Demonstrating the power of nonviolence


By Frank Wessling

Bullets and bombs are not the only way to exert power. Nonviolent protest also has its place. And against injustice, especially injustice that is massive and entrenched, it is most effective as well as most humane.

We Americans know that from our own civil rights revolution of the mid-20th century. We know that from the 1986 “People Power” uprising in the Philippines that forced Fernando Marcos out of power. We saw it as Mahatma Gandhi led the nonviolent campaign that led Britain to give up its control of India in 1947. We have just seen it in two Arab countries as citizens of Tunisia and Egypt declared with their bodies their refusal to accept rule by dictators.

We should also know it from last Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 5:38-48, as Jesus asks for nonviolent resistance to evil. Don’t hit them back, he says. Shame them by the contrast of your ability to suffer without hatred, to love even those who despise you and hurt you.

If we think of the Holy Spirit as the power of God in creation, something of the Spirit has been breathing across the Muslim peoples in North Africa and the Near East as they stand up for their dignity. Established dictators, under whatever name they hide, have a certain kind of power. Military force represents another power. But those can be neutralized and defeated by the power of people peacefully uniting in demand that their voice be heard, as Egyptians have most recently demonstrated. We should assume that God is pleased.


The work of organizing a society so that universal dignity and the voice of reason can rule is a longer and more complicated task than overturning oppression. Here in the United States it took the Founding Fathers seven years to get a durable system of government in place, from the 1781 end of fighting in the War of Independence to 1788, when the new Constitution was finally adopted. It was almost another full year before a national government was fully organized — and those Americans had the benefit of British traditions in self-rule.

So far, our government has been prudent in the delicate task of supporting reasonable behavior in those places where Arab resentment is stirring. We can only hope and pray that reason on all sides keeps the upper hand, although a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Bahrain last week was discouraging.

The rule of universal human dignity, reason, law and love is still the direction of history required by faith in God. It is good to see progress in that direction even when it comes in small, shaky steps.


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