[Essay originally published as a chapter in Call To Action: Handbook For Ecology, Peace and Justice, edited by Brad Erickson (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990; slightly revised by author in 1999)]
I experienced the beginning of awareness shortly after participating with the U.S. military in 1969, in the incomprehensible marauding of Vietnam. I realized just how culturally conditioned we were to be violent in the name of good. The Vietnamese, "slopeheads" as we called them, our evil "enemies," became, strangely it seemed, like brothers and sisters and I felt a deep connection with them. Where did that feeling come from? I was not aware that it came from my training or education. I believe I was experiencing the real Brian Willson, a more authentic self, my humanity screaming for expression in a dehumanizing and violent setting produced by my culture and government. I believe this was the beginning of my nonviolent journey, even though I didn’t have a name for it then. The fact is that I am still conditioned in violence but I am more aware of another more profound dimension of my nature that I call love or nonviolence.
Shortly after my term of duty in Vietnam, I became a seeker of peace. I began reading about the history of justice and anti-war struggles, and became interested in nonviolence as an alternative concept to violence and militarism. This interest tended to distract me from seeking a comfortable career path. Even so, I was reasonably successful in my various pursuits, while possessing what I believed to be politically "correct" views. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, however, I experienced a problem that interfered with feeling peace within myself.
My problem was that I harbored hatred for my father. I had conveniently focused my feelings of betrayal and rage since Vietnam onto him. After all, he had been a significant teacher of my values, I believed, of lies and of my ignorance. My developing thoughts about a new society based on justice in a global context were being actively blocked by my unhealthy inner psyche. Hatred is like a poison. I had not yet learned the essence of love and health: that love is unconditional and that forgiveness is profoundly heeling. Growing up in a conservative Baptist family had provided me with the teachings of Jesus and Christianity, including at least rhetorically, the power of love and forgiveness. But as we had been led to slaughter nearly five million Southeast Asians, killing "communists" under the guise of Jesus, I had developed a personal philosophy that rejected what seemed to me simplistic, even if inaccurately understood, biblical teachings. I had become an eclectic, listening to many sources of wisdom, including the Native Americans. I continue to evolve with this ecumenical approach.
A breakthrough came, however, not in unraveling the "correct" religious view, but as the result of therapy with an excellent, though not highly "professionally" qualified counselor. I needed to unravel myself. After much painful work over time, I was able to love my father unconditionally. Isn’t this the real love? My father was not likely to change. I had to choose to change if I wanted to feel good about myself and to become an effective peace warrior. Almost unbelievably, I was able to love my father without liking him. He was no longer the "enemy." In fact my "need" for "enemies" has become much less, sometimes seeming virtually nonexistent. I could look at the world, and all its problems, and all the struggles necessary to pursue justice, without creating enemies in my analytical mind. I realized everyone is transformable! Even myself!
The calm I began to feel inside, without prescribed medicine, seemed almost miraculous. Experiencing a sacred connection with my own father, an embittered and intensely racist man, without having to accept or like any of his irritating traits and views and without requiring him to accept any of my beliefs, was the beginning of my intimate and visceral journey with nonviolence. I found a new level of integration of my thoughts (mind) with feelings (heart), very important for inner peace and therefore health. Liberation occurs as one is able to remove distracting inner conflicts and fears.
Learning about this natural interconnectedness (through unconditional love) with the soul of my father, even in an unsentimental way, opened up a visceral consciousness that everything is interconnected and sacred. The visceral and intellectual came together. I began to offer my father an alternative, a nonretalitory attitude. Internally I no longer felt the need nor the impulse to be hostile to him. This became for me a powerful new weapon that, while expressing outwardly the product of an ongoing transformational process within, was creating a new noncombative atmosphere for my father as well. Though to this day he hasn’t changed any that I am aware of, our relationship is respectful, even if not intimate.
