Nonviolence Writ Large

By Nagler, Michael N. | Tikkun, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Nonviolence Writ Large


Nagler, Michael N., Tikkun


Say "nonviolence" today and your hearers are likely to think of protest marches and sit-ins, but nonviolence, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "is not the inanity it has been taken for down the ages." It is a law of nature and can be applied in any relationship or situation, including statecraft. Indeed, Gandhi argued that "it is blasphemy to say that nonviolence can only be practiced by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals."

In North America, an early experiment in nonviolent statecraft began in March 1681, when King Charles II granted William Penn governorship of the vast territory in North America that today bears his name. Penn was a close friend of George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), and the Quaker regime he created remained an island of peace even as traumatic battles between Native Americans and European settlers swept over surrounding territories. Penn's "Holy Experiment" only came to an end about seventy years later - not, please note, because the nonviolent colony could not defend itself but because later generations lost faith in its nonviolent principles. Those principles, along with some ideas borrowed from the Iroquois Confederacy, created a foundation of governance that we would envy today: freedom from racism and intolerance (Penn had himself been imprisoned in London for his Quaker beliefs), restorative justice (Penn reduced the 212 capital crimes under British law to two and made all prisons "work houses" for rehabilitation), democracy (even though the king had granted him absolute power over the colony), and peace. The "Great Law" that Penn established in 1682 did away with war and standing armies. What a contrast to the "statecraft" (or corporate craft?) working its violence today in Ladakh, as Helena Norberg-Hodge poignantly describes on page 34 of this issue of Tikkun.

Though Penn was not aware of it, his was not the world's first experiment in nonviolent statecraft (nor was it the last, as Matt Meyer skillfully shows in his essay on page 31). Around 260 bce, a great king of Northern India, Ashoka Maurya, succeeded in conquering a neighboring kingdom in a huge battle, but was so overwhelmed when he saw the devastation he had caused that he renounced war on the spot. Adopting Buddhism, which seemed at the time a more practical basis for compassionate rule, he actually expanded his reign to almost the whole subcontinent and his peaceful empire lasted until his death in 232 bce. …

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