Non-Violence as a Way of Life

Lenief Heimstead
Friends for a Non-Violent World

Advocates of non-violence think of it in two ways: as a way of life for individuals and communities and as a strategy in political conflict situations. In either case, it stands in contrast to its opposite, violence, and it typically rests on a spiritual or philosophical foundation.

Violence is an unwarranted exertion of force in order to achieve an objective; violence ranges from psychological intimidation to nuclear warfare. Non-violence, on the other hand, seeks alternative means of resolving conflicts between individuals or groups having different objectives. The non-violent approach is based on respect and caring for an opponent, even under difficult circumstances.

Non-violence is closely linked with working to end the root causes of violence. Efforts toward a sustainable and just economy are a core part of the current United Nations Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence (2001-2010).

Non-Violence As a Way of Life

Choosing to lead a life of non-violence means choosing a life that is based on a whole set of values, one of which is non-violence. That is, an individual doesn’t aim to be non-violent while also living a life of competition, deceit and manipulation.

A way of life that includes non-violence as a value also includes respect and empathy for other individuals and an expectation of cooperation and trust within a community. It requires honest communication and techniques other than violence for resolving conflicts that arise. It does NOT mean avoiding all disagreements and conflicts.

Individuals who believe strongly in non-violence typically oppose military efforts to resolve conflicts between nations and often favor strong animal rights policies. They may be conscientious objectors to military service, and they are likely to be vegetarians. Individuals who believe in non-violence often work to reduce the factors that underlie violence. Working for human rights, social justice and economic sustainability are part of the non-violent way of life.

Non-Violence as a Strategy

It is in working on general issues that the use of non-violence as a strategy comes into play. The possibilities for this kind of strategy include letter-writing campaigns, labor strikes, boycotts of products or businesses and protest demonstrations. The term non-violent direct action is often used for strategies where individuals place themselves physically in a location to demonstrate their opposition to the current state of things. In other words, they use their own body to state “This is NOT okay with me.”

Historically, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) is known for his leadership in the use of non-violent direct action in political struggles in South Africa and India. In India, a person can use the sanskrit word “ahimsa” to mean non-violence in a general sense that would apply to a lifestyle value; but Gandhi used the word “satyagraha” to denote his philosophy of non-violent direct action in support of truth and justice in a political struggle.

In the United States, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his followers adopted non-violent direct action strategies for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955-56 and for later civil rights actions such as lunch counter sit-ins.

Both Gandhi and King emphasized love for all human beings as the basis for using non-violent direct action, and both stressed that non-violent strategies are not a sign of cowardice. Gandhi said, “In non-violence, the masses have a weapon which enables a child, a woman, or even a decrepit old man to resist the mightiest government successfully.”

We see non-violent direct action today in protests related to the global economy and actions related to the United States government’s military activities.

What You Can Do

  • Spend some time thinking about how to incorporate non-violence into your life. 
  • Be trained in non-violent direct action techniques and use them to address critical issues. 
  • Join local organizations that support non-violent political actions.

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