Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nonviolent Foreign Revolution and the American Role: Self-Identity and Awareness

When I was reading through the book Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, I found myself wondering what my role was as a Northern/Western peacebuilder in relation to the oppressed areas of the Southern Hemisphere and Third World nations in general. I believe we often tend to think of our purpose for nonviolent social movements to be in helping those oppressed - and perhaps rightfully so. But for me, this often leads to thinking about those "less developed" countries and peoples such as the ones I read about in the book, the extraordinary movements that they helped initiate, and what I can do to "help" - and this can easily lead to a somewhat patronizing mentality. As soon as I began to critically think about what kind of action I would take, I immediately became conscious of the limits of my identity. I had to question what that identity has done to shape the way I think, and I knew I must challenge the inherent assumptions that come with that identity.

For as much as I've desired over the past number of years - both in thought and action - to escape the restrictions of "society" (and by that I mean Western society with all its faults in the materialistic/consumerist/Capitalist sense), the fact remains that the nature of my identity has been shaped by being an American. The way I speak, the way I think, the things with which I'm familiar, and most importantly, the way I am viewed by others throughout the world, cannot help but be permeated with a Western influence and the exceptionalist way of thought that is inherent to American society. This fact carries with it a great responsibility, but it is a very particular kind of responsibility. I believe this is extremely important for all of us in the West to understand: we cannot rush into situations of oppression in Third World countries and practice the most nonviolent methods of battle alongside the oppressed while ignoring the position our identity places us in relation to local indigenous/native populations.

We must remember that our position as Americans is a part of our identity. It has placed us in a peculiar place. On the one hand, we have the ability to sit and reflectively think through strategies, methods and our level of conscientization - such as I am doing right now by putting these words to paper - in an environment that has filled us with knowledge, information and the mental tools for advancing and bettering ourselves and others. On the other hand, that ability to become educated has not come without a price. From the easily accessible food we eat to keep at our peak mental ability, to the funds we are able to receive for education, to the resources for basic subsistence that we are able to obtain with relatively little effort in relation to those our nation exploits, it is on the backs of others that we have arrived at these luxuries. These two sides have given us what I term as responsibility with limitations.

What I mean by this is that we have the responsibility to make things better for those in the world around us, but we must be extremely cognizant of the techniques we incorporate in doing so and incorporate the values of empathy and equanimity. As with any situation of conflict, we must first start with an analysis, and in nonviolent situations, this analysis has the critical element of self. There must be an analysis both of the external situation, but most importantly, we must have a deep self-knowledge and respect combined with a deep understanding of how we are viewed by others who will be participating in the struggle.

Lisa Schirch (2004) has identified the first stage of analysis in peacebuilding as understanding the local context. Local can also include national depending on how foreign one is to a particular environment. I am thinking of the example given by Gerald Schlabach (1991) when he discussed a trip to the Philippines and his encounter with a group of guerilla revolutionaries that turned confrontational. Schlabach's mistake was to not have done the proper work of self-identity analysis before discussing the issue of nonviolence with these violent guerillas. If there was any doubt about his identity as it was perceived by the Filipino revolutionaries, that was settled after they put him in his place as one of those Americans "...who come and ask us why we are violent..." when those Americans have "...barged in and stole our country from us..." (1991, p. 254). In this situation, Schlabach's lack of self-identity awareness and analysis of the local context caused him to be blind to the fact that he carried the entire foreign policy of the United States as a part of his identity.

There is an arrogance that we carry - conscious or not - simply from virtue of our being American. It is something that cannot be escaped other than through time and the process of "becoming one with...". The very title of the book Relentless Persistence bears witness to this fact. Nonviolence is a long, arduous demanding process that requires great prior preparation. If we as outsiders want to become a part of a particular foreign struggle with which we feel called to participate, then we'd better understand that it will require time for us to be in a position to identify with that struggle. We must first become one with the people before we can become one with the struggle. Father Domingo Barbe (1991) would likely agree with the idea that this form of identification was first accomplished by God through Christ who became one with His creation by appearing in human form, and paying the ultimate sacrifice and price of the oppressed by giving up His life in the cause for justice and redemption. Although I do not claim Christianity, I agree with this conception of justice, as it runs with the grain of love and truth.
The true nonviolent revolutionary spirit is no different. There may not be a place for us in certain nonviolent struggles other than for us to do what we can at home in order to change the kinds of conditions that have led to the struggle in the first place. Some foreign struggles are so spontaneous, and have arisen out of such a place of desperation, that we do not have time to properly identify with the local population in order to become immediately involved and present in the form of truly understanding and being able to become one with the people.

