might be needed for nonviolent action and resistance.

Nonviolence can be viewed as a spectrum from the pacifism, utilized for instance in the early U.S. colonies by the Quakers and other religious groups opposed to violence, to the nonviolence of the strong as exemplified by Mohandas Gandhi, his contemporary Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve organized this as kind of a manual (per se), and focused on nonviolence as advocated by Gandhi, King, and Khan. I have included what seem to me to be some of the fundamentals. This is intended to give a person a peak into some of what is needed for one to engage in a nonviolent movement for social change. Some of the fundamentals of nonviolence are: inner work, a willingness to suffer, discipline, preparation, leadership, self-reliance, and nonviolence in action, speech, and thought. In a word, these fundamentals can be seen as the necessary components of nonviolent action.

Inner work

As actions often originate internally from one’s emotions, learning to relate well to one’s emotions is crucial to nonviolent action. If we do not bring awareness and discipline to our emotions we risk becoming reactionary when anger, hatred, and fear arise. This does not mean that one should suppress or try to eradicate one’s emotions, on the contrary even negative emotions carry tremendous potential energy for change. The awareness that follows from this practice lends to conscious response rather than reactionary response. This is not a simple process, nor is this simply an intellectual exercise. One must learn to feel the emotions of anger, hatred, and fear, but nonetheless be moved to more constructive action than mere retaliation.

Becoming intimately aware of one’s emotions and cultivating the ability to suspend one’s impulsive reactions requires disciplined practice. Additionally this practice requires continuity. This is as true for the experienced practitioner as it is for the novice. Though historically this has been done through the practices of meditation and prayer, the practice of looking inward and becoming intimate with one’s emotions needn’t be reserved for the so-called spiritual and religious persons. Any practice that helps to cultivate concentration and suspension of impulsivity will be helpful to this end. Implicitly and realistically this practice assumes that nonviolent resistance comes with the risk of injury. For this reason one must assume the willingness to undergo suffering.

Willingness to suffer

One of the many difficulties of nonviolence is the violence with which it is met. For this reason, a willingness to suffer beatings, incarceration, and death must be present. This willingness necessarily assumes immense courage. “Nonviolent resistance,” as King emphasized, “is not a method for cowards.” (217, Lynd) In the history of nonviolent social resistance the opponents of nonviolence used violence to intimidate. If one is willing to undergo suffering without retaliation, violence wields no power to intimidate. By suffering willingly, violence is rendered useless. Before engaging in nonviolent action one must ask, as King recommends, “[Am I] able to accept blows without retaliating?” (256, Lynd) Nonviolence calls for each person to cultivate this ability. An additional aim and outcome of suffering is the appeal that this can have to the humanity of the violent actor.


Preparation is essential for nonviolent resistance. This can include recruitment of people willing to act nonviolently, training, gathering knowledge to assess when, where, and by what method it is best to strike, and education of nonviolence theory and history. In the case of the push for swaraj (self-rule) in India as in the case for civil rights in the U.S. the engaged groups began by organizing. Jim Lawson, a figure instrumental to the origination and organization of the protests, which led to the integration of many of Nashville’s public places, “emphasized ‘the necessity of fierce discipline…training …strategizing…planning and recruiting.’” Continuing he states, “[it] can’t happen spontaneously. It has to be done systematically.” (315, Ackerman) As with the sit-ins in Nashville, the actions taken in India by Khan and Gandhi took more than just logistical knowledge. Much of the preparation was to bolster spiritual discipline. Gandhi, along with those who would originally march to Dandi, trained in the Sabarmati ashram to spiritually prepare for the assault that would likely encounter them. Kahn organized his Khudai Khidmatgras (servants of God) around the code of honor already latent within Pathan culture. Those taking part in the resistance took an oath of nonviolence. Appropriate action depends upon the context in which change is sought. This is important so as to rule out extraneous actions that have little or no effect on the context. For instance, during India’s push for independence Gandhi chose salt and textiles as the tools to launch his satyagraha. By marching to the ocean Gandhi rallied the Indian people around their ability to be self-reliant.

In addition to preparing for specific actions, it is beneficial for the nonviolent actor to learn the theory and history of nonviolence. In part this is important as, the nonviolent activist, as Nagler puts it, should never “compromise on…principles but always be flexible with regard to strategies.” (12, Nagler) Though one can never predict the exact outcome of nonviolent resistance it is nevertheless necessary to understand the appropriateness of a particular strategy to affect a specific outcome. Strategy must be dynamic and context appropriate. Through studying the history and theory of nonviolence one has a reference point for their own actions.


The process of change cannot be delegated to others. Nor can an oppressed people simply hope to be relieved of their oppression by the kindness of their oppressor. Taking matters in to one’s own hands is crucial. Self-reliance does two major things: 1. It shows the opponents that the oppressed are no longer solely dependent upon them but rather emphasizes interdependence, and 2. It cultivates an attitude necessary for self-authority and rule, often vacant in the oppressed. The opposite attitude and action is in part what keeps people in a position of subservience to their oppressors. This was the attitude highlighted by Gandhi when he said to his fellow country people, “The British have not taken India; we have given it to them.” (68, Ackerman) The practice of self-reliance however should not be seen as antithetical to the necessary role of leadership, and as such leadership bears mentioning.


Leadership in one of its facets can be seen as a form of self-reliance in so far as a person can be self-authoring or self-ruling. One should always check their beliefs and actions against their own conscience and never simply follow. While on the one hand, to a degree we must all be willing to assume to role of leadership, we must also be willing to accept another as they assume that role within the public sphere. As Gandhi put it, “all are leaders and all are followers.” (494, Ackerman) This is strategically crucial for the functionality of the movement. So, in a sense leadership can be seen in several different forms: 1. Leadership as being executed by a particular person who has the interest of the people in mind and acts accordingly, 2. Leadership as being assumed by others willing to be cast into such a role when previous leadership has been incarcerated, injured, or has died, and 3. Each person must assume, simultaneously within their role of acting as one of many, the fully empowered role of self-ruler. The third facet of leadership I suggest is especially important, as, in order to act with conscience, people must act out of a place of empowerment. The “common” person must not blindly follow, but must, in acting in accord with their conscience and out of the interest of the people, assert their own leadership. In short they must embody what Gandhi called swaraj, that is, not only Indian political and social rule, but also individual rule, assuming that at times some may have a greater disposition for societal leadership than others. Nonviolent action assumes full awareness, hence we must not delegate our ability to act to the elite or the so-called saintly. Nonviolence is not simply a political act, nor is it an act reserved for saints. Nonviolent resistance is the resistance of the people, by the people and for the people.

Nonviolence in actions, speech, and thoughts

Believing that nonviolence is a better way, one must never retaliate, either in action, speech, or thought. In order for nonviolence to be stronger and more pure, one must cultivate respect for their opponent. For this to be done one must never verbally or mentally attack or hate the oppressor. Ultimately the love of nonviolence must extend to the oppressor. Nonviolence is as much about freeing the oppressed as it is about converting the heart of the oppressor. The fruition of peace necessitates a complete humanization of all the actors, both nonviolent and violent. Dehumanizing another person is a violent tool, which segregates one from another. As King put it, “Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his [or her] friendship and understanding.” (217 Lynd) The process of humanization creates bonds, which curtail violence and increase peace. The final aim of nonviolence is not simply to eliminate oppression but to convert the heart of an opponent so that lasting peace can be forged.

Taken together, these fundamentals are some of the crucial components to nonviolent action, whether civil disobedience, non-cooperation, or constructive work. A vow to embody nonviolence cannot be frivolous. Nonviolence requires complete commitment in the face of violent oppression. Inner work, the willingness to suffer, preparation, self-reliance, and the use of nonviolence in speech and thought as well as action must be present in order for true nonviolent action and resistance to take place.

Works cited in this entry

Ackerman, Peter, and Jack DuVall. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent
Conflict. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton, and Alice Lynd. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History.
Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995.

Nagler, Michael N. The Steps of Nonviolence. Nyack, N.Y.: Fellowship Publications,


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