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Is There a Nonviolent Path to a Livable Future? A Conversation With Chris Moore-Backman

There’s a “movement of movements” taking place, knitting together a vast array of nonviolent social struggles.

A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Paulisson Miura)

We live in a time of extraordinary social ferment and upheaval, with deepening divisions, dislocation and extreme poverty. Add to this the full-blown ecological emergency of climate change and the continued existence of our current civilization and perhaps even our species is on the line. Chris Moore-Backman’s recently released first book, The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning, wrestles with the critical question that now looms before us: Is there a nonviolent path to a livable future? Moore-Backman — who has worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Christian Peacemaker Teams, and who has served on international peace teams in Colombia and Palestine —looks at this complexity from his unique perspective as a fully committed writer, nonviolence scholar and frontlines practitioner.

Against the backdrop of a painfully divisive US election, midstream in this era of the Movement for Black Lives and Standing Rock, and with a post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington just around the bend, I interviewed Moore-Backman about his book.

Miki Kashtan: Could you talk a bit about the metaphor of an iceberg, and how and why you’ve used it to frame your work?

Chris Moore-Backman: I’m always on the lookout for creative ways to capture the full significance of nonviolence and to challenge prevailing assumptions about it. I recently began using the visual of an iceberg — a particularly potent image given the climate emergency — to represent the three core features of Gandhi’s theory and practice which, taken together, point to something far deeper and stronger than what is usually associated with nonviolence.

The Gandhian Iceberg is a twist on the conventional depiction of an iceberg, in that the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” in this model refers only to the small, outermost edge of the ice visible above water. The biggest, weightiest part of the iceberg — the enormous mass under water — is what Gandhi called self-purification, which I refer to as self-transformation. This is the foundational expression of nonviolence, where we align our individual practice with our deepest principles. This alignment is the cardinal Gandhian commitment. It’s definitive for the whole enterprise. Moving above the water we come to the part of the iceberg that represents what Gandhi called constructive program. This is where our commitment to align principle and practice moves from the personal realm out into the community. Constructive program is the hands-on, collaborative work of building a nonviolent society at peace with itself and in harmony with the planet. Lastly, we head out to the very edge of the ice above water, the tip of the iceberg, which stands for satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance: the practice of love-in-action in situations of conflict. Where we engage directly with systems and forces of domination, clearing the way for the continued building up of the nonviolent society and the fullest expression of our humanity.

The three aspects are integral parts of one indivisible substance, each reflecting the same essential commitment to love and truth. And they all call for the same level of courage and integrity.

Throughout the book you use the phrase integral nonviolence to specify the nonviolence approach represented by the iceberg model. I’m curious about that phrase and your reasons for using it.

The sad reality is that the word nonviolence, which for Gandhi denoted the most powerful and sublime force in the entire universe, has devolved to mean nothing more than the tactical rejection of the use of physical force in conflict situations.

A growing number of changemakers have begun using the phrase integral nonviolence to distinguish the integrated, life-encompassing philosophy and practice that Gandhi taught and modeled from the misleading depictions of nonviolence we’re often exposed to. The phrase also explodes the false dichotomy of nonviolence as either “principled” or “strategic.” No such dichotomy existed in Gandhi’s mind. Integral nonviolence is always principled and strategic. Often people speak about one small facet of nonviolence as if they’re referencing the whole. That facet is usually civil resistance, direct action, or campaign-oriented activism. Our activist culture is so politically oriented and so unversed in the science of nonviolence that the rest of the iceberg goes unnoticed, and the true power and potential of nonviolence are lost.

Self-transformation and constructive program are not add-ons. If we’re serious about understanding and fully practicing nonviolence, they’re of absolute and primary importance. Gandhi explicitly said that constructive program — the hands-on work of building the alternative society — was a hundred times dearer to him than overtly political work.

Gandhi’s decision to place the spinning wheel at the center of India’s constructive program is deeply instructive. Along with forging unity between Hindus and Muslims and ending untouchability, Gandhi’s top social-change priority was restoring India to a human-scaled, village-based economy. He recognized that the reclamation of hand-spinning, a handicraft industry that had been essential to India’s precolonial economy, but which had been usurped by the British factories, would both actualize his outward economic goal and shift the mindset of the people towards self-reliance and a restored sense of personal dignity — Gandhi’s pre-requisites for freedom. Constructive program demonstrates that such internal shifts in consciousness are inseparable from outward action. Constructive program is also the best indicator of where and how we can best engage in nonviolent resistance.

It’s now up to us to delineate and bring to life our own robust constructive program, given the signs of our own times, while simultaneously carrying forward the work of self-transformation and nonviolent resistance. Integral nonviolence is the heading under which a growing number of us are locating these three inseparable assignments.

