The years following the defeat of Napoleon brought with them great economic and political instability in the north of England. There, years of famine and unemployment, coupled with the high price of corn and the absence of voting rights, gave rise to radical political ideas. When on August 16, 1819 a large crowd of over 60,000 gathered in Manchester to hear radical speaker Henry Hunt, the local magistracy ordered his arrest. Instead, the cavalry unsheathed their sabres and charged the crowd. 15 people were killed and hundreds injured. The British press, not to mention the public, was outraged.
Hearing of these events while in Italy, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote what is perhaps the first manifesto of the modern nonviolent resistance movement. Here are some excerpts:
- Stand ye calm and resolute,
- Like a forest close and mute,
- With folded arms and looks which are
- Weapons of unvanquished war….
- And if then the tyrants dare,
- Let them ride among you there,
- Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
- What they like, that let them do.
- With folded arms and steady eyes,
- And little fear, and less surprise
- Look upon them as they slay
- Till their rage has died away
- Then they will return with shame
- To the place from which they came,
- And the blood thus shed will speak
- In hot blushes on their cheek….
- Rise like Lions after slumber
- In unvanquishable number,
- Shake your chains to earth like dew
- Which in sleep had fallen on you-
- Ye are many — they are few. (1)
The purpose of nonviolent resistance is to effect political or social change through various peaceful methods, including civil disobedience, sit ins, or economic boycotts. As Shelley so vividly describes it, in facing nonviolent resistance the aggressor must confront his own brutality and become ashamed. The New Testament roots of this principle are obvious. Toward the end of his life, Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote about pacifism at length as it relates to the Sermon on the Mount. His book The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894) and his later brief but famous correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi had a life-changing effect on the direction of the latter’s activism. As Tolstoy wrote in his last letter before his death, “[Christ] knew, as all reasonable men must do, that any employment of force is incompatible with love as the highest law of life, and that as soon as the use of force appears permissible even in a single case, the law itself is immediately negatived.”
The events of the past week, with Israeli forces attacking and boarding vessels crowded with activists on a humanitarian mission to bring relief to Gaza, have angered those on both sides of the issue. Israel’s leaders and her supporters have accused the activists of deliberately forcing a confrontation; the flotilla’s defenders say it was a humanitarian mission. Actually, both are right. Before the eyes of a watchful world, Israel is now in the position of either lifting the siege of Gaza or continuing to enforce it with increasing brutality.
In 1960 four black college freshmen entered a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, where they purchased some items then sat down at the lunch counter. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” they were told. On the contrary, they replied, they had just been served at a cash register a few feet away. Woolworth’s had taken their money, and they had the receipts to prove it. The management accused them of stirring up trouble and asked them to leave. They refused and sat at the counter until closing.
Were these four forcing a confrontation? Yes. Were they deliberately stirring up trouble? Well, that depends on which side of the issue you were on. For them, they were simply refusing to obey the South’s unjust Jim Crow laws. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963)
“We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation….I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'” (2)
There is a growing grassroots movement of nonviolent demonstrations in the occupied territories of Palestine. There, with the help of the Palestinian churches, the people are waking up to the reality that hatred and violence beget hatred and violence. You Tube is filled now with media capture of Israeli forces attacking peaceful Palestinian protesters. A few days ago an American art student lost an eye when an Israeli soldier shot a teargas canister directly at her face. This morning in Jerusalem Israeli security police, trying to prevent a peaceful demonstration, barred worshipers from entering the Al Aqsa Mosque. Instead, the Muslims conducted themselves peacefully, and when the muezzin gave the call to prayer, they prayed on street corners, store fronts and sidewalks. You can’t stop people from praying to God.
As I write another ship laden with relief supplies is heading toward Gaza. Let us pray its passengers will have the strength and courage to comport themselves non-violently. Let us pray that Israel’s leaders too will see the futility of oppression and violence, that in King’s words, “the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
(1) from “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
(2) from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr.