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Where nonviolence worked


In 20 years of teaching courses on nonviolence in both high schools and colleges, I have known that one question is inevitable and that more than one student is panting to ask it: Yes, nonviolence is a noble idea and enduring ideal, but where has it worked? Often the question is twinned with another supposed stopper: Do you really think nonviolence would have defeated Hitler?

I’ve never given a classroom answer that came close to satisfying either the questioner or me. I feel like a math teacher who chalks the blackboard with calculus equations and then a student -- who has never taken a math course before and has been told all his life that 2+2=536 -- rises to say that nothing on the board make sense. But clear it up before the bell rings.

A bit of help is on the way. A two-part, three-hour documentary, “A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict,” is scheduled for Sept. 18 and 25 at 9 p.m. Eastern time on PBS. With a blend of archival footage, eyewitness testimony and a crisp journalistic account, narrated by Ben Kingsley, that remains non-ideological throughout, the story is told that violent force is not the only force: A more powerful and more effective one exists. But its use requires courage, conscience and conviction.

Television habitually and ignorantly sends the message that conflicts can be settled only one way: by violence. Finally, three hours of film are aired to portray the alternatives. Not since “Weapons of the Spirit” -- the 1988 documentary about Le Chambon, the French pacifist village that defied the Nazis -- has a film so ably captured the essence of peacemakers at work.

Out of dozens of 20th-century examples, the filmmakers -- including producer and writer Steve York and content adviser Peter Ackerman -- chose six nonviolent campaigns in which organized citizen resistance, non-cooperation and direct action defeated governmental oppression: student sit-ins in Nashville during the U.S. civil rights movement; Mohandas Gandhi’s 32-year effort to remove the British from India; the 1940s Danish resistance to German occupation; Solidarity’s strikes that took on the Soviet puppet regime in Poland; the consumer boycotts that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa; and the 1980s public demands for free elections in Chile that removed the Pinochet regime.

If a theme runs through these six stories, it is the succinct thought of Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institute in Boston, a group that supported the film’s production: “A ruler’s power is ultimately dependent on support from the people he would rule. His moral authority, economic resources, transport system, government bureaucracy, army and police -- to name but a few sources of his power -- rest finally upon the cooperation and assistance of other people. If there is general conformity, the ruler is powerful. But people do not always do what their rulers would like them to do.”

When they don’t, conflict -- a clashing of wills -- occurs. The ruled must decide their means of resolution, violent or nonviolent. If violence had been effective, the world would have been rid of fists, guns and wars eons ago. But extraordinary faith persists that the next time violence will work, and peace will reign once the blood dries and the corpses are stashed.

The story of the Danish resistance to the Nazis provides a compelling answer to the skeptical dismissal of nonviolent power as dreamily irrelevant when a führer shows up at the border. Led by King Christian X who took daily horseback rides through the streets of Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation -- escorted by bicycling citizens -- the Danes organized an effective unarmed bloc of resistance. By strikes, work slowdowns, hiding or helping Jews to flee, they calmly and efficiently defied the SS.

A postwar historian summarized the defiance: “Denmark had not won the war but neither had it been defeated or destroyed. Most Danes had not been brutalized, by the Germans or by each other. Nonviolent resistance saved the country and contributed more to the Allied victory than Danish arms could ever have done.”

The educational value of “A Force More Powerful” is in its factual challenge to prevailing misconceptions, beginning with the notion that nonviolent resistance equals passive resistance. “It’s not a semantic distinction,” says Peter Ackerman. “It is the critical difference between action and inaction. What Gandhi did and what the people in Chile did and what Lech Walesa did was anything but passive. They didn’t just sit there. They went out and did proactive things. … People in nonviolent struggles are not unarmed. They are simply not armed with violent weapons, but make no mistake, they have formidable resources that flow from the fabric of their society.”

A Chilean leader said of the organized resistance against Pinochet in the 1980s and the demand for fair elections: “We didn’t protest with arms. That gave us more power.”

The moral significance of these six movements is that the protesters had little or no previous commitments to nonviolence, much less to a deep-rooted allegiance to pacifism. They learned by doing. It’s to be wondered how much gore might be prevented -- an average of 40,000 people are killed a month in the world’s current 35-odd conflicts -- if whole societies were trained in nonviolent conflict resolution long before disagreements escalated to crises. The time to stop Hitler was in 1926 when he first ran for office. The time to stop fires from turning into infernos is when the first lick of flame appears.

Journalistically, “A Force More Powerful” brings much honor to PBS and the individuals and groups that funded the film. The film is a work of art because, first, it is a work of fact. Professionalism is immediately obvious in the opening scenes.

For viewers wanting more, a companion book -- a thick 544-page volume also titled A Force More Powerful -- is being published this month by St. Martin’s Press. A 16-page student study guide is available to teachers and schools through local public television stations. Those involved with the film intended it to be more than another night of TV. Their intentions were broad, and sound.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000