This experience helped me understand better what Gandhi meant when he said: "The virtues of mercy, nonviolence, love and truth in any man [sic] can be truly tested only when they are pitted against ruthlessness, violence, hatred and untruth.." I had already experienced evil incarnate with our behavior in Vietnam. I had become an amateur student of the barbarity of the history of U.S. foreign policy, and had learned a more authentic view of our historic domestic justice struggles. But this relatively minor, though very personal and painful, struggle with my father provided me a real visceral taste of both the challenge, and the liberation of nonviolence.
Thus, I believe nonviolence springs from an inner consciousness that understands interconnectedness. Nonviolence becomes the fruit of this inner unity and health, not a means of achieving inner peace. It becomes a powerful force. It is daily learning. This consciousness affects our attitudes and our whole way of life.
I also believe that nonviolence is based on conviction of the presence of a higher Truth. Each day we can commit to being a partner with this infinite life force, a force that Gandhi called truth force, or Satyagraha, and Martin Luther King called cosmic companionship. This commitment cannot be taken for granted, for our egos and arrogance are well developed. Gandhi and King catalyzed the most powerful nonviolent social/political change movements in the 20th century, discerning daily with this infinite wisdom. Along with moments of great clarity, there are times of anguish and uncertainty. But the path of justice is sustaining. Some call it God, or the higher self, a force far more powerful and wise than our mere cerebral dimensions. I call it the Great Spirit. But it matters not what one calls it.
Gandhi considered each day a new opportunity to experiment with the Truth. Our truth is discerned through intuition, experience, observation, reflection, quiet listening, informed judgment, conversation and from being questioned while we question. We can choose to act each day on this wisdom, reflect upon our actions, then using this guiding process, act again.
As intimated above, nonviolence recognizes the interconnectedness of all life as the natural law of our being, and that this truth resides in each of us. It seeks to be part of this harmony, while offering it to others hoping they will be transformed by getting in touch with this higher self within them. Nonviolence knows that injustices experienced elsewhere threaten our own well being also. Everything is connected!
For me, nonviolence is like a new invention, even if it is really the authentic nature of life. It is vigorously active, the opposite of passivity. Because it is so different from the way I was raised, it is challenging, while it is empowering. Nonviolence actively resists evil in ourselves and others. It takes personal responsibility to be a part of the solution–to promote justice. Thus, I have to prep
are myself often for situations that may present tense confrontations with aggressors or authorities. Nonviolence non-cooperates with and actively confronts injustice. One must be prepared to transcend cowardly tendencies, through spiritual and mental preparation. In its actions, nonviolence seeks to bring to light the nature of injustices and contradictions by offering a clear expression of love and truth in the face of obvious oppression and injustice. It is tough love, for when resisting injustice, it accepts sacrifice and suffering when necessary without retaliating.
When civil rights activists were desegregating lunch counters with their bodies, for example, they were subjected to extreme humiliation, if not physical beatings or death. The firm but nonviolent presence of the activists promoting something so basically just in the face of the prejudice directed against them brought to clear light the dehumanizing racism of the segregation laws. The issues became illuminated for all to see. Nonviolence takes the risks necessary, thoughtfully but forcefully, to affirm justice and sacredness, even for the oppressor. Nonviolence, therefore, seeks transformation in the oppressor. It avoids humiliating or defeating one’s adversary. It seeks reconciliation and healing. It stirs conscience with militant peacefulness.
We need to continually ask whether our behavior is complicit with policies, practices and lifestyles that destroy any person, including their dignity, or any other part of the sacred ecological web of life. If we truthfully have searched for and discovered our complicity, nonviolence requires an openness to change our behavior.
Though obvious, nonviolence seeks to avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. As I learned with my father, we can love people without liking them. Unconditional love need not be sentimental in order to express compassion that flows from the awareness of our inherent interconnectedness. It resists while transcending evils being perpetrated at the moment. It understands that we get what we actually do with our lives, rather than what we intend to do. Ends and means become inseparable as to character and intrinsic nature.
In short, the ongoing process of becoming nonviolent is a revolutionary process of affirmation and transformation of consciousness. Revolution begins within the consciousness of people like you and me, and is continually refined through acting, reflecting, acting, etc.
Nonviolence provides us with the basis for a new paradigm based on justice and ecological consciousness. This pilgrimage of responsible and empowered citizenship transcends nations, states, religions, political parties and ideologies, races and sexes. It respects the uniqueness and diversity of people and cultures, while it understands our unity and interconnectedness. It daily asks the question: What does it mean to be a human being on the planet with millions of other species coexisting in a mysterious biological and spiritual fabric?
Our way of life in the so-called civilized, industrialized societies has developed at the expense of billions of people, millions of plant and animal species, most resources, and of the health of the planet earth herself. Our emphasis on material consumption, accumulation and waste is a lifestyle of incredible violence. We are assaulting the dignity and sovereignty of life and "resources" as if they are mere objects at our mercy and for our personal profit and comfort. We are murdering countless poor in the "Third" or "underdeveloped" world because they want to live with justice rather than misery. We are killing water, air, soil, plants and animals everywhere. Our waste, a concept totally at odds with fundamental ecological principles requiring everything to be the basis for new life again, is literally going to kill us if we don’t stop creating it.
We intervene with overt and covert military barbarism into the sovereignty of dozens of other nations. We are marauding everything in our way, just as we did with the indigenous people who were present before Europeans landed on the continent. In the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, we consume an extraordinary disproportionate amount of the Earth’s resources. Thus, it doesn’t take much to offend the "national security" interests of the United States.
This kind of barbarism and insanity has happened, and continues to happen, only because we lack consciousness and understanding. We have come to believe ourselves as detached from and superior to virtually all of the natural world and most "other" people. In fact, we are detached from our own nature. We have been assaulting ourselves! In our worship of money and things we have become spiritually depraved, and mentally ill.
The good news is that in our experiment with the truth, every day is a new opportunity to make choices to change, to willingly endure transformation, even though it is painful as well as liberating and joyous. As we look around we see people making profound changes everywhere. Change is in the wind–it is in our natures. We can take personal responsibility for making choices based on our sense of truth. We can dare ourselves, if necessary, to "say it the way we see it," and "express it the way we fell it." We can actually live as if justice was everything, respecting the incredible fabric within which we live and upon which our lives are absolutely dependent for survival. We must examine what we buy, what we read and view, how we invest or spend our money and personal time, the method of our transportation and movement, how much we consume in resources each day, how we "make" our livelihood, etc.
In looking at the whole picture are we harming our enhancing life? Our choices must respect our humble place on the planet. Every choice we make possesses social, economic and ecological implications that affect the health of all life, perhaps the survival of the planet herself, and certainly the survival of our own and many other species. Perhaps it is now time to declare: Change or Perish! The prevailing system really requires our cooperation in money, work and silence. The truth is that living "business as usual" amount to suicide. We really do not need a system that is killing us all. This is the epitome of sheer madness. To embark upon a path of change based upon our truth, to move into revolutionary nonviolence, is to be part of hope and affirmation.
I believe that we are at a point in history when we need to remove any preconceived limitations we might possess about what is possible once we empower ourselves to act. But our challenge is a moral, not a technological, one. We in the industrialized societies must choose to join the human race as equals and defer to the ecological imperative, in effect, to the true nature of ourselves. We need to enthusiastically and vigorously resist and noncooperate with policies and practices that are at odds with what we know to be true. Boldly, but thoughtfully, we can affirm a new vision of living in interrelationship with all other life. There are no technological fixes, only a willingness to change our consciousness, a much greater challenge. It is conceivable that in one generation the concept of bioregions and regional ecosystems (e.g. historic Indigenous sacred hunting and roaming areas where the people intimately knew their resources and limitations) will replace historic nation states as the only reasonable manner for defining political boundaries. We will have to quickly terminate our use of fossil fuels and learn that "slow" as well as "small" may in fact be beautiful, and required. Changes in our lifestyles will be dramatic. I predict that after the initial shock we will feel relieved, and healthier.
Virtually all that we need to know in order to participate in this nonviolent revolution has been devised. We only need the will. How much do you want to survive with dignity? From various ap
propriate technologies to numerous expressions of spiritual/political consciousness through noncooperation, boycotts and resistance campaigns, we have a profound experiential base in order to walk this new path. The Indigenous peoples of the world, including the Native Americans, have never lost their ecological consciousness–a beautiful wisdom.