I’d like you to unpack two more key phrases that appear frequently in your book. You propose “the Great Turning” as the overarching goal for contemporary nonviolent struggle, and you call for the building up of “a movement of movements” to pursue that goal. Please say more about these concepts.

We can thank Joanna Macy for popularizing the phrase “the Great Turning” — the epochal shift from our current extraction-based, industrial growth society to a just and life-sustaining society. A clearly articulated vision is critical for a social movement, and the Great Turning does a great job at capturing the essence of what we’re after.

Too often the highest visions of movements are supplanted by lesser interpretations. Dr. King and his coworkers called for the building up of “the beloved community” and sought to “redeem the soul of America.” Today, we call that movement a “civil rights movement” — a passionless, legalistic tag. Similarly, Gandhi and his coworkers envisioned a social order committed to and engendering sarvodaya, the uplift of all beings. But, almost without exception, the Indian movement was and is still characterized purely as a struggle for independence from Britain.

The Great Turning keeps our focus on a majestic prize, so we don’t get sidetracked into the realm of reform, when we’re actually seeking transformation of an unprecedented quality and quantity.

The “movement of movements” refers to the knitting together of the vast array of contemporary social struggles into one coherent macro-movement. And it’s happening. Even if not in a very systematic or deliberate way thus far, the coalescence of movements is definitely underway.

When the Movement for Black Lives platform was first released, I read the movement’s bold statement in support of Palestinian liberation while I was doing peace-team work in Hebron. Just a day or two later I read that a delegation of Palestinian youth had arrived at Standing Rock, to stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux. These kinds of intersections are becoming second nature to movement-builders today.

On this theme of movement intersections, while the climate crisis serves as the backdrop for your book, you argue that reparations for the victims of white supremacy are “a necessary precondition for the Great Turning” and make this focus central to your work. What is the connection you see between climate change and racial justice? How likely is it that a national campaign of atonement and reparations will actually come into being?

I think we’re fooling ourselves if we believe we can build a movement of movements united enough, strong enough, nimble enough for the coming struggle, without simultaneously experiencing genuine and deep-rooted racial reconciliation and healing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates illuminates the climate/racial justice connection in Between the World and Me: “It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age,” he says. Naomi Klein rewinds further in This Changes Everything, citing white America’s original crimes against Indigenous people as the starting gate for the climate crisis. At its root, this was a collision between two fundamentally opposed worldviews. One based on the domination of land and people, and the other on human interdependence and right relationship with the earth. Plunder of the earth has gone hand in hand with white plunder of red, black, brown and yellow bodies for centuries. No such cycle can exist on the other side of the Great Turning. That wouldn’t be a Great Turning at all.

I sense humble beginnings of a national campaign of atonement and reparations, especially in certain activist and faith community circles. I’m hopeful that soon — treacherously late, given our history — we’ll be able to say to folks like Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Yes. The answer is yes. We’re so deeply sorry to have taken so long. The answer is yes.” And that we’ll see the beginnings of a significant redistribution of white wealth — wealth that can never be decoupled from the slavery and genocide that so define our past and so impact our present.

Whether or not the campaign will be taken to the needed scale quickly enough, I want a bold and earnest beginning to be made, starting now.

As a Jew from Israel, raised on scriptures that portray the great figures of the past as fallible, I was very taken by your choice to present a Gandhi who is flawed; a Gandhi who made serious mistakes and whose core goals were not reached; even as you want us to listen to and learn from him. Why is Gandhi so relevant to our very different times, despite his imperfections? [Editor’s note: Gandhi’s anti-Blackness and misogyny, among other issues, have come into focus in recent years.]

The sooner we get our leaders, heroes and prophets off the pedestal the better. And not by knocking them down. By inviting them down, respectfully and with gratitude. The pedestalization of prophets dehumanizes everyone. And at the most basic, simple level it’s just plain dishonest. We owe it to ourselves to be as truthful as possible — to bear witness to the full spectrum of our own humanity, and to learn about the living of our own lives. Heroic figures like Gandhi, King, Mother Teresa or Peace Pilgrim aid us in discerning deeply important things about the living of our own lives. The hero’s weaknesses and mistakes remind us of our own. And the hero’s strengths and accomplishments inspire us to let our own shine too.

Gandhi made significant mistakes, many of which he clearly learned from, others apparently not so much. But the point is that we need to learn from those mistakes, and, as Gandhi said, we need “to turn the searchlight inward” and inquire about the ways we’re missing the mark in this great project of aligning principle with practice.

