Monday, July 11, 2005

On a Quaker in the Pentagon

Quaker Loren Cobb spent years planning war.

An analyst for the US military, Cobb has spent a lot of time thinking about how to achieve peace. His essay speaks of the Quakers' excessive focus on personal pacifism, to the exclusion of combating the psychological (abuse, neglect) and institutional (political and economic) causes of strife. He writes of a personal and philosophical journey from orthodox Quaker pacifism to a more 'nuanced' Gandhian non-violence:

In contrast to the stark black-and-white thinking of Quakers on the subject of nonviolence, Gandhi had a subtle and nuanced approach. "Nonviolence of the strong" was his lifelong theme, and by strength he was thinking of several things: spiritual development, psychological fortitude, and political strength. He was certainly not thinking of military strength, but one can extend his ideas into this area. For example, he wrote, "Man for man, the strength of non-violence is in exact proportion to the ability, not the will, of the non-violent person to inflict violence." This is a remarkable statement for any pacifist to make, and it bears close study. On the surface, he meant that the political impact of nonviolence is greatest when practiced by those who could be very violent if they chose. At a deeper level, I think he believed that any movement which gathers political strength, psychological fortitude, and spiritual development simultaneously develops the ability to act powerfully, in either a violent or nonviolent mode. The essential question is how to tip the balance in favor of the more difficult choice: nonviolence.

For Gandhi, the key to this conundrum was spiritual development. Many times he wrote that when oppressed people lack spiritual development, they may use violence to free themselves. In fact (and surprisingly to me when I first read it), he was scathing in his criticism of passive or subservient nonviolence as a response to oppression, which he found unacceptable at any time. He said, "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent." In Gandhi's view, every person and every nation should use active methods appropriate to their level of spiritual development. He hoped that his beloved India would become the first example of a nation to free itself from a foreign oppressor entirely without violence, drawing upon his spiritual doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolent action. As we know, India did succeed in this sixty-year effort, ridding itself of British colonial rule without warfare...

Pacifism often is chided as idealistic hogwash, and perhaps in its radical form it is. But Gandhi's pragmatic approach emphasizing "potent nonviolence" is not that far from Ronald Reagan's proposition that peace is best promoted by free people occupying a position of strength. Let us each do what we can so that we as a nation continue to develop toward that ideal.


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