FIRST DO NO HARM

The influence of Gandhi on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well known.

But Gandhi himself owed a debt to the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who had written on the same topic of nonviolence.

And Tolstoy, in turn, learned from others before him, including the French political philosopher Étienne de la Boétie in the 1500s, the Czech dissenter Jan Hus in the 1400s, and most crucially for Tolstoy — Jesus Christ.

In the books A Confession and The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy describes his midlife crisis, his turn toward faith, and his growing conviction that churches everywhere — across history — disregard the most important part of Christ’s message.

For Tolstoy, true Christianity is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

Nonviolence and unconditional love, even for one’s enemies, are such radical directives, with such major implications; if one takes them seriously, Tolstoy says, then it becomes hard to justify or participate in most of what churches, governments, and societies require of members.

As an example, Tolstoy describes the public whipping of two peasants who were found to have infringed the land rights of a wealthy aristocrat.

Tolstoy lays out, person by person, all the participants in the punishment, from the judge and prosecutors to the soldiers and officers dispatched to carry out the whipping.

Tolstoy himself was on the same train as these soldiers on their way to the village. He observed their behavior, their apparent attitudes about the case, and then their actions during the beating.

He believed that down deep, few of the soldiers felt good about the case.

All these lads, peasants for the most part, know what is the business they have come about; they know that the landowners always oppress their brothers the peasants, and that therefore it is most likely the same thing here.

But the soldiers participated anyway. It was easier to obey. In Tolstoy’s view, they had been gradually ‘hypnotized’ by the daily experience of obeying laws, obeying superiors, training as soldiers.

What other options were available to these men?

Tolstoy lays out various scenarios which basically boil down to civil disobedience — a simple, nonviolent, matter-of-fact refusal to participate, no matter the repercussions.

In the United States, another writer considered similar questions roughly 40 years earlier.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about civil disobedience in relation to slavery and the Mexican-American War.

Getting at the same point as Tolstoy’s soldiers on the train, Thoreau wrote, “Even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Thoreau distinguished “respect for laws” from the dictates of individual conscience. Of himself, he wrote, “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”

Long before Thoreau and Tolstoy, the French essayist Étienne de la Boétie worked the same moral territory. He identified consent as the key variable, according to political theorist Murray Rothbard.

To [de la Boétie] the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear … consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.

Of course, nonviolence is not merely a political strategy, but also a spiritual path.

What Tolstoy traces back to Christ exists still earlier in the teachings of Gautama Buddha; Taoist philosophers in China; and — even further back — Jainist monk-mendicants in India.

Indeed, the Jainist religion seems the oldest, most conceptually consistent practice of nonviolence (ahimsa). Nearly a thousand years before Christ, the Jainist leader Parshvanatha advocated nonviolence as one of the four requirements for right conduct. (The other three were non-possession, non-stealing, and non-lying.)

One of my most vivid memories from college 30 years ago was a World Religions class taught by Prof. Diana Eck. On a sleepy, rainy Friday morning she showed a film which included a clip of Jainist monks sweeping the ground before them as they walked. They were trying to brush away insects and microbes so that none would be stepped on and killed. They were also wearing white cloth masks in order to avoid accidentally inhaling and killing tiny organisms in the air.

I was impressed by the Jainists. Their extreme nonviolence struck me as absurd, but also beautiful and maybe even … logical?

Wasn’t it the logical extension of not just Jainist beliefs, but the core beliefs of other major religions?

The precept ‘First, Do No Harm’ is commonly associated with the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. But the idea pre-dated him and certainly has broad application far beyond medicine. In one form or another, ‘Do No Harm’ lies at the heart of many faiths, even if the rule is not regularly followed (and certainly not at the level of whisking Jainists).

As much as I hate to consider the prospect of President Trump winning re-election in November, I like to be prepared for everything, including the re-birth of fascism.

My natural impulse would be to fight and disobey aggressively, even violently. But more and more, I believe that Parshvanatha, Christ, de la Boétie, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, and MLK were on the right path. This seems especially the case where my disagreement is not just with Trump himself, but with millions who voted for him, and thousands who implement his policies.

In this situation, where I am in effect on the train with Tolstoy’s soldiers, I think radical nonviolence is the only defensible answer.

A famous statement of nonviolence was made by the defeated Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1877 in what is now Montana.

His surrender capped a brutal campaign by the U.S. Army, which had chased the Nez Perce nearly 1,200 miles through the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. After a five-day siege in freezing weather, the Nez Perce finally surrendered. Chief Joseph said:

I am tired of fighting.
Our chiefs are killed.
Looking Glass is dead.
Toohulhulsote is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men who say no and yes.
He who led the young men is dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death.
My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food.
No one knows where they are.
Perhaps they are freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, chiefs, I am tired.
My heart is sad and sick.
From where the sun now stands,
I will fight no more forever
.

Whatever religion Chief Joseph was practicing in that moment, I would like to be a follower. For me, his words are up there with the Sermon on the Mount, Ecclesiastes, the Tao Te Ching, and the Gettysburg Address, for eloquence and power.

For “198 methods of nonviolent action,” go to the Albert Einstein Institution website.

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in COURAGE, HEROES, POLITICS, SPIRIT. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to FIRST DO NO HARM

  1. BatSheva Vaknin says:

    Beautiful. I agree wholeheartedly. Took an elective course in high school in the 90’s taught by Coleman McCarthy on nonviolence. Spoke to my heart.

  2. Interesting post. My views have changed a bit. It’s inspiring me to realign your post and write a post.

  3. Reblogged this on Impossible Things Before Breakfast! and commented:
    This post by Kit Troyer brings up some interesting moral dilemmas and the main one being the principle of non-violence.

  4. Jane Davis says:

    This is great, Kit, but may I add this:

    Nonviolence is fine as long as it works.
    — Malcolm X

    • kittroyer says:

      Thank you! How’s the house?

      • Wise Hearted says:

        Oh, thanks for asking, drywall is going up as I type. I think that should be done, taping and sanding by end of next week then we paint. Not my favorite thing to do but God has already brought a lady from our church who loves to paint and is very good at it. Next comes the floor then the we can put kitchen in and rest of bathroom. Praying for the second week of Oct we will be in. We live in northern Mn. so the cold is already here, frosted last night but looking forward to warmer weather next week. Just hoping a long freeze does not happen, we would have to move out of our rv. Again, thanks for asking.

      • kittroyer says:

        Sounds very tiring, but with a wonderful blessing waiting at the end — a warm, cozy home in beautiul northern Minnesota!

  5. Wise Hearted says:

    nonviolence is not merely a political strategy, but also a spiritual path. Had to come back because this line has stayed with me since I just read a book, non fiction but still powerful. White women from prisons were given to chance to get out and go west and marry into Indians tribes. This was back right before Custer. The book starts out like Nez Perce’s, ran off their land into total waste and left with nothing. It was hard to read. Yet I know in the name of government this has happened often and will continue to happen. I have been ask before how could I follow a God who killed women and children in battles such as Jerico and other ones in the Bible? He actually told the Jews to kill all in many battles. The bible tells of a non violence God who demands total obedience. Because His creation messed up He had to send His perfect Son to die for us. I remember when I was seeking I struggle with this God. But I could not find any other God that loved unconditionally. since this is not a perfect world and never has been since the garden of Eden, God the creator had to deal with his creation, us. His goal was perfection, His answer for that was Jesus. For sure, even those you mention are not perfect even in their non violent stand. So I rest on Jesus and none other for he alone is non violent for all.

  6. Excellence in essay form !

  7. Kelly Curtis says:

    Very nice! Take care and thank you for following.

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