Book Review: Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance

by Thomas Weber

Cover art courtesy University of Minnesota Press; upress.umn.edu

As a university student with an interest in existential philosophy, I remember struggling with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. At times there were even consecutive pages that made sense to me, but more often there were only single paragraphs separated by many pages of dense language and philosophical concepts that were beyond my comprehension. I was very thankful when I came across Sartre’s essay “Humanism as an Existentialism” and suddenly what he was trying to say came into focus and made sense. How much I lost by not comprehending the probably profounder text, I will never know. Readers of some of the latest scholarly offerings in the attempts to understand the life and thought of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi may find themselves in a similar position while waiting for the simpler more readily graspable versions to materialise. But then, weighty philosophical concepts are weighty philosophical concepts and possibly they are not meant for a wider audience that has little desire or ability to engage in deep theoretical philosophical discourse.

Once, writings about Gandhi were biographies, often hagiographical (for example by Louis Fischer); personal reminiscences, usually hagiographical (for example by his most well known British disciple Mirabehn); and selections of the Mahatma’s thoughts grouped in various categories, generally selected by those who were followers (R.K.Prabhu and U.R.Rao, Anand Hingorani, N.K.Bose and Krishna Kripalani come to mind). Of course there were serious attempts at analysing Gandhi’s campaigns through primary archival sources (for example by Judith Brown) and more probing attempts to make sense of his world view and what led him to have it (here one could list Gopinath Dhawan, T.K.N.Unnithan and Erik Erikson). During 1969, the Gandhi birth centenary year, dozens of books appeared. More recently, although there was the occasional controversy (particularly over the writings of James Lelyveld and Jad Adams), it has become almost fashionable to ensure that Gandhi scholarship can in no way be seen as hagiographical, with writers doing their utmost to undermine the “myth of the Mahatma”, by pointing out Gandhi’s inconsistencies, his youthful elitist and even racist attitudes (for example by Desai and Vahed), his older-age, controversial experiments in sexuality, and even labelling him as a traitor in the project of the creation of modern India (too many to mention). Even more recently, however, there has been another trend where scholars with a strong theoretical bent and deep philosophical knowledge have taken the Mahatma seriously and decided to turn their attention to his life and an analysis of his praxis (and here we could mention the writings of Vinay Lal, Faisal Devji, Isabel Hofmeyr and Tridip Suhrud among a growing cohort). Ajay Skaria’s Unconditional Equality: Gandhi’s Religion of Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) is a prime example of this development.

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Making Our Country a Better Country: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Interview with James Lawson

by Diane Lefer

Poster art courtesy fabiusmaximus.com

Editor’s Preface: Martin Luther King, Jr. called James Lawson “the world’s leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence.”  To Congressman John Lewis, he is “the architect of the nonviolence movement.” Jesse Jackson calls him simply “the Teacher.”  According to author David Halberstam, in his study of the Civil Rights Movement, The Children he was as responsible for sowing the seeds of change in the South as any single person, except perhaps Martin Luther King. This is the third in our series of interviews with Rev. Lawson. Please see the note at the end for further information, and acknowledgments. JG

Diane Lefer: You’ve said we have sufficient activism in this country to have a better country than we have. What are we getting wrong?

James Lawson: Activism has not been appropriating and practicing enough the Gandhian science of social change. What Gandhi called nonviolence or satyagraha – soul force – is both a way of life and a scientific, methodological approach to human disorder. It is as old as the human race and can be found in the oral and written history of the human family from way back. Then Gandhi began to put together the steps you need to take to create change. He is the father of nonviolent social change in the same way that Albert Einstein is the father of 20th-century physics – not the inventor, but the person who pulled it together.

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Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace

by Pope Francis

Giotto, “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds”; courtesy jssincivita.com.

Editor’s Preface: The following is the official Papal message for the 50th World Day of Peace, 1 January 2017. It is, however, the first such ever devoted exclusively to nonviolence, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. JG

1. At the beginning of this New Year, I offer heartfelt wishes of peace to the world’s peoples and nations, to heads of state and government, and to religious, civic and community leaders. I wish peace to every man, woman and child, and I pray that the image and likeness of God in each person will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity. Especially in situations of conflict, let us respect this, our “deepest dignity”, (1) and make active nonviolence our way of life.

