Wednesday, June 17, 2020

What Does Nonviolence Mean Now?

In a well-known passage from Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno writes that “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” To Adorno, the light shed on things by redemption—seeing things not only as if they were capable of being redeemed, but also seeing them as though they are already on the way, if not already redeemed—is a perspective he calls “messianic.” 

I have found it difficult to know how to process so much of what American society has been going through since the murder of George Floyd on May 25. Reflecting on the nature of nonviolence has been on my mind as I have responded in other, more concrete ways. When I marched in a peaceful protest with fellow citizens of Ashland under the leadership of an Ashland University student, for example, I wondered about what makes a protest peaceful. Is it just that we were lucky enough that violence didn’t break out? I think there’s more to it than that. Nonviolence, which is a spirit more than a description of events, is “messianic” in Arorno’s sense: it names the discipline of striving to see reality as it currently does not appear to be, but that it will be one day. It doesn’t redeem reality; it lives as though reality will be or has already been redeemed. 

I am aware that this perspective can sound like the last thing we need right now. Doesn’t it counsel escape from reality, an especially dangerous impulse at a time when we especially need a heightened commitment to the unvarnished truth about injustice? This is indeed a very real risk if things aren’t really being redeemed. (And here I disagree with Adorno who adds that “the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.” I think it matters quite a lot.) 

Early on, our organization was counseled to avoid spelling the word “nonviolence” with a hyphen; we needed to keep from defining nonviolence negatively. It’s much easier to get people to agree that we should oppose many forms of violence. When we go to take the next step, though, we lose some people. Is there a peace that is deeper than our opposition to violence? If there is, what happens if we begin to live as though that deeper reality were truly real? 

Keon, the student leader of our local protests, often engages passing drivers by shouting, “We love you unconditionally!” Opponents and allies alike are included in this unconditional love, an element in our protest that I would say makes it truly a peaceful protest.

This is an experiment with truth—the truth that love is the foundation of all things. It would be very foolish to try to live as though that were true if it isn’t. But this is why nonviolence must be dared. Gandhi, of course, was committed to experimenting in this way. One commentator summarized Gandhi’s philosophy like this: “My adversary is part of my truth-finding process.” To Gandhi, peace names an openness to correction, supremely to being shown how what we thought was peace isn’t true peace. 

I consider this openness to be another step on the path of nonviolence. My own self-perception is one of the things that must be cast in the light of redemption. Resignation sees my adversary as an obstacle to be suffered; violence sees him as an opponent to be dispatched. But my neighbor is sometimes my enemy whom I must trust is crucial to my encounter with a truth I might never know apart from him.

I hasten to add that none of this makes my enemy “good,” except in the sense that he and I are both children of our creator who only creates good things. Furthermore, the point isn’t that my adversary is always or ever right. It is that my adversary is there to be reckoned with: sometimes to be listened to, sometimes to be corrected, sometimes to be opposed, and always to be loved. Nonviolence requires that I refuse to overpower the truth. In a very practical way, this means that I need adversaries because my friends might be tempted by the same tendency toward self-deception that I have. 

This, to me, is the heart of peace: believing that all things can be redeemed and are being redeemed. And living like that is the truth.

Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence

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