Learning The Way of Nonviolence
Growing up in the West Texas town of Big Spring, my childhood memories are framed by southern segregation and the momentous events of World War 11. Looking back, I do not recall hearing segregation or war questioned. The races were separated, each with their own space, their own institutions, Blacks and Hispanics lived "across the railroad tracks" on the northern side of town; this was just part of the natural order of things, as was the need to go to war to meet threats or aggression when the need arose.
My father was the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Big Spring and our family always flew the American flag on national holidays. On December 7, 1941, when I was 9, 1 remember my family gathered around the radio at my cousin's house hearing the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, "a day," said President Roosevelt "that will live in infamy." My only brother enlisted in the Marines on his I 7th birthday. After he went into the Pacific on the USS Minneapolis, my mother went to the mailbox every day hoping for some news from him.
Everyone I knew was engaged in the war effort. At school, we collected tin cans and other scrap metal, and piled it in a heap on the playground. We carefully saved all tinfoil, fashioning it into balls to be recycled. At home, we had victory gardens so there would be plenty of food to send to "the troops at the front." Every Wednesday, I went with my mother to fold bandages for use by the Red Cross and on Memorial Day, I sold "buddy poppies" made* by wounded veterans.
I learned that there was only one way to oppose tyranny and that was to fight it with any means necessary. Did hear about the movie star Lew Ayers who was a conscientious objector, but that seemed an unpatriotic and cowardly form of citizenship.
Alongside these memories, though, I vividly recall in my Sunday school room at the First Methodist Church, a painting of Jesus with the children of the world from all races and nationalities. This image, along with Jesus' clear words about loving the enemy and overcoming evil with good, raised some uncomfortable questions for me to wrestle with. I didn't explore much at that point as to what this actually meant about the traditional means of warfare, but it demolished early on for me the whole rationale of southern style segregation. "One human family, under God." This said it all for me, a view reinforced from time to time in Sunday school and from the pulpit, as well as what I began to bear about the emerging civil rights movement.
At McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, I became active in the Methodist Student Movement, working for integration statewide as well as at our own college. When we had a state MSM conference at McMurry, the restaurant across the campus refused to serve the Negro delegates, so we held a boycott. Though we didn't Succeed in desegregating the local community (this was 1952), it was my first experience in such nonviolent political action. I also learned of Gandhi and began hearing about Martin Luther King, but it was a visit to my campus by Muriel Lester, International FOR traveling secretary, that brought me to a conscious commitment to Christian nonviolence. In a chapel address, Lester, a social worker from England and a co-worker with Gandhi for Indian independence, analyzed the McCarthy-era Cold War from the perspective of the Kingdom of God. War, she said, was "as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and duelling, an insult to God and man, a daily crucifixion of Christ." Was the Sermon on the Mount, she asked, to be followed only in peacetime? How dare we make God a nationalist, as if God sanctioned our killing those who happened to be born on the other side of an imaginary line called a border? God's way of dealing with evil is seen in the Cross: the way of self-giving love. This is the only permanent way to overcome the demonic in life. In Lester's second address she spoke on prayer ("with every breath you take in the Spirit of God"). This combination of the outward and inward journeys had a profound impact on my life. At that point I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation as a way of affirming the enthronement of God's Love for all of life. That summer I went to Europe to work with refugees under the auspices of Quaker International Voluntary Service. This was 1952 and Europe still had not recovered from the ravages of World War II.
That experience cemented what was to become a lifetime commitment. I
read deeply from FOR and Quaker literature. Working alongside volunteers
from many countries and meeting German families, I struggled to discover
the implications of living by a faith transcending nation, class, and
race. It wasn't easy. Even though I grew up hearing German spoken in my
The following summer I went to another work camp-this time at a Methodist rural center in a village near Mexico City. The work camp movement, founded by Swiss FOR secretary Pierre Ceresole, seemed a particularly significant way of building human understanding and laying the groundwork for a peaceful world. As a Texan who had learned in school about the war of Texan independence from Mexico, I heard for the first time a Mexican interpretation of that war and I met Mexicans with whom I had far more in common than ancient differences had led me to believe. I was profoundly moved by the murals in Cuernavaca painted by Diego Rivera. In those Cold War years it seemed impossible that there might be great artists who were Communist like Rivera: had such murals existed in Texas they would probably have been white-washed by local patriots!
After college I began theological studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas at a time (195356) when the first black students were enrolled in the seminary. They could use the facilities of the university but the town's restaurants, movie houses, and other institutions were still rigidly segregated. We worked to find ways to break open that pattern, however. Howard Johnson's, across the street from the university, had cards on the tables that said, "How can we serve you better?" We repeatedly filled them out with the words, "Open your doors to SMUs Negro students!" Once one of the black students put on a turban and was allowed in a downtown movie as he was thought to he African! At Cotton Bowl football I games white seminarians would get a block of tickets around the black seminarian seats to head off any untoward difficulties.
Gandhi's idea of his life story being "experiments with Truth" helped me to see the experiential, unfolding nature of the nonviolent commitment. This enabled me to evaluate my past learning and experiences. One strong example of that for me was to peel back the romantic cowboy myths I had grown up with. As a kid I often played "cowboy and Indian"; I loved the rodeo, had a horse, and often rode in the annual rodeo parade. At the rodeo I enjoyed seeing cowboys "break horses." Until a horse got accustomed to having a saddle and bridle and being ridden, it would kick and buck ferociously. The cowboy's method of taming the wild horse was to put it in a narrow chute, "saddle him up" and then climb on him. As the chute was opened, the horse would come charging out, bucking wildly. The experienced cowboy could stay on the horse until, exhausted, it could buck no more. Only in such "breaking of the spirit" of the horse did thewild horse become a "cow pony." With amazement I discovered that native Americans tamed wild horses in a completely different manner. The Indian slowly became a friend to the horse, giving it food and water, eventually stroking it and gaining its trust until, one day, the Indian could slide onto the horse's back, one might say, with the horse's permission. "Breaking its spirit" was totally unnecessary in this nonviolent way of establishing trust and friendship. How many other unquestioned practices, I wondered, needed to be examined and perhaps replaced?
Such discoveries were an ongoing epiphany for me. Nonviolence wasn't something arcane and impractical. It wasn't even unpatriotic! I learned amazing stories of nonviolence in American history, from the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor to the underground railroad of the slaves to the suffragettes getting the right to vote for women. I was especially struck by the experience of the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. Whereas other colonists fought the Indians to the death, the Quakers came peacefully, did not take the land from the Indians, treated them with respect and lived side by side with them. I also found out the brave stories of those who resisted Nazi tyranny nonviolently, from the thousands of Norwegian teachers who refused to teach Aryan dogma to the French village of Le Chambon that rescued Jews from arrest and death.
This alternative view of life and of history, while still looked upon by many, even most, as suspect and certainly irrelevant, nonetheless continues to spread quietly but surely to wider and wider circles, like the leaven in the loaf: the Gandhian revolution in India; the civil rights movement; the people power overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines; the crumbling of the Soviet bloc to unarmed resistance; the global human rights movement; the nations that have outlawed the death penalty and are finding creative ways of dealing with criminals; the move away from corporal punishment in school and home. The list could go on and on. These are humanity's experiments with Truth as we seek to discover the full implications of what Martin Luther King meant when he said, "Our ultimate aim is the creation of the beloved community."
From: 1994 BULLETIN OF THE PEACE STUDIES INSTITUTE