By Ned Netterville
I seldom come across a book by an Earthling (voluntaryists and Austrian economists are from Mars or Venus, depending on their gender) that sends me to my feet pumping my fist like Tiger Woods when with talent and force of will he sends a forty-foot put curling into the cup. But that’s what I caught myself doing as I read Mark Kurlansky’s 2006 book, Nonviolence, subtitled Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. This is a must-read for anyone desiring world or local peace but perplexed by how to achieve it.
The clarion-clear message of this narrowly focused history of the use of violence versus nonviolence is that when it comes to throwing off forcible oppression, nonviolent resistance beats violence hands down. Yet so little is understood regarding its effectiveness and accomplishments that there is no word in any language for the opposite of violence beyond the negative, nonviolence. Kurlansky shows that failure to understand that nonviolence is an efficacious means and a potent force in the hands of peacemakers or the oppressed is a serious mistake benefiting only warriors and tyrants. The author points out, “it has always been treated as something profoundly dangerous” by the rulers of states. His concise history traces the concept of nonviolence among ancient people of various religions up to the recent past. He deduces from his examination that “Though most religions shun warfare and hold nonviolence as the only moral route towards political change, religion and its language have been co-opted by the violent people who have been governing societies.”
Kurlansky distinguishes between pacifism and nonviolence: “Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous… . Nonviolence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique of political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” And, I might add, nonviolence has a potent spiritual component that the initiators of violence cannot comprehend and have no means to counter.
Kurlansky’s narrative points to the almighty state as the ultimate villain in causing wars, although he doesn’t explicitly say so. He does say that when church and state combine, both become depraved. Jesus was both a pacifist and so dangerously nonviolent that the Roman Empire murdered him. His early followers adopted his ways, but when the Christian church was subsumed by the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign, Christianity betrayed the teaching of Jesus. Augustine concocted a theory to justify war, and Christians have been warring ever since. Kurlansky refers to its amalgamation with Rome as “a calamity from which the Church has never recovered.” And he adds, “One of history’s greatest lessons is that once the state embraces a religion, the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its nonviolent component and becomes a force for war rather than peace.”
Kurlansky’s narrative illuminates twenty-five lessons from the history of nonviolence, which he enumerates at the conclusion of the book, but there are certainly others to be found therein by the discerning reader. Here are a few of the enumerated lessons that have not already been mentioned:
———Nations that build military forces as deterrents will eventually use them.
———Practitioners of nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state.
———A propaganda machine promoting hatred always has a war waiting in the wings.
———People who go to war start to resemble their enemy.
———A conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent can provoke the nonviolent into violence, the violent side has won.
——— The problem lies not in the nature of man but in the nature of power.
———The state imagines it is impotent without a military because it cannot conceive of power without force.
———All debate ends with an “enforced silence” once the first shots are fired.
———Violence never resolves. It always leads to more violence.
———Once you start the business of killing, you just get deeper and deeper without limits.
———Violence always comes with a supposedly rational explanation.
———Violence is a virus that infects and takes over.
———The hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done.
Here are a few other lessons extracted from Kurlansky’s work:
———Government propaganda makes war out to be a holy crusade for freedom.
———It is much easier to start a war than to stop it.
———A war will never end wars; it always leads to the next one.
———If one doesn’t stand up for what’s right, what’s wrong will never change.
I find only one flaw in Kurlansky’s brave book. He fails to notice the obvious connection between the violent nature of the state, which causes every war, and the predatory means by which the state obtains funds that are vital to its wars and to its very existence. I am referring, of course, to taxes, without which a state must whither and die. The collection of taxes requires the initiation of force, or threat thereof, against otherwise peaceful, harmless, innocent individuals. Force is but another word for violence, and violence begets only its kind–more violence. Directly and indirectly, then, taxes cause wars. No war has ever been fought without taxes or an equivalent other form of state plunder.
When Kurlansky writes that the hard work of beginning a movement to end war has already been done, he wasn’t referring to his book, but to the words and deeds of the practitioners of nonviolence, such as the Chinese rebel, Mozi (470 – 390 B.C.), Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King (among the most famous). With the publication of his book, Nonviolence, Kurlansky joins that illustrious group of workers who have shown us the whys, the how’s, and the ways of nonviolence.