October 2 is Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday. It has been declared International Day of Non-Violence. One of the most memorable experiences of my life was visiting the Gandhi Memorial in Delhi, India, the site of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on Gandhi, as we continue as a nation to invest in more violence and militarism while supporting a system that encourages the growth of vast social inequalities.
We like to think of Gandhi as a sort of holy man, someone separated from the ugly affairs of the world in prayer or meditation. But we forget that Gandhi was very much a politician. He called himself “a politician trying to be a saint.”
Gandhi very much influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. , whose office prominently displayed a portrait of Gandhi. King visited India after Gandhi’s murder to learn how his methods and principles could apply to our own country also torn apart by prejudice, violence & war, social injustice, and economic inequalities.
He said of Gandhi,“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”
This is one Gandhi quote that always springs to mind whenever I witness Christianity or any religion used to buttress military, imperialism, or violence. What Jesus’ ethic was is debatable, but last time I checked he was found decrying the evils of power, injustice, and the corruption of money and championing those who were left out, on the bottom, and on the fringes. And remember, Gandhi was a big fan of Jesus, or at least some of what the New Testament records as his ethics. It influenced him as he got his start in South Africa.
And ‘large scale’ is key. I remember the film depiction of Gandhi, in his 60’s, embarking on the Salt March toward the sea, to engage in a simple act of non- violent civil disobedience. He picked up salt from the ocean and claimed it as India’s right. The act was illegal. He drew 100,000 fellow Indians of all stripes to the cause. They were jailed or worse.
Or recall the day of non-cooperation by transportation, communications, and factory workers–among many others, including police, teachers, and lawyers–to protest a massacre of Indians by the British and the repressive laws imposed. He called it a day of fasting and prayer. But it was a day of massive non-compliance. The powers that be couldn’t ignore it.
Gandhi said that “Non Co-operation with evil is as much a duty as co-operation with good” and “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt.”
Of course one big difference is that Gandhi was in a struggle against empire (British) from without. King was part of a struggle against an (American) empire of which he was a part.
As are we.
Can you imagine transportation and communication workers in the United States simply refusing to cooperate? There was a glimpse of that last year when the dock workers up and down the West Coast stopped cooperating for a day to protest the Iraq Occupation. Imagine the negotiating position a massively scaled up version of this would create! But all this takes courage and sacrifice. And so far most Americans haven’t shown a desire to really be engaged in their democracy let alone sacrifice in this manner.
Yet we have key advantages in our relatively free society. We can adopt such Gandhian strategies mostly without fear of brutally violent repression (though police forces across the country seem to be adopting increasingly militaristic weapons and strategies).
But we are also free to squander our freedoms. We are free to ogle and idolize celebrities. We are free to have distractions. We are free to be consumers, not citizens.
At least the tea-baggers are engaged.
I may be wrong, but it seems that the majority who believe in nonviolence and a more just, peaceful world and who claim to oppose the militaristic policies of our government, simply don’t show up.
Imagine what we could achieve if just 5% or 10% or even 20% more of the population showed up. Imagine if those that already agree that it is obscene that we are about to approve a $650 billion military budget–as much as the rest of the world’s military budgets combined, not including the trillions of borrowed dollars that are still piling up next to the bodies from Iraq and Afghanistan–while teachers get laid off, homelessness and unemployment rises, and people don’t get the medical care they need, actually show up, get involved, and get their voices heard.
In other words, refuse to cooperate in that evil.
As Gandhi said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”