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Lessons from Gandhi still ring true today

As an undergrad at Whitman College I wrote my thesis in 1964 on the Indian independence movement of 1947. I read extensively about Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India through this turbulent year.

As a consequence I was very anxious to hear Arun Gandhi speak at Pacific University last Thursday about his famous grandfather. One of his main points was that violence takes two forms: passive violence and active violence.

Passive violence happens when we do things in everyday life that degrade nature, such as wasting resources of the Earth. Active violence occurs when we react against someone who we feel has hurt or is a threat to us.

In the former case, many things we do in everyday life are destructive to nature and to those who are harmed as a result of such waste. Active violence can be in the form of psychological or physical harm to others.

Arun Gandhi kept coming back to his point that how we react to a sense of injustice or injury is a matter of choices we make, not the result of a presumed inherent violence within human nature.

We often confuse conflict with violence on either the psychological or physical level. Conflict is a natural phenomenon of life. It’s part of the human condition.  Facing conflict can make us grow stronger; it can also diminish us.

Do we deny it, do we submit to it or do we confront it on the interpersonal or social level? If we embrace conflict as natural but take a stand against those forms of conflict that diminish us or others, then we can grow from it.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — a student of his teachings — added another dimension as to how we confront violence in the political world. Both advocated and acted on the principles of non-violent resistance.

In a world suffused with violence, it's hard to imagine non-violence. In the United States, non-violence is a hard sell given our history of revolutionary violence, civil war and military hegemony. And yet the most transformational movement in American politics, which continues to shape us to this day, is the civil rights movement, guided by Gandhi's vision of non-violent social transformation.

While the dialectic of violence and non-violence were a part of the political landscape in the 1950s and 1960s, it's clear that the nation found the scenes of Bull Connor, his dogs and fire hoses morally repugnant.

Sadly, change came with a high human price shouldered by the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and ultimately claiming MLK, as Gandhi in his day. But such courage, sacrifice and commitment to non-violent resistance gave birth to the Civil Right Acts of 1964-65.

At times the audience at Pacific seemed to treat non-violence as a kind of psychotherapy or self-help exercise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gandhi was a very savvy politician and used non-violence strategically, as did MLK.

It would be a disservice to the memory of both these great men if we misunderstood that, like Jesus, their purpose was to not merely help us transform ourselves, but to literally transform the world.

So yes, by all means work on making yourself a better person, a less-violent person in the myriad of ways imaginable. But ultimately this can only be done if we work together to create, as King said, "the beloved community."

Start with little acts of kindness. But only through collaboration can we not only improve ourselves but also transform the world. As King said the night before he was slain, "I may not get there with you, but I can see the Promised Land."

That's why I have a passion for politics, as frustrating as it can be. Without democratic politics there can be no non-violent revolution. Every day is a new day. If you can't believe in that, then you are left with the bile of the cynic.

Keep hope alive.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.




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