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Editorial: Peace Be with You

by Joseph Geraci

Edward Hicks painting, c. 1823, from the Peaceable Kingdom series; courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Peace has been for centuries a universal greeting and sign. We may recall that the World War II military victory V-sign was transformed in the 1960s into a peace symbol; signs of the times. Peace was always more than a simple hello; it was a bestowal of peace on someone, a blessing. In the Middle East, for example, that area of the world so riven by violence, it is perhaps not so strange an irony that a common greeting is (in Hebrew) shalom aleikhem (Peace be with you), and the reply aleikhem shalom (Peace also be with you). In Arabic it is as-sal alaykum (Peace be with you), common to Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia, Central Asia, Iran, India, et al. The response is as-salamu alaykum, and can also be translated as “Peace also be with you”.

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Sending a Mighty Message: The Waging Nonviolence Interview with James Lawson

by Nathan Schneider

Portrait of James Lawson courtesy Vanderbilt University, vanderbilt.edu

Editor’s Preface: James Lawson was one of the chief organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, especially of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins. Throughout his long career he has steadfastly emphasized the need to develop long-range nonviolent strategies, not just short-term tactics. Please see the note at the end for further information about Lawson, Nathan Schneider, links, and acknowledgments. JG

Nathan Schneider: For activists trying to reclaim people’s power among all the powerful corporations at work today, what do you think can be learned from the civil-rights movement? What are the lessons from your experience?

James Lawson: Well, I think that the main thing that activists must learn is nonviolent philosophy, methodology, techniques, and strategy. They need to work from an investigation and assessment of their local base, determining thereby the skills and techniques that will organize and mobilize people in that local scene. No social movement is going to take place if it doesn’t have roots in what’s going on in Cleveland, Ohio, or Washington, DC, or right across Georgia. That’s how movements take place, and that’s how movements have taken place in the United States—not by national policy, but by local groups assessing their own scene and trying to be real about how to start working.

At the local level, people need to get some processes going that will cut down the sales of certain companies and corporations and begin to send a mighty message. It may not be possible to do that in the first year, but I’d be willing to wager that steady organizing around something specific would begin to have an impact. That’s the first task.

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The Spirituality of Nonviolence: The Soka Gakkai International Quarterly Interview with James Lawson

by SGI Quarterly

Painting by Charlotta Janssen based on mug shots of James Lawson after his arrest for a nonviolent protest in Jackson, Mississippi; courtesy charlottajanssen.com

Interviewer’s Preface: In the late 1950s, James Lawson moved to Tennessee as southern secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he began training students in Nashville in nonviolent direct action. Prior to that, he had spent a year in jail as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and had also trained in nonviolence at various Gandhian ashrams in India. Described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “one of the foremost nonviolence theorists,” Rev. Lawson, now in his 80s, still remains a vibrant voice for social justice. SGI

SGI Quarterly: Do you remember a particular moment after you became involved in the Civil Rights Movement when you felt afraid?

James Lawson: I recall a number of moments of fear. But, I should say to you that those are isolated moments, and that from the beginning of my involvement character requirements froze out any fear. I was going to finish my graduate degree and then probably move south to work in the movement. I had spent three years in India, 1953-56, and then came back to Ohio for graduate school. I shook hands with Martin Luther King for the first time on February 6, 1957. By then I had been practicing and studying Gandhian nonviolence for ten years. And so as we met and talked, he said I should come south immediately. I said to him, “OK, I’ll come just as soon as I can,” which meant that I dropped out of graduate school and moved. There was no fear in making that move.

I don’t recall a single moment as I traveled around the South that I was frightened or fearful. And as we began the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, I wasn’t aware of any moment of fear there either. I was expelled from the university and was made the target of many public attacks.

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Book Review: Vandana Shiva’s Who Really Feeds the World?

by Tallessyn Z. Grenfell-Lee

Book cover art courtesy zedbooks.net

Humanity will always have a few basic needs: clothing, shelter, food. In the early 1900s, Gandhi saw clearly how imperialist colonialism had hijacked India’s sovereignty along with its ability to clothe itself, and he inspired a nation to reclaim the right to spin its own cloth. The people embraced homespun khadi and the spinning wheel, not only for their practical utility in reestablishing the independent foundation for a local economy, but for their deep symbolic significance in resisting the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, and classism perpetuated by imperialistic greed.

