Last week, fifty of us walked more than sixty five miles, from Thomas Merton's hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani to downtown
Louisville, Kentucky. There on Monday, September 11th we held a rally at the corner of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, where nearly fifty years ago, Merton realized he loved everyone and decided to spend the rest of his life engaging the woes and tumult of the world.
So while many commemorated the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center,
we also celebrated the 100th anniversary of Gandhi's satyagraha campaign in South
Africa. It began with Gandhi's speech to a crowd, a speech that inspired
some 3,000 oppressed Indians to profess a vow of nonviolence to resist
racist laws: "The government has taken leave of all sense of decency,"
“Those who take the pledge [of nonviolent resistance] must be prepared for
the worst. Imagine that all of us present here numbering three thousand take
the pledge. We might have to go to jail. We might be insulted. We might have
to go hungry and suffer extreme heat or cold. Hard labor might be imposed on
us. We might be flogged. We might be fined and our property might be help up
to auction. We might be reduced to abject poverty. We might be deported.
Suffering from starvation and similar hardships in jail, some of us might
fall ill and even die.
"But if the entire community humanly stands the tests," he famously
concluded, "the end will be near. I can boldly declare, and with certainty,
that so long as there is even a handful of people true to their pledge,
there can only be one end to the struggle, and that is victory."
A turning point in history. To mark it, some five hundred of us gathered in
Louisville and professed our own vow of nonviolence.
I myself had professed such a vow when I entered the Jesuits in
1982. I was preparing for the typical vows of Catholic religious life, when
I read that Gandhi had professed sixteen vows, including vows of
fearlessness, truth-telling, and respect for all religions. A few friends and I
decided to prepare a vow of nonviolence, too, and we spent two years
experimenting with it in our personal lives.
I still study the life of Mahatma Gandhi, as did Merton, for clues about
peacemaking. Last year I traveled to India with Gandhi's grandson Arun to
see where Gandhi lived and died and to witness how his work continues. I
spent years reading all 98 volumes of Gandhi's collected works, as well as
25 biographies, for my book, “Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings.” In all his
words, one theme persisted. Whatever crisis or catastrophe presented itself,
Gandhi offered the same answer: steadfast, persistent, dedicated, committed,
relentless, truthful, prayerful, loving, active, creative nonviolence.
For Gandhi, nonviolence surpasses the refusal to hurt or kill: nonviolence
is active love, a force for social uplift. Indeed, he insisted, nonviolence
is the most active and powerful force in the world. Since he saw it as the
force of God, the method of God, the power of God at work for good, he
concluded that nonviolence is more powerful than all nuclear weapons combined. If
millions of Americans would practice it, would peacefully and actively
resist war, disarmament would be assured.
Nonviolence always works, he said, because it uses the method of suffering
love to melt the human heart. He taught that if we can harness its power,
nonviolence becomes contagious and wars end, injustices cease and nations disarm.
He observed that all religions are rooted in nonviolence and he asserted
that God is a God of peace. He taught we should pursue truth passionately;
that non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with
good; and that if we want peace, we must resist war. He taught, as well, that
we should have nothing to do with power, that we should renounce the fruit
of our action and do good because it's good and leave the outcome to God.
And more, that the struggle for peace requires measure for measure the same
risk and sacrifice of war.
But like Jesus, Gandhi went further. He came to the conclusion of the
cross--which is to say, social change derives from our willingness to suffer
for the sake of justice and peace.
"Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering,” he wrote. “It does not mean meek submission to the evildoer, but means the pitting of one's whole would against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save honor, religion, soul and lay the foundation for that empire's fall or regeneration."
In his commitment to faith-based nonviolence, Gandhi spent one hour in
prayer every morning, usually around three a.m., and another in the afternoon
around five p.m.. Over the course of twenty years, so he could maintain his
peaceful center, he remained silent every Monday.
"We all have to adopt nonviolence," Gandhi said after the U.S. dropped the
atom bomb in Hiroshima, shortly before his death, "or we are doomed." Yet he
remained hopeful. He also said, "We are constantly being astonished these
days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence, but I maintain
that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made
in the field of nonviolence. "
As the crowds gathered with Gandhi a hundred years ago, our group gathered
where Thomas Merton once stood and professed a vow of nonviolence. We were
exhausted from the walk, but exhilarated by the spirit of peace. We pledged
to be nonviolent in every aspect of our lives, and like Gandhi, pursue new
discoveries in the field of nonviolence, including the abolition of war
itself. It was one of the greatest moments of our lives.
John Dear is a Jesuit priest and peace activist. His latest book, “You Will Be My Witnesses,“ along with, "Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings," are available from Orbis Books. He writes a weekly column for "The National Catholic Reporter" at: www.ncrcafe.org. For further information, see: www.johndear.org