“The best preparation for and even the expression of nonviolence," wrote Gandhi, "lies in the determined pursuit of the constructive program. …He who has no belief in the constructive program has, in my opinion, no concrete feeling for the starved millions. He who is devoid of that feeling cannot fight non-violently. In actual practice the expansion of my non-violence has kept exact pace with that of my identification with starved humanity.”
Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 by a Hindu fanatic. It seems a good day to pass on some random thoughts in the face of what is going on in the world, especially in the United States.
There have been a series of large, often decentralized, protests in the US. I find myself agreeing – in part – with each of them: the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the spontaneous demonstrations at airports and other places against a restrictive immigration policy. I also find myself on the outskirts of each of them – not only because I don’t live in the US, but mostly because I see them as incomplete, not just in their goals, but also in their vision of resistance.
In the face of a president who claims to be pro-life but who is in favor of torture, who wants to find security in a wall and seems willing to ostracize members of a religion, who wants to increase the size of the US military, whose policies have kept real refugees and people with visas from entering the US, and more – what does one do?
Get together and care for the little ones!
Yes, I am amazed at the demonstrations at the airports and the efforts of lawyers and others to reverse what I see as a poorly thought-through executive order. I sort of miss not being there to participate.
I was involved in protests against the Viet Nam war in college and after. I’ve demonstrated against nuclear weapons and against the imprisonment of dissidents in the Soviet Union. I’ve spoken and written for the rights of refugees from Central America and against US military policies in favor of oppressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala – and other countries. I’ve demonstrated against the war against Iraq. I’ve attended pro-life demonstrations and organized a series of vigils after the killing of the Jesuits and two women in El Salvador.
I’ve accompanied a parish in San Salvador for two months in 1987 during the war. I worked for several months after the cease fire in El Salvador in the parish of Suchitoto, a region devastated by the war. I live and work in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Many years ago, reflecting on my anti-Vietnam war work with a friend, I said that I thought we failed because we did not follow Gandhi’s advice. We had no constructive program.
The genius of Gandhi was not just his bringing people together in nonviolent civil disobedience in South Africa and India. His genius was recognizing that nonviolence is not a tactic, nor is it just a personal life-style. His genius, for me, is recognizing that the constructive program is central.
As Norman Finkelstein explains in What Gandhi Says:
In any exposition of satyagraha, it must also be remembered that Gandhi did not conceive nonviolent resistance as the heart of his doctrine. He situated satyagraha in a matrix of daily activities, what he called the “constructive program,” that formed the “foundation for civil disobedience.” Its planks included expunging from Hinduism the “blot” of untouchability, fostering Hindu-Muslim unity, and promoting use on a mass scale of the spinning wheel (tcharka) and handspun cloth (khadi).
Satyagraha, a term that Gandhi often used in place of nonviolence, means “holding on to truth,” or “the power of truth.” It think it is related to what Peter Maruin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker once proposed: “Building a new society in the shell of the old.”
This means going beyond political parties – most of which collaborate with evil to one degree or another. I am not against politics and political campaigns and I applaud people of integrity in politics, but all too often people look on politics as salvific. It isn’t and it can’t be – partly because it’s often based on power and domination and partly because it’s often given to unholy compromises. Compromise is good – but there are compromises in which one risks one’s soul, Recall the example of Saint Thomas More - politician who was willing to compromise – up to a point.
What the constructive program means in the US I don’t know – but it has to start with being with the poor and the marginalized, sharing their lives. It’s what Pope Francis calls the culture of encounter.
For me, the constructive program means continuing to live here in Honduras, to work with catechists and young people, to encourage an association of small coffee farmers, to promote a culture of solidarity, and more. It means learning to love and share with others.
The initial Gandhi quote can be found in Thomas Merton's Gandhi on Nonviolence.
The image of Gandhi, by Ben Shahn, comes from a War Resisters League poster.