In her book Who Really Feeds the World (London: Zed Books, 2016) Vandana Shiva describes how India is again reclaiming another of humanity’s elemental needs from equally rapacious forces: the ability and right for a community to feed itself. This time, the symbol of communal empowerment is the humble seed, and Shiva’s Navdanya movement urges all Indians – and all peoples – to plant diverse seeds on every plot and balcony as a way to resist and reclaim food and seed sovereignty. Navdanya follows in the footsteps of Gandhi, employing Seed Satyagraha, or non-cooperation, to resist laws and policies that would allow large, trans-national corporations not only to convert local farms to industrialized, chemical-intensive practices, but also to outlaw ancient practices such as seed saving and sharing.

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Nonviolent Power in Action: The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Interview with Dennis Dalton

by Richard Ricketts

Dustwrapper art courtesy cup.columbia.edu.

Editor’s Preface: Dennis Dalton is Ann Whitney Olin Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a leading authority on Gandhi and civil resistance. Please see the note at the end for bibliographical information, and acknowledgments. JG

Richard Ricketts: Do you see resistance to Peace Studies as a field of study?

Dennis Dalton: That is a hard question. Many universities have institutes and centers that incorporate the word “peace,” such as the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia, but all they typically study is the war side of the equation. Peace is seen as a passive phenomenon, as an absence of war, so it is thought that there is nothing there to study.

I suspect this line of thinking is encouraged, in part, by the large grants that are provided from the Department of Defense. Columbia, for example, has traditionally been funded very liberally by the Defense Department and the money is just not there for peace studies. That is why I was really interested in this program at Arizona State University. The founder of the program Ann Hardt was really committed to peace and peace studies. You need someone like that who can fund these types of programs.

When I went to the instruction/education board meetings [at Columbia], I was told the subject was academically soft, not rigorous enough. What they meant was that they deemed pacifism as a weak, effeminate subject.

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“Nonviolence is a Personal Choice”: The Figure/Ground Interview with Barry Gan

by Brett Keegan

Jacket art courtesy Rowman & Littlefield; rowman.com

Editor’s Preface: Barry Gan is professor of philosophy and director of The Center of Nonviolence, St. Bonaventure University, Saint Bonaventure, New York. The interview was conducted by his student, Brett Keegan, for the open source, academic website figureground.org and posted there October 28, 2013. For further information about Gan and acknowledgments please see the note at the end. JG

Brett Keegan: So, how did you get introduced to peace studies and nonviolent philosophy?

Barry Gan: The long story goes back to when I was a child. I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of all Christians, and had been apprised by my parents that we were sort of different from everybody else in the neighborhood when we moved there when I was about six. And somehow, I always found myself in the role of peacekeeper among friends who were often getting involved with fights. I don’t know if it was out of fear, or just a sense of the stupidity of fights, but I never got involved. I would always try to talk people out of them, talk people through them.

Later, when I was at summer camp and my older brother was at summer camp with me, I remember there was this other kid there who was always getting picked on by everyone. And since I wasn’t from their school, I didn’t know why they were picking on him. I just found it annoying. And I remember challenging the bully at the time and wrestling him to the ground to get him to stop picking on this one kid.

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Seven Reflections on the Enigma of a “Nobody” Making a Public Display

by William J. Jackson

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing Los Angeles Rams in NFL game; courtesy Getty Images

(1) New forms of nonviolent protest, and renewed uses of old forms, are in the headlines; the kneel-in, for example, a protest that has recently spread among athletes. Many people are not aware of the history and the philosophy involved. Not knowing the background, some critics misunderstand and grow angry. Even the liberal and usually knowledgeable Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the kneel-in “dumb” and “disrespectful.” (Soon thereafter she took it back: “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”) Many people seem unable to put kneel-ins in a historical perspective. So I feel it might help deepen our understanding to look into the background, the meanings, and intentions of some of these practices. Maybe being better informed could help critics comprehend what is happening. (1)

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi