By Stephanie Van Hook
The Freedom Rides of 1961 saw some of the most iconic moments of the United States’ civil rights movement. Courageous, idealistic young people boarded buses to the segregated South to stand up for their ideals of freedom, equality and justice. Like our most fearless armed servicemen/women, they knew that they were risking their lives for their beliefs. What made them different, however, was that they were unarmed and trained in nonviolence.
Stumbling Block: Violence is Profitable
Referring to his participation in the rides, Georgia Congressperson John Lewis said, “I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army.” Myriad images, questions and ideas capture our imagination: what would a nonviolent army do? How would it be organized? Would it ever be practical? What would it take to build one?
Nonviolent Army: to many, this would seem like an unnatural contradiction. Armies are by definition violent; nonviolence is too passive and weak to be of any use in societal defense. But those are two great misconceptions. Soldiers are only conditioned to use violence and threat power as a form of defense (that’s “basic training”), and nonviolence does not mean passivity; it means active, creative courage that goes beyond refraining from consciously harming others toward building a community where everyone belongs–where no one is “other.”
If the millions of men and women in our militaries can be conditioned and prepared to kill in the name of “national security,” with the same amount of discipline, training and skills learning could they not become just as skilled in nonviolence? Both take courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others. Both require training. And more and more research is showing that nonviolence is more effective as a defense, not to mention there are no suicides due to training or practice of nonviolence!
The stumbling block to a transitioning to nonviolent defense is likely not the lack of servicemen/women’s openness to the idea. I am convinced that there are many acts of nonviolence taking place within the military that we never hear about, excepting of course cases of conscientious objection or whistleblowing. Instead, it is likely a question of vested interests – of profit. There is too much money to be made in selling weapons and exporting war. But if we can’t reform the military itself, it does not mean that there’s no other way.
Remember, nonviolence means creativity; it means resistance as much as it means constructive action, building what we want while resisting what is no longer serving our highest interests. With reform largely, but not entirely out of the question, a nonviolent army would come about as a grassroots parallel institution: a creative alternative to an institution that’s becoming increasingly dysfunctional — there are the suicides, the resource consumption, the pollution, the insane expense, and most high-ranking military officials agree that with our violence-based approach “we’re making terrorists faster than we can kill them.”
Let’s Try the Experiment
The world has yet to see a parallel institution of the magnitude it would require to challenge the monopoly the military seems to hold over the idea of national security in the 21st century; but smaller versions are already in existence. Take an example of the Michigan based Meta-Peace Team (MPT, formerly Michigan Peace Team). They do unarmed civilian peacekeeping in areas around the world along with their highly successful domestic projects.
MPTers Mary Hanna and Sheri Wander were working at the annual Pride Day parade in Lansing. The police were of course on hand to step in if any violence erupts (as it frequently did), but with MPT showing up for several years at the event, the police began to understand and much appreciate their effectiveness; when a new officer began to head toward an altercation, a more experienced officer told him, “That’s all right, let the Peace Team handle it.” This small example shows what could happen at a much larger scale if a Peace Army were organized to parallel the military. What a day it would be when an army commander might stand back, with dignity, and say, “Let’s see the Peace Army handle it.”
Seem far-fetched? The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), an international body who has been sending unarmed peacekeepers into tense and unstable situations, including severe examples of interethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and South Sudan. Tiffany Easthom, Canadian country director of NP’s South Sudan project, mentioned that at times of high violence alert, when all other aid communities had to leave, NP was one of the only organizations that remained. How did they do it? They listened to local people. What did they do? They helped to organize communities around the country to provide their own strategies for nonviolent defense.
This is to reinforce what Gandhi once said about nonviolence: that it works in every area of life. It is not enough to use nonviolence only in our communication or only in our personal relationships. If it works there, it can be built upon to work in any area, including domestic and international defense. And if it is good enough to work elsewhere, it can work here, too.
First Step: Greater Understanding of Nonviolence
Martin Luther King said that in the early civil rights movement, they “roused anger under discipline for maximum effect.” Today there are various movements around the world with thousands – maybe millions — of people working, largely in isolation, with just this kind of energy. What if we joined together to build this Peace Army? This is a revolution in values that has room for, and needs participation from, everyone.
Since a Peace Army requires cultural as well as physical and technical training, let the first step be a greater understanding of nonviolence. Commit to a disciplined, deepened and systematic study of this power for one year, including attending a nonviolence training, either online or in your community. You might also “draft” a friend or family member into the Peace Army to join you in your study. The Metta Center for Nonviolence can offer resources and support. Let’s make this more than just a good idea—let’s make it real.Φ
Stephanie Van Hook writes for PeaceVoice and is the Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence (www.mettacenter.org). She also serves as Director of Conflict Resolution Services in the Green Shadow Cabinet. Contact her at Stephanie@mettacenter.org.