If we want to be nonviolent revolutionaries in a foreign context, my personal belief is that we must first have a deep understanding and participation in the struggle as it exists in our own country. We are all interconnected, and the decisions we make affect not only our neighbors, but ultimately the world at large. This is true for every member of the human race. The Third World revolutionary also elevates the general condition of humanity by continuing and uniting with the love force that is a part of all true and just revolutions - and this is not something that American hubris is even remotely equipped to fulfill "for" somebody else. Once we have done all we can to understand the role the United States has played in foreign policy as it relates to a particular country and/or people, and we have made clear through conscientization (theory and praxis) our responsibility for this policy, then we can look to foreign contexts and identification.

It is only then that we can begin foreign nonviolent action by becoming one with the people. This can only happen with time, and it is not glamorous work. It is likely the impatience of modern civilization that is partly responsible for bringing about the "quick solution" of violent intervention in the first place. There are no quick solutions for long-term nonviolence. It must be a lifestyle, and in a foreign context, this means living among the people. We must love the people and become one with their way of life in order to stand alongside them in struggle. This will likely mean that we enter their context when no immediate struggle is occurring. The struggle cannot be our focus, it must be love of the people. For without this kind of love, nonviolence loses its deep truth, and the coming struggle will be empty of the foundation required for its sustainability.

Barbe, D. (1991). The spiritual basis of nonviolence. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 268-281). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

McManus, P., & Schlabach, G. (1991). Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Schirch, L. (2004). The little book of strategic peacebuilding: a vision and framework for peace with justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

Schlabach, G. (1991). Epilogue: more than one task - north american nonviolence and latin american liberations struggle. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 252-265). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Monday, July 23, 2012


To be white in America means that I don't know what it's truly like to have thoughts like the one I saw posted by my Cape Verdean-American friend Mery concerning the Colorado shootings this past Friday: "I was just praying that the suspect wasn't black." On a slightly more macro scale, to be an American of any color means that we don't have to experience in the existential present of our daily lives the virtual slave labor that goes into creating the cheap and abundant products that we feel we couldn't live without. Both situations are indicative of existential conditions that are deficient of conscientization.

Paulo Freire's idea of conscientization is roughly the awareness of our condition in life as that condition is informed by social myth. To eliminate the myth and arrive at the true nature of our being requires the processes of critical reflection and action in non-dualistic application (Freire, 1970). In the case of the Colorado shooting, it was Mery's post that spoke to the ever-present violence of racism that permeates the social fabric of American life. She went on to protest the unequal media coverage of events such as this, in that the suspect - being white - was looked at as an example of potential mental illness, or possible prior victimization, but not as fundamentally flawed due to race, religion or ideology. In other words, there was no racism or bigotry in the media's examination of his psyche. He wasn't Muslim, he wasn't black and he wasn't a communist or otherwise overtly "anti-American", so he didn't play into any of the dominant societal identity myths of who the enemy "is".

