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June, 2003

Revolutionary Nonviolence

By John Dear

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, our relentless pursuit of global domination, nuclear brinkmanship, corporate greed and silent oppression of the world's poor, I turn again to the great peacemakers of history, from Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day and Mohandas Gandhi for wisdom to practice revolutionary nonviolence against imperial America.

Our government, the Pentagon, its warmakers and corporate rulers have set out with renewed energy to control the planet. The public by and large has been terrorized or pacified to accept every new imperial pronouncement with passive indifference, whether the loss of civil liberties, the threatened use of nuclear weapons, or "regime change."

The empire would have us believe that democracy and peace have been fully realized, when instead, we have reached Orwell's permanent war. Nonetheless, people of integrity and conscience need to dig deeper into that revolutionary nonviolence which sows seeds for a future of peace. This revolutionary nonviolence seeks the fall of imperial, nuclear America and the birth of a new nonviolent, democratic society dedicated to global disarmament, justice for the world's poor, and peace for the whole human family.

Our peacemaking ancestors gave their lives for this vision. They did not live to see it come about, but that did not stop them from sowing the seeds which have blossomed within us. We too have to commit ourselves again to that long haul work of sowing the seeds of peace and justice, knowing that we can contribute to a harvest somewhere down the road. This work requires withdrawing our cooperation from imperial America; resisting imperial America through steadfast, nonviolent action; building a new society within the shell of the old, through constructive work for racial and economic justice; and envisioning a new world of nonviolence beyond imperial America.

Withdrawing cooperation from imperial America

"Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good," Gandhi said throughout his life. Just as he concluded that non-cooperation with imperial Britain was a duty for all Indians, we conclude that non-cooperation with imperial America is a duty for us. Somehow we have to withdraw our cooperation more and more from the system of war, nuclear weapons, economic hegemony, global oppression of the poor, and imperial violence. We have to help others realize that we are an occupied people, living in the belly of the empire, so they can withdraw their cooperation with the system of institutionalized injustice, what Jonathan Schell calls "total violence."

Our nonviolent non-cooperation will take simple, concrete steps, from canceling subscriptions to the mass media which support imperial war (The New York Times, the Washington Post); to boycotting the TV media that support war; seeking alternative sources of information; putting away the flag; cutting back on fuel consumption; refusing to pay war taxes; no longer supporting businesses which endorse America's war; and urging young people not to join the military. (This past year, I counseled many young people in the desert of New Mexico where I live, to turn down the tempting offers from military recruiters who sought to entrap them. Several of these young people not only refused to join the military, but joined the peace movement instead.)

Resisting imperial America through nonviolent direct action

The nonviolent movement for peace and justice is just beginning. We sow seeds that will one day bring a harvest of peace and justice. That means we have to spend our lives in steadfast, creative, nonviolent action for justice and peace. As martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero said, "None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something." We each do what we can--vigil, lobby, agitate, write, and speak out for peace. We serve as activists and organizers. We stir the pot, disturb the peace and agitate for disarmament and justice. More and more cross the line in simple acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, to break the laws which legalize war, nuclear weapons and imperial America.

But as the late Philip Berrigan said, we have to practice nonviolent resistance to imperial America as a way of life. More than any other North American I have known, Phil embodied steadfast nonviolent resistance. For twenty years, I heard him speak about the imperative of steadfast resistance to imperial America as a moral requirement for these times, indeed as a spiritual duty of faith in the God of peace and justice. This resistance was not just a periodic fling, but day to day hard work.

Phil spent over eleven years of his life in prison for protesting our country's wars and nuclear weapons. When he was not in prison, he lived in Jonah House, a community of nonviolent resistance in inner-city Baltimore, where friends study the issues and the scriptures, serve the neighborhood poor, organize vigils and demonstrations, write and speak out for disarmament, and storm heaven for the coming of God's reign of nonviolence.

This might sound romantic or idealistic, but Phil made revolutionary nonviolence a day to day spiritual practice. He did not just dream about it, speak about it, or write about it. He lived it, suffered through it, and died last December resisting imperial America. We can learn from Phil's example, and commit ourselves anew to that same tireless, persistent resistance.

Building a new society within the shell of the old

As we resist imperial America, we join the local struggle to bring justice to the poor, jobs to the unemployed, housing to the homeless, food to the hungry, healthcare to the sick, education for our children, positive activities for our youth, and clean, safe, healthy environments for all. As we work locally for justice, we stand in solidarity with the millions around the world who struggle each day to survive, working not just for the rights of justice, but the basic necessities of life.

Gandhi insisted that if his people wanted independence, they had to start acting like they were free and take responsibility for their own lives, their own local communities, and their own local, concrete issues of poverty. He would not let his people wait for some glorious independence day down the road before they started to reform their nation; he demanded that everyone pitch in right now.

Dorothy Day called this constructive program "building a new society within the shell of the old." Her Catholic Worker movement today runs over 150 Houses of Hospitality where the homeless live in their homes, not as shelter clients, but as family. They receive both food, loving kindness, and the strength to rebuild their lives.

Everyone of us can serve in a local neighborhood, in our region or state to bring about positive changes for the poor and disenfranchised, to transform our local community even as we seek the global transformation to come. The trick is to make the connection between our grassroots work for peace and justice and the global movement of transforming, revolutionary nonviolence.

Envisioning a new world of nonviolence beyond imperial America

One of the casualties of a culture of war is the loss of our imagination. Our people can no longer even imagine a world without war or violence or poverty or nuclear weapons. Few dream of a world of nonviolence.

Dorothy Day called our military leaders and nuclear weapons manufacturers "the blindest of the blind." Our blindness has become total, yet we do not think we are blind. We think we know what we are doing and what is good for others. But we are clueless.

Since our blind leaders are driving us to the brink of destruction, we have to take the wheel, point the way out, and lead one another away from the brink, beyond imperial America, into a new future of peace with justice. We have to envision that new world to come. If we can uphold that vision and help one another imagine a world without war or nuclear weapons, we can help make that dream a reality. But we cannot expect vision from the warmakers or their media spokespeople. Only peacemakers can see the way forward toward a world of peace.

To be visionaries of peace we need to be contemplatives of nonviolence, people who imagine the God of peace, who let God disarm our hearts, who allow the God of peace to show us the way to peace. As visionaries and contemplatives of peace, we can then become a prophetic people who not only denounce imperial America as ungodly, immoral, and evil, but announce the coming of God's reign of nonviolence and justice.

Like the abolitionists who envisioned a world without slavery, we envision a world without war, poverty, imperial domination and nuclear weapons. We give our lives to that vision, and go forward trusting that one day, it will come true.

I think we are all called to this life of revolutionary nonviolence, to be sowers of justice and peace, resisters of imperial America, builders of justice and peace on the grassroots level and visionaries who point the way toward global transformation. We can learn from our ancestors in history's struggles for justice and peace not to be discouraged, but to keep at the work, keep speaking the truth, keep walking the road to peace.

As Philip Berrigan once said to me, "We are all expected to do good, to seek justice and to resist evil. We will have to resist war for the rest of our lives. We're called to serve the poor, resist the state and be ignored, ostracized and sent to jail because we do that. We all have to take responsibility for the Bomb. But this new responsibility will breed all sorts of life-giving, salvific benefits in our lives. It will create the new human person, the new creation, the just social order."

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