Foundation Myths

Since 2001, the United States sees myriad existential threats to our nation from lone terrorists to rogue states like North Korea to China and Russia. The American response to this has been to act in line with what Walter Wink called The Myth of Redemptive Violence. The original form of the myth tells of the creation of an ordered world through killing: violence defeats chaos and enables ordered societies to flourish. Violence, in the form of war, then looks like the best way to overcome threats. As Stephen Kinzer pointed out recently, there are in fact few or no such doomsday threats. We need to look at the world with eyes open to the complexity of the conflicts and injustices in the world, and we need to widen our sense of the options available to us.

We cannot do that, and we cannot make headway against the myth of redemptive violence, unless we also address the myth of the futility of nonviolence. This myth is often expressed in silence: lack of news coverage of nonviolent solutions to conflict, for example, or ignorance of the history of nonviolence. Ask a group of Americans to name one nonviolent movement that was successful in the last 60 years and most folks will shout out the Civil Rights Movement. Ask about another successful nonviolent movement in the US. If anyone responds, they will mention the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez. No one ever mentions the labor union movement earlier in the century or the nuclear freeze movement during the Reagan administration, though both succeeded, or the ongoing movements for higher wages and immigration reform.

One objection to the efficacy of nonviolence takes the form of a question: When has it worked? That question is the result of silence; nonviolence has worked in many times and places and is working today, but we don’t hear about it unless we search for it, whereas we hear about shootings and wars all the time. The reasons are several, including the myth of redemptive violence; the media silence on nonviolent successes; our own predisposition to suppress memories of nonviolent action, which is difficult; and an apparent absence of people who prominently model nonviolence.

The second most common objection is also a question: Would it work against someone like Hitler? The belief that nonviolence is ineffective comes out of hiding here, because the historical record is clear that nonviolent action, even the silent vigil of several hundred women, did work in Nazi Germany. Nonviolent action halted military action in the Philippines in 1986 and overthrew the Marcos dictatorship. More recently, nonviolent action has won freedom from Indonesian rule for East Timor and ended apartheid in South Africa. It works, and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan document its efficacy in their book Why Civil Resistance Works.

One more counter-argument runs, “I am not ready to take nonviolent action because I get angry.” Anger and frustration motivated Gandhi in South Africa and India, the American Civil Rights Movement, and many other movements and activists, including the German women referenced in the previous paragraph. The other part of the answer is to get ready! There are books, various organizations, training seminars including webinars, and even a mass movement, Campaign Nonviolence, to spread knowledge of and participation in nonviolent action. We can each begin to learn nonviolence by practicing nonviolence in our daily lives, and thereby demonstrate that nonviolent action is more effective and more successful than violent action.