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.