I know of no teacher who more clearly systematized the building up of a nonviolent life and the practice of collective nonviolent confrontation with systems of domination than Mohandas Gandhi. His weakness and mistakes don’t negate that, even as I allow them to influence my assessment of his contribution. For me, inviting Gandhi off the pedestal has offered greater access to his teaching, while giving me greater access to my own nonviolent potential, as an equally flawed and fallible human being.

Your book walks the razor’s edge of calling for strong, identifiable leadership within a contemporary movement culture that is very suspicious of hierarchy and institutionalization. Black Lives Matter, for example, is focusing on leadership that is “high impact and low ego.” Does this focus match what you’re proposing?

Yes, it does. The only caveat is that “ego” here is used to signify egocentric or self-serving, and not the more positive connotation of “ego” as a healthy and essential sense of self-regard.

I definitely think that the model of the individual figurehead leader is out of step with the spirit of our times. But that does nothing to negate the fact that strong, coherent leadership of another form is very much needed.

We’re in need of a compelling and profoundly wise overarching strategy, and a visionary and instructive narrative to bind us together. Everyone’s best gifts are needed now, and we’ll serve the struggle best by entrusting leadership roles to movement folks gifted with leadership abilities in these areas.

We need to shift away from our tendency to value the role of leader, or spokesperson, over and above every other movement role. We’ll know who to ask to serve in shot-calling positions and spokesperson positions, when certain folks have proven their capacity to be servant leaders and have shown that they’re incorruptible in the face of the attention that comes to anyone who’s holding the microphone. We’re in need of the full spectrum of our humanity right now and my hope is that these leaders will also be ready to express aspects of their humanity that aren’t usually associated with leaders — things like grief and uncertainty, regret and humility.

In addition to calling for strong, identifiable leadership you also advocate another aspect that was central to Gandhi’s program — self-discipline and sacrifice — both of which are looked on warily by many today. Where are the people who would embrace a nonviolence recipe that emphasizes the need for self-discipline and sacrifice? And is there really no way forward without that?

There is certainly a way forward without discipline and sacrifice. But I doubt there’s a way to turn the Great Turning without it. Recent books detailing the strategic effectiveness of unarmed civil resistance abound, but none that I’ve seen point out that not a single movement where such resistance has brought down a ruthless dictator, regime or occupation has moved beyond our collective addiction and allegiance to resource-extraction and to the joint plunder of the earth and poor people. None of those “nonviolent” victories — I’m putting that “nonviolent” in quotes because unarmed shouldn’t be indiscriminately equated with nonviolent — has made a dent in the most fundamental problem. Even as I am in awe of the incredible accomplishments of these struggles, and the courage and sacrifice that have carried them through, I know that the caliber and reach of nonviolent action we’ve managed up to now isn’t going to cut it with the current red-alert emergency.

As for where to find self-disciplined people willing to sacrifice, I’ve had the honor of meeting more than a handful of them. They’re creating beautiful mischief within a wide variety of the submovements now taking shape as the movement of movements. They’re some of the most remarkable people you’ll ever encounter and, unsurprisingly, their capacity for joy and levity almost always matches their capacity for discipline and sacrifice. People are drawn by power and beauty, and those are the things that disciplined integral nonviolence generates. We may not need each and every one of us to embrace Gandhi’s full-blown vision of nonviolent living and action, but without a critical mass of us bringing that particular gift to the party, I’m doubtful we’ll manage to break free from the extraction paradigm.

Since the book came out, the mobilization in Standing Rock and the recent elections have taken place. Do you see a realistic chance of a full-fledged movement of movements emerging?

I think the chances of a full-fledged movement of movements emerging have increased significantly with these events. Even before the elections, we saw the first gathering of integral nonviolence practitioners looking to cohere as a submovement in service to the larger movement of movements — an experience that was deeply inspiring and encouraging. What’s more, I think we’re about to see visionary leaders responding to the invitation of their own submovement constituencies with bold and well-defined calls to unified action that will also accelerate this coalescing.

Before we part, can you say a word about whom you wrote this book for?

My book is for anyone who has an inkling that they might be cut out for integral nonviolence — anyone who feels called to practice nonviolence as Gandhi taught and modeled it, as a disciplined balance of self-transformation, constructive program and frontlines engagement with empire. It is for anyone who celebrates the vision of the Great Turning and of the coalescence of a movement of movements at this critical moment. I don’t know of another book that puts forward as clear a vision for how we might speed the coming together and strengthening of the movement of movements. Lastly, the book is for changemakers who are reflecting on their vocation. Readers keep telling me that it’s been really helpful to them in their process of discerning their next step, in view of what’s happening in the world, and in view of their particular gifts and passions.

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