For me, the attempt at greater conscientization of this particular incident requires stepping back even further and taking in as much of the absurdity of a violence driven society as possible. The irrationality of the nation that continues to insist on war despite all evidence of its inefficiency, wastefulness and disregard for the sanctity of life is seen in how we treat those who kill. The suspect in Colorado is labeled a criminal (and perhaps rightfully so), but what about the President who authorizes the drone strike that kills innocent villagers in Afghanistan? Is it absurd to live in a society that claims to be free - to respect the dignity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - yet justifies the killing of wars?
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must "perceive our political and economic systems correctly in order to see what is going wrong" (2012, p.245). In the comparison above, this means that I must evaluate why life is considered sacred in one situation, and disposable in another. Where did the error occur in the narrative of civilization that taught us that killing to solve international or intra-national disputes is acceptable while the killing of an isolated madman is not? Why aren't both unacceptable? Some of course would respond that it is in the base nature of humanity to react violently in order to maintain self-preservation. William James (2012) might even agree with that and say that we must find other outlets for the traits we carry. Hanh would say that what we are dealing with is a powerful energy that can be used for either good or bad. In either case, it is implicit that we as humans carry the potential to make a choice and redefine our lives, our social myths, our civilization and achieve greater conscientization as rational, thinking, intelligent evolving beings.
Jessie Wallace Hughan (2012) has shown us that - theoretically - a nation committed to complete disarmament and pacifism is possible, and not only possible but could and would win a war against a violent enemy. Yet the degree of commitment required makes her vision seem utopian in anything resembling modern day society. Complete ideological adherence makes many "isms" seem possible, including Communism, but the real world and real life get in the way of these ideologies. So how do we change the narrative of civilization and work at eliminating or re-directing the energy that is used in violent action? Is it even possible? What does "success" in this area look like? Is it necessary to change the entire planet, or do the actions of individuals matter?

These questions have been at the very foundation of my search for meaning over the past number of years. They are also closely connected with my search for the existence of the divine. I have come to the conclusion that there is an inescapable energy of love or a particular force, a direction in the universe. In this sense, my thought parallels Hanh. I believe that every human is capable of aligning themselves with this force - which is ultimately the natural direction or way of things - and that it takes conscientization to be able to see this force or way. Hanh would give conscientization the name of non-dualism, and conscientization is very much a form of becoming - of uniting - with one's very nature, which is shared by all others. To unite with the particular direction of nonviolence, exemplified, enacted and consistent with the practices of love is to identify ourselves with our true nature, or the highest form of mental, physical and spiritual evolution - conscientization - that we can achieve. Once internalized, this belief is at the center of my own mental and physical self-preservation, for without knowledge of my true nature, life is meaningless.

It wasn't easy for me to arrive at this level of my own conscientization. It took a near-death experience in the form of a car accident to shake me awake and to truly begin the process. Previously, I had accepted much of the terms of my life from external sources, and had not done my own reflection nor had I lived my life consistent with the principles corresponding to a knowledge of the universal energy of nonviolence and love. Like Gary L. Francione (2012), I have extended the respect for life to animals as well. If we are to practice nonviolence, we must be universal in its application, and any being that can suffer pain must be treated with the utmost dignity. Yet I'm still at a philosophical block with thinkers like Francione in where the biological line of "animal" as distinct from "plant" or non-feeling life should be placed.

This brings us back to my friend Mery and her struggle combating racism in a society that still has a long way to go to achieve conscientization in that area. She and I had a discussion about the topic, and she mentioned how she has been an advocate her entire life - through teaching and leading community workshops - against issues of race. I broached the issue of large scale social change with her as in: what will it take to achieve large scale differences in the way we view race, or the way we view guns, violence, war and defense budgets? Of course we were at an impasse, we weren't going to save the world in a Facebook discussion. But I believe her point of advocacy is key in how we live nonviolent lives. Freire would also seem to agree as would VeneKlassen and Miller (2010). Advocacy is one way in which we can directly apply the principles of nonviolence to the world around us. We can choose to keep the energy of love alive in our own lives through extending it as much as possible to the world as it exists in our immediate reach.

I agree with Mery that our lives are all interdependent, and advocating for those who suffer, and against suffering in general is advocating for that human dignity that we all deserve. It shows respect for others, but it just as much shows respect for our own being in recognizing that being in others. This is what has given me hope and meaning in my own life. I know that there is a purpose for my being here, yet at the same time I know that I can shape that purpose and make it what I want it to be. Therefore I choose nonviolence, and I choose to do what I alone can do, and by choosing to do so, I aim for the understanding that Hanh refers to and the conscientization of Freire. 


Francione, G. L. (2012). Nonviolence and animal rights. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 326-331). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hanh, T. N. (2012). Feelings and perceptions. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 243-246). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Hughan, J. W. (2012). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 219-232). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

James, W. (2012). The moral equivalent of war. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 176-185). 2012: Waveland Press.

VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2010). New weave power people politics: the action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.