by Dr. Hal W. French
Originally published at www.interreligiousinsight.org and for the World Congress of Faiths at http://www.worldfaiths.org.
Are you a non-violent person? I suppose that most of us would claim to be. But the issue isn’t so simple; we often have to make choices which involve some measure of violence to others or ourselves, or to the environment. Our actions may at times be careless, thoughtless, and unintended violence may occur. They may not quite match our intentions. But how do you measure your own commitment to non-violence?
For some years I’ve taught Honors courses at the University of South Carolina on the theme, “Learning Non-Violence from Gandhi and Friends.” Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, William Wilberforce and others have been included among these friends of non-violence. Gandhi himself is a rather daunting model, recording his own attempts to live as scrupulously as possible by the Hindu teaching of ahimsa, literally non-killing. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth and other writings, he links non-violence with the search for truth. Lying, then, is a form of violence, but even more is required: a commitment to radical openness: no devious strategies, no hidden motivations.
A dedication to the simple life was also an aspect of Gandhi’s practice of non-violence. The unnecessary accumulation of possessions, our addiction to what has been called “the fat, silly life”, does violence to the limited treasury of earth resources. You may have seen the classic picture of Gandhi’s possessions at the time of his death in 1948: his sandals, watch, glasses, spoons, bowls, and book of songs. Few of us could approximate anything like that. But maybe it’s “out of the closet” time for some of your things. If you haven’t worn it in a year, perhaps it should adorn someone else’s back or bottom!
My students and those in workshops elsewhere have been interested, despite the intimidating effect that Gandhi’s model may have, in exploring ways to live more gently on the earth. As part of this process, it’s been useful to develop a tool for self-reflection, which may stimulate responses in personal journals. Obviously, we see the effects of violence in political, ethnic, religious spheres. We may find ourselves appalled at the collective willingness of nation states to wage wars, to meet violence with violence, in a spiraling, escalating cycle. But to what degree are we personally complicitous, by assent or silence? Do our own lives reflect more sensitivity to suffering, to the possible consequences of our deeds than does the political realm?
The following inventory has seemed helpful in asking the complex questions which arise from this issue. What would you change in this regard? What would you defend? What questions would you add or subtract, as the form suggests? Perhaps this will result in a fruitful inner dialogue for you.
See where you are with reference to the following questions: (For your eyes only!)
1. Have you ever been the recipient of physical violence?
2. Have you ever initiated an act of violence on another person?
3. Have you ever witnessed an act of violence which caused real injury?
4. Do you drive a larger car than you really need?
5. Have you recently indulged in road rage? What triggered it?
6. Have you driven over the speed limit in the last two weeks?
7. Do you advocate (and have practiced) spanking of children?
8. What’s your position on abortion?
9. Have you, in the last two weeks, yelled in anger at anyone? Who?
10. Have you ever taken the risk of driving when you’ve had too much to drink?
11. How’s your diet?
A. I am an unabashed carnivore.
B. I’m a carnivore, but I try to eat less red meat than I used to.
C. No red meat, but chicken and seafood are OK.
D. No chicken or red meat, but seafood’s OK.
G. I only eat what otherwise would be thrown out.
H. I beg for food.
12. Do you believe in capital punishment? If so, for what crimes, and by what methods?
13. Are you a pacifist?
14. Did you think that the United States and Britain were right in launching an attack on Iraq? Have the results supported your convictions?
15. Do you give to any charities which are specifically targeted against violence? Which ones?
16. Do you advocate a complete nuclear test ban?
17. Do you advocate the cessation of all production of nuclear weaponry?
18. Do you believe that all existing nuclear weapons should be destroyed?
19. Do you have more clothes in your closet than most of your peers?
20. Do you own a gun? For what purpose? Are you a hunter?
21. Do you keep your temperature (when you can regulate it) lower than 75 in the summer or higher than 65 in the winter? (Adjust for Celsius)
22. Do you consistently recycle?
23. Have you ever participated in an active protest against some form of violence? What activity?
24. Have you ever written a letter of concern about something related to non-violence?
What was the issue? To whom did you write?
25. Do you think that the war in Vietnam was a “just war”?
26. Do you think that Gandhi and/or King were impractical idealists?
27. Have you told a lie to anyone in the last two weeks?
28. Have you ever tried to break up a fight, or witnessed one and didn’t act?
29. Do you think that sexual offenders, once released, should be identified to the community in any way? Similarly, with other offenders?
30. Have you received unwelcome attention by anyone in the last few weeks?
31. Have you given unwelcome attention to anyone in the last few weeks?
32. Do you smoke?
33. Do you support the principle of euthanasia?
34. What other questions would you add to this list? Which items don’t belong on it?