We are witnessing a movement of grass roots efforts throughout the world, people empowering themselves to be part of the solution. Numerous groups and individuals are working to stop the intervention of the United States in "Third" World countries in defiance of their own U.S. government. Similar efforts are fighting further testing and deployment of nuclear and other military weapons, not just in the United States, but worldwide. The number of local, regional, national and international actions responding to the cries of Mother Earth, the Gaia, for ecological sanity is growing at a phenomenal rate. Responses to homelessness, hunger, lack of health care, the AIDS challenge, Apartheid, protecting sacred Native lands, etc., are springing from the people wherever they are feeling the pain of injustice.
Nation-state governments are generally continuing to maintain the traditional economic development and consumption model destined to kill all life, if left unchecked. But people are spontaneously, and often without knowing of other similar activities, rising up to meet the challenge of the truth as it reveals itself so clearly in front of our eyes. The choices are becoming clearer: work harder to maintain deeper denial, or affirm empowered alternatives. Tax resistance, one of the most decentralized forms of resistance, is becoming a more accepted manner of extricating oneself from complicity of literally paying for death and destruction.
The number of people involved directly in solidarity and diplomatic efforts with peoples of other nations is also increasing. In unprecedented fashion, over 100,000 U.S. citizens have gone to Nicaragua to stand in the way of the U.S. government’s illegal determination to murder and maim an entire nation. Activities of U.S. and other citizens working in various Latin American countries, Africa, and the Soviet Union, among others, and Vietnam War veterans rebuilding health clinics in Vietnam achieving atonement with the people they once bombed, foretell a new age where people will no longer wait for governments to wage peace. People are increasingly willing to pay the price and make the sacrifices necessary in order to begin a people’s worldwide nonviolent revolution of consciousness. It is the only hope left for our species and the earth.
A Vision Guide to the Practice of Nonviolence
|Resistance and Noncooperation||Affirmative Alternative|
|1. Boycott mass media, including TV: the media monopoly reguarly distorts news and images.||1. Support alternative information sources: community access and community owned radio and TV, alternative print media, local networking.|
|2. Boycott bank and stock investments; invest ments profit on injustice worldwide.||2. Invest in locally controlled banks and credit unions and in socially just funds where you know precisely what the money is being used for; Vermont State Bank now invests exclusively in local development and social services; there are many alternative funds now.|
|3. Phase out use of fossil fuels, especially use of private automobiles and central power plants; these two modern inventions are the largest source of pollutants destroying the ecological health.||3. Develop conservation of energy lifeststyles; use only replenishable resources such as solar; alternative transportation such as trains, bicycles, horses & walking; massive reforestation in every local area as antidote; Amish model.|
|4. Boycott mass consumer items; our consumption patterns and habits furnish the basis for a world of unaccountable transnational corporations exploiting human and natural resources and thriving on waste and our lifestyles.||4. Live in locally reliant communities in harmony with local ecology; use only recyclable resources; develop economy based on local services and barter; live simply with appropriate resources and locally produced organic food; respect of land is indispensible; study practices of indigenous people.|
|5. Boycott payment of national taxes; they now support a military and transnational industrial complex that is literally destroying the world ignoring human and ecological needs.||5. Redirect monies for the public good to local needs, peace efforts, and socially responsible efforts directly.|
|6. Boycott military service; what happens if they prepare for wars and nobody cooperates?||6. Redefine responsible citizenship, contribution of our labor for justice, peace efforts, and local community human and ecological health.|
|7. Resistance and noncooperation with nation- state policies/values; lawlessness is rampant to maintain the 25% that comprise the "First World" by consuming 85% of the world’s resources via expoitation and domination.||7. Develop bioregional ecosystems as bases for community definition; participate in civil obedience to international law protecting sovereignty and prohibiting aggression (Nuremberg Obligations); civil resistance to government lawlessness.|
Important: Resistance is not effective without affirmative counteraction!