The Common Good
March-April 2003

Allies, Not Adversaries

by Richard Deats | March-April 2003

Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall have done an excellent job in clearly demonstrating the power of strategic nonviolent action in overthrowing oppressive regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein.

Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall ("With Weapons of the Will," September-October 2002) have done an excellent job in clearly demonstrating the power of strategic nonviolent action in overthrowing oppressive regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein. The 20th century was marked by the growing understanding of the theory of nonviolent action as well as the practice of it in country after country.

Despite these historically significant developments, there is still woefully little understanding of both the power and relevance of strategic nonviolent action in dealing with situations of conflict and oppression. The foreign policy of the Bush administration is predicated on a belief in the efficacy of overwhelming military force, used pre-emptively and unilaterally, in dealing with regimes such as Hussein's. As Ackerman and DuVall point out, our government ignores the power of the Iraqi people themselves and how they could topple Saddam through civilian-based nonviolent resistance.

My problem with Ackerman and DuVall, however, is their insistence that strategic nonviolent action should be carried out without any principled considerations. They reject the idea that it should be weighed down by "moral preference" or even as "a form of ethical behavior." They blame such ideas in large part for the refusal of hard-headed pragmatists to take seriously the power of nonviolence to bring down oppressors. They caricature those committed to principled nonviolence as preaching being "nice to your oppressor."

The evidence indicates otherwise. Certainly there have been powerful nonviolent movements in which strikes, work stoppages, non-cooperation, and massive civil disobedience have been effective without any religious or moral reference. But what about those movements that do have such a reference? When the Gdansk workers marched out on strike, were the Mass and prayers they joined in just an irrelevant flourish? Were the kneeling Filipino nuns who faced down the soldiers of Marcos just a sentimental diversion? Are we simply to dismiss as superfluous and offensive to hard-headed strategists the profound spirituality of nonviolent leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abdul Gaffar Khan, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, and Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr? Their revolutionary spirituality was not focused on simply making a point but rather on overthrowing the principalities and powers that were oppressing the people.

To effectively build a broad-based movement of people committed to nonviolent action, all of us need to learn from each other and to find ways of working together. Those who stand against violence, injustice, and aggression are allies, not adversaries.

Richard Deats
Nyack, New York

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