Reading, Writing and Reconciliation

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Waging Nonviolence

Reading, Writing and Reconciliation

Violence plagues our lives, our communities, our societies, and our world.  At the same time, a growing movement for nonviolent change is challenging this violence.  This movement is marked by four interlocking trends:

  • The exponential increase in campaigns for nonviolent social change focused on numerous critical issues, including climate change, poverty, human rights violations, warfare, homophobia, racist and sexist policies, and many other forms of structural violence and injustice (as sites like this one help illuminate);
  • The dramatic emergence of new resources and innovative techniques for nonviolent change, including methods for restorative justice; conflict transformation; trauma healing; interpersonal interaction and communication; forgiveness and reconciliation; anti-racism training; and nonviolent intervention, accompaniment, and movement building;
  • New research on and application of the deep foundations and spiritual values of nonviolent change: the transformative power of empathy, forgiveness, compassion, creativity, unity, and the willingness to risk for a more just world; and
  • A slowly emerging shift in worldview.  As peace builder Louise Diamond among many commentators puts it, this is a shift “from a reductionist, mechanistic understanding about how things are in the world that sees everything as separate, to a holistic, integral view that recognizes the interconnectedness of everything in a larger whole.”

Nonviolent change is an ancient reality rooted in many rich sources, especially movements and initiatives of communities of color, poor people, and women who have long histories of nonviolent struggle and have been largely responsible for bringing its power to the fore.  Grounded in this visible and invisible history, a strategic, resourceful, deeply grounded, and interconnected movement for nonviolent change is emerging to challenge the numerous intractable problems confronting our lives and our world.

Peace... PLEASE

This is not to suggest that a utopia free of violence and injustice is coming soon – or ever.  What can be called mainstreaming nonviolent change—or fostering a nonviolent shift—is not about fancifully hoping for a world without conflict.  To mainstream nonviolence is less about creating a perfect world than spreading methods for engaging conflict more effectively—just as mainstreaming “hospitals” or “health care” did not create a world of universal well-being but offered important resources for dealing with illness and promoting well-being.

One of the crucial motors of this potential shift is the growing presence of peace curricula in K-12 education.  Part of the challenge and opportunity of creating a culture that fosters nonviolent options is offering developmentally appropriate learning in conflict resolution and nonviolent struggle.  While this is by no means systematic, comprehensive, or the default in the nation’s schools, there is a growing proliferation of peace education programs, including this one. (Incidentally, to see a series of insightful videos on the power of nonviolence created by a high school class in Los Angeles, click here.

Similarly, colleges and universities are increasingly offering peace studies curricula.  As college students wing their way back to school over the next few weeks, they will find more opportunities than ever to take classes on peace, nonviolence, and restorative justice.  Side by side with chemistry, Spanish, finance, and anthropology, courses on peace are increasingly available on campus.  While some will decide to major in peace studies (where such a full-blown concentration is available), others will take a class in peacemaking or nonviolent people-power out of curiosity, conviction, or the inkling that we have more power than we think to make a difference in our lives and in our world.

When I was a newbie activist back in the early 1980s there were few opportunities to study peacemaking in a concentrated and systematic way.  The school I attended at the time—the Graduate Theological Union—had no courses explicitly devoted to peace, even though most of us were studying religious traditions that, however ambivalently, had a thing or two to say about it.

Those of us who at the time were part of the resurgent anti-nuclear movement and the emergent Central America movement often couldn’t find the grounding we needed at our institutions, so we cobbled together readings, insights, and piecemeal reflections on some of the better known pioneers of nonviolent resistance, principally Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, César Chávez, and a handful of other “nonviolent creatives.”

Luckily, we were able to fill in these scattered explorations with periodic nonviolence trainings offered by organizers as we geared up for public action.  These trainings were the lynchpin of mass demonstrations (such as 1,200 of us engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience protesting nuclear weapons design at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in June, 1982), as well as smaller acts of nonviolent witness.  (While the standard training in those days lasted seven or eight hours, my first nonviolence workshop was a much-shortened sixty-minute “basic training” facilitated by veteran trainer and writer Ched Myers, who prepared a handful of us for a small anti-nuclear action.)

These preparatory sessions were rooted in a lineage of nonviolence training that began with Gandhi’s emphasis on long-term spiritual formation to ready people to face the violence of British troops.  In turn, this impulse flowered dramatically during the US Civil Rights movement with the trainings organized by the Highlander Center and, most systematically, by Rev. James Lawson and others who developed “sophisticated training methods, including extensive use of role-plays to understand the likely actions of opponents and to develop ways to protect people as much as possible,” as Peter Woodrow puts it in Protest, Power and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Suffrage.   Since then, this in-depth approach to nonviolence preparation has been used to train people in many movements in the United States and around the world.

Woodrow highlights three goals of strategic nonviolence training.  First, it seeks to help nonviolence practitioners develop a nonviolent discipline and learn skills for dealing with violent situations.  Second, it seeks to encourage nonviolence practitioners to build unity among themselves.  And third, it seeks to help nonviolence practitioners understand the dynamics of nonviolent struggle and develop strategies for waging nonviolent conflict.

Nonviolent action training filled a gap for those of us who were groping our way to becoming agents of nonviolent change.  At the same time, while it was not often obvious to many of us who were politically active at the time, the discipline of peace studies was beginning to gain traction on college campuses.  While these programs were still not ubiquitous, they were being established at schools across the nation at a greater rate than ever before.

As profiled in the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict and the International Journal of Peace Studies, the early days of peace studies, beginning in the 1930s through the 1960s, focused largely on peace research.  (One of the few exceptions was Manchester College, which in 1948 created the first undergraduate peace studies program in the US.) Beginning in the 1970s, though, a growing wave of peace studies programs were established, often at religiously based liberal arts colleges.  By the end of the decade, over a 100 programs existed, with an increasing diversity of emphases: tackling the problem of war and direct violence, but also increasingly analyzing and challenging structural violence, human rights violations, and injustice.

In the 1980s peace study programs began to proliferate; in the wake of a renewed focus on the nuclear threat with the bellicose posture of the Reagan administration, many of these programs tended to highlight strategic studies, geopolitical arrangements, and international systems of security.  Critics rightly claimed that this defined “peace” too narrowly and excluded economic, cultural, political—but also personal, interpersonal and communitarian—violence and its alternatives.  Since then, peace studies programs have fleshed out a much more comprehensive set of topics, agendas, and approaches, including numerous programs on conflict transformation and dispute mediation.

In the 1990s, peace studies increasingly began to be seen as an academic discipline, with its own research, journals, courses, and programs.  The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and the multiple US wars over the decade since then—have only sharpened the importance of these programs.  Currently over 200 peace studies programs exist.  At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, Michael Nagler took the lead in establishing its Peace and Conflict Studies program.  You can see his introductory course on nonviolence here.

A nonviolent shift depends on many things, including awareness, knowledge, and practice.  Fortunately, the discipline of peace studies—in elementary schools, high schools, institutions of higher education, and in more general nonviolence trainings taking place outside these settings—is playing its part in promoting this historical shift by sharpening our vision and filling our toolbox for cultivating a more just and peaceful world.

Ken Butigan

Ken Butigan is director of Pace e Bene, a nonprofit organization fostering nonviolent change through education, community and action. He also teaches peace studies at DePaul University and Loyola University in Chicago.

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