6 June 2009

Barack Obama and the power of non-violence

In his speech in Cairo, Barack Obama spoke about the "intolerable" situation of the Palestinians, who, "endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation ... And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own", but then urged Palestinians to eschew violence:
Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.
All this reminds me of an essay, "We shall overcome", by Stefan Wolle published in 1999 about the 20th century as the century of liberation. Wolle's essay begins in 1987, as a long-haired East Berlin gets stopped by the police on his way to the Zionskirche in East Berlin, shortly after a raid by security forces on the church's cellar where they belived illegal material was being printed. In the church, the pastor is delivering a meditation about the Sermon on the Mount. From the Sermon on the Mount, Wolle traces a line from Gandhi, through his campaign of non-violence in South Africa, then in India, and notes that in the year that Gandhi died, the young black theology student Martin Luther King in Philadelphia listened to a lecture about Gandhi':
His message was so profound and inspiring that I immediately bought half a dozen books on his life and work after the meeting. Like most others, I had heard of Gandhi but had never studied him seriously.
As Wolle notes, in South Africa, where Gandhi first developed his strategy of civil disobedience, the ANC did have a military wing and did engage in an armed struggle, though the transition when it happened did take place largely without violence, with Nelson Mandela at the forefront. In Eastern Europe it was Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc that worked for non-violent change. Wolle notes how the "peaceful revolution" in the GDR was a revolution of non-violence, where peaceful demonstrators faced violence from the security forces - in Berlin, for example, around the Gethsemanekirche on 8 October 1989. The cries of "no violence" shouted by the protesters were directed against the massed ranks of the police, but also a call to people on their own side not to retaliate in kind. Finally the police pulled back, and the crowd started singing, "We shall Overcome".
The tactics of all civil rights movements - whether in Eastern Europe, India, America or South Africa - was based on using the legal or semi-legal possibilities that existed. Despite all the differences between the movements that campaigned for civil rights in the 20th century, there was a line of tradition and many points that coincided as far as strategy anf forms of action were concerned. So it is no coincidence that political change - whether aimed at the independence of India, the recognition of black Americans or South Africans as citizens with full rights, or the right for to organize free trade unions in communist Eastern Europe - had its beginnings in churches, or more precisely in religion: the Hinduism of Gandhi, the Protestantism of Martin Luther King, the GDR civic rights activists, the Catholicism of Lech Walesa.
Obama finished his speech in Cairo by quoting from the three monotheistic religions:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort -- a sustained effort -- to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It's easier to start wars than to end them. It's easier to blame others than to look inward. It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today. We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."


Jane said...

Thanks for this. It has made me think abotu peaceful protest within organisations actually - how do we organise pacific resistance in the workplace.
Anyway I caught the end of Obama's speech and was very impressed by it.

Angus said...

Depends on the workplace or organisation, doesn't it; some places are easier to organise in... I've been a Trade Union Workplace Rep now for two and a half years - but there's a willingness to work with the Union in our Church Offices...

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Australia.

Please check out these two related references on the politics and culture of non-violence.



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