Harry Boyte and Marie-Louise Ström: Constructive Nonviolence

Newsletter 140 - Tuesday July 25, 2023


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CORRECTION! Two of the three links to the new Civil Rights Mediation Oral Histories in Newsletter 138 were broken. These oral histories are available at https://www.youtube.com/@crmediation. We apologize for the error.
About today's article: Harry and Marie circulated this via email to an email group we are in. We really liked it, and asked if we could republish it here.  They agreed.  Their notion of constructive nonviolence is very consistent with our notion of "constructive confrontation" and it highlights a number of ideas that we present in much longer format in our BI essay on Nonviolence and Nonviolent Direct Action.  For people who read this and want more, we suggest those two resources as good next readings.


Harry Boyte and Marie-Louise Ström

July 25, 2023 (last edited April 13, 2023)

Millions believe our political system is dysfunctional. “We the people” are bitterly divided. Nonviolence can be a profound resource for addressing injustice, repairing torn relationships, and creating healthy civic life.

Where does nonviolence come from?

Though it has ancient roots, nonviolence as a method of large-scale change was first developed by Mahatma Gandhi and his colleagues in South Africa in the early 20th century to challenge bigotry against Indians. They called it “soul force,” Satyagraha, in contrast to physical force. Nonviolence was taken up by the Indian movement for independence from Great Britain. Its dignity and discipline inspired the world, including Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, James Farmer and Martin Luther King in the civil rights (or “freedom”) movement. Since then nonviolence has animated other movements including the United Farm Workers in California, the “Velvet Revolution” which overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia, and “Mass Action for Peace” by Christian and Muslim women in Liberia which ended a brutal dictatorship.”

What is the nonviolent approach?

The nonviolent approach is not a “tactic” nor is it a set of absolute ideals like pacifism, refusal to use physical force under any circumstances.  Nonviolence is a practical philosophy which emphasizes spiritual and emotional disciplines and practices that teach how to refuse to demonize opponents and to see the “image of God” in all, drawing on Christianity. In his essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Martin Luther King, King outlines practices and disciplines including

  • Nonviolence is struggle, not inaction: “passive physically but strongly active spiritually,” as King puts it.
  • Nonviolent practitioners understand opponents, rather than defeat or humiliate them, with the end “reconciliation.”
  • Nonviolence is directed against evil actions, not the persons who commit the actions.
  • Nonviolent practitioners aim at a kind of love called agape, “neighborly concern for others,” whether friend or enemy, recognizing their “need for belonging to the best in the human family.”
  • Nonviolent practitioners believe that refraining from hate in response to violence, whether physical or emotional, is redemptive. “Hate…corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity,” King wrote.  “The nonviolent approach…first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

Our divided society needs such disciplines and practices. Today, nonviolent action also needs a constructive dimension.

What is constructive nonviolence?

Most nonviolent movements struggle against oppression. As the Indian philosopher Karuna Mantena shows in “The Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” nonviolence has a “constructive” dimension, emphasizing people’s agency, ownership, and responsibility for building a flourishing community, what King called the beloved community. Here are some practices and concepts about constructive nonviolence used by the Institute for Public Life and Work which develop this dimension:

  • Nonviolent citizen politics.  Citizen politics is politics centered on citizens, not politicians. It highlights the fact that democracy is a way of life we all build, more than elections. It involves negotiating differences with people who are very different, including opponents. Such politics understands enemies, instead of humiliating them.
  • Civic agencyCivic agency is a different kind of power, power with and power to, not power over: capacities to take action across differences on common problems. It depends on skills like public narrative, one-on-one meetings, and “mapping power” – how to build generative power around issues. Nonviolence infuses such skills and practices with large moral and public purpose. It “calls up resources of strength and courage.”
  • Public Work: Public work involves a mix of people (“a” public) who work on shared tasks (“for” public purposes) that build the commonwealth “in” public – work that is visible and valued. Public is different than private life. One works with those whom we may even dislike personally. Nonviolence emphasizes the human in humanity.

An everyday practice

Nonviolent movements develop everyday practices. “If you want to work through nonviolence you have to proceed with small things,” said Gandhi. In Montgomery’s civil rights movement, domestic workers walked to work rather than taking segregated busses. A driver offered an elderly woman a ride. She refused. “I’m not walking for myself,” she explained “I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.” In our acrimonious public culture, where do we start?

A one on one meeting: Meet someone you disagree with. Refrain from judging what is wrong with their views. What is their story and deep motivation? Are there things you can learn? Is there